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Police precinct street barricades send wrong message

BY STUART ZAMSKY | As with many New Yorkers, it is with pride that I regard the current movement across America shedding light on police brutality and demanding change to the system and the attitudes police bring to policing.

The protests and actions have been raucous and sometimes disrespectful and even out of hand. But as one looks back to other substantive movements that have helped change the nature of American life, such as the suffragette, civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, to name a few, they too were not neat and tidy. Democracy and freedom is messy and unruly and can be very uncomfortable.

On June 6, police mustered at Second Ave. and E. Fifth St. According to the writer, starting on May 30, during the height of the protest marches, this was a daily occurrence at dusk for the night ahead for about 10 days to two weeks. (Photo by Stuart Zamsky)

Unfortunately, I cannot look with the same pride at my hometown New York Police Department. The movement’s purpose was to shine a light on the police. That light showed, at best, a ham-handedness and, at worst, impulsive violence and/or calculated actions that fomented violence and ill will.

As I stood on Second Ave. on the evening of June 1 watching the first of the protests go by, I noted the barricade that was up at E. Fifth St. and the line of heavily clad police behind it. And as I watched what seemed to be just a few outliers of the protest breaking windows of local businesses (a bakery, a restaurant, B&H Dairy, the bus stop, etc.), it was curious that the police stayed put.

As much as I fully supported the movement, it was obvious that there was an element simply looking to destroy, to break glass, or set a trash fire in the street. A restaurant directly across from the barricade was damaged.

Metal police gates at the western end of the Ninth Precinct’s block at E. Fifth St. and Second Ave. (Photo by Stuart Zamsky)

And, while I was thankful that there was no violence, I couldn’t help wonder why the police were completely flat-footed. Would they not raise a hand to rescue these businesses that are the heart of my East Village neighborhood? The answer was a resounding “no.”

In the few days to come there would be a 180-degree turnaround. Squad cars were speeding the length of the island, and police would close ranks on large groups of peaceful protesters, resulting in bitter and often violent clashes, the results of which can readily be seen in video collected by citizens. (The New York Times recently published a collection of 64 videos of unwarranted police violence, and it should be noted that that is only what was caught on camera.)

The barricades on the precinct blocks stayed up throughout the city (and are still there today), and were manned by at least two cops on either end of the block. A police car was used as a gate at the entrance of the block and people and vehicles were checked to see if they were either residents or had business on the street.

I’ve had a business on the same block of E. Fifth St. as the Ninth Precinct for 25 years, and do not remember anything like this, even when the city was attacked by terrorists on 9/11.

The action seemed to me to speak volumes and directly to the nature of the protests; While the protesters were calling for a demilitarization of the police, the police doubled down and created a military-style “Checkpoint Charlie.”

Police manning the gates at Ninth Ave. and W. 54th St., the block the Midtown North Precinct is on. (Photo by Stuart Zamsky)

The fact that the protest movement was nonviolent, and calls from local politicians cited the illegality of such barricades did nothing to dissuade them. And, when asked for the reasoning behind the decision, the captain of the Ninth Precinct said that credible (unpublished) threats were being made against the precinct, businesses, residents and officers on the block, that police officers’ personal vehicles were vandalized, and that security cameras had caught people taking pictures of buildings and vehicles on the block.

One could address (and find solutions) to deal with all of these problems, such as posting a single officer to cover the private police parking lot. And some of the justifications cited simply seem unfounded or overblown. (I don’t know of any business on my block that’s been threatened, and see people taking photos of buildings regularly. They are often insurance or real estate people.)

During the course of this civil unrest, the police have had a chance to show their true colors, to act with restraint and listen to what the people are telling them. Instead they have seemed only able to act one way or the other, with no in-between. They are tone deaf, reacting to calls for demilitarization with military action. Barricaded precinct blocks send the wrong message. The “us against them” attitude broadcast by these 24/7 lockdowns harnesses a systemic fear of citizenry to justify unacceptable aggression.

Meanwhile, merchants and residents on these blocks are having a hard enough time trying to survive. We should not be interrogated in order to gain entry to our homes and places of business. If police have ongoing concerns about the safety of their station houses, couldn’t they limit the enclosures to the precinct buildings themselves?

Local policing is a chance for our city and the Police Department alike to understand calls for demilitarizing and defunding in a positive way, creating not acrimony but cooperation and goodwill. The N.Y.P.D. should end these shows of force that no longer make sense. They should not be disrupting entire blocks with military tactics as our city continues to suffer, and to heal.

Zamsky is owner of antique shop White Trash, at 304 E. Fifth St., and an officer of the E. Fifth St. Block Association.

15 Comments

  1. William Survivor William Survivor July 18, 2020

    Maybe if the so-called protesters had nonviolently broken your windows, you would have a different outlook on the men and women who had made this city a safe place to live.

    23 years ago was a good time to arrive here, but I guess unbeknownst to you, a mere few years prior to that NYC was a different place — I’m sure a place that you would not have set up a business in.

    Unfortunately, you and many others will find out what life in an uncontrolled, lawless environment will be by trying to remove the anchor of civilized society — Law and Order. Good luck. Be prepared to share your wealth.

  2. East 5th Streeter East 5th Streeter July 18, 2020

    Please read this article. NYC cops have used the Black Lives Matter marches as an excuse to turn neighborhoods all over the city into an occupied military zone. My block has been on lockdown since late May and we must show the (100% maskless) cops our IDs to come and go. Like the writer of this article, I too watched a bunch of young kids (mostly white, I might add) vandalize local businesses as the cops stood @ the barricades and did absolutely nothing. Then on the very next night, that very same block filled w/ 100s of cops all decked out in full-on Evil Empire, borderline Iron Man, combat gear, looking like they were heading out to battle fucking Godzilla instead of a bunch of New Yorkers marching for their own lives and the lives of their neighbors. The other night a cop car almost ran over our dog and we realized we had no one to go and report it to…. Now that’s no comparison to systematic racism and murder, but even the smallest example that pierces our privilege is another step in the direction toward empathy with our embattled brothers and sisters….. The NYPD have become an armed gang — militarized thugs — and something must be done.

    • William Survivor William Survivor July 19, 2020

      If you think our police are thugs I think you have things confused. By saying something has to be done, are you saying that defunding and ridding this city of their service will improve your quality of life?

      Your definition of thug will surely change if such a thing occurs. You will have to report your run-over dog to a warlord.

      Lord of the flies.

      • Neighbor Neighbor July 19, 2020

        The NYPD has not been defunded in this year’s budget. The closure of the blocks is illegal. The PD needs to notify the Dept. of Transportation about it and supply a good reason for this extreme measure. PD ignores the law. The block has been gated for more than 7 weeks. It is in order to provide illegal parking on the sidewalks for officers’ private vehicles.

  3. Chris Brandt Chris Brandt July 19, 2020

    Besides the “Checkpoint Charlie” nature of the precinct-block barricades, with its implied declaration of Trumpian “dominance” to the people of New York, the other message the PD is sending us is that they are afraid of us. Scaredy-cops. I guess the sight of the Third in Minny going up in flames kinda freaked out the boys in blue. So like all bullies, the department overreacted and further widened the gap between “them” and us. (It’s not individual cops who are scared — I’ve known cops who’ve done incredibly brave things — no, it’s the department, whole bureaucratic system of policing.)

  4. Jack Browm Jack Browm July 19, 2020

    9/11 was a terrorist attack on the city and country — not specifically the NYPD. The recent protests focus on the police with broken windows and disruption as collateral damage.

    Chinatown has been choked since 9/11. Their businesses were suffering even before the pandemic. The real estate industry has long itched to get their hands on the tenement Village. In my opinion as a resident of 6th Street, I have no problem with the NYPD taking prudent defensive measures to protect life, limb and precinct. Change is needed. Change is coming.

    • East villager East villager July 21, 2020

      Prudent protection from an unfounded fear is always the first step of the rationalization for militarized/violent actions taken by the police. If they are always afraid of their (black) citizenry they should look for another line of work. That inherent fear IS the systematic racism that has come to light.

  5. mbfc mbfc July 19, 2020

    excellent op-ed by stuart zamsky and perfect comment by E. 5th Streeter. as a native downtown new yorker of many decades, I and my community have experienced many upheavals and downturns.

    ‘william survivor’ is confused and conflates too much.

    what is needed here is community policing — not military-style ‘we and them.’ patrolmen/patrolwomen on the streets — people who get to know the community they serve, not overseer-style operations.

    let’s not call it defunding, but rather redistribution of funds
    not divisive, but inclusive.

  6. Jo Jo July 19, 2020

    I appreciate the article and comments from my neighbors who have noticed the “us and them” stance the police have taken during the recent, long overdue uprising. I also appreciate someone noticing as I have repeatedly on 5th St. since March, the lack of mask-wearing by the cops. They belligerently seem to be saying that they are too macho to get or carry the virus. At one point 20% of the officers were out sick, and who knows how many of their suburban relatives got sick or even died because of their irresponsibility.

    There’s a reckoning to be had for all of the dehumanization and misplaced priorities that have been brewing since the Reagan era. I’ll take ’60s and ’70s NYC with all its grunge any day over the gentrified police state we’re being subjected to at present.

    And, by the way, the police barricades on 5th St. mean that the street hasn’t been cleaned in 2 mos. and dead rats and pigeons lie smashed where the cop cars have run over them. Charming!

  7. Joelle Shefts Joelle Shefts July 19, 2020

    Great article Stuart!!

  8. William Survivor William Survivor July 20, 2020

    Confused? Implied Trumpian dominance, police state? Us vs. them, scaredy-cat bullies. Novel ways to describe the men and women that pulled this city out of the so-called grunge years.

    WTF it was horrendous in this neighborhood back then!!! And throughout this city. Many newbies don’t know and you old-timers forgot. Robberies, Rapes, Assaults, Burglaries, No quality of life! Yes I remember. I ran for my life many a time.

    If the powers that be do not rein in the Lawless element that is becoming more prevalent, we will REPEAT those wonderful so-called grunge years.

    Learn from history! Or repeat it.

    • SZ SZ July 21, 2020

      Sir, NYC is quite a different place from the 1970s. No one is advocating lawlessness. And the BLM has shown great restraint in their actions and commitment to nonviolent protest. There is no cause for such militarized police action. And the “but what about the ’70s?” argument is a typical rebuttal to valid timely concerns; it is citing a past that has no bearing on the present.

    • Nathanael Nathanael July 22, 2020

      I think you should recheck your assumptions on who is lawless. It’s the NYPD who’s been breaking the laws, constantly.

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