Saturday, March 19, 2011

An Incident on Franklin and Looking Out for Neighbors - Updated and Amended

About a week ago, I received the following email from one of our neighbors:

On Saturday February 26th around 5:15 am, I was assaulted at two different locations on Franklin Avenue. My attacker demanded money from me via the ATM at BNI Express laundromat on Franklin and Park, and when the machine didn't work, the initial assault took place. The employees of BNI Express, who were fully aware and watching what was taking place, did nothing to help me even after repeated cries for help. My attacker then demanded money via the ATM at Nam's fruits and vegetables, as it was the only other business open at the time. This time, he took my money, phone and assaulted me again. I again asked for help again at Nam's, but to no avail. My attacker then left the scene and I returned home, after which the police were notified and came to my home to take a report. I decided to write this letter for the benefit of the community, as I am very disturbed at the notion that employees of locally owned businesses that I regularly support did nothing when faced with these circumstances. I no longer feel comfortable supporting BNI Express, or Nam's fruits and vegetables and wanted to make this issue known in the Crow Hill community. Locally owned businesses that we know and support have a responsibility to help someone in distress that is being attacked in their space, at the very least, they should be calling the police. Please be mindful of these issues and if you see someone that looks like they may need help, please help them.

Now, of course, I wasn't there, and the email above does not contain any reporting on ILFA's part, so I won't speculate further on the specifics of this particular incident. That said, the message at the end is worth repeating. Crime is a reality in New York, and in the 77th Precinct (our own), robbery and petit larceny are both on the rise this year. Anonymity is a feature of city living - and a draw for some folks looking to escape the social supervision of the small town - but it comes with a cost, particularly when someone is in trouble. We count on police to do our policing, but the NYPD can't be everywhere at once (and if they were, we'd live in a police state, and that would be troubling, to say the least), so sometimes it falls to citizens to look out for one another and take action to make the world we live in a world we want to live in.

While it's admittedly tricky business in a rapidly-changing neighborhood where we don't know everyone (and where tensions generated by gentrification work against affective ties), looking out for neighbors isn't just a sign of community, it's a route to building community. This doesn't mean calling the police every time someone looks different, or putting oneself in harm's way. Everyone has different levels of comfort with these sorts of things, but eye contact, greetings, and simple questions can go a long way toward both defusing situations and assessing whether they require further action (calling 911 shouldn't be a first reaction, but it should never be taboo, either). There aren't any special tricks or magic bullets, and no one should try to break up a situation like this alone, but concerned, alert citizens who don't turn away from bad situations can be as crucial to neighborhood safety as the Skywatch and impact zones. Call it enlightened self-interest - if you look out for someone, it's more likely that there'll be someone looking out for you.

Updated and Amended: While this was far from the most-read or most-controversial post published here in March 2011, it's probably the one I thought the most about, both before and after, and one of the bigger missteps on ILFA overall. A colleague whom I respect greatly read it, and replied to me with a strongly-worded email that began with the definition of "paternalism" (the lady, upon reading this email, concurred in large part). I also spoke with other bloggers and reporters who received similar emails, and had similar ambivalence to my own (though I believe, in the end, I was the only one who wrote about it). My intention, in publishing the email and my own comments, was to give voice to someone who had suffered something traumatic and wanted to be heard (having felt ignored and dismissed by merchants, bystanders, and the NYPD), and also, perhaps, to prompt a discussion among merchants (many of whom I was in close contact with through the CHCA) about how to address and prevent incidents like this one on a more systematic basis. I can see, however, that my garbled comments above got it wrong, on (at least) three counts:

1) the problems of the "sketchy neighborhood" discourse: As the lady explained, "it's not about what you felt or wanted to do, it's about how people read this." Her point was that this post contributed to a deeply problematic and deeply engrained discourse that appears frequently in gentrifying neighborhoods, that of "sketchiness" or the lack of safety for newcomers (assumed to be young, white gentrifiers). The problem with this discourse is that it reduces complex issues of community safety and cohesion to stark stereotypes in which the newcomers are the innocent victims of predatory behavior by longtime residents. This isn't to downplay to the trauma of incidents like the one reported above, but to point out that such traumas are, in fact, reported far MORE often than the traumas suffered by longtime locals, whether at the hands of criminals, the police, or the process of gentrification and displacement itself. I might have wanted to get merchants talking about late-night safety, but by publishing this, I was adding fuel to the fire, one that burns those longtime residents when the logic of "gentrifying neighborhoods are dangerous" is used to support zero-tolerance policing that destroys the lives of so many young men and women of color in New York City.

2) the problem of "neighborhood safety" as discussed by this particular blogger: I'm upfront about my background on this blog: I'm a young, recently-arrived white guy, very much part of the process of gentrification. I try to be thoughtful about my position, but in this case, I wasn't. I may have borrowed my language of "concerned, alert citizens" and community policing from CHCA meetings - where  discussions of neighborhood safety are led by longtime residents - but that doesn't mean I can employ it in my own writing to the same effect. Context matters, and when young, white newcomers call for "community policing" online after detailing late-night street crime, it reads very differently. To put a finer point on it, it reads as an exhortation to similarly-positioned people (the language of "citizens" operating in a classically exclusive fashion here) to take action against a (nameless, rights-less) group of "others." I certainly didn't intend this, but re-reading it, I can understand how someone who didn't read ILFA regularly would read this post this way.

3) the problem of bringing in the NYPD: I intended, in this post, to offer community "action" as an alternative to zero-tolerance, Skywatch-using, impact-zone policing (which generates as much violence - by police - as it purports to stop, and drags thousands of young men into the deeply unjust criminal justice system). However, that's not at all clear from reading this post, and reception is more important than intention. In fact, this reads as though I'm calling for citizens to work together with the NYPD (which would be great if mutual trust existed between these groups, but it doesn't). This is the biggest problem of all, as the NYPD and their supporters could read such a post as a call for MORE policing on Franklin, when in fact, ILFA is of the very strong opinion that we have far too much of it.

At any rate, I'm not sure it would have been possible to post this without triggering at least some of the issues addressed above, but I'm not going to delete it now, as that feels sort of cowardly on my part. I certainly could have written a more nuanced and thoughtful post originally, and I could have tried harder to write against the problems above. The lesson for ILFA, which I'll carry with me going forward, is to remember my own position in these processes and to think harder about context, reception, and the broader discourse of the day. Blogging is always a conceit, but to think I can impose my own desires and intentions on an incident, or a community, is a dangerous conceit, one that bleeds all too easily into the colonizing discourses of gentrification on the "urban frontier." I'll try to do better. 

18 comments:

  1. Thank you for posting this letter. It's important that we don't get so wrapped up in how great out neighborhood is that we forget about our safety.

    It was quite some time ago, but I've been mugged and assaulted in front of my own apartment--nobody responded to my cries for help. I've been harassed on Franklin taking money out of an ATM before too, but luckily a police officer was close. Our apartment was robbed during the big snowstorm right after Christmas.

    It's important around here that we take crime seriously and do our best to take care of each other. If we all make an effort to be good neighbors, that will do more for our 'hood than any bar or coffee shop could ever do!

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  2. not a lot of people are out at 5:15 AM on a Saturday.

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  3. thats fucked up no one helped bni should get some type of security gaurd for the night hours

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  4. Sorry it happened to you and no one attempted to assist...at least just calling the cops.

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  5. This is awful. Thank you for sharing. I'm glad the incidents weren't any worse. How terrifying.

    Helping somebody in trouble isn't just about building a community - it's about being human. I can't believe all those people turned their heads, not just because I'm familiar with them and their businesses but also because of how horrible the situation was.

    But I don't know if boycotting Nam's and BNI is the best move. Has anyone notified their managers of what happened, assuming the managers weren't the witnesses that evening? If the managers agree that the employees didn't respond in an appropriate manner, perhaps they can at least re-train their employees.

    What if this letter were printed out and handed over to the managers? Or at least taped to the windows of the businesses or to places on the street, just to alert people of what happened? and maybe this way, the businesses will feel more pressure to take an active role in the community's well being.

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  6. I should probably put on the record that ILFA is not calling for a boycott of Nam's or BNI, though I do think the suggestions above are worth considering (and I wouldn't blame anyone for not wanting to patronize them). I've heard of armed robberies that include both merchants and patrons, which is to say that employees are at risk, too, and would benefit from a general sense of community accountability. A lot of the merchants in the area are community leaders, and I'd like to believe they would come to the aid of anyone in distress. The trick is convincing those who would otherwise turn away to lend a hand.

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  7. As a bit of a side note, I would like to mention something else. I am one of the agents that works in real estate in the neighborhood and I since I have been doing this, I have only heard of two cases of apartments being robbed. Both of which were next to Franklin and Sterling (two different tenants and apartments). I haven't heard of any other cases of apartment robbery from any other tenants that I've spoken with so I can't help but wonder if there is a specific person or group of people in the area "working" that corner area.

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  8. There seems to be something "in the air" on Franklin that isn't so good. My husband and I narrowly missed a situation on Friday night around midnight. We got off the subway and sensed something was wrong and kept coming upon people who looked a little dazed. According to one neighbor, a crowd of some 300 marauding kids came down Sterling, chasing someone with sticks and bats. They smashed some car doors, mirrors and slashed tires all along Sterling. We missed seeing it, but were there when the police showed up with a dozen squad cars. Neighbors tried to show them the direction of the crowd, which was in the direction of Bedford. I don't know what happened, and it was not reported in the local news or newspapers. What's with that?

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  9. Thanks. I've linked to this post from a Facebook group I have for residents of the Jewish Hospital apartments.

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  10. I sympathize with the victim, and that employees who are familiar to all of us would seem to turn their backs during an attack like this must make it feel that much worse. It's a difficult request though of employees who are likely making minimum wage working overnights in a dangerous neighborhood to intervene in such an assault when an intervention could make them vulnerable to physical harm either at the time or in the future.

    What would be helpful? Whatever their response, I think that employees of retail outlets that stay open throughout the night should have some kind of action plan in place to deal with crime on the premises. I'd suggest that plan be developed in conjunction with the police. Maybe the plan would be as simple as an anonymous call into the cops once the situation has cleared out of the store.

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  11. ther should be no atm in a 24 hour joint ther will no problem atm= money = robbery its that simply

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  12. the owners of b n i are real nasty russians they think they run franklin ave and they have the best place on the street

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  13. I agree that this is not an issue of "being a good neighbor" or building a community - it's about just being a decent person. Do you feel less responsibility to help someone in distress when it's not your neighborhood? I hope not. Someone being assaulted needs help - if nothing else, a call to the police - regardless of your relationship to them. Moreover, Nick alludes to tensions created by gentrification, but intervening when you actually witness a crime is a different thing altogether than, as he says, calling the cops when you see someone "looking suspicious" - in the case of an actual assault, help from passersby is about making this a safer place for everyone - visitors, new transplants and long-time residents alike.

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  14. It doesn't sound like it was a factor in these incidents, but people should be aware of the bystander effect, which kicks in when multiple people witness something like an accident or an assault. For all the appeals to basic humanity or being a decent person, that's an aspect of human psychology that you'll only be able to overcome if you know about it ahead of time.

    When you're in a group of people, strangers or not, and witness someone in need of emergency assistance, your lizard brain will in all likelihood tell you to stand quietly and see how things play out. It's up to your rational self to anticipate that instinct and override it.

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  15. I think being inside at 5:15 AM is the best advice.

    ...using an ATM at that time isn't real wise either.

    But I'm glad he/she is ok.

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  16. There was a crowd of people standing on their porches watching when my bf and I were assaulted by a group last summer, and the cops took 4 calls and 2 hours to show up.

    I believe it.

    We need to look out for each other, no one else will.

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  17. Wow. To the 5:04 pm Anonymous: way to blame the victim. It's this kind of mentality that prevents people from ever bonding with one another, from humans expressing compassion for one another. Hence people not intervening when someone is in danger.

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  18. Fuck russians and koreans

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