Originally published for Complex on. August 28th, 2020
A little over five years have passed since Bree Newsome commanded the nation’s newsfeeds with the insurgent act of stripping the South Carolina State House of its Confederate adornments. Despite a shift in administration, a viral pandemic and media cycles that have wildly accelerated in the wake of record unemployment and quarantine, as Newsome herself does not hesitate to point out, the more things have changed, the more they stay the same. “The system itself is the problem,” she explains. “I don’t think that the existing system can bring solutions because it’s not broken.”
In the time since her arrest, Newsome has remain unbowed, committing to coalition work in her current residence of North Carolina—such as the Housing Justice Coalition in Charlotte and its state-level campaigns such as #NeedAHome2StayAtHome. She continues to use her social and digital platforms to try to effect grassroots disruption. Simultaneously, monuments around the country—Stonewall Jackson in Richmond, Virginia, and Christopher Columbus in Boston, for example—are toppling at a much higher rate than when Newsome initially made headlines. For some, this was a harbinger of an uprising that has yet to fully materialize, while the ever-looming conversation around the November 2020 election casts its shadow over daily protests and steadily increasing unemployment numbers.
When George Floyd’s life was brutally ended under the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, he repeatedly pleaded for his life, uttering the phrase: “I can’t breathe,” a painful déjà vu that hearkens many New Yorkers’ memories back to the death of Eric Garner via police chokehold in Staten Island just under six years ago.
Eric Garner’s killing brought to the national forefront the brutal truth of what New Yorkers had long contended within our neighborhoods and enclaves — that Black and POC communities in New York City were at the mercy of an unchecked police state, in all of its iterations, from the punitive shadow of immigration enforcement to the coded criminalization of Black neighborhoods in the form of broken windows policing.
The tragedy of Eric Garner however, was far from the first time that an incident of this scale reached national attention;15 years earlier, Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo was killed at the hands of four plainclothes police officers with 41 bullets, claiming that he met the description of a rape suspect and seemed to have a weapon on him (it was later confirmed that he was reaching for his wallet). Two years prior, Haitian immigrant Abner Louima was assaulted and sexually abused by 4 police officers in the 70th precinct of the NYPD after being picked up outside of an East Flatbush nightclub.
Presently, the neighborhood of Flatbush is reinvigorated in a new crusade against the police – a rush of organizing that has been inspired by the wave of protests that began in Minneapolis in the wake of George Floyd’s death, as well as the ongoing tensions with the increased police presence in the subways and streets that have already caused several violent conflicts with young teens. There are long-standing disruptions as well, as Emily Batista, organizer for Equality for Flatbush points out, “in Caribbean communities in Brooklyn, the informal economy and means of making money as a result of being systematically pushed out of the formal economy is criminalized by the NYPD,” adding “we know that the NYPD targets dollar van drivers, local street vendors, and the Caribbean owned businesses with harassment and violence. That is why we organize Black and Brown people across Brooklyn.”
Black New York residents have had to accept empty promises of pathways for reform. Organizations like Equality for Flatbush, as a result, have been proactively involved in organizing efforts, expanding their anti-policing actions into dedicated protests against police brutality. “When fighting for police and prison abolition, we are fighting the oppressive systems that criminalize Black Caribbean lives,” Batista says. “The police work with ICE to capture, detain, harass and intimidate people because of their possible immigration status. Fighting against white supremacy means fighting towards the liberation of all Black and Brown people from all forms of incarceration and prosecution.”
Neighborhoods with large African and Caribbean immigrant populations were also disproportionately targeted in stop and frisk. In a 2019 report, The New York Civil Liberties Union listed the precincts in New York City where force was most likely to be used by a police officer during a stop and frisk encounter between 2014 and 2017. At the top of the list were precincts in the neighborhoods of Concourse and Highbridge; Hunts Point; East Tremont and Belmont; Eastchester, Wakefield and Williamsbridge; University Heights and Morris Heights. All have large African and Caribbean populations, according to data from the American Community Survey.
For instance, force was used in 55% of the stops at the 44th Precinct in the Bronx neighborhoods of Concourse and Highbridge. They’re encompassed by Community District 4 where 41.6% of the population is foreign-born. Of that population, 63% were born in the Caribbean and 14.5% were born in Africa.
The five community districts where force was most likely to be used during a stop by the police were all in the Bronx. All had foreign born populations above New York City’s average, and are comprised mainly of African and Caribbean immigrants.
For the communities that organizers and activists such as Equality for Flatbush serve, which often have high densities of immigrants of all statuses, this presents a unique risk. Regardless of documentation status, present immigration policies, their enforcement and administration mean that any interaction with police, even in “sanctuary cities” like New York, can alert Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
ICE has reportedly evaded sanctuary rules by using police fingerprint records to send letters to arrested immigrants — usually for low-level misdemeanor offenses such as fare hopping — and asking them to come into the agency’s Manhattan offices, which presents a concern for the levels of violent arrests that have been ongoing during the protests. In a notable recent night of protests in late May, over 300 people were arrested while documented instances of violence against civilians at the hands of police were made viral throughout social media.
This added risk for the violent clashes that happen between protesters and police in communities like Flatbush in Brooklyn or Mott Haven in the Bronx is not insignificant. Peaceful protests in those neighborhoods were recently met with an NYPD tactic called kettling, which often provokes conflict. Black immigrants make up a disproportionate number of criminal-based deportations. According to the advocacy group Black Alliance for Just Immigration, 76 percent of Black immigrants are deported on criminal grounds, compared to 45 percent of all immigrants. Despite making up only 7.2 percent of the noncitizen population in the US, more than 20 percent of people facing deportation on criminal grounds are Black.
The double-bind of being Black and an immigrant in working-class predominantly Black neighborhoods, such as Concourse village in the Bronx and Canarsie in Brooklyn, places you at an added risk of being churned through both the criminal and immigration court system without much of an escape route. This creates a prison-to-deportation pipeline, the likes of which has become increasingly difficult to evade, as outlined here. Despite this, immigrants continue to fight for the future they believe Blacks in America deserve. Inside detention facilities, they are organizing hunger strikes in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement; calling attention to the terrible conditions where they’re being held and highlighting how immigration court systems continue to uphold the exploitation of Black lives while they’re in detention.
As much as ICE labels their holding spaces “civil” detention, there is very little that is materially different between their facilities and a standard prison, except for a denial of a guaranteed right to a lawyer and free reign for indefinite holds. “Abolishing police is basically essential to break the deportation machine. This is why we talk about the prison industrial complex,” New York City-based immigration lawyer Sophia Gurule said.
As the protests continue, the wide diaspora of faces continue their rebellion all in lockstep, bravely challenging a common enemy; the overarching scepter of the police brutality, the prison industrial complex, and all of the forces that justify fund, and absolve it. There is an unyielding pain that has taken hold in the streets of New York, accrued over decades of unacknowledged injustice – and regardless if your Black life was born as a direct descendant American chattel slavery, its close relative in the West Indies or across the Atlantic ocean on the African continent, the sentiment of “enough is enough” has gripped and unified these varied experiences into pushing for dismantling the oppressive boot of police forces within the five boroughs. Hopefully, this solidarity extends throughout the continued fight for Black liberation.
This originally published on June 1st 2020 as part of my Newsletter series on Substack here.
Welcome to Shamira Explains It All/Shamira Explique Tout, a culture newsletter discussing the origins and impact of Black production and exchange, identity, and intellectual property via our digital, social, and archival discussions – and whatever else may be timely and interesting. Part English, Part French (la moitié est écrite en français, ou plus, si le thème du mois le demande). Reach out with feedback, suggestions, tips, and ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sistas, how y’all feel? Brothas, y’all alright?
I originally wanted to launch this newsletter on my birthday – for a variety of reasons, that did not come to fruition. So I’m launching this on my mother’s birthday instead – a woman who as born in a country that had that to claw and fight for its independence from its oppressors, and continues to try to find its way. It grounds me in a sobering truth – eradicating the most visible oppressors is only the first step. But as Samuel Beckett wrote, “Ever Tried. Ever Failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Over the past few days, cities across the United States have been rife with clashes between organizers, protesters, and their respective law enforcement forces. Some people are confrontational and others are not; all methods of protest are legitimate (including this amazing form of surveillance disruption by K-pop stans). Ultimately, the concept of a “peaceful” protest is a farce; it presumes opposing forces that do not seek to engage the community as enemy combatants. Corporations and businesses are not people, despite the fact that the Supreme Court opted to give them protections that treated them as such; but when discussing looting, keep in mind that there is record unemployment in a public health crisis with little to no social safety network to keep people afloat. As people have pointed out recently, Martin Luther King, in his advocacy for nonviolence, still expressed that “a riot is the language of the unheard:”
I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.
With regards to how people discuss MLK and nonviolence in general, it is frequently misconstrued and decontextualized. I encourage people to listen to this clip from Bomani Jones’ ESPN Radio Show about the impetus behind MLK Day and the clarity of his actual message – that the greatest weapon he employed wasn’t pacifism, but shame.
In Brooklyn, near-unprecedented violence is ongoing in Fort Greene and Flatbush. It should not be lost on spectators that the nexus of brutality going on in Kings Country is happening around the Barclays Center – the source of its own violence on the Black community in Brooklyn. Gentrification and displacement go hand in hand with over policing and stop and frisk. I explored that in my piece for OkayPlayer
Lastly, I will just share my quick (and growing) thread on surveillance practices and ethics with journalism and organizing. It will be an ever expanding discussion as we continue to accept loss of privacy to the state and use of that data in a retaliatory manner, but one that we have to accept is a very present threat in the first place. This is an excerpt from an unpublished essay I wrote some time ago on surveillance and criminalization of Black communities:
Between the patterns of zeros and ones rests a minotaur for the digital age – amalgamating the sophistry of inherent Black criminality within a web of innovation that only serves as an anchor to longstanding pathologies. If we have any hope of a technological age that isn’t inextricably contracted to white supremacy, we would be well-suited to look at the threshold between mythology and history in order to reshape the way we think about applying harm reduction and racial equity. The surest way to get swallowed alive by a monster is to fail to realize that one is even there; and it is only by identifying that framework that we can begin to lay down the thread that will guide the perception of inherent Black criminality from the bowels of a modern digital labyrinth.
We have a long way to go to understand just how much data we have forfeited to third parties and actors that profit from participation in the prison industrial complex. A calculation can never supersede the inherent biases that it is introduced to and the fact remains that the carceral state was designed out of a pathology to funnel brown bodies into boxes. As Michelle Alexander points out in The New Jim Crow, “whiteness mitigates crime, whereas blackness defines the criminal.” The superimposition of automation belies this truth, but as Saidiya Hartman spoke to “a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago”, so has the digital model continued to reinforce the punitive history behind bars: it is all it knows, and therefore all it can be.
Playlist for the Month:
If you are uploading pictures of protestors or people organizing – use this tool to scrub metadata and blur peoples faces and other identifying features.
Try to contribute to vetted bail funds if you can. Here is a Twitter Thread with links to bail funds throughout the nation. (Important Note: The NYC Chapter has said they are overwhelmed by funds, so you may want to divert funds to local organizations in need of resources instead – like Equality for Flatbush’s mutual aid fund, so that they can continue investing in their police abolition organizing as well as community support)
For those who want to get involved but can’t take to the streets for various reasons (like myself, because of my immigration status) , here is a link to various to be in the struggle.
If you are interested in additional anti-carceral reading during this quarantine, for those of you who are just starting out – I encourage you to check out Angela Davis’ “Are Prisons Obsolete?”
This is a great 5-minute appearance from Cornel West on CNN worth checking out (where he references the Samuel Beckett quote above). Key takeaway: “It looks as if the system cannot reform itself. We’ve tried Black faces in high places – too often our Black politicians, professional class, middle class, become too accommodated to the the capitalist economy…”
Here is some legal guidance for those who are arrested in New York City.
Découvrez le lancement de SUNU : Journal of African Affairs, Critical Thought + Aesthetics, une création de la brillante Amy Sall. SUNU Journal cherche à interroger, critiquer et célébrer le passé et le présent, tout en contribuant à une riche lignée de production intellectuelle, culturelle artistique africaine et afro-diasporique.
Check out the launch of SUNU: Journal of African Affairs, Critical Thought + Aesthetics the brainchild of the brilliant Amy Sall. SUNU Journal seeks to interrogate, critique and celebrate the past and the present, whilst contributing to a rich lineage of African and Afro-diasporic intellectual, cultural + artistic production.
Soutenons les médias indépendants ! Avec ce concept de « blingzine » bilingue (français/anglais), 33 Carats propose 106 pages de découvertes hip hop, lifestyle et mode par une équipe de passionnées. C’est le thème de la Déconnexion qui est exploré pour ce numéro avec des interviews d’experts sur les stratégies marketing des rappeurs français, une visite de Négus l’exposition/album de Yassin Bey par la journaliste américaine Ebony Janice. Mais le récit collaboratif fait de bling et de hip hop « Birkins and Drake » dont Life is Good le premier épisode est écrit par moi 🙂 En bonus ; une interview exclusive d’Erykah Badu : pas mal pour un média indépendant !Erykah Badu lance son site Badu World Market, Elle y propose des collections limitées hoodies et tee-shirts oversize en collaboration avec l’artiste canadienne Jackie Musial. A l’occasion du lancement de ce nouveau projet de la chanteuse, une interview exclusive par Sanaa Carats, fondatrice et rédactrice en chef du média, est disponible dans le numéro 3. Le rappeur français Cleim Haring en couverture.En attendant la version papier, En vente sur Issuu :
Support independent media! With this bilingual (French/English) “blingzine” concept, 33 Carats offers 106 pages of hip hop, lifestyle and fashion discoveries by a team of passionate people. Interviews with experts on the marketing strategies of French rappers, a visit to Négus exhibition/album by Yassin Bey by the American journalist Ebony Janice. But the collaborative fictional series of bling and hip hop “Birkins and Drake” of which Life is Good is the first episode is written by me 🙂 As a bonus; an exclusive interview with Erykah Badu!Erykah Badu launches her website Badu World Market, where she offers limited collections of hoodies and oversize tee-shirts in collaboration with Canadian artist Jackie Musial. On the occasion of the launch of this new project of the singer, an exclusive interview by Sanaa Carats, founder and editor-in-chief of the media, is available in this third issue. Buy it here.https://www.33carats.com/Suivre sur Instagram: 33caratswebzineTwitter: https://twitter.com/33caratswebzineFacebook: https://www.facebook.com/33carats/
Alors, c’est tout. Sign up now so you don’t miss the next issue.
Michael Bloomberg’s support of stop-and-frisk during his time as New York City mayor continues to follow him in his 2020 presidential campaign. We talked to five New Yorkers about how the policy impacted the city.
The recent and rapid elevation of Michael Bloomberg‘s Presidential campaign into the national discourse is reminiscent, in many ways, of his original mayoral run in New York City in 2002. Forgoing fundraising from the public, he has nonetheless outspent his opponents multiple times over, having made FEC filings detailing $460 million in expenditures since announcing his bid in November of 2019. Both then and now, the largesse-via-electioneering nullified the opportunity for many opposing candidates to be comparably competitive or resonant as they were drowned out by a blank check and name recognition. Bloomberg’s presidential campaign has also resurfaced three words that leave an acrid taste in the majority of New Yorkers’ mouths — stop-and-frisk. A longstanding policing practice that disproportionately targeted Black and Brown communities in NYC, stop-and-frisk was defended by Bloomberg’s administration during — and well after — his departure from office.
The phraseology behind the policy has taken on many forms as the decades have progressed, shapeshifting in language as administrations have waded in and out of Gracie Mansion. When former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani lorded over the five boroughs with former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton flanking him, the terminology that was used was known as broken windows policing. But New Yorkers’ lips have also formed other words over the years that trigger responses that are just as polarizing: Terry stops, stop-question-and-frisk, and the shorthand stop-and-frisk itself. Imagine, for example, the daily fanfare for “New York’s Finest,” and consider the protracted dissonance felt within communities of color after the tragic events of September 11. Spending night after night expressing gratitude for a group of men and women who, at a moment’s notice, could exact unspeakable horrors on the communities they were praised for protecting. The incidents that did make it into the national consciousness — Amadou Diallo, Eric Garner, and Kalief Browder — may have shocked the country, but it simply laid bare wounds that New Yorkers had been carrying for years. Those traumas have been pulled back into the foreground with the fear of a competitive Bloomberg campaign. As it was recently written in an impassioned open letter to communities of color by New York organizers and officials in advance of Super Tuesday, “the extent of harm, humiliation and terror that the Bloomberg administration’s daily racial profiling and police violence caused in Black, Latinx and other communities of color cannot be overstated.”
The figures have been parsed through ad-nauseam in recent years, proving the failure of the program to successfully meet its stated objectives throughout Bloomberg’s mayoral tenure. An exegesis of the program, however, will show that it was actually quite successful, and worked exactly as designed. With every stop, New York’s gilded class was able to imprint a painful reminder that no matter how hard you may fight, the city does not — and will never — actually belong to you. You can see it in nearly every tweet that cascades down the #mybloombergstory hashtag which, as described by Dr. Jacob Remes of New York University, is “filled with stories of harassment and worse from Muslim, Black, and Brown New Yorkers who lived through Bloomberg’s racist authoritarianism.”
In speaking to fellow New Yorkers who lived through the Bloomberg era, it’s apparent that this pain is still very much tangible for many of us, with deep, multigenerational harms that we are still recovering from and enduring. It has laid waste to our siblings, our friends and ourselves.
Tiffany Caban, 32, Astoria, Queens
Photo Credit: Polly Irungu for Okayplayer.com
It was in early 2002 when I was politicized and became more aware of differences in our communities. My parents grew up in the projects and my dad got a union gig, and we were able to move in a small home in Richmond Hill. I went to public school in a low-income neighborhood for elementary and junior high, but went to a private Catholic High School in Fresh Meadows in an entirely different neighborhood. That is where I could see the jarring different signs on what neighborhood looks like, and specifically what overpoliced neighborhoods look like as opposed to other neighborhoods. My best friends were constantly getting harassed or roughed up by the police, or had police officers in school and getting suspended. There’s a palpable difference to walking into a school where people feel free to move, free to exist, and don’t have those kinds of other stressors in their life.
When you look at places where we’re overpoliced and over surveilled, what we’re also talking about is a lack of resources to allow people to deal with their trauma and heal. So, trauma begets change, which begets instability, which begets violence. We’re quick to draw these surface-level conclusions about what happens in certain neighborhoods and not talk about what the root causes of violence are, and how we can tie that to trauma caused by state-sanctioned violence.
[As a public defender] you also see an overwhelming amount of young Black and brown men. But when we pick up those cases, you know who’s sitting in the courtroom? It’s the girlfriends and their wives and their children, and that disrupts and affects their lives in very significant ways. Whether it’s people that are scrounging up their last dollars for bail, people that are risking losing their housing or their job. A lot of times when we’re dealing with cases, people think that our biggest concern or fear is like, “Oh, God, I gotta make sure that I don’t end up with criminal records on this case,” or “I want the best legal outcome.” When, in reality, the lawyers are doing more social work or other services. Because the real purpose of the person that’s directly affected is something else that has to do with their living situation or their family, in terms of how destabilizing the arrest and the court appearances are for their lives.
Photo Credit: Polly Irungu for Okayplayer.com
I had a client who was charged with a misdemeanor, and he had been arrested a handful of times. So, the prosecutor was offering jail or probation on this misdemeanor sentence. We had this very real conversation where [the client] was like, “Ms. Caban, I don’t know. I think I might take the 45 days in jail because I will never last on probation, because these same cops are roughing me up every other day.”
It still happens every single day. A really easy place to see it happening is here in Queens with the loitering for the purpose of prostitution. Predominantly trans women of color are being stopped and arrested for existing and walking down the street. That is another iteration of stop-and-frisk. Nobody has ruled that statute unconstitutional, because we’re talking about people who are on the margins of the margin. Unfortunately, there is not enough political will behind it to have the organizing and movement that it took to get to where we were on stop-and-frisk, and being able to get it to the courts and have it ruled unconstitutional.
We have consistently taken these stances without centering or allowing survivors or victims to lead, and instead said, “Hey, we’re going to do these really harmful things to our Black and brown communities that create the optics of safety for white wealthy folks, at the expense of actual safety of the hands of state-sanctioned violence for Black and brown people.”
Ryan Anderson, 34, Cambria Heights, Queens
Photo Credit: Polly Irungu for Okayplayer.com
Until this day — whether I’m driving or whether I’m walking — when I see a NYPD officer my heart specifically skips a beat. I’m terrified. I usually move over and brake, no matter how fast I’m going.
The presence wasn’t as there as much where I grew up. But when I would go to 40 Projects [South Jamaica Houses] or certain parts…when you’re playing basketball, and the cops will just roll into the park and put everybody up against the fence and start asking you questions.
Photo Credit: Polly Irungu for Okayplayer.com
We were walking down Jamaica Avenue [once] — this was senior year of high school. I was walking back from work. I would go to McDonald’s and then come home after work. Walking down the avenue myself — maybe two blocks away from Jamaica — two cops stopped me and asked me “where I was going.” “Sir, I just left work. I’m headed to the bus station. I’m headed home.” “Well, we’ve heard that there’s been some noises and some issues in the area. So we want to just check to make sure that you’re good.” They pushed me up against the wall and proceeded to search and, of course, I don’t have anything on me. The worst part about it is that there’s never an apology. You have to take it or you know what happens if you kick back. That’s when you end up going to holding [detention center], that’s when you may end up being folded — even if you are 100% clean.
It’s scary to say but I’ve hit double digits [in stops] — I’ll leave it at that.
Civil, [Age Not Disclosed] Bushwick, Brooklyn
Photo Credit: Polly Irungu for Okayplayer.com
When you think about Harlem and Bedford–Stuyvesant, gentrification is clearly occurring in these areas. but you still see a semblance of the culture. Whereas like Bushwick, the culture was ate up within the span of that police presence. Just use the Puerto Rican Day parade as an example. It would go on until maybe 10, 11 [PM]. Now you won’t even hear nothing. Like, you will hear one horn beep. Block parties are not the same.
Photo Credit: Polly Irungu for Okayplayer.com
One of my close friends’ son was born one day, and we went to celebrate around the corner at this Chinese restaurant-bar. There was a group of girls that my friend knew from the block…he’s just saying, “What up” or whatever. The cops come out — they’ve been tailing them — and then just start pressing us. They push all of us against the wall, start frisking us. One of the cops is like, shook. I can see he’s scared. I’m like, “This is how shit happens.” This guy has his hand on his gun, and they’re trying to tell them to leave the young girls alone. We were there for like, 20, 30 minutes.
[I’ve been in] uncomfortable situations where it’s me by myself being pressed by five cops. I’m late to go somewhere…and the line of question is like, they’re asking me about shit in the Bronx, even though I’m deep in Brooklyn. They took my ID, walked off for 20 minutes, and just seemed like they were trying to place me somewhere.
Candace Simpson, [Age Not Disclosed] Flatbush, Brooklyn
Photo Credit: Polly Irungu for Okayplayer.com
I actually went to the same [high school] Bernie Sanders went to — [James] Madison. Madison was the kind of school where people came from all over. I was coming from Flatbush; my boyfriend at the time was coming from Canarsie; people were coming from East New York. So there’s this bus stop where the B7 and the B82 meet. We would all hang out and congregate right there. We would take the bus to like Utica-ish — where like the Wendy’s and the McDonald’s was — or we would take the B6 to the Junction.
One time we were coming from Madison and we ended up near Midwood High School. These cops — I don’t know if they were NYPD cops or if they were school safety agents because they wore the same uniforms — stopped us, and I was the only girl. There was like six of us. Then the cop was like, “Oh, can I see your student ID?” and we’re what — 15,16. This was before my understanding that interactions like that could become deadly. So, I was like, very bratty and very, you know, “I know my rights, my momma’s gonna call my lawyer.” In my mind, I’m thinking that I’m good, but the guys around me were kind of shook. Eventually, we showed the ID, and the cop was like, “You guys just match the description of someone we’re looking for.”
Multiple things are happening at once with the uptick of stop and frisk. That happens at the same time as major landscape changes for socializing for Black and brown youth. Empire [rolling rink in Brooklyn] doesn’t exist anymore, the movie theater at Kings Plaza doesn’t exist anymore. There are very few places where Black children can go and not be policed. What stop-and-frisk did to us over time, was it helped people to see groups of Black children out and wonder, “What y’all doin’?”…the places where we would go are being demolished, resold…our owners are being bought out. There are so many spaces that meant a lot to me as a teenager that don’t exist anymore.
Photo Credit: Polly Irungu for Okayplayer.com
[Ending stop-and-frisk?] That’s like asking people who were enslaved before and after the proclamation went out. Like, it’s not on the books anymore, but if we were to carry that analogy, people are still sharecropping. There’s still a disproportionate force of oppression on Black and brown communities. People say that stop-and-frisk ended as an official policy in 2017. I don’t feel a difference. If I feel a difference it’s because neighborhoods are changing.
My hope, is that we can really get to a place where all Black lives matter, and we don’t negotiate or sacrifice the most vulnerable among us. Because once we surrender and sacrifice someone, then the logic just becomes open, and it’s just a matter of time before it gets to you. So, just because you don’t have somebody who’s locked up doesn’t mean that you should not care.
Gregory Herrera, 30, Washington Heights, NY
[In the Early 2000s] cops stopping kids who were not in school for “truancy” was still a thing…I was absent a lot from school — pretty much most of my academic life for a variety of reasons like taking care of my younger siblings if we couldn’t get a babysitter, helping my mom do shit, or just because I didn’t want to go to school. My mom was like, “Fine, whatever, your grades are good, I don’t have to worry about that.” So if I had to go to the store or something it was very much like, “I’m going to run down to the store real quick and come back up fast, because if a cop stops you they have the right to come up to you.”…my sense was just like, “I don’t really want to come across cops. They stop kids for being truants and they’ll stick you in the back of a van.”
It must have been ’04, ’05. We had this, like, big bulky Hewlett-Packard computer and it had a virus. A [Puerto Rican] friend of mine from church was like, “Yeah, bring it over to my house. I’ll wipe it clean, delete the hard drive whatever, reinstall it fresh.” I was like, “Cool.” So I put it in a trash bag and just took it over to him…by J Hood Wright Park…like West of Broadway, a little bit past Fort Washington which, if you’re born or raised in the Heights, that’s the white people side of the Heights.
A couple days go by, I go get it. I must have made it like a block and a half…I noticed this like, pudgy, middle-aged, nondescript white guy. Then I hear, “Oh, what’s that?” and I’m so caught off on the question that I answered it. The next thing I know, he catches up to me and goes like, “Police, stop right there” and shoved me up against the wall. I’m so thrown off by everything that’s happening that I dropped the computer and it lands on my foot a little bit. I had some form of ID — eventually, he was like, “It’s just, you know, we’ve got reports of people stealing computers around here,” and then he walks away.
It was just terrifying, fast as hell. And it just made me just be like, “I got to be on guard for all types of motherfuckers,” because this guy was dressed regularly and he wasn’t dressed like a cop or anything. If I see [cops] somewhere I’m clocking where they are and paying attention to where they’re moving to, because I don’t want to be near them. I don’t want them to be near me.
There are still people that are being stopped, questioned and then frisked. So it affects my actual job [as a public defender] immensely. Several of my clients — the reason that they have criminal charges — are based on stop-and-frisk type interactions.
During an episode of “The View” this month, Senator Elizabeth Warren explained her wealth tax plan for the top one-tenth of the 1 percent. Some viewers were quick to notice the presidential candidate’s sly and effective tactic while doing so: a deft rebuffing of the co-host Meghan McCain’s multiple attempts to interject. Ms. Warren never skipped a beat while ignoring Ms. McCain until she was prepared to engage in discussion with her on her own terms, to raucous applause.
Ms. Warren seemed to know what she would be up against when appearing on the long-running daytime talk show. Since Ms. McCain, a conservative, joined as a co-host on “The View” in October of 2017, she has become its most polarizing and predictable figure, the common denominator in the show’s most contentious round tables.
In the early days after her arrival, her on-air spats made for fun TV. Now it’s just exhausting.
That tension could be taking a toll behind the scenes. On Monday, the conservative co-host Abby Huntsman announced her immediate departure from the show, citing plans to work on the campaign of her father, Jon Huntsman Jr., for governor in Utah. But it has been suggested that the move was also fueled by rumored discord between Ms. Huntsman and Ms. McCain, who were once considered to be allies on the set. (Ms. McCain has wished Ms. Huntsman “nothing but the best on her next chapter.”)
For some viewers, Ms. McCain is the privileged product of conservative nepotism, capitalism and the American military-industrial complex. That coalescence naturally renders her a villain to progressives, who envision her as the cathartic personification of a punching bag on social media. Conversely, each pile-on reinforces her self-written narrative of the long-suffering victim of censorship.
This dynamic is a high-wire act that Ms. McCain takes pains to use to her advantage as often as possible. When she appeared on the late-night talk show “Watch What Happens Live” in September, she informed the host, Andy Cohen, that every day she assumes she could get fired, because of “the tone of where we are culturally.” It’s a deflecting refrain that has been employed by standup comedians and political commentators alike — anyone bemoaning the rise of so-called cancel culture when facing pushback for harmful rhetoric.
And in December, when her co-host Whoopi Goldberg sharply told Ms. McCain, “Girl, please stop talking,” Ms. McCain took to Twitter the next day to rally “all the fellow conservative ‘girls’ who won’t be quiet.” The tweet was accompanied by a “Game of Thrones” Mother of Dragons GIF, implying that Ms. Goldberg’s use of the word “girl” was infantilizing rather than common black American parlance.
The injection of vitriol undercuts the substantive political critique that is supposed to occur during these segments. Every combative segment is immediately countered by a claim that it’s all just a harmless debate among friends, making the ostensibly organic on-air confrontations seem all the more performative, no matter how genuine the sentiment. The day after that particular clash with Ms. McCain, Ms. Goldberg opened the show by insisting that the nature of their exchange was nothing of concern, noting that co-hosts on “The View” have always “clashed and gone back and forth.”
Ms. McCain, for her part, reminded everyone that this is to be expected, as she is “hyper, hyper conservative.” This “agree to disagree” stance is frustrating and lies in stark contrast with the current political moment, when many are skeptical of the idea of civil discourse and who it is meant to benefit.
To be fair, “The View” has had its fair share of friction during the course of its two-decade run. Since its 1997 debut, the show has gone through nearly as many permanent co-hosts — 22 — as it has seasons, while representing a wide range of backgrounds and ideologies, including the prosecutor-turned-“Court TV” sensation Star Jones, the conservative “Survivor”alum Elisabeth Hasselbeck and the anti-vaccine activist Jenny McCarthy. Infamously, Ms. Hasselbeck and the show’s co-creator and co-star Barbara Walters argued about women’s reproductive rights on air, prompting a behind-the-scenes fiasco where Ms. Hasselbeck almost quit in mid-show.
But compared with the conflicts with the current hosts and Ms. McCain, the on-air tenor was not nearly as fraught, and the audience not nearly as reactive to the pushback.
For years, the program has held tight to the idea of “civil disagreement,” embracing the need for debate and Ms. Walters’s original vision of bringing people to the table with different backgrounds and views. In truth, nothing about these recent viral incidents is either civil or revelatory, no matter how many avowals are made to that effect. And there’s a sense that some of the audience — which in recent years has included women in the 25-to-54 demographic watching at home and those who view the viral clips online — is growing increasingly weary of the farce. (Someone has created a Change.org petition to replace Ms. McCain with the frequent contributor and fellow conservative Ana Navarro, who has been celebrated for her moments sparring with Ms. McCain. As I write this, it has close to 9,000 signees and counting.)
In many ways, it echoes the comedian Jon Stewart’s notable 2004 appearance on the CNN show “Crossfire.” Mr. Stewart harangued the hosts — the liberal Paul Begala and the conservative Tucker Carlson — and accused them of being hacks. He argued that their performance of bipartisan debate only served the politicians and corporations, as opposed to their audience, who he believed deserved to be informed and assuaged of their palpable anxiety. “To do a debate would be great,” Mr. Stewart said. “But that’s like saying pro wrestling is a show about athletic competition.”
In the earliest episodes of “The View,” Ms. Walters would sign off with a line that remains a part of the brand to this day: “Have a great day, everyone, and take a little time to enjoy the view.” At the time, the show set the standard for a new era of women’s variety programming, one that embraced public debate, but still operated with the veneer of civility. Post-2016, we are presented with a platform that is devoid of the varnish of the genteel, yet is still asking us to take a little time to enjoy the view. The problem is, with Ms. McCain still on the show, there’s not much to enjoy.
National campaigns are, first and foremost, an exercise in storytelling patterned after well-known themes — David versus Goliath, the Haves versus the Have Nots, the fearless vigilante for justice. It is rarely the case that a candidate is unintentionally placed on a presidential track of any party; it’s a path years in the making, a confluence of strategic decisions, affiliations, and opportunities for high-profile moments. Whether a candidate’s messaging holds, however, is subject to whether it tracks with its target audience.
Which brings us to Sen. Kamala Harris. Harris’s national odyssey commenced in 2012 when, as California’s attorney general, she gave a brief speech endorsing then-President Barack Obama for a second term at the Democratic National Convention. When she ran for Senate in 2016, Obama gave her an endorsement of his own. The self-ascribed “top cop” rhetoric that originally came into national parlance during her congressional race (and has been a pain in her side ever since) was quickly subsumed by a newfound reputation of “unflappable truth advocate” once she was elected and went viral for handing it to Jeff Sessions in a committee hearing. By the time she made her 2020 presidential announcement in January, she was riding on both a “nevertheless, she persisted” narrative and bona fides that harked back to the characteristics of the Democratic Party’s golden child, Obama. Harris had positioned herself as not only the most accomplished Black woman to ever run for executive office, but seemingly the most electable candidate.
In a post-Obama era, she also appeared as a close facsimile of many of the characteristics that made Michelle Obama so adored not just by Black women but women in general (she even earned Hillary Clinton’s support). And throughout the ensuing 11 months, one word anchored her campaign, officially called Kamala Harris for the People: identity.
But, ultimately, banking on identity wasn’t enough.
Because aside from being a Black woman and former prosecutor with ties to Obama, many still wondered: Who is Kamala Harris? Is she a “cop” or a reformist? Where did the former prosecutor stand on advocating for Black issues, especially when it came to criminal justice in the Black Lives Matter era? What were her tangible positions on health care? The debate stage, instead of serving as the platform to consolidate her message, accomplished the inverse. Save for early parries with Joe Biden on school segregation (that she later chose to partially renege on), her talking points largely coalesced around indicting the sitting president, and even provided openings for more marginal candidates such as Tulsi Gabbard to capitalize on the dissonance that undermined any attempt at progressing her campaign. Her team seemed unsure of which Democratic voters to try to court first — and weren’t successful in courting those who hadshifted further left since Obama and were no longer moved by charismatic messaging that wasn’t underpinned by clear substantive policy.
This failure to significantly shift accordingly rendered itself in the polls. Despite having a fundraising war chest that rivaled former Vice President Joe Biden’s throughout the entirety of her presidential bid (granted, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have had higher fundraising numbers), Harris never polled higher than third place, falling to fourth after being surpassed by Warren and, most recently, falling to fifth due to a recent spike in Pete Buttigieg’s campaign going into Iowa.
Ultimately, underscoring her identity generated mixed results — in the waning weeks of her campaign, only 4 percent of Black voters polled identified Harris as their first choice.Butit didn’t stave off efforts to leverage the groups in which she shared kinship — Black voters, women voters, Indian American voters, and first-generation voters — to the magnitude that she could maximize the utility of “identity politics.” Which surprised many: In a world where the threat of the Trump administration looms large over our most marginalized, who seemed a better advocate than a candidate who represents those demographics that are most at risk, paired with the skills to prosecute criminals?Advertisement
Therein lies the seductive appeal of identity politics, as well as its fatal flaw: stripping the complex nuances of the individual in favor of assigning representative moral value based on a singular characteristic of a collective group. Harris is not going to engender fealty from Black voters simply because she is a Black woman, just as her career as prosecutor — which includes a contentious truancy law and her office arguing to deny early release for prisoners — wasn’t going to turn off all Black voters, either. Applying universal claims in a vacuum denies them both power and context; saying that you have the power and skill to put the current president behind bars, for example, while certainly gratifying to anxious Democratic voters, loses its teeth when you are reminded that the same skills are used to facilitate this country’s race-based mass incarceration system.
Her campaign’s ultimate decline followed a perfect tempest of several events: unremarkable performances during recent debates coming on the heels of flubs during criminal justice conversations, and declining polls going into Iowa that correlated not just with attacks from opponents in the media and the political field, but a perilous lack of financial ad-buying power. The latter, courtesy of the 24-hour 2020 presidential cycle, gave way for the revelation of the rumored months-long turmoil that had been building within the campaign, including mismanaged budgets and frustrated staffers.
When challenged on her prosecutorial record during her Senate race, Harris and her advocates pointed out that as a Black woman, “you’re held to a different standard,” a rejoinder that has resurfaced now that she has suspended her campaign. This is correct on its face, but it’s unchallenging to link the trigger of her campaign’s demise to groups that circulated viral cop jokes; history is not set in motion by a singular event. Confronting race and gender bias shouldn’t belie the fact that her record and inconsistent voice mattered to a swath of voters she was expected to attract — and she ran out of budget to work to substantively shift that perception. While identity politics tends to trade in pathological assumptions of behavior, again, Black voters or women voters are far from a non-differentiable monolith.
So when you list the demographics of the other candidates that remain — not just race and gender, but also wealth and experience — it can be tempting to view Harris dropping out as a fundamental injustice. But the calculus isn’t as simple as who remains and who does not. Harris had to choose whether or not to exit the campaign before a verdict of her viability could be rendered for her in her own home state. As such, Harris is less of a martyr to inequity than someone who made a strategic decision to regain control of the remainder of her political career, which, by all measures, should be enduring.
Ultimately, Senator Harris will be fine. And while it is understandable for her ardent advocates to lament what could have been, her $10 million in remaining funds will likely be used for preparing for the upcoming Senate reelection race or a plan to return to the presidential scene in 2024, re-energized, re-focused, and without the blemish of a formal primary loss on her record.
In every defeat there are lessons to be learned. For her largest advocates, the wound of realizing that their shared kinship was not as widespread as initially conceived may take a while to heal. But our obligations as voters demand that we hold our favored candidates accountable to the commitments they make to their constituency, and push them to understand what representation really means in 2020. This includes listening to the policies constituents want, and not only grasping but representing a new rubric of fighting for justice.
Originally published for Vox, with photography done by Desiree Rios.
When public defender Sophia Gurulé tried to visit her client in ICE detention in June, she was hit with a roadblock: His facility in Bergen County, New Jersey, was under quarantine due to a mumps outbreak. She wouldn’t be able to talk to her client in person for the next three weeks.
For 25-year-old Ousman Darboe, daily communication with his legal representation is essential. In May, he lost his removal proceedings case in immigration court. Now, he is pending deportation to his birth country of Gambia.
While he was quarantined in a unit with little air ventilation in the middle of summer — his family a two-hour bus commute away in the Bronx — Gurulé has been fervently at work on an appeal. She is exploring all options, including sending a letter to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for his release. This is the final chance she has to help keep his family together. Darboe has never held his daughter, now 17 months old, outside of a detention facility.
Navigating life in a strict Muslim home, where he helped care for his younger siblings, was occasionally at odds with his assimilation as a kid in Fordham Heights. But Darboe worked quickly to fit in. He shed his accent and learned English. He played basketball and often kept quiet. And, much to his family’s disapproval, he sometimes cut school, often to avoid the heavy violence and policing on campus.
Based on the color of his skin alone, it’s not a surprise that Darboe went on to face numerous interactions with law enforcement as a teenager and young adult — a series of stops, alleged misidentifications, and arrests that led him to be locked up in Bergen County.
According to the Bureau of Justice of Statistics, black and Latinx residents are more likely to be stopped by police than white residents, and when stopped, police are twice as likely to threaten or use force against them. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, these statistics are even starker in New York City: Black and Latinx people were the targets of four out of every five reported stops between 2014 and 2017, and black and Latinx people were more likely to have force used against them.
But as many immigrant justice advocates will tell you, if being black makes you a police target, then being black and undocumented in a poor neighborhood will make you vulnerable to surveillance, punishment, and exile. Darboe wasn’t born of privileged social class or with means to a prestigious education; he did not fit the “exceptional immigrant” model preferred by US immigration policy. The odds of Darboe living not only a free life, but any life at all in this country, were stacked against him from the moment he stepped on US soil.
Darboe has instead found himself inwhat criminal justice reform activists call the prison-to-deportation pipeline, a coded system that works to funnel black and Latinx immigrants from the criminal court system into Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) custody, to the immigration court system, and ultimately back to their nations of birth — with very little recourse or space for adjudication.
For example, low-level crimes such as marijuana possession are lumped into the offense of “drug trafficking” in immigration court — even if it’s recognized as a misdemeanor in the criminal courts — mandating automatic deportation without any leeway for a judge to consider an individual’s circumstances, according to Human Rights Watch. As a result of this one-size-fits-all policy, deportations over drug convictions of any sort increased 43 percent from 2007 to 2012.
Peel back the numbers further, and black immigrants make up a disproportionate amount of criminal-based deportations. According to the advocacy group Black Alliance for Just Immigration, which reviewed data on immigrants from African and Caribbean countries from the Department of Homeland Security Yearbook and the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, 76 percent of black immigrants are deported on criminal grounds, compared to 45 percent of all immigrants. Despite making up only 7.2 percent of the noncitizen population in the US, more than 20 percent of people facing deportation on criminal grounds are black.
“There’s a particular intersection of vulnerability — immigrants in general are vulnerable, and there’s often poverty and racial aspects to their vulnerability as well,” said Jodi Ziesemer, director of the Immigrant Protection Unit at the New York Legal Assistance Group, a nonprofit that provides comprehensive free legal services and advocacy. “Black and undocumented immigrants are at particular risk because they’re targeted racially by a lot of our institutions … while being also targeted for ICE and enforcement actions.”
As a young quiet kid, Darboe would have never guessed that his existence in the US — and in the Bronx in particular — would put him on a trajectory of altercations with law enforcement, eventual incarceration, and possible deportation. Darboe’s sister Adama said her brother once told her, “I came to this country thinking it would be better for me, but they’re actually against me.”
A path that began with police targeting
Darboe’s first interaction with police came at age 16: On June 25, 2010, he was falsely accused of stealing headphones at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Jerome Park neighborhood of the Bronx. Situated just around the corner from the famed specialized high school Bronx High School of Science, DeWitt has a history of police patrolling the hallways and metal detectors that caused hour-long delays, a system that left students feeling “like inmates,” according to a 2005 New York Times report. It was a situation so toxic that more than 1,500 students marched over to the Department of Education at the beginning of the school year.
When Darboe was at the school five years later, not much had changed. He told the court earlier this year that there were a lot of gang wars, fights, and cuttings. “DeWitt Clinton was a harsh place to go to school, because most of the time there’s gang wars — there’s weapons being found at school,” Darboe testified. “Basically nobody went to class.” Gurulé says Darboe witnessed police being given free rein to stroll the school, on top of the standard school security that already existed on campus. (DeWitt Clinton High School has not responded to Vox’s request for comment).
His eldest sister, Adama, in contrast, went to Marble Hill High School for International Studies, a smaller school with an above-average reputation and an emphasis on dedicating resources to college preparation. Adama tells Vox these schooling differences significantly impacted the siblings’ trajectories, placing Darboe in an environment that put him under police scrutiny, and with a friend group that grew accustomed to being viewed as criminals.
Though Darboe was quickly found not to have stolen the headphones and his case was dismissed, the incident would prove to be the first in a long string of interactions with police. According to court documents, Darboe said that while the kids in Fordham Heights were “not the best of influences,” they would often be “attacked by the police officers” because the neighborhood was simply known to be violent.
“Broken windows” policing was common in neighborhoods with large black and Latinx immigrant populations such as Darboe’s area of the Bronx. By focusing on low-level crimes in so-called unkempt neighborhoods — with vandalism, loitering, and drug offenses — police departments theorized they could prevent bigger crimes from happening there. In the 1990s, police in cities like New York took this practice one step further and instead of waiting for people to commit misdemeanors, they enacted “stop-and-frisk” — stopping, questioning, and frisking anyone who looked suspicious.
According to a 2013 study by the Vera Institute of Justice, at least half of all recorded stops by police in New York City involved people between the ages of 13 and 25, and more than 40 percent of young people who’ve been stopped said they have been stopped nine times or more — with nearly half reporting that threats or physical violence were used against them. Broken windows and stop-and-frisk policing created an environment where kids from certain neighborhoods, and often of a certain skin color, were repeatedly profiled as criminals. In fact, in 2013, a US district judge in New York ruled stop-and-frisk unconstitutional and ordered police to stop the practice in the Bronx specifically, because of the way it targeted young black and Latinx men.
But that ruling — which outlawed stop-and-frisk but didn’t put an end to broken windows policing — came several years after Darboe was already caught up in the system.
In October 2010, four months after being falsely accused of stealing the headphones, Darboe was fingered for stealing a purse and was adjudicated as a youthful offender. When asked in court why he stole it, Darboe said that he didn’t have any school supplies, or a book bag, and he couldn’t ask his parents because he knew they didn’t have the money. “I felt, I felt bad because I felt like I had to take [a] drastic measure to get the stuff that I needed,” he said.
Three months later, in the following January, he was stopped and frisked on Webster Avenue — just down the block from his childhood home —and charged with marijuana possession, but was only found guilty of disorderly conduct. And in March 2012, he was charged for cellphone theft, which landed him in Rikers Island — a jail complex infamous for its excessive use of violence in inmate discipline — as a violation of his previous youthful offender agreement over the purse theft.
During his time at Rikers, having just turned 18 and awaiting his cellphone theft hearing, Darboe spent nearly 10 months total in solitary confinement for fighting, and five of those months he says he was not even aware he was able to step outside for an hour a day and get fresh air.
When he was finally sentenced in July 2013, Darboe was sent to Greene Correctional Facility in upstate New York to serve time for both petty theft charges; nine months later, he was released on parole — meaning that he spent more time in pre-trial detention awaiting his sentencing than his actual sentence. His disappearance was so abrupt that his longtime friend from high school, Lashalle Poston, now his wife, initially thought he had left the city. “At first I thought, African parents, when they get in trouble, they send their kids to Africa,” Poston tells Vox. “He just disappeared.”
Despite having spent the latter half of his teen years being in and out of facilities, a youth offender record is not a criminal record; it is automatically sealed and does not have to be reported as a criminal conviction. “It wouldn’t bar him from applying for things,” Gurulé said, referring to documentation that wouldn’t leave him vulnerable to deportation. “A judge can be, ‘I see you got arrested for doing that and I don’t like that, that makes me think you’re a bad person,’ but it doesn’t bar him for applying.”
So upon his release in 2014, at age 20, Darboe took steps to make a fresh start. He moved back in with his parents; started dating Poston, who served as his support system during his incarceration; and began attending Getting Out and Staying Out, a Rikers reentry program for young adult men.
But despite his best intentions, staying out would prove to be not so easy.
The pipeline from juvenile to immigration court
In September 2014, less than six months after Darboe’s release, a neighbor in his parents’ building was walking when she had her gold chains robbed from her neck. Given that he was recently paroled, Darboe was identified as a person of interest by the NYPD. Darboe says on the day of the incident he was at Getting Out and Staying Out (the organization was only able to confirm his regular participation but not his specific whereabouts that day, according to court documents).
When police searched his belongings, they were unable to find any items that tied him to the description given by the neighbor. However, the victim identified him in a police lineup, both recognizing him as a resident in the building and perceiving him to be the assailant: “She thinks that he did it because it was a ‘big black man,’” Adama says, “and [that’s who] Ousman was.”
Darboe was charged with multiple offenses — three counts of robbery plus assault, criminal possession of stolen property, and harassment. He was now considered an adult. At his arraignment, he entered an initial plea of not guilty and was released on bail after 60 days.
But his release was turbulent: He had multiple police interactions for a variety of unrelated charges, such as gun possession and possession of a false check, both of which were dismissed (they were committed by an associate of his, according to court documents). He then landed back in Rikers because the robbery charges were a violation of his parole. While in jail, he was accused of illegally possessing a razor, an offense of which he was acquitted.
Worn down from being in and out of detainment and solitary confinement — and fearful that the NYPD, in its persistence to obtain evidence, would generate a second witness willing to corroborate the alleged robbery story to better their own circumstances — Darboe made an about-face in February 2017 and took a plea deal of one count of felony robbery for time served. According to court documents, Darboe said he took the deal because he was disappointed in himself — not because he had committed the crime, which he maintains he did not, but because of his past. “I had to blame myself for my previous cases, because if I would have never caught [charges in] those previous robberies, I would have never been a target for [the gold chains] robbery.”
While pleading under duress is a common scenario for black men with extended stays in pre-trial detention, doing so has significant implications for immigrants.
Five months later, Darboe was at his parents’ apartment in their new Bronx neighborhood of Kingsbridge when ICE knocked on the door. Even though his recent case dismissals meant he was supposedly no longer under threat of incarceration, ICE officers gained entry to the apartment saying they were police, under the pretense of having a warrant for someone else in the neighborhood, says Gurulé. This tactic is reportedly used by some agents to get immigrants to let them in a residence: ICE officers announce that they’re law enforcement and that they have a “warrant,” even though the warrant is only administrative and not signed by a judge.
Once inside, agents proceed to make arrests after they validate that the person in the home is the same person who may be already flagged on their watchlist as a target, with a particular emphasis on undocumented persons. (ICE has not responded to Vox’s request for comment on its arrest or warrant process, or Darboe specifically, but an ICE spokesman denied to Documented in 2018 that they pose as local law enforcement; however, he said ICE “may use the universally recognized ‘POLICE’ when initially making contact with someone during a field operation.”)
This is the kind of tactic advocates and lawyers warned immigrants to guard against during the recent ICE raids announced by the Trump administration. But Darboe didn’t know that the warrant wasn’t signed by a judge, and that he was thus protected by the Fourth Amendment from having to open the door. He was quickly taken away by ICE agents to the Hudson County Detention Center in New Jersey.
Darboe was detained on July 31, 2017 — the same day he was scheduled to have his forged check charge dismissed. A handful of days later, his girlfriend Poston discovered she was pregnant with their first child — a girl, Sanai, to be born the following April. She wouldn’t be ableto visit Darboe for four months.
Outside of transferring facilities to Bergen County, Darboe has not left ICE custodysince July 2017, having been denied bond after an extended delay due to “dangerousness,” according to a judge in the NYC immigration court. This is despite having only one adult conviction and significant roots in the city: He has eight siblings and parents who, at this point, are all legal permanent residents or have birthright citizenship. He also married Poston in Hudson County Detention in December 2017.
Poston’s initial I-130 petition, the first step to authenticate and establish a record of marriage in the visa application process, was denied by the United States Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS), stating that the couple did not have joint assets such as property or bank accounts, and therefore the marriage was possibly fraudulent. (When asked for comment, USCIS told Vox it doesn’t comment on specific cases.)
“They tried to tell me that we didn’t submit enough evidence, that my relationship wasn’t real,” Poston tells Vox. “Me pushing out a kid in labor for 29 hours wasn’t enough?”
While the decision was ultimately overturned on appeal, Gurulé points out that the logic behind the authentication is classist. She notes that in tandem with ICE, the USCIS “has become a form of law enforcement in their own way,” expanding from an organization intended to manage benefits and services for immigrants to an investigation service of its own.
The delays in the spousal visa process extended Darboe’s detention by ICE for another year. In the meantime, Poston has navigated pregnancy and early motherhood alone.
Laws make the case for the “exceptional immigrant” — but don’t account for the systemic hardships immigrants face
Deportable offenses — previously, murder, drugs, and firearms trafficking — now included nonviolent felonies and misdemeanors, such as theft, filing a false tax return, illegal entry in and of itself, or failing to appear in court. During the Bush administration, the largest increases in deportations were of undocumented immigrants convicted of traffic violations: 43,000 total during his last five years in office.
Even in the Obama era, immigration detention and deportations rates continued to rise astronomically: From2009 to 2015, the administration engaged in over 1 million “interior” removals — excluding those who were apprehended while attempting to cross the border — a rate that was nearly double that of the prior administration. According to a New York Times’ analysis of internal government records, two-thirds of the deportation cases during the Obama administration involved immigrants who were either convicted of minor infractions or had not yet been convicted of a crime.
Obama also played into the “good vs. bad immigrant” schism that has helped fuel hostility toward immigrants in this country: His infamous “Felons, not Families” speech kicking off the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans program failed to reconcile immigration policy with the systemic surveilling and incarceration issues that plague people of color; he implied there is no scenario in which a person selected for deportation could be both a felon and part of a family.
The “exceptional immigrant” paradigm was further reinforced by immigration reform that only emphasized pathways to citizenship for young immigrants who exhibit “good moral character.” Policies like the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals established a temporary deferred status via a rubric that is difficult for many young immigrants to meet: The college-bound DREAMer, or undocumented immigrant in the armed services with a spotless police record, doesn’t represent the lived reality of many young immigrants. According to the United States Department of Education, 54 percent of undocumented youth earn a high school diploma, and only 5 to 10 percent of undocumented high school graduates enroll in a higher education institution — far fewer successfully graduate with a degree.
“A spotlight on ‘exceptional’ black immigrants often erases and makes invisible the lived experience of black immigrants who experience police brutality, state surveillance, poverty, and workplace discrimination, among other things,” says Nekessa Opoti, a communications strategist at the UndocuBlack Network, an advocacy organization comprised of black immigrants.
This is a plight that Darboe knows very well: He was not a perfect student. His case does not make for an exceptional immigrant soundbite. It’s easy to look at Darboe’s rap sheet and dismiss him as someone who has continually erred, particularly as a teen, and is therefore not entitled to sympathy.
This is the fundamental shortcoming of the emphasis on “model minority” narratives: They lack space for the acceptance of a world in which an immigrant lived a “regular” life, especially one that’s subject to heavy police surveillance. Attending an over-policed high school where students were constantly under suspicion, living in a neighborhood where the color of his skin was enough for police to stop him, Darboe had little chance of being seen as a model citizen.
He certainly wouldn’t be given much of a chance to grow up and turn his life around; he wouldn’t even be seen as worthy of such an opportunity.
His daughter, he said in immigration court earlier this year, “helps me feel that I got something to fight for, that I got something to go to, that … I really got to stop doing what I was doing my previous years as a teenager. Now I got to mature, not only for me, but only to be a better example for my daughter.”
Darboe’s youthful offenses — pilfering a cellphone and a purse as a teenager — are far from the actions of MS-13 villains trotted out by the Trump administration to justify strict immigration policy. But such indiscretions are much more common reasons for being removed from this country than any salacious violence.
Even sanctuary cities are limited in protecting immigrants from ICE
Even when there are laws in place to ostensibly help immigrants understand the criminal court process, they can fail. In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in Padilla v. Kentucky that criminal defenders must ask their clients about their immigration status so they can inform them of the possible deportation consequences of a guilty plea before sentencing.
“That should happen,” Ziesemer says. But because courts are often backed up and public defenders often have massive caseloads, “I think there’s a lot of pressure on both ends that make that not a perfect system and … are not super protective of due process rights,” she says.
This gap in due process even happens in places like New York City, which have reputations as “sanctuary cities” and are supposed to limit their cooperation with ICE. But as the Intercept reports, ICE has evaded sanctuary rules by using NYPD fingerprint records to send letters to immigrants arrested — usually for low-level misdemeanor offenses — asking them to come into the agency’s Manhattan offices. In the cases of two immigrants who complied and went down to the office — neither of whom had open removal orders against them or criminal convictions — both were detained.
As explained by Albert Saint Jean, the New York organizer for Black Alliance for Just Immigration, no matter how noncompliant a city administration vows to be, broken windows policing serves as a feeder system for ICE.
“If you’re doing heavy policing in black neighborhoods in NYC, guess what? Undocumented people live in those neighborhoods too. When you’re policing heavily black and brown communities, that’s where the bulk of our immigrant community and undocumented community live. So in essence, every time these people get fingerprinted, every time these things happen … ICE gets notified.”
Ziesemer says she has a client who is Garifuna from Honduras who got ticketed for having an open container in the Bronx. “If he wasn’t an immigrant, he would have paid a small fine and that would have been the end of it,” she says. “But because that got routed into the immigration system, he got picked up and has been detained for over six months.”
Detained immigrants have little recourse against deportation
When immigrants are detained, Ziesemer says, “there’s no obligation for ICE to bring them in front of a court, for them to seek bond. There’s no appointed attorney, there’s very little recourse to getting out of detention on a sort of pre-trial basis.” It’s called “civil detention,” she says, “but in reality, these people in Bergen County and all these other jails, they’re literally housed alongside people who have been convicted of crimes. Immigrants really do fall down a black hole when they’re detained.”
Some detained immigrants are allowed video testimony, which still isn’t standing before a judge and advocating for their own character. This has increasingly become the default for immigration courts around the country, according to Gurulé, and organizations have been suing over the violation of people’s due process.
One exception to the “black hole” norm was the high-profile detention of black immigrant 21 Savage — born Shéyaa Bin Abraham-Joseph — in February. The rapper was detained by Atlanta ICE agents days after criticizing the agency on The Tonight Show. While ICE claimed Savage was an “unlawfully present United Kingdom national” who came to the US as a teen and overstayed his visa, he had been living in Atlanta since he was seven. The incident was a shocking moment for many people, highlighting the power of ICE, and disrupting the image for many of what an undocumented immigrant could look like — black and famous.
Fortunately for 21 Savage, he had hefty legal support and the backing of Jay-Z to help prevent being buried in ICE’s system. However, most black immigrants do not have access to the resources afforded to celebrities. In Darboe’s case, his access to legal representation was courtesy of a New York City Council-funded initiative to protect low-income immigrants facing deportation called the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, of which Gurulé’s firm, the Bronx Defenders, is a part.
“I would say more than half the asylum cases that I’ve gone for, they were people that you could see a pattern of police harassment,” says Saint Jean of his work as an organizer for Black Alliance for Just Immigration in NYC. “And the judges don’t look at it from that context. They look at it as ‘this person is a troublemaker.’”
Countless immigration activists do the work of trying to place these clients with proper legal representation, which can sometimes feel nearly impossible, with lawyers wanting to get nowhere near immigration cases that involve rap sheets. In Darboe’s case, when Poston testified that her husband had grown past his youth offenses, the prosecutor replied, “talk is cheap,” asking Poston, “What if he gets violent with you or your child?” even though Darboe has no record of violent offenses.
“[I think the judge] feels like, all black women go through that, and you’ll just be one more, and it’s fine … The system is helping you, you don’t need no other help from no man,” says Poston. “The system is actually not that goddamn easy.”
Poston has had to experience this firsthand. In the time that she has worked to advocate for her husband, obtaining Gurulé as his public defender, and attending all his necessary court dates, she temporarily lost a job and has settled into a shelter with their daughter.
“These judges see his kind of contact with the criminal legal system, and all reason and empathy flies out the door,” Gurulé says of her client Darboe. “No empathy, compassion, no sense of justice, nothing.”
If Darboe is deported, he will be excised from his community, family, and daughter, whom he may never see grow up. His emotional and mental health would also likely take a significant hit; deportees often suffer from depression and social isolation. Then there is Gambia, where the government is still working to stabilize society after a 20-year regime of human rights abuses left the country with high unemployment rates and in bankruptcy.
In the meantime, Darboe continues to wait. The mumps outbreak in Bergen County is over, and his appeal date is scheduled for October 3. He is relying on his Islamic faith to keep his spirit strong. He and his family know, though, that they must brace for the worst. After his two years in detention, they must come to terms with what has been the fate of many undocumented immigrants before him.