July 19, 2017 by
In much the same way that the movement to end stop-and-frisk policing eventually became a rallying cry for political hopefuls, so, too, has the appeal to close the Rikers Island jail complex now become de rigueur among New York City elected officials. Where though is the corresponding clarion call to close Attica, Sing Sing, or any number of New York State’s brutal and obsolete prisons? Governor Cuomo at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora (photo: Governor's Office Flickr) The #CLOSErikers campaign highlighted some ugly and undeniable truths about Rikers Island: intractable violence and corruption, heavy financial cost to the taxpayer, an antiquated and dangerous physical plant, and an overwhelming and disproportionate percentage of black and brown prisoners. The movement also emphasized the impact of money; nearly three-quarters of Rikers inmates are there because they can’t afford bail, often in amounts of $2,000 or less. All told, the 2017 New York City Department of Corrections budget was $1.4 billion. Most of those same truths apply with even greater force to New York’s patchwork of state prisons that hold five times the number of people at Rikers. There is abundant evidence of violence and corruption in New York’s prisons. In just the past few years, there has been documented abuse, including homicides at the hands of prison guards, at numerous prisons across the state. The prevalence of brutality compelled the United States Attorney’s office last year to charge five former corrections officers with federal civil rights violations, with then US Attorney Preet Bharara stating that “[E]xcessive use of force in prisons . . . has reached crisis proportions in New York State.” The state prison budget is astronomical. From 1999-2015, the budget expanded to almost $3 billion even as the number of incarcerated people dropped. For fiscal year 2017-18, the Department of Corrections budget request was $3,276,000,000, a figure that does not include the nearly $10 million in settlements doled out by the state for excessive force and abuse lawsuits in the past few years. And while Rikers Island is an aging facility, it is almost luxurious in comparison to some New York state prisons that date back to the 19th century. These archaic institutions struggle to provide adequate heat in the winter and to cool down in the summer. One can only guess about the layers of asbestos and other environmental hazards that afflict prisoners, guards and civilian employees alike. The racial disparities so evident at Rikers Island are reflected as well in the state prisons as blacks and Latinos make up 73 percent of the prison population, nearly double their numbers in the state general population. And with 84 percent of the guards being white and from upstate communities, state prisons readily conjure up images of the plantation with white overseers. In contrast, blacks and Latinos comprise 84 percent of the uniformed corrections officers at Rikers Island. Visits to Rikers Island in the East River across from LaGuardia airport are notoriously hard, time-consuming and humiliating, but visits to state prisons add another layer of torment -- New York’s state prisons house about 52,000 people in a labyrinth of 54 prisons ensconced primarily in remote corners of the state. The majority of state prisoners are New York City residents and yet they are scattered in prisons as far away as the Canadian border. The impact on the individual prisoner is devastating as visits are almost necessarily infrequent and families and communities are destroyed in the process. Unlike so many at Rikers, state prisoners are not incarcerated because they are too poor to post bail. Nevertheless, a countless number also need not be incarcerated. Although the prison population has decreased from 72,000 almost twenty years ago to 52,000 today, the question still remains whether all those many people should be behind bars. It certainly bears noting that New York State, with such progressive social policies in many areas, remains out of step with regard to national trends in incarceration. According to The Sentencing Project, New York is one of only eight states where the proportion of prisoners serving life or “virtual life” (fifty years or more) sentences is at least one in five. Almost 10,000 people in New York prisons are serving life sentences or its functional equivalent, a number topped only in Texas, Louisiana, Florida and California. This vast number of potential death-in-prison sentences is astonishing, unjustifiable and unnecessary. Thousands of New York prisoners have served their time, often several decades, remarkably. Many are elderly and in failing health. There are countless stories of transformation, redemption, and profound change. Yet these men and women languish in prison for no reason other than to satisfy a seemingly unquenchable thirst for interminable punishment. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio maintains that the population at Rikers must be reduced before it can be closed within ten years. Should New York Governor Andrew Cuomo feel a corresponding need to shrink the prison population before shuttering some of New York’s most notorious penitentiaries, he already has at his disposal the means to do so – reform the parole process and meaningfully administer clemency. Last December, the New York Times exposed a dysfunctional and punitive New York State Parole Board: “Commissioners — as board members are called — often read through files to prepare for the next interview as the inmate speaks. The whole process is run like an assembly line. They hear cases just two days a week and see as many as 80 inmates in that time.” Governor Cuomo recently appointed six new commissioners to the Board but vacancies remain. The governor should fill those seats expeditiously with people who more closely reflect the identities and experiences of those in prison and who bring diverse professional backgrounds to bear. These new board members can transform the board by taking a forward looking approach that examines evidence-based risk assessment scores and the individual’s institutional record, as opposed to looking backward and focusing exclusively on the crime of conviction, the one factor the individual can never change. The discretionary power of the executive to grant clemency is longstanding and deep-rooted. The Constitution expressly vests the President with the “power to grant reprieves and pardons” and most states grant similar power to the governor. In October 2015, Governor Cuomo announced a bold and unprecedented pro bono clemency project in an apparent response to criticism about the few clemency applications he had granted in all his years in office. While the creation of the project is laudable, to date, the number of people granted clemency remains infinitesimal even as there are many prime candidates by every measure. The Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform referred to Rikers Island as a “stain on our great city.” Attica, Southport, Mid-State, Clinton, Fishkill and other state prisons are similar blights on New York State. Perhaps former Governor Mario Cuomo’s ugliest legacy is the growth of New York’s prison industrial complex, as more prisons were built during his tenure than that of all other New York governors combined. His son, Andrew, pledged to church congregants in Harlem to “go down in the history books as the Governor who closed the most prisons in the history of the State of New York.” Godspeed. source Read More: #CLOSErikers Beyond Attica

July 16, 2017 by
Four young women speak to Marie Claire about how it feels to be a young, black or Asian woman in Brexit Britain When Marie Claire launched our #CallOutRacism campaign last year, there had been a 57 per cent increase in hate crime since the Brexit vote. But it wasn’t about statistics, it was about the everyday experiences of people in Britain, particularly women, the micro-aggressions they encounter on a daily basis and the prejudice of complete strangers. This week, #BlackWomenAtWork was trending as women across the globe shared their stories of prejudice in the workplace. It came after Fox News host Bill O’Reilly told US congresswoman Rep. Maxine Waters that he couldn’t focus on what she was saying because of ‘the James Brown wig’. Later in the day, reporter April Ryan was mocked by the White House press secretary when she asked a question and was told to ‘stop shaking her head’. Previously, in the aftermath of the Westminster terror attacks, a photo of a woman wearing a hijab on Westminster Bridge went viral on social media. Why? Because the woman was pictured passing a victim of the attack and people were criticising her for what they perceived as her indifferent attitude to what was happening around her.   ‘Not only have I been devastated by witnessing the aftermath of a shocking and numbing terror attack, I’ve also had to deal with the shock of finding my picture plastered all over social media by those who could not look beyond my attire, who draw conclusions based on hate and xenophobia,’ the woman later told Tell MAMA, an organisation that monitors anti-Muslim attacks, after she made headlines around the world. We spoke to four women who shared their emotional experiences of what racism really feels like and why it’s everyone’s responsibility to #CallOutRacism Also in our campaign: Marie Claire writer Anita Bhagwandas talks of her experiences on dating websites where she is regularly lauded for her ‘exotic’ looks and comments from men looking to date a ‘brown girl’. Lawyer and author Saurav Dutt tells of his shock when, during a discussion with a publisher, they asked if they could change his name. ‘They said the subject wasn’t about “Asian matters”, so there wasn’t much precedent for a “name like mine” to appear on a non-ethnic book, he explains.’ Fashion designer Heidy Rehman shares her feelings on Trump’s Muslim ban.

July 16, 2017 by
Four young women speak to Marie Claire about how it feels to be a young, black or Asian woman in Brexit Britain When Marie Claire launched our #CallOutRacism campaign last year, there had been a 57 per cent increase in hate crime since the Brexit vote. But it wasn’t about statistics, it was about the everyday experiences of people in Britain, particularly women, the micro-aggressions they encounter on a daily basis and the prejudice of complete strangers. This week, #BlackWomenAtWork was trending as women across the globe shared their stories of prejudice in the workplace. It came after Fox News host Bill O’Reilly told US congresswoman Rep. Maxine Waters that he couldn’t focus on what she was saying because of ‘the James Brown wig’. Later in the day, reporter April Ryan was mocked by the White House press secretary when she asked a question and was told to ‘stop shaking her head’. Previously, in the aftermath of the Westminster terror attacks, a photo of a woman wearing a hijab on Westminster Bridge went viral on social media. Why? Because the woman was pictured passing a victim of the attack and people were criticising her for what they perceived as her indifferent attitude to what was happening around her.   ‘Not only have I been devastated by witnessing the aftermath of a shocking and numbing terror attack, I’ve also had to deal with the shock of finding my picture plastered all over social media by those who could not look beyond my attire, who draw conclusions based on hate and xenophobia,’ the woman later told Tell MAMA, an organisation that monitors anti-Muslim attacks, after she made headlines around the world. We spoke to four women who shared their emotional experiences of what racism really feels like and why it’s everyone’s responsibility to #CallOutRacism Also in our campaign: Marie Claire writer Anita Bhagwandas talks of her experiences on dating websites where she is regularly lauded for her ‘exotic’ looks and comments from men looking to date a ‘brown girl’. Lawyer and author Saurav Dutt tells of his shock when, during a discussion with a publisher, they asked if they could change his name. ‘They said the subject wasn’t about “Asian matters”, so there wasn’t much precedent for a “name like mine” to appear on a non-ethnic book, he explains.’ Fashion designer Heidy Rehman shares her feelings on Trump’s Muslim ban.

July 10, 2017 by
The Russian pop star identified as having arranged a meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer is the son of an oligarch with ties to Vladimir Putin. Emin Agalarov, the man identified as having arranged a meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer, is a Russian pop star and businessman who happens to be the son of a Russian billionaire with close ties to Vladimir Putin. “Music is creative and business can be creative,” Agalarov told the Chicago Tribune in an interview in May. “In music, you build something. You think of an idea, you sit down at the piano and write the lyrics. Then you arrange it, master it, and it becomes a whole piece of finished work. The same happens when you build a building or open a restaurant or store. First you have the idea in your head. Then you find the components to actually put it together. If you do it right, it works. Music can bring you financial success. So can business.” Agalarov, 37, was educated in Switzerland and the U.S., where, according to his company’s website, he graduated from Marymount Manhattan College “at the top of his class, delivering a thesis on ‘Business Management in the Field of Finance.’” He then joined the family business, the Crocus Group, which was established by his father Aras Agalarov. The senior Agalarov is one of Russia’s richest men; Putin awarded him the Order of Honor, one of the country’s top civilian awards, in 2013. Aras Agalarov is often called the “Donald Trump of Russia.” The younger Agalarov is listed as executive vice president of the Crocus Group, in charge of its retail-entertainment complexes, restaurants, as well as a Caspian resort in Azerbaijan, the former Soviet republic. Until 2015, Agalarov was married to Leila Aliyeva, the daughter of Azeri President Ilhan Aliyev. Donald Trump’s links to the Agalarovs date to the Miss Universe contest in Moscow in 2013, which the father and son had wanted to bring to the Russian capital. Trump, who owned the contest at the time, had long pursued the idea of a Trump Tower in Moscow, though that deal never happened; Trump also had dealings in Azerbaijan, which a story in the New Yorker described as his “worst” ever—though Agalarov says he played no role in that deal. Still, Agalarov has claimed close ties with Trump. The real-estate mogul appeared in a music video for Agalarov, whose website describes him as “an accomplished entertainer … [whose] songs are played in heavy rotation on Russian and international radio stations alike, and he performs concerts all over the world.” One of those concerts took place at a Trump golf course, according to Forbes, and another at the Miss Universe contest. Trump also wished Agalarov a happy 35th  birthday, calling him a “winner” and a “champ.” The feeling is apparently mutual. In the interview with the Chicago Tribune, Agalarov called Trump “a super-successful businessman.” “His main advantage over other world leaders that sometimes come to power is that he actually ran a huge corporation,” he said. “He built a big business over the years and guided thousands of people towards certain goals. A lot of the politicians that come to power have never even managed a hundred people. That is his main advantage. He’s very good at it.” In March, Forbes  reported that Agalarov claimed to have been in touch with the Trump family since last November’s election. He said he exchanged messages with Donald Trump Jr. in January and that the president sent him a handwritten note after the Agalarovs congratulated him on his election victory. The magazine added: Agalarov knows that maintaining that good favor will require continued contact with Trump's inner circle. To that end, he says he exchanged messages with Donald Jr. around the time of the inauguration, but was told no deals could be pursued until the company’s leadership structure had further settled into place. And Agalarov has testified to the president’s loyalty. “Now that he ran and was elected, he does not forget his friends,” Agalarov told Forbes. The president has not yet commented on the meeting between his son and the Russian lawyer; nor has he said anything about the Agalarovs, his Russian friends. source

July 9, 2017 by
When Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans arrived at the panel’s general meeting last month, he carried a copy of the New York Post featuring a characteristically provocative front page recounting the latest troubles of that city’s subway. “For F’s sake,” read the headline, with a clever insertion of the orange symbol for New York’s “F” train. “Fix the subways!” Evans used the headline as an opportunity for reflection on his own troubled transit system. Transit advocates hold a rush-hour rally outside New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office in June to protest train delays and MTA shutdowns. Now that New York’s subway system is having major problems, commuters in Washington feel their pain after experiencing SafeTrack. “Not that misery loves company . . . but I think this is another indicator that every one of the six subway systems throughout America is struggling with the same issues,” Evans said. “We’re not alone in this.” Evans, it seems, is suffering from the affliction affecting many in the region: an acute case of subway schadenfreude — a slightly perverse sense of satisfaction in watching the failures of the nation’s premiere transit agency. A look at the recent state of affairs at New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) will probably ring familiar to D.C.-area commuters. In the last several months, chronic breakdowns and track problems have caused rush-hour meltdowns and lengthy, widespread delays. Late last year, protections for workers became a major cause for concern after one longtime employee was struck and killed by a passing train in a tunnel. Two weeks ago, a derailment in Upper Manhattan may have been caused by equipment left on the tracks, resulting in at least 30 injuries. And soon thereafter, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) declared that the MTA was in a state of emergency and pledged an additional $1 billion to the MTA’s capital budget to expedite improvements. Suddenly, Metro isn’t looking so bad, right? “Some of these stories about what’s going on in New York — you could take out the proper nouns and insert ‘Washington’ and they’d make sense,” said Zachary M. Schrag, a historian at George Mason University and author of the seminal Metro tome, “The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro.” “So I guess that’s somewhat of a consolation.” Passengers enter a subway station June 29 in New York City. Following a series of breakdowns, delays and political fingerpointing, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has declared a state of emergency for the subway system. That’s how it looks on Twitter, where Metro riders — their tweets dripping in the usual #WMATA levels of sarcasm — seem downright defensive about the New York subway, America’s busiest public transit system, making moves to unseat Metro as America’s most dysfunctional one. “I guess New York felt left out with all the publicity @wmata got by being a bloody awful mess,” quipped one Metro rider. “Hey look at New York trying to be like DC, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery @wmata,” joked another. “Maybe we should invite folks to DC & show them what a truly awful commute looks like,” added another. “WMATA should send the MTA a fruit basket with a note along the lines of ‘thanks for taking the heat off us!’ ” another tweeted. But the similarities between the struggles at the MTA and Metro also point to a larger story — about the state of the nation’s infrastructure, the challenges of securing long-term investments for dull but necessary maintenance work, and about just how quickly a premiere transit system can begin to come apart at the seams. “It is a national problem. It’s something that’s happening in lots of different Metro areas across the country. And New York is starting to get a taste of it,” said Robert Puentes, president and chief executive of the Eno Center for Transportation, a national think tank on transportation issues. Puentes said significant responsibility for the MTA’s problems lies with Cuomo, who has prioritized projects such as the recent opening of the Second Avenue Subway and the completion of the 34th Street-Hudson Yards station — perhaps at the expense of paying adequate attention to state-of-repair needs. “He has focused on newer investments and major infrastructure building projects, and now he has to play catch-up,” Puentes said, “because while you can cut a ribbon in front of new infrastructure, the unsexy stuff like day-to-day maintenance is much tougher to promote.” Sound familiar, Washington? And though Puentes said he certainly does not rejoice in the challenges faced by riders and transit executives in New York, he does feel like he has firsthand knowledge of their troubles. “My brother calls me from New York and asks, ‘Can you fix this?’ ” Puentes said, chuckling. Until recently, the MTA was performing better than Metro in a few categories, but much worse in others. According to the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database, New York City Transit — the part of the MTA which runs subway, bus and paratransit service — reported 0.053 derailments per million train revenue miles in 2015, while Metro’s rate was much larger — 0.26 derailments per million miles. But the MTA also reported a collision rate of 2.5 per million revenue miles, vs. Metro’s rate of 0.51, and New York experienced 28 fires per million miles vs. Metro’s 4.2 fires. In 2014, the total mechanical failure rate at New York City transit was 36 failures per million miles, compared with 20 mechanical failures per million miles for Metro. But Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld has been careful not to use New York’s worsening problems as a foil for what’s happened with Metro — especially because his high-profile hires, Metro’s chief ty officer Patrick Lavin and chief operations officer Joseph Leader, were both brought to Washington last year after spending most of their careers at the MTA. “It’s not just the MTA,” Wiedefeld said recently. “We all have similar issues that we deal with. San Francisco is dealing with major issues, Philadelphia, Boston. . . . It’s across the board. There are things we could learn from each other.” And, in Schrag’s mind, New York’s struggles also highlight the complexity of Metro’s problems. To many Washington-area residents, the root of Metro’s reliability and safety issues are found in simple, structural issues: It lacks a two-track system. There’s a complicated multi-jurisdictional governance structure. There’s no dedicated revenue source. But New York’s MTA has all of those things, Schrag pointed out — and yet still couldn’t manage to avoid a precipitous deterioration in the quality of service. “Transit is hard,” he summarized. But the shared woes at Metro and the MTA are even more stark because of the historic differences between the two agencies. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority was conceived and designed in large part to be everything the MTA wasn’t, according to Schrag. New York’s subway was considered dirty and crime-ridden, and its stations cramped and inelegant. (The New York subway had such negative connotations in Washington that officials avoided calling their plans for Metro a “subway” system, and instead opted for the more benign sounding “rapid transit” system.) Metro, in comparison, was conceived to be much grander, brighter and more futuristic. Of course, the realities of the two systems have often overlapped. In 1977, just a year after Metro opened, a rider bemoaned to The Washington Post that the breakdowns and delays he experienced on the new system reminded him of the worst of the MTA. Then, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, New York’s system got much worse. Scheduled maintenance fell far short of the system’s needs. Derailments were a weekly event. Ridership declined rapidly. The MTA embarked on an aggressive turnaround campaign that rebuilt a large portion of the subway’s tracks and put the system on a path to success for years to come. That comeback was part of what inspired Metro’s year-long SafeTrack maintenance project, which concluded last month. With short, intense periods of round-the-clock repair work, a transit agency could wrench itself back from the brink and win back legions of riders. Mortimer L. Downey, a former Metro board chairman and former executive director and chief financial officer at the MTA, said New York’s recent challenges demonstrate the precarious state of any transit system dependent on decades-old infrastructure. No matter how good a system might appear, he said, just a few years of inadequate maintenance can bring an agency teetering to the edge of failure. “It’s awful easy to slip backward,” Downey said. “You’re only as good as your last rush hour.” But, he pointed out, Metro must also use New York’s challenges as a warning of problems that may come down the road. The MTA, he said, is “a prisoner of its own success.” The system is experiencing its highest ridership in decades, and the chronic overcrowding on trains leads to systemwide delays when trains at stations throughout the rail network must idle for longer to allow throngs of riders to alight and disembark. Someday, Downey said, that might be a pressing problem for Metro, too. source

July 7, 2017 by
Mayor Bill de Blasio has agreed to a series of changes that will benefit New York City charter schools, a group he’s publicly battled in the past. It comes shortly after a big win for de Blasio: a two-year extension of his control of the city’s schools. City officials indicated the deal, outlined Thursday, came out of that bargaining process, which pitted the pro-charter State Senate against the more anti-charter Assembly. The deal includes several items that have been on charter leaders’ wish lists for years — indicating that, for de Blasio, avoiding another mayoral-control fight next year was worth compromise. Mayor Bill de Blasio at state budget hearing in January. (Michael Appleton/Office of the Mayor) One is a streamlined process for schools asking the city for space in public buildings, or help paying rent in private space. The city is promising to respond to requests for rent within five business days. (A 2014 law that requires the city to provide one or the other for new or expanding charter schools.) The de Blasio administration said it will speed up rent reimbursements and reply to requests for upgrades in co-located space within 45 days, pledging to grant the requests unless “demonstrably unreasonable.” That’s important for charter advocates who have long argued that the de Blasio administration makes it more difficult than necessary for schools to access space and funds they’re entitled to under the law. Until now, the de Blasio administration has defended its process, saying space in public buildings is more limited than charter advocates claim. The city also indicated it would not fight back if state officials reissue charters for New York City charter schools that have closed (sometimes called “zombie charters”). Only 23 charters were still officially available for schools in the city. The change would make it clear that an additional 22 can open. “The charter sector is an important partner in our mission to deliver an excellent education to every child in New York City,” said City Hall spokeswoman Freddi Goldstein. “Through the debate over mayoral control, we identified a few common-sense areas where we could better work together to ensure all 1.1 million school children have a chance to succeed.” The city also said it will provide MetroCards for charter school students whose schools begin before busing starts, at a cost of about $3 million per year, and will work to avoid splitting single charter schools across two locations. Under the 2014 law, new and expanding charter schools that do not get public space are entitled to the total rent of the private space or 20 percent of their per-pupil tuition rate, whichever is less. That increased to 30 percent this legislative session, and the city pledged to apply that increase immediately. With the session over for the year, the provisions appear possible for de Blasio — who exerts no control over how new charters are issued by the state education department or SUNY — to implement on his own. Officials provided few additional details about the changes, though during the legislative session Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie reportedly rejected a proposal to reissue “zombie” charters. Assembly spokeswoman Kerri Biche said Heastie was not an “active participant” in this series of charter school negotiations. “He said from the beginning the Assembly majority would not trade anything regarding charter schools for mayoral control,” Biche said. “Mayor de Blasio and the city’s Department of Education have the right to make decisions of their choosing in regards to the administration of charter schools that do not require any legislative action.” Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan hailed the deal as “an important step forward.” The pro-charter group StudentsFirstNY also applauded the deal, calling it “good for all public school kids.” “Parents will have access to more school options and charter operators will get significant relief,” executive director Jenny Sedlis said in a statement. This story was originally posted on Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools. source

July 5, 2017 by
It Will Take Tenacity and Guts to Shutter One of the Country’s Most Notorious Jails “Rikers Island is a stain on our great City. It leaves its mark on everyone it touches: the correction officers working back-to-back shifts under dangerous conditions, the inmates waiting for their day in court in an inhumane and violent environment, the family members forced to miss work and travel long distances to see their loved ones, the attorneys who cannot easily visit their clients to prepare a defense, and the taxpayers who devote billions of dollars each year to keep the whole dysfunctional apparatus running year after year. Put simply, Rikers Island is a 19th century solution to a 21st century problem.” —“A More Just New York City” The Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform When he was running for mayor four years ago, Bill de Blasio promised he’d create a universal pre-K system. It was up and running within nine months of his inauguration. He said he’d reduce the NYPD’s use of stop-and-frisk, and he did so. He vowed to create affordable housing, reduce the speed limit, create new sick-leave and living-wage provisions, reinvigorate the city’s ferry system, create new rental vouchers for the homeless. And he has done or is doing some degree of all these things. Advocacy and activist groups attempt to deliver a mock coffin to New York City Hall with the inscription “Shut Down Rikers Island,” February 23, 2016. (Erik McGregor / Sipa via AP Images) So why does no one seem to believe the mayor when he says he wants to close Rikers, the vast jail complex that has come to symbolize some of the worst abuses of the criminal- justice system? In part, it’s because for two years, as the chorus of voices calling for New York City to shutter the island’s outmoded and isolated jail grew larger and louder, de Blasio dismissed them. Then, when de Blasio finally changed his mind on the last day of March, he announced it at a hastily arranged Friday-night press conference, 48 hours before an independent commission was almost certainly going to recommend closure. Since then, he has dragged out the timeline for emptying Rikers, suggesting a 10-year timetable as a minimum estimate, not an outside figure. And when the mayor finally released his plan for closing the complex—nearly three months after announcing his new position—the blueprint placed a large share of responsibility for achieving Rikers closure on other officials and said little about where new jails would go. The biggest reason for the doubts about de Blasio’s devotion, however, is that closing Rikers will require tough decisions. And de Blasio’s critics believe that during his first 42 months as mayor he has shown little appetite for making those kinds of calls in the politically perilous area of criminal justice—a policy area where this mayor faces unusually high expectations and especially acute risks. Many of the mayor’s political foes—the tabloid editorial boards, for instance, and the correction officers’ union—will push to derail the plan to close Rikers, whether now or in a few years when a new person occupies Gracie Mansion. But now there is an opposing force as well: a feisty advocacy campaign, #CloseRikers, that has shown a gritty commitment to demanding change rather than waiting for it. The potential for cities to serve as laboratories for progressive ideas stems not just from the fact that urban areas are home to left-leaning voters, but also from the truth that cities are where policy problems are harder to ignore or render abstract. Crumbling infrastructure slows your ride to work. Undocumented immigrants live and fear next door—or in your own home. The homeless spend their days in the park down the street. Of these urban realities, crime is the most vexing, because it’s where fear distorts a real threat to irrational proportions. Indeed, a grim reminder of the ongoing tragedy of violent crime in New York came early Wednesday morning, when, according to reports, a man with a gun walked up to a mobile NYPD command center on a Bronx street, pointed a gun at a 48-year-old cop, and killed her. He was shot dead in a second encounter with officers a short time later. The cruel reality is that there will always be crime in US cities, though crime is for the most part much rarer than it used to be. Jails are part of the criminal-justice infrastructure designed—ostensibly—to keep crime at bay. Of the 2.17 million people incarcerated in the United States in 2015, a third were in local jails—a proportion that has remained consistent over the past decade. While state and federal prisons get ink because of their notorious inmates and lengthy sentences, jails are where the most insidious problems of the justice system are manifest—where people who are presumed innocent endure lengthy waits for trial, where a transient population typically receives few of the social services that might prevent them from getting arrested again after release, where punishment for low-level crimes is most likely to occur. Thanks to grassroots activism and official investigations, leaders in cities like Los Angeles and Chicago have have come to recognize that jail systems—and closely related bail systems—are in desperate need for reform. But in LA and the Windy City, as well as places like New Orleans, reform efforts have bogged down. Now New York is contemplating the boldest change of all. Thanks to an active grassroots campaign, it stands a chance of actually accomplishing it. “Whoever is mayor is going to be held responsible for [this] mayor’s promise that New York’s policy is to move toward closure,” says Glenn Martin, the strategic force behind #CloseRikers. “If we do our job as advocates of shifting the political landscape of New York toward closing Rikers, it really won’t matter who is mayor. We’re going to create this sort of atmosphere—the sort of incentives and the sort of consequences—where no matter who is in the council or who is in City Hall, they’re going to have to continue to move this forward.” For 85 years, Rikers Island has been part of the landscape of crime and punishment in New York. A 413-acre land mass in the East River, it is where the Department of Correction runs 10 jails that hold an average of 9,500 people on a given day, the bulk of the city’s prisoners. Some of the people detained there have been convicted and sentenced to terms of more than a year, and are awaiting transfer to state prisons. Others have been found guilty and are staying on Rikers to serve terms of less than a year for misdemeanors. The vast majority (78 percent at last count) are pre-trial detainees, presumed innocent and—for the most part—incarcerated because they couldn’t afford financial bail. There have been at least two efforts to close Rikers in the past, one under Mayor Koch and another, subtler one under Mayor Bloomberg. Neither got traction. Mostly, the notion has been unthinkable. “When I was commissioner it was more about just trying to get control of the place. I’m sure at that moment closing Rikers would have had a ring of other worldliness,” says Michael Jacobson, correction commissioner under Mayor Rudy Giuliani and now a noted reformer who sat on the commission that recommeded closing the island. Jail reform wasn’t on de Blasio’s agenda, or anywhere on the radar screen of the city’s political class, when he ran for mayor four years ago. But de Blasio did dive deep into other aspects of criminal-justice policy, soaring to the front of the 2013 race with an ad in which his biracial son talked about the racial skew of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk regime. De Blasio promised to sharply reduce the use of that tactic, which was already falling in the final years of Mayor Bloomberg—thanks to a grassroots campaign and federal lawsuit to end the practice—and he has done so. De Blasio also cut back on arrests for low-level marijuana crimes, launched a new community-policing program, and put more emphasis on addressing the mental-health causes of crimes. Mid-way through de Blasio’s first year in office, the US Justice Department issued a scathing report on Rikers. It found that the Constitutional rights of adolescent males there were violated by “rampant use of unnecessary and excessive force by staff” as well as by widespread “violence inflicted by other inmates”; it condemned the use of “solitary confinement at an alarming rate and for excessive periods of time.” Then–Manhattan US Attorney Preet Bharara called Rikers “a broken institution.” His office sued late in 2014, and settled with the city in mid-2015 after de Blasio’s team promised a raft of reforms, from a new use-of-force policy to an end to solitary confinement for people younger than 18. That was enough for the Justice Department. But there was a larger movement afoot that was less easy to satisfy. In October of 2014, New Yorker writer Jennifer Gonnerman published an article about the infuriating and deeply sad story of Khalief Browder, who spent the better part of three years on Rikers after being arrested at age 16 on suspicion of stealing a backpack. When Browder, his life wrecked by his time behind bars, committed suicide in June of 2015, protesters marched on the island. The following month, Marshall Project founder Neil Barsky penned a New York Times op-ed titled “Shut Down Rikers Island.” In the fall of 2016, City Limits and City & State co-published a series looking at the case for and challenges of closing Rikers in which reporter Ed Morales surveyed all municipal elected officials. A few supported closing Rikers, but most clammed up. Over the next few months, however, more leaders—including Melissa Mark-Viverito, the speaker of the City Council—came out as pro-closure. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo soon joined the chorus. De Blasio repeatedly expressed sympathy with those calls, but dismissed them as impractical. “The problem is, it would cost many billions of dollars—and I have to look out for what’s feasible, and I have to look out for the taxpayer—and it would require some kind of new facilities,” he said in early 2016. “Where are you going to put them? How are you going to pay for them? So—a noble concept, but one that will cost many billions of dollars, and we do not have a viable pathway to that at this point.” #CloseRikers, led by Just Leadership USA’sMartin but including a long list of progressive groups, stepped up the pressure. There was a big march in September 2016 featuring Emily Althaus of Orange Is the New Black and entrepreneur Russell Simmons. December saw a Gracie Mansion protest. In February of this year, #CloseRikers protested outside the mayor’s State of the City address at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem and broadcast a TV ad slamming de Blasio for boasting of New York as a “sanctuary city” while continuing to operate a notorious penal colony. March saw a small but hearty band of #CloseRikers protesters rally outside a De Blasio event all the way down in Broward County, Florida. Over the course of less than two years, #CloseRikers went from a fringy group collecting signatures outside Hostos Community College in the Bronx to something the mayor was asked about in his weekly sit-downs with the city’s main political talk shows. De Blasio has not credited #CloseRikers for his shift to supporting Rikers closure. Rather, he has given kudos to City Council Speaker Mark-Viverito for continuing to press him and offer ideas for how to achieve the goal of closing the jails on the island. De Blasio’s staff insists the mayor was never opposed to the idea, and news reports published in early 2016 indicated City Hall was exploring its options behind the scenes. For his part, the mayor has said that as months went by and the population on the island continued to shrink—the average daily population of the city’s jails has dropped by nearly a third since 2010—it became clear to him that what had seemed impossible was really not. Two days after de Blasio came out for closing Rikers, the commission led by former Chief Judge of New York State, Jonathan Lippman outlined a multifaceted approach to demolishing Rikers in the next 10 years. It proposed holistic crime prevention efforts in high-crime neighborhoods; diverting people at the point of arrest to civil courts when possible; eliminating money bail; and building smaller jail facilities in each of the five boroughs. The idea is to reduce the jail population to a point where it can be moved off the island into smaller facilities whose programs and layout reflect 21st Century thinking about correction. De Blasio long ago embraced many of the commissions ideas and has already taken action on some of them, like bail reform and new mechanisms for keeping the mentally ill out of the criminal justice system. His own plan for closing Rikers, released in late June, embraces many of the commission’s recommendations, like replacing short jail sentences with community service assignments. But while De Blasio’s blueprint says the “plan is to close Rikers Island and replace it with a smaller network of modern jails,” it says next to nothing about how and when and where those facilities will be built. Creating those new jails “will depend on the desires of neighborhoods and their elected officials,” the mayor’s report says, as it commits the administration to “an open, ongoing conversation with New Yorkers and the City Council to work through these issues.” But the mayor has made it clear that other leaders have to make the first move. “We need to see a commitment from the city councilmembers in the districts that have been initially proposed to specifically start the land use process to achieve it,” he told the Brian Lehrer Show, a public radio program. “All of it is theoretical … unless a councilmember comes forward and says I’m going to support the placement of this facility.” He’s also said Staten Island, the city’s whitest and most Republican borough, shouldn’t have to house a jail. (As it stands now, of the five Councilmembers whose districts include the likely site of new jails, two support it, one rejects it and the other twho are staying mum.) It’s odd stuff to hear from a mayor who is planning to push through a dozen massive rezonings, and who earlier this year said he hoped to create 90 new homeless shelters around the city: Council support has not been identified as a precondition in any of those episodes. But it’s far from the only place in the mayor’s Rikers plan where he passes the buck to other officials: The report is dotted with asterisks to identify steps that “require action by parties other than the city.” The stipulation isn’t untrue—the Council, state government, and district attorneys certainly have a role to play—it’s just not typically the thing a mayor identifies in the public game-plan for what will be a key part of his legacy. That kind of hedging has helped feed the fear that de Blasio doesn’t really intend to close Rikers—or, at least, won’t push to make it happen. While the Lippman Commission said it believed it was possible to get the Rikers population down to around 5,000 on an average day—the level at which smaller, borough jails could absorb everyone—de Blasio’s plan only commits to a reduction from the current 9,400 or so to 7,000 over the next five years. Below that level, the mayor sees an obstacle. “Once the jail population reaches 7,000 through implementation of the strategies laid out above, jail will be increasingly reserved in New York City for individuals who are facing very serious charges or who pose a high risk of flight,” de Blasio’s report says; the report notes that three-fifths of the Rikers population at that point will be facing violent felony charges, and another third will be charged with non-violent felonies. “Because of this composition, further safe reductions to the size of the jail population will become increasingly difficult.” On Friday, June 23, 9100 people were incarcerated on Rikers Island. Some 6300 of them were pretrial detainees. Murder in the second degree was the charge facing the greatest number of defendants, 487 of them. First degree robbery, attempted murder and second-degree assault—a D felony—rounded out the top four. Those four crimes comprised about a fourth of the pre-trial population. Now, those are merely charges, the people facing them are presumed innocent, and sometimes prosecutors overcharge as a negotiating tactic. But those are serious allegations, not the product of much-derided “broken windows” policing that focuses on minor, quality of life crimes. While many people picked up for low-level crimes do end up Rikers Island—and that is a problem unto itself—because of the short stints those defendants tend to serve, when it comes to the problem of how to close the island, ending “broken windows” is only part of the picture. Both the mayor and the commission have called for further reductions in crime to drive down the number of serious charges. De Blasio already is implementing a neighborhood policing strategy that embeds cops in the community and links policing to social investments and physical improvements, like lighting, that can deter crime. But crime is already at historic lows. In order to get deep reductions in the Rikers population, the city is likely going to have to figure out a way to allow more inmates facing serious charges to await trial at home, not behind bars. The Commission has called for expanding supervised release to, in some cases at least, “violent felony defendants and defendants charged with domestic violence offenses.” De Blasio has not. The political risks in doing so are obvious, and that’s what makes advocates nervous. De Blasio has always faced suspicion and derision over his ability to keep the city safe, and some of his opponents promote the canard that the city has become chaotic and dangerous on his watch (or at least that it “feels less safe,” my personal favorite). After two cops were killed in late 2014, de Blasio faced a near-mutiny by the NYPD and became more timid. While he has accomplished real criminal-justice reforms, he has stopped short on others. He didn’t support a choke-hold ban or a bill that would improve notification around police searches, and his administration rolled back access to police disciplinary records. He has steadfastly defended “broken windows” policing and expanded the city’s 35,000-strong police force. If he’s reelected in November, the city’s term limits mean that de Blasio will oversee only the first five years of the Rikers closure effort, meaning he could be planning to reduce Rikers’ daily population to 7,000 and ride off into the sunset. But it would be a huge gamble to leave the heaviest political lifts to a now-unknown mayor of the future. But is Bill de Blasio the mayor who can push criminal-justice reform past the low-level crimes, deep into the territory where deep fears and potentially dangerous people live? Can he really change the role that jails play in the city? Advocates have already started pushing to answer those questions: One #CloseRikers advocate snuck into the gym where de Blasio works out one morning late last month to push him to speed up the timetable for shuttering the jails. “We’ll talk later,” said a stretching mayor. Closing Rikers does have its opponents, like the Republicans challenging de Blasio’s reelection and the correction officers union. And there are plenty of reasons to think it won’t happen. “Anyone can pick one of them and say, ‘How are we ever going to do that? That’s ridiculous,’ whether it’s the siting, the population reduction, the cash cost upfront—there are real issues,” says Jacobson, the former correction commissioner. “We recognize this is going to take a huge effort, its just that at the end your going to get huge benefits,” including, he suggested, a large of plot of usable land, cost savings, and a more just justice system. The question is one of will. Councilman Rory Lancman, a Queens Democrat, doubts that de Blasio has it. “I think [his announcement] is just a political ploy to get him through the 2017 election cycle and also to mollify the progressive wing of the Democratic party.” Martin Horn, who quietly tried to depopulate Rikers as Bloomberg’s first correction commissioner, says de Blasio’s report is “thoughtful and well organized.” But the lack of attention to where new jails would go is alarming, because there’ll be no better time that now to have that fight. “Now is the time to strike,” Horn says. “If at this time with this consensus we can’t get it done, then that will tell us something about the prospects. The time to get the sites approved is now.” Some worry that the moment will pass without real action. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who pushed de Blasio to support closure, will leave office at the end of 2017. It’s unclear her successor will be so reliable an ally of #CloseRikers. “The only way we’re going to get to close Rikers is if the council pushes him hard and there’s no guarantee that the next speaker will do it,” Lancman says. But Glenn Martin remains optimistic. “I’m 100 percent confident that it’s going to happen much earlier. I literally have no doubt that we will see the closure of Rikers in less than 10 years. Zero doubt. “After all, Martin notes, Rikers has helped to seed the city with people who dream of its demise. “We’ve built a tremendous amount of power in a very short period. I think that is because Rikers has caused harm to so many New Yorkers for so many decades.” If you hold de Blasio to his word, he’s confident, too. His report says, “We believe these obstacles are surmountable.” source

July 5, 2017 by
It Will Take Tenacity and Guts to Shutter One of the Country’s Most Notorious Jails “Rikers Island is a stain on our great City. It leaves its mark on everyone it touches: the correction officers working back-to-back shifts under dangerous conditions, the inmates waiting for their day in court in an inhumane and violent environment, the family members forced to miss work and travel long distances to see their loved ones, the attorneys who cannot easily visit their clients to prepare a defense, and the taxpayers who devote billions of dollars each year to keep the whole dysfunctional apparatus running year after year. Put simply, Rikers Island is a 19th century solution to a 21st century problem.” —“A More Just New York City” The Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform When he was running for mayor four years ago, Bill de Blasio promised he’d create a universal pre-K system. It was up and running within nine months of his inauguration. He said he’d reduce the NYPD’s use of stop-and-frisk, and he did so. He vowed to create affordable housing, reduce the speed limit, create new sick-leave and living-wage provisions, reinvigorate the city’s ferry system, create new rental vouchers for the homeless. And he has done or is doing some degree of all these things. Advocacy and activist groups attempt to deliver a mock coffin to New York City Hall with the inscription “Shut Down Rikers Island,” February 23, 2016. (Erik McGregor / Sipa via AP Images) So why does no one seem to believe the mayor when he says he wants to close Rikers, the vast jail complex that has come to symbolize some of the worst abuses of the criminal- justice system? In part, it’s because for two years, as the chorus of voices calling for New York City to shutter the island’s outmoded and isolated jail grew larger and louder, de Blasio dismissed them. Then, when de Blasio finally changed his mind on the last day of March, he announced it at a hastily arranged Friday-night press conference, 48 hours before an independent commission was almost certainly going to recommend closure. Since then, he has dragged out the timeline for emptying Rikers, suggesting a 10-year timetable as a minimum estimate, not an outside figure. And when the mayor finally released his plan for closing the complex—nearly three months after announcing his new position—the blueprint placed a large share of responsibility for achieving Rikers closure on other officials and said little about where new jails would go. The biggest reason for the doubts about de Blasio’s devotion, however, is that closing Rikers will require tough decisions. And de Blasio’s critics believe that during his first 42 months as mayor he has shown little appetite for making those kinds of calls in the politically perilous area of criminal justice—a policy area where this mayor faces unusually high expectations and especially acute risks. Many of the mayor’s political foes—the tabloid editorial boards, for instance, and the correction officers’ union—will push to derail the plan to close Rikers, whether now or in a few years when a new person occupies Gracie Mansion. But now there is an opposing force as well: a feisty advocacy campaign, #CloseRikers, that has shown a gritty commitment to demanding change rather than waiting for it. The potential for cities to serve as laboratories for progressive ideas stems not just from the fact that urban areas are home to left-leaning voters, but also from the truth that cities are where policy problems are harder to ignore or render abstract. Crumbling infrastructure slows your ride to work. Undocumented immigrants live and fear next door—or in your own home. The homeless spend their days in the park down the street. Of these urban realities, crime is the most vexing, because it’s where fear distorts a real threat to irrational proportions. Indeed, a grim reminder of the ongoing tragedy of violent crime in New York came early Wednesday morning, when, according to reports, a man with a gun walked up to a mobile NYPD command center on a Bronx street, pointed a gun at a 48-year-old cop, and killed her. He was shot dead in a second encounter with officers a short time later. The cruel reality is that there will always be crime in US cities, though crime is for the most part much rarer than it used to be. Jails are part of the criminal-justice infrastructure designed—ostensibly—to keep crime at bay. Of the 2.17 million people incarcerated in the United States in 2015, a third were in local jails—a proportion that has remained consistent over the past decade. While state and federal prisons get ink because of their notorious inmates and lengthy sentences, jails are where the most insidious problems of the justice system are manifest—where people who are presumed innocent endure lengthy waits for trial, where a transient population typically receives few of the social services that might prevent them from getting arrested again after release, where punishment for low-level crimes is most likely to occur. Thanks to grassroots activism and official investigations, leaders in cities like Los Angeles and Chicago have have come to recognize that jail systems—and closely related bail systems—are in desperate need for reform. But in LA and the Windy City, as well as places like New Orleans, reform efforts have bogged down. Now New York is contemplating the boldest change of all. Thanks to an active grassroots campaign, it stands a chance of actually accomplishing it. “Whoever is mayor is going to be held responsible for [this] mayor’s promise that New York’s policy is to move toward closure,” says Glenn Martin, the strategic force behind #CloseRikers. “If we do our job as advocates of shifting the political landscape of New York toward closing Rikers, it really won’t matter who is mayor. We’re going to create this sort of atmosphere—the sort of incentives and the sort of consequences—where no matter who is in the council or who is in City Hall, they’re going to have to continue to move this forward.” For 85 years, Rikers Island has been part of the landscape of crime and punishment in New York. A 413-acre land mass in the East River, it is where the Department of Correction runs 10 jails that hold an average of 9,500 people on a given day, the bulk of the city’s prisoners. Some of the people detained there have been convicted and sentenced to terms of more than a year, and are awaiting transfer to state prisons. Others have been found guilty and are staying on Rikers to serve terms of less than a year for misdemeanors. The vast majority (78 percent at last count) are pre-trial detainees, presumed innocent and—for the most part—incarcerated because they couldn’t afford financial bail. There have been at least two efforts to close Rikers in the past, one under Mayor Koch and another, subtler one under Mayor Bloomberg. Neither got traction. Mostly, the notion has been unthinkable. “When I was commissioner it was more about just trying to get control of the place. I’m sure at that moment closing Rikers would have had a ring of other worldliness,” says Michael Jacobson, correction commissioner under Mayor Rudy Giuliani and now a noted reformer who sat on the commission that recommeded closing the island. Jail reform wasn’t on de Blasio’s agenda, or anywhere on the radar screen of the city’s political class, when he ran for mayor four years ago. But de Blasio did dive deep into other aspects of criminal-justice policy, soaring to the front of the 2013 race with an ad in which his biracial son talked about the racial skew of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk regime. De Blasio promised to sharply reduce the use of that tactic, which was already falling in the final years of Mayor Bloomberg—thanks to a grassroots campaign and federal lawsuit to end the practice—and he has done so. De Blasio also cut back on arrests for low-level marijuana crimes, launched a new community-policing program, and put more emphasis on addressing the mental-health causes of crimes. Mid-way through de Blasio’s first year in office, the US Justice Department issued a scathing report on Rikers. It found that the Constitutional rights of adolescent males there were violated by “rampant use of unnecessary and excessive force by staff” as well as by widespread “violence inflicted by other inmates”; it condemned the use of “solitary confinement at an alarming rate and for excessive periods of time.” Then–Manhattan US Attorney Preet Bharara called Rikers “a broken institution.” His office sued late in 2014, and settled with the city in mid-2015 after de Blasio’s team promised a raft of reforms, from a new use-of-force policy to an end to solitary confinement for people younger than 18. That was enough for the Justice Department. But there was a larger movement afoot that was less easy to satisfy. In October of 2014, New Yorker writer Jennifer Gonnerman published an article about the infuriating and deeply sad story of Khalief Browder, who spent the better part of three years on Rikers after being arrested at age 16 on suspicion of stealing a backpack. When Browder, his life wrecked by his time behind bars, committed suicide in June of 2015, protesters marched on the island. The following month, Marshall Project founder Neil Barsky penned a New York Times op-ed titled “Shut Down Rikers Island.” In the fall of 2016, City Limits and City & State co-published a series looking at the case for and challenges of closing Rikers in which reporter Ed Morales surveyed all municipal elected officials. A few supported closing Rikers, but most clammed up. Over the next few months, however, more leaders—including Melissa Mark-Viverito, the speaker of the City Council—came out as pro-closure. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo soon joined the chorus. De Blasio repeatedly expressed sympathy with those calls, but dismissed them as impractical. “The problem is, it would cost many billions of dollars—and I have to look out for what’s feasible, and I have to look out for the taxpayer—and it would require some kind of new facilities,” he said in early 2016. “Where are you going to put them? How are you going to pay for them? So—a noble concept, but one that will cost many billions of dollars, and we do not have a viable pathway to that at this point.” #CloseRikers, led by Just Leadership USA’sMartin but including a long list of progressive groups, stepped up the pressure. There was a big march in September 2016 featuring Emily Althaus of Orange Is the New Black and entrepreneur Russell Simmons. December saw a Gracie Mansion protest. In February of this year, #CloseRikers protested outside the mayor’s State of the City address at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem and broadcast a TV ad slamming de Blasio for boasting of New York as a “sanctuary city” while continuing to operate a notorious penal colony. March saw a small but hearty band of #CloseRikers protesters rally outside a De Blasio event all the way down in Broward County, Florida. Over the course of less than two years, #CloseRikers went from a fringy group collecting signatures outside Hostos Community College in the Bronx to something the mayor was asked about in his weekly sit-downs with the city’s main political talk shows. De Blasio has not credited #CloseRikers for his shift to supporting Rikers closure. Rather, he has given kudos to City Council Speaker Mark-Viverito for continuing to press him and offer ideas for how to achieve the goal of closing the jails on the island. De Blasio’s staff insists the mayor was never opposed to the idea, and news reports published in early 2016 indicated City Hall was exploring its options behind the scenes. For his part, the mayor has said that as months went by and the population on the island continued to shrink—the average daily population of the city’s jails has dropped by nearly a third since 2010—it became clear to him that what had seemed impossible was really not. Two days after de Blasio came out for closing Rikers, the commission led by former Chief Judge of New York State, Jonathan Lippman outlined a multifaceted approach to demolishing Rikers in the next 10 years. It proposed holistic crime prevention efforts in high-crime neighborhoods; diverting people at the point of arrest to civil courts when possible; eliminating money bail; and building smaller jail facilities in each of the five boroughs. The idea is to reduce the jail population to a point where it can be moved off the island into smaller facilities whose programs and layout reflect 21st Century thinking about correction. De Blasio long ago embraced many of the commissions ideas and has already taken action on some of them, like bail reform and new mechanisms for keeping the mentally ill out of the criminal justice system. His own plan for closing Rikers, released in late June, embraces many of the commission’s recommendations, like replacing short jail sentences with community service assignments. But while De Blasio’s blueprint says the “plan is to close Rikers Island and replace it with a smaller network of modern jails,” it says next to nothing about how and when and where those facilities will be built. Creating those new jails “will depend on the desires of neighborhoods and their elected officials,” the mayor’s report says, as it commits the administration to “an open, ongoing conversation with New Yorkers and the City Council to work through these issues.” But the mayor has made it clear that other leaders have to make the first move. “We need to see a commitment from the city councilmembers in the districts that have been initially proposed to specifically start the land use process to achieve it,” he told the Brian Lehrer Show, a public radio program. “All of it is theoretical … unless a councilmember comes forward and says I’m going to support the placement of this facility.” He’s also said Staten Island, the city’s whitest and most Republican borough, shouldn’t have to house a jail. (As it stands now, of the five Councilmembers whose districts include the likely site of new jails, two support it, one rejects it and the other twho are staying mum.) It’s odd stuff to hear from a mayor who is planning to push through a dozen massive rezonings, and who earlier this year said he hoped to create 90 new homeless shelters around the city: Council support has not been identified as a precondition in any of those episodes. But it’s far from the only place in the mayor’s Rikers plan where he passes the buck to other officials: The report is dotted with asterisks to identify steps that “require action by parties other than the city.” The stipulation isn’t untrue—the Council, state government, and district attorneys certainly have a role to play—it’s just not typically the thing a mayor identifies in the public game-plan for what will be a key part of his legacy. That kind of hedging has helped feed the fear that de Blasio doesn’t really intend to close Rikers—or, at least, won’t push to make it happen. While the Lippman Commission said it believed it was possible to get the Rikers population down to around 5,000 on an average day—the level at which smaller, borough jails could absorb everyone—de Blasio’s plan only commits to a reduction from the current 9,400 or so to 7,000 over the next five years. Below that level, the mayor sees an obstacle. “Once the jail population reaches 7,000 through implementation of the strategies laid out above, jail will be increasingly reserved in New York City for individuals who are facing very serious charges or who pose a high risk of flight,” de Blasio’s report says; the report notes that three-fifths of the Rikers population at that point will be facing violent felony charges, and another third will be charged with non-violent felonies. “Because of this composition, further safe reductions to the size of the jail population will become increasingly difficult.” On Friday, June 23, 9100 people were incarcerated on Rikers Island. Some 6300 of them were pretrial detainees. Murder in the second degree was the charge facing the greatest number of defendants, 487 of them. First degree robbery, attempted murder and second-degree assault—a D felony—rounded out the top four. Those four crimes comprised about a fourth of the pre-trial population. Now, those are merely charges, the people facing them are presumed innocent, and sometimes prosecutors overcharge as a negotiating tactic. But those are serious allegations, not the product of much-derided “broken windows” policing that focuses on minor, quality of life crimes. While many people picked up for low-level crimes do end up Rikers Island—and that is a problem unto itself—because of the short stints those defendants tend to serve, when it comes to the problem of how to close the island, ending “broken windows” is only part of the picture. Both the mayor and the commission have called for further reductions in crime to drive down the number of serious charges. De Blasio already is implementing a neighborhood policing strategy that embeds cops in the community and links policing to social investments and physical improvements, like lighting, that can deter crime. But crime is already at historic lows. In order to get deep reductions in the Rikers population, the city is likely going to have to figure out a way to allow more inmates facing serious charges to await trial at home, not behind bars. The Commission has called for expanding supervised release to, in some cases at least, “violent felony defendants and defendants charged with domestic violence offenses.” De Blasio has not. The political risks in doing so are obvious, and that’s what makes advocates nervous. De Blasio has always faced suspicion and derision over his ability to keep the city safe, and some of his opponents promote the canard that the city has become chaotic and dangerous on his watch (or at least that it “feels less safe,” my personal favorite). After two cops were killed in late 2014, de Blasio faced a near-mutiny by the NYPD and became more timid. While he has accomplished real criminal-justice reforms, he has stopped short on others. He didn’t support a choke-hold ban or a bill that would improve notification around police searches, and his administration rolled back access to police disciplinary records. He has steadfastly defended “broken windows” policing and expanded the city’s 35,000-strong police force. If he’s reelected in November, the city’s term limits mean that de Blasio will oversee only the first five years of the Rikers closure effort, meaning he could be planning to reduce Rikers’ daily population to 7,000 and ride off into the sunset. But it would be a huge gamble to leave the heaviest political lifts to a now-unknown mayor of the future. But is Bill de Blasio the mayor who can push criminal-justice reform past the low-level crimes, deep into the territory where deep fears and potentially dangerous people live? Can he really change the role that jails play in the city? Advocates have already started pushing to answer those questions: One #CloseRikers advocate snuck into the gym where de Blasio works out one morning late last month to push him to speed up the timetable for shuttering the jails. “We’ll talk later,” said a stretching mayor. Closing Rikers does have its opponents, like the Republicans challenging de Blasio’s reelection and the correction officers union. And there are plenty of reasons to think it won’t happen. “Anyone can pick one of them and say, ‘How are we ever going to do that? That’s ridiculous,’ whether it’s the siting, the population reduction, the cash cost upfront—there are real issues,” says Jacobson, the former correction commissioner. “We recognize this is going to take a huge effort, its just that at the end your going to get huge benefits,” including, he suggested, a large of plot of usable land, cost savings, and a more just justice system. The question is one of will. Councilman Rory Lancman, a Queens Democrat, doubts that de Blasio has it. “I think [his announcement] is just a political ploy to get him through the 2017 election cycle and also to mollify the progressive wing of the Democratic party.” Martin Horn, who quietly tried to depopulate Rikers as Bloomberg’s first correction commissioner, says de Blasio’s report is “thoughtful and well organized.” But the lack of attention to where new jails would go is alarming, because there’ll be no better time that now to have that fight. “Now is the time to strike,” Horn says. “If at this time with this consensus we can’t get it done, then that will tell us something about the prospects. The time to get the sites approved is now.” Some worry that the moment will pass without real action. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who pushed de Blasio to support closure, will leave office at the end of 2017. It’s unclear her successor will be so reliable an ally of #CloseRikers. “The only way we’re going to get to close Rikers is if the council pushes him hard and there’s no guarantee that the next speaker will do it,” Lancman says. But Glenn Martin remains optimistic. “I’m 100 percent confident that it’s going to happen much earlier. I literally have no doubt that we will see the closure of Rikers in less than 10 years. Zero doubt. “After all, Martin notes, Rikers has helped to seed the city with people who dream of its demise. “We’ve built a tremendous amount of power in a very short period. I think that is because Rikers has caused harm to so many New Yorkers for so many decades.” If you hold de Blasio to his word, he’s confident, too. His report says, “We believe these obstacles are surmountable.” source

July 5, 2017 by
It Will Take Tenacity and Guts to Shutter One of the Country’s Most Notorious Jails “Rikers Island is a stain on our great City. It leaves its mark on everyone it touches: the correction officers working back-to-back shifts under dangerous conditions, the inmates waiting for their day in court in an inhumane and violent environment, the family members forced to miss work and travel long distances to see their loved ones, the attorneys who cannot easily visit their clients to prepare a defense, and the taxpayers who devote billions of dollars each year to keep the whole dysfunctional apparatus running year after year. Put simply, Rikers Island is a 19th century solution to a 21st century problem.” —“A More Just New York City” The Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform When he was running for mayor four years ago, Bill de Blasio promised he’d create a universal pre-K system. It was up and running within nine months of his inauguration. He said he’d reduce the NYPD’s use of stop-and-frisk, and he did so. He vowed to create affordable housing, reduce the speed limit, create new sick-leave and living-wage provisions, reinvigorate the city’s ferry system, create new rental vouchers for the homeless. And he has done or is doing some degree of all these things. Advocacy and activist groups attempt to deliver a mock coffin to New York City Hall with the inscription “Shut Down Rikers Island,” February 23, 2016. (Erik McGregor / Sipa via AP Images) So why does no one seem to believe the mayor when he says he wants to close Rikers, the vast jail complex that has come to symbolize some of the worst abuses of the criminal- justice system? In part, it’s because for two years, as the chorus of voices calling for New York City to shutter the island’s outmoded and isolated jail grew larger and louder, de Blasio dismissed them. Then, when de Blasio finally changed his mind on the last day of March, he announced it at a hastily arranged Friday-night press conference, 48 hours before an independent commission was almost certainly going to recommend closure. Since then, he has dragged out the timeline for emptying Rikers, suggesting a 10-year timetable as a minimum estimate, not an outside figure. And when the mayor finally released his plan for closing the complex—nearly three months after announcing his new position—the blueprint placed a large share of responsibility for achieving Rikers closure on other officials and said little about where new jails would go. The biggest reason for the doubts about de Blasio’s devotion, however, is that closing Rikers will require tough decisions. And de Blasio’s critics believe that during his first 42 months as mayor he has shown little appetite for making those kinds of calls in the politically perilous area of criminal justice—a policy area where this mayor faces unusually high expectations and especially acute risks. Many of the mayor’s political foes—the tabloid editorial boards, for instance, and the correction officers’ union—will push to derail the plan to close Rikers, whether now or in a few years when a new person occupies Gracie Mansion. But now there is an opposing force as well: a feisty advocacy campaign, #CloseRikers, that has shown a gritty commitment to demanding change rather than waiting for it. The potential for cities to serve as laboratories for progressive ideas stems not just from the fact that urban areas are home to left-leaning voters, but also from the truth that cities are where policy problems are harder to ignore or render abstract. Crumbling infrastructure slows your ride to work. Undocumented immigrants live and fear next door—or in your own home. The homeless spend their days in the park down the street. Of these urban realities, crime is the most vexing, because it’s where fear distorts a real threat to irrational proportions. Indeed, a grim reminder of the ongoing tragedy of violent crime in New York came early Wednesday morning, when, according to reports, a man with a gun walked up to a mobile NYPD command center on a Bronx street, pointed a gun at a 48-year-old cop, and killed her. He was shot dead in a second encounter with officers a short time later. The cruel reality is that there will always be crime in US cities, though crime is for the most part much rarer than it used to be. Jails are part of the criminal-justice infrastructure designed—ostensibly—to keep crime at bay. Of the 2.17 million people incarcerated in the United States in 2015, a third were in local jails—a proportion that has remained consistent over the past decade. While state and federal prisons get ink because of their notorious inmates and lengthy sentences, jails are where the most insidious problems of the justice system are manifest—where people who are presumed innocent endure lengthy waits for trial, where a transient population typically receives few of the social services that might prevent them from getting arrested again after release, where punishment for low-level crimes is most likely to occur. Thanks to grassroots activism and official investigations, leaders in cities like Los Angeles and Chicago have have come to recognize that jail systems—and closely related bail systems—are in desperate need for reform. But in LA and the Windy City, as well as places like New Orleans, reform efforts have bogged down. Now New York is contemplating the boldest change of all. Thanks to an active grassroots campaign, it stands a chance of actually accomplishing it. “Whoever is mayor is going to be held responsible for [this] mayor’s promise that New York’s policy is to move toward closure,” says Glenn Martin, the strategic force behind #CloseRikers. “If we do our job as advocates of shifting the political landscape of New York toward closing Rikers, it really won’t matter who is mayor. We’re going to create this sort of atmosphere—the sort of incentives and the sort of consequences—where no matter who is in the council or who is in City Hall, they’re going to have to continue to move this forward.” For 85 years, Rikers Island has been part of the landscape of crime and punishment in New York. A 413-acre land mass in the East River, it is where the Department of Correction runs 10 jails that hold an average of 9,500 people on a given day, the bulk of the city’s prisoners. Some of the people detained there have been convicted and sentenced to terms of more than a year, and are awaiting transfer to state prisons. Others have been found guilty and are staying on Rikers to serve terms of less than a year for misdemeanors. The vast majority (78 percent at last count) are pre-trial detainees, presumed innocent and—for the most part—incarcerated because they couldn’t afford financial bail. There have been at least two efforts to close Rikers in the past, one under Mayor Koch and another, subtler one under Mayor Bloomberg. Neither got traction. Mostly, the notion has been unthinkable. “When I was commissioner it was more about just trying to get control of the place. I’m sure at that moment closing Rikers would have had a ring of other worldliness,” says Michael Jacobson, correction commissioner under Mayor Rudy Giuliani and now a noted reformer who sat on the commission that recommeded closing the island. Jail reform wasn’t on de Blasio’s agenda, or anywhere on the radar screen of the city’s political class, when he ran for mayor four years ago. But de Blasio did dive deep into other aspects of criminal-justice policy, soaring to the front of the 2013 race with an ad in which his biracial son talked about the racial skew of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk regime. De Blasio promised to sharply reduce the use of that tactic, which was already falling in the final years of Mayor Bloomberg—thanks to a grassroots campaign and federal lawsuit to end the practice—and he has done so. De Blasio also cut back on arrests for low-level marijuana crimes, launched a new community-policing program, and put more emphasis on addressing the mental-health causes of crimes. Mid-way through de Blasio’s first year in office, the US Justice Department issued a scathing report on Rikers. It found that the Constitutional rights of adolescent males there were violated by “rampant use of unnecessary and excessive force by staff” as well as by widespread “violence inflicted by other inmates”; it condemned the use of “solitary confinement at an alarming rate and for excessive periods of time.” Then–Manhattan US Attorney Preet Bharara called Rikers “a broken institution.” His office sued late in 2014, and settled with the city in mid-2015 after de Blasio’s team promised a raft of reforms, from a new use-of-force policy to an end to solitary confinement for people younger than 18. That was enough for the Justice Department. But there was a larger movement afoot that was less easy to satisfy. In October of 2014, New Yorker writer Jennifer Gonnerman published an article about the infuriating and deeply sad story of Khalief Browder, who spent the better part of three years on Rikers after being arrested at age 16 on suspicion of stealing a backpack. When Browder, his life wrecked by his time behind bars, committed suicide in June of 2015, protesters marched on the island. The following month, Marshall Project founder Neil Barsky penned a New York Times op-ed titled “Shut Down Rikers Island.” In the fall of 2016, City Limits and City & State co-published a series looking at the case for and challenges of closing Rikers in which reporter Ed Morales surveyed all municipal elected officials. A few supported closing Rikers, but most clammed up. Over the next few months, however, more leaders—including Melissa Mark-Viverito, the speaker of the City Council—came out as pro-closure. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo soon joined the chorus. De Blasio repeatedly expressed sympathy with those calls, but dismissed them as impractical. “The problem is, it would cost many billions of dollars—and I have to look out for what’s feasible, and I have to look out for the taxpayer—and it would require some kind of new facilities,” he said in early 2016. “Where are you going to put them? How are you going to pay for them? So—a noble concept, but one that will cost many billions of dollars, and we do not have a viable pathway to that at this point.” #CloseRikers, led by Just Leadership USA’sMartin but including a long list of progressive groups, stepped up the pressure. There was a big march in September 2016 featuring Emily Althaus of Orange Is the New Black and entrepreneur Russell Simmons. December saw a Gracie Mansion protest. In February of this year, #CloseRikers protested outside the mayor’s State of the City address at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem and broadcast a TV ad slamming de Blasio for boasting of New York as a “sanctuary city” while continuing to operate a notorious penal colony. March saw a small but hearty band of #CloseRikers protesters rally outside a De Blasio event all the way down in Broward County, Florida. Over the course of less than two years, #CloseRikers went from a fringy group collecting signatures outside Hostos Community College in the Bronx to something the mayor was asked about in his weekly sit-downs with the city’s main political talk shows. De Blasio has not credited #CloseRikers for his shift to supporting Rikers closure. Rather, he has given kudos to City Council Speaker Mark-Viverito for continuing to press him and offer ideas for how to achieve the goal of closing the jails on the island. De Blasio’s staff insists the mayor was never opposed to the idea, and news reports published in early 2016 indicated City Hall was exploring its options behind the scenes. For his part, the mayor has said that as months went by and the population on the island continued to shrink—the average daily population of the city’s jails has dropped by nearly a third since 2010—it became clear to him that what had seemed impossible was really not. Two days after de Blasio came out for closing Rikers, the commission led by former Chief Judge of New York State, Jonathan Lippman outlined a multifaceted approach to demolishing Rikers in the next 10 years. It proposed holistic crime prevention efforts in high-crime neighborhoods; diverting people at the point of arrest to civil courts when possible; eliminating money bail; and building smaller jail facilities in each of the five boroughs. The idea is to reduce the jail population to a point where it can be moved off the island into smaller facilities whose programs and layout reflect 21st Century thinking about correction. De Blasio long ago embraced many of the commissions ideas and has already taken action on some of them, like bail reform and new mechanisms for keeping the mentally ill out of the criminal justice system. His own plan for closing Rikers, released in late June, embraces many of the commission’s recommendations, like replacing short jail sentences with community service assignments. But while De Blasio’s blueprint says the “plan is to close Rikers Island and replace it with a smaller network of modern jails,” it says next to nothing about how and when and where those facilities will be built. Creating those new jails “will depend on the desires of neighborhoods and their elected officials,” the mayor’s report says, as it commits the administration to “an open, ongoing conversation with New Yorkers and the City Council to work through these issues.” But the mayor has made it clear that other leaders have to make the first move. “We need to see a commitment from the city councilmembers in the districts that have been initially proposed to specifically start the land use process to achieve it,” he told the Brian Lehrer Show, a public radio program. “All of it is theoretical … unless a councilmember comes forward and says I’m going to support the placement of this facility.” He’s also said Staten Island, the city’s whitest and most Republican borough, shouldn’t have to house a jail. (As it stands now, of the five Councilmembers whose districts include the likely site of new jails, two support it, one rejects it and the other twho are staying mum.) It’s odd stuff to hear from a mayor who is planning to push through a dozen massive rezonings, and who earlier this year said he hoped to create 90 new homeless shelters around the city: Council support has not been identified as a precondition in any of those episodes. But it’s far from the only place in the mayor’s Rikers plan where he passes the buck to other officials: The report is dotted with asterisks to identify steps that “require action by parties other than the city.” The stipulation isn’t untrue—the Council, state government, and district attorneys certainly have a role to play—it’s just not typically the thing a mayor identifies in the public game-plan for what will be a key part of his legacy. That kind of hedging has helped feed the fear that de Blasio doesn’t really intend to close Rikers—or, at least, won’t push to make it happen. While the Lippman Commission said it believed it was possible to get the Rikers population down to around 5,000 on an average day—the level at which smaller, borough jails could absorb everyone—de Blasio’s plan only commits to a reduction from the current 9,400 or so to 7,000 over the next five years. Below that level, the mayor sees an obstacle. “Once the jail population reaches 7,000 through implementation of the strategies laid out above, jail will be increasingly reserved in New York City for individuals who are facing very serious charges or who pose a high risk of flight,” de Blasio’s report says; the report notes that three-fifths of the Rikers population at that point will be facing violent felony charges, and another third will be charged with non-violent felonies. “Because of this composition, further safe reductions to the size of the jail population will become increasingly difficult.” On Friday, June 23, 9100 people were incarcerated on Rikers Island. Some 6300 of them were pretrial detainees. Murder in the second degree was the charge facing the greatest number of defendants, 487 of them. First degree robbery, attempted murder and second-degree assault—a D felony—rounded out the top four. Those four crimes comprised about a fourth of the pre-trial population. Now, those are merely charges, the people facing them are presumed innocent, and sometimes prosecutors overcharge as a negotiating tactic. But those are serious allegations, not the product of much-derided “broken windows” policing that focuses on minor, quality of life crimes. While many people picked up for low-level crimes do end up Rikers Island—and that is a problem unto itself—because of the short stints those defendants tend to serve, when it comes to the problem of how to close the island, ending “broken windows” is only part of the picture. Both the mayor and the commission have called for further reductions in crime to drive down the number of serious charges. De Blasio already is implementing a neighborhood policing strategy that embeds cops in the community and links policing to social investments and physical improvements, like lighting, that can deter crime. But crime is already at historic lows. In order to get deep reductions in the Rikers population, the city is likely going to have to figure out a way to allow more inmates facing serious charges to await trial at home, not behind bars. The Commission has called for expanding supervised release to, in some cases at least, “violent felony defendants and defendants charged with domestic violence offenses.” De Blasio has not. The political risks in doing so are obvious, and that’s what makes advocates nervous. De Blasio has always faced suspicion and derision over his ability to keep the city safe, and some of his opponents promote the canard that the city has become chaotic and dangerous on his watch (or at least that it “feels less safe,” my personal favorite). After two cops were killed in late 2014, de Blasio faced a near-mutiny by the NYPD and became more timid. While he has accomplished real criminal-justice reforms, he has stopped short on others. He didn’t support a choke-hold ban or a bill that would improve notification around police searches, and his administration rolled back access to police disciplinary records. He has steadfastly defended “broken windows” policing and expanded the city’s 35,000-strong police force. If he’s reelected in November, the city’s term limits mean that de Blasio will oversee only the first five years of the Rikers closure effort, meaning he could be planning to reduce Rikers’ daily population to 7,000 and ride off into the sunset. But it would be a huge gamble to leave the heaviest political lifts to a now-unknown mayor of the future. But is Bill de Blasio the mayor who can push criminal-justice reform past the low-level crimes, deep into the territory where deep fears and potentially dangerous people live? Can he really change the role that jails play in the city? Advocates have already started pushing to answer those questions: One #CloseRikers advocate snuck into the gym where de Blasio works out one morning late last month to push him to speed up the timetable for shuttering the jails. “We’ll talk later,” said a stretching mayor. Closing Rikers does have its opponents, like the Republicans challenging de Blasio’s reelection and the correction officers union. And there are plenty of reasons to think it won’t happen. “Anyone can pick one of them and say, ‘How are we ever going to do that? That’s ridiculous,’ whether it’s the siting, the population reduction, the cash cost upfront—there are real issues,” says Jacobson, the former correction commissioner. “We recognize this is going to take a huge effort, its just that at the end your going to get huge benefits,” including, he suggested, a large of plot of usable land, cost savings, and a more just justice system. The question is one of will. Councilman Rory Lancman, a Queens Democrat, doubts that de Blasio has it. “I think [his announcement] is just a political ploy to get him through the 2017 election cycle and also to mollify the progressive wing of the Democratic party.” Martin Horn, who quietly tried to depopulate Rikers as Bloomberg’s first correction commissioner, says de Blasio’s report is “thoughtful and well organized.” But the lack of attention to where new jails would go is alarming, because there’ll be no better time that now to have that fight. “Now is the time to strike,” Horn says. “If at this time with this consensus we can’t get it done, then that will tell us something about the prospects. The time to get the sites approved is now.” Some worry that the moment will pass without real action. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who pushed de Blasio to support closure, will leave office at the end of 2017. It’s unclear her successor will be so reliable an ally of #CloseRikers. “The only way we’re going to get to close Rikers is if the council pushes him hard and there’s no guarantee that the next speaker will do it,” Lancman says. But Glenn Martin remains optimistic. “I’m 100 percent confident that it’s going to happen much earlier. I literally have no doubt that we will see the closure of Rikers in less than 10 years. Zero doubt. “After all, Martin notes, Rikers has helped to seed the city with people who dream of its demise. “We’ve built a tremendous amount of power in a very short period. I think that is because Rikers has caused harm to so many New Yorkers for so many decades.” If you hold de Blasio to his word, he’s confident, too. His report says, “We believe these obstacles are surmountable.” source

July 4, 2017 by
It's been almost four years since Patrisse Khan-Cullors helped birth the hashtag #blacklivesmatter. Those three words gained national attention for demonstrations against police brutality and grew into a movement. But progress has been slow, admits Khan-Cullors, a Los Angeles-based activist who co-founded the Black Lives Matter Network. "The local is where the work is. If we're looking at just the national, it's pretty devastating. But if you zoom into cities, to towns, to rural areas, people are fighting back and people are winning," she says, pointing to one example in Jackson, Miss., where voters recently elected a progressive new mayor in the Deep South. Other Black Lives Matter activists around the country, who are part of a decentralized movement, are also focusing on local activism. "We go to locations where people generally ... don't have to think about or don't want to think about white supremacy and patriarchy and how that's affecting black people," says Mike Bento, an organizer with New York's NYC Shut It Down, a group which considers itself part of the Black Lives Matter movement. Mike Bento (center), an organizer with NYC Shut It Down, leads a march in honor of a black transgender person who was recently killed in New York City. The group started holding weekly demonstrations around New York City two years ago to honor mainly people who have died at the hands of police. On a recent Monday evening, about two dozen protesters gathered outside a restaurant in downtown Manhattan, where diners sipped wine at bistro tables on the sidewalk. Patrisse Khan-Cullors, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Network, leads a gathering at The Underground Museum in Los Angeles in memory of Charleena Lyles and other police shooting victims. While a protester held up a sign saying "MX BOSTICK, REST IN POWER," Bento started a call-and-response describing the recent death of a black transgender person who was found unconscious on a sidewalk after being struck in the head in May. A suspect is now charged with manslaughter. "We're here tonight because while you are dining, black trans people are dying," Bento shouted at the restaurant patrons. Still, it's not all about protesting in the streets. Sometimes, Bento and other Black Lives Matter activists go underground and into New York's subways. They pay for people who would otherwise try to get on a train without paying, which could earn them a misdemeanor. "This is all connected," Bento says. "This is all part of how we get a system of mass incarceration. And so we start with basic things that we can do to keep our brothers and sisters out of that system." Other basic forms of activism include standing outside the courthouse to support people charged with low-level offenses and helping to serve dinner to homeless people. In Washington, D.C., April Goggans, an organizer with Black Lives Matter DC, is holding meetings with other local activist groups to figure out how they can make communities facing high crime rates more self-sufficient. Goggans says she's been following the recent police shooting of Charleena Lyles, a pregnant, black mother in Seattle, as well as the not-guilty verdicts for police officers involved in the deaths of Philando Castile in Minnesota and Sylville Smith in Wisconsin. They've all reinforced her conclusion, she says, that any type of reform will not improve police departments. "I don't even know that I would put my effort into charging and imprisoning individual police officers because it's just not gonna happen very much and that kind of justice, it's not a deterrent for other police officers," says Goggans, who says she is focused on getting rid of the current system of policing in the long term. Khan-Cullors says she is also taking a long view when thinking about how the Black Lives Matter movement will tackle issues black people have been living with for decades. "We are not new to police brutality. We are not new to police violence. We are not new to people dying inside jail cells and prisons," she says. "What is new is the visibility. What is new is that they become headlines." Khan-Cullors helped birth the hashtag #blacklivesmatter. Starting campaigns to change laws and policy, she says, is the obvious work. But staying together as a movement is harder. She says she's always been concerned about how the movement can sustain itself when social media is inundated with photos and videos of black people killed at the hands of police and victories for the movement seem hard to come by. With the U.S. Supreme Court reinstating part of President Donald Trump's travel ban and Congress considering substantial cuts to Medicaid, she's worried that the current political environment is becoming even more overwhelming for activists. "If you can't fight the state, and you can't fight for the things that you need, then you take it out on each other," says Khan-Cullors, who cautions that infighting could destroy the movement. That's why gatherings like a recent candle-light vigil at The Underground Museum in Los Angeles for Lyles and other police shooting victims are important to Khan-Cullors, who wants to keep activists energized and encourage them to work together. Starting campaigns to change laws and policy, she says, is the obvious work. But staying together as a movement, that's the hard stuff. source