“Having recently moved from New York City to St. Louis, I feel compelled to share a personal story. Prior to moving to NYC, I had this vision of a liberal utopia. In reality, it’s arguably the most racially segregated city in America and one of the worst (big) cities for African Americans. St. Louis doesn’t fair better than NYC but St. Louis residents and politicians don’t repeatedly boast about its liberal credentials. Despite significant changes to drug and arrest policy, the NYPD is still conducting business as usual — sweeping innocent young black men off the street as a form of racial control — including a particularly horrifying story of injustice that unfolded right before my eyes.
On the day in question, I was working in an office building in Midtown, Manhattan. It was one of those unbearably hot and humid August days, when you could see the heat rising from the pavement. From the vantage point of my 3rd floor window, I saw four black teenagers huddled together on the sidewalk below. I later learned that they were siblings: a 12 year-old-girl and her three older brothers (all teens). The young girl was bearing a “homeless” sign. The siblings had sought refuge under the shade of a public wifi kiosk throughout the morning. The immense shadow of this urban monolith provided a modicum of relief from the oppressive midday sun.
During my lunch break that afternoon, I sat on a bench just a stone’s throw away from the kiosk. Considering the circumstances, the siblings appeared to be in good spirits. Shortly after my arrival, the youngest brother journeyed across the street and into a 7/11. A few minutes later, a team of plain-clothed NYPD officers materialized from the crowd. Without any noticeable incident, they surrounded the young girl and her older brothers. As the officers closed in, a young lady in business attire attempted to intervene. After a brief exchange she calmly backed away, while visibly upset. As I was already invested in the matter, I approached the lady to inquire. She worked as a social worker in the area and had also taken notice of the siblings. She was particularly concerned for the adolescent girl, who appeared malnourished. Rather than go about her day, this good Samaritan placed a welfare call to Child Protective Services (CPS). Sadly, her benevolent gesture led to the dispatch of NYPD’s drug enforcement squad. A few minutes later, with tears streaming down her face, she informed me that she had to return to work. I remained on the scene to observe and document the encounter.
Although the officers were responding to a welfare call, they swarmed onto the scene as if conducting a high level sting operation. As the youngest brother presumably gathered refreshments for the long day ahead, his older brothers were already being interrogated. The officers immediately and forcefully separated them from their little sister, who was left confused, alone, and terrified. Although it was undoubtedly an illegal search and seizure, the officers allegedly found an item of drug paraphernalia and a small pocket knife. In the blink of an eye, these two innocent young men were handcuffed and placed into unmarked squad cruisers.
Shortly thereafter, the youngest brother (Josh) returned from his errand to find his sister (Sarah) all alone and sobbing uncontrollably. Just as Josh attempted to console her, the officers abruptly dragged him away in the same manner as his brothers. Fortunately, for Josh, he wasn’t in possession of any contraband (or other bullshit excuse to arrest him). Nonetheless, the officers continued to prod Josh for another 10 minutes, clearly hoping he would lose his cool so they could charge him with disorderly conduct. In the classic novel, “1984,” political enemies of the ruling party are routinely arrested in the middle of the night and completely vanish, as if they never existed. George Orwell uses the word “vaporizing” to metaphorically state how the “Thought Police” would make “criminals” disappear. This fictional nightmare is the ongoing plight of many black men in America.
After what felt like an eternity, the officers finally allowed Josh to return to his sister. As the younger siblings reunited in a tearful embrace, their older brothers were mysteriously swept away. As a former public defender, I’m acutely aware of the systematic injustice perpetrated against blacks in America. Yet, I had never seen such blatant injustice unfold right before my eyes. It truly shocked my conscience. The NYPD received a welfare report regarding a young girl who was homeless and malnourished, which they used as a pretext to vaporize her brothers — young men who had done absolutely nothing wrong. Sworn to “Protect and Serve,” these so called officers of the law did neither. In short, they displayed absolutely no concern for the welfare of these homeless children — who happened to be black.
I’m not a hero, but my conscience wouldn’t let me return to work without offering a sympathetic ear to Josh and Sarah. When I first approached, they were understandably guarded. Through a waterfall of tears streaming down her face, Sarah managed to cry out “They took our brothers! They just took them! They took our brothers!” From then on, Josh did most of the talking. For the next 30 minutes, I patiently listened as he shared their tale of woe. The four siblings had been living on the streets for the past two weeks without parental care or financial assistance. They had previously lived in the Bronx with their mom and her abusive boyfriend. The boyfriend had been unabashedly abusing their mom for months without any hint of remorse. One afternoon, while the boyfriend was away, the older brothers confronted their mother. For hours, they begged her to cut ties with her abuser and banish him forever. Sadly, their mother was in complete denial of the abuse. For their outpouring of concern, the brothers found themselves homeless by nightfall. A week or so later, Sarah sheepishly approached her mother with shocking news: Sarah was pregnant — after having been raped by her mother’s boyfriend. Her mother scoffed at the allegations and lashed out at Sarah, repeatedly calling her a “slut” and insisting that Sarah was “asking for it.” Later that evening, Josh courageously came to his sister’s defense, simultaneously confronting his mother and her boyfriend. The following morning, Josh and Sarah met the same harsh fate as their brothers. A few days later, the four siblings reunited on the streets of Manhattan.
Upon hearing the details of this horrific story, I was absolutely floored. My first instinct was to file a (more detailed) report with CPS. Upon hearing my suggestion, Sarah began convulsing in tears. Josh begged me not to call. They wanted to avoid any and all contact with NYPD. Of course, I completely understood their reticence. However, my conscience still wouldn’t let me return to work. If nothing else, I wanted to ensure that Josh and Sarah had enough money to get through the night. They did not. Their older brothers were in possession of the only remaining cash. So, not only did the NYPD fail to protect and serve these vulnerable children, their callous actions placed Josh and Sarah at even greater risk of harm. I offered Josh and Sarah all the cash I had in my wallet, along with my business card. As a lawyer, I also assured them that I was genuinely committed to helping in any way possible.
As I walked away, Josh and Sarah gathered up all of their worldly belongings. It was time to move on. Aside from the shade provided by the kiosk, Midtown had proven to be a cold and uncaring environment. Even prior to their contact with NYPD, the four siblings had felt scrutinized all morning. Josh had no idea where he and Sarah would end up that evening, but they were no longer seeking help or compassion. They simply wanted to be invisible amongst the crowd — the very essence of New York City, but a privilege unavailable to Josh and Sarah. Such is the paradox of being black in America: invisible yet starkly visible. As W.E.B Du Bois observed nearly 100 years ago: “[T]he slave went free; stood for a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”