No Holding Back: Sunset Park's Fight to Stop Police Brutality

Carlos Menchaca and Nydia Velazquez didn't say a word. This past Saturday at a march and rally culminating in front of NYPD's 72nd precinct, the local newbie city councilmember and the 11-term congresswoman weren't given a chance to speak.
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Carlos Menchaca and Nydia Velazquez didn't say a word.

This past Saturday at a march and rally culminating in front of NYPD's 72nd precinct, the local newbie city councilmember and the 11-term congresswoman weren't given a chance to speak. The only high-profile voice to speak to the crowd of mostly latinos and immigrants was Sanford Rubenstein, Al Sharpton's go-to lawyer on all things police brutality. And only he was allowed a few words as acting counsel for Sandra Amezquita, the pregnant woman videotaped being thrown belly-down onto the ground by cops from the 72nd.

The march was a marked departure from Sharpton's August 23rd march and rally for Eric Garner in Staten Island. That march was heavily attended by unions and politicians from every corner of the city. More importantly, that march was blessed by the NYPD and the Mayor's office. Saturday's march was organically-planned and certainly less establishment-friendly. Local politicians like Menchaca and Velasquez were visibly uncomfortable at times. Clearly the differences in the organizing led to different language and tone. Among the thousands of attendees at the Garner march, many held signs supporting the NYPD as they marched for justice. Calls for justice toed the political line. Saturday's march was the antithesis of that. Members of this fiery crowd, which drew hundreds, called for NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton's job along with demands for the officers involved in the cases to be immediately fired. Nicholas Heyward Sr., whose 13-year old son was killed by a cop during Bratton's first regime, fiercely criticized the NYPD's culture of brutality. It was the 20th anniversary, to the day, that his son was shot in a Brooklyn housing project stairwell.

Clearly this wasn't the predictable narrative of a march orchestrated by organizers appealing to mainstream politics. The only thing the marches did share were chants of "no justice, no peace!" In fact, organizers said they rebuffed offers for Sharpton to join Saturday's action. Members of the largely Puerto Rican and immigrant community decided to keep decisions on how to approach within the hands of residents, families and street-activists. What turned out was a people-led march where speeches on accountability and respect were met with applause, but demands that people be fired and that there be an end to Bratton's Broken Windows policies were met with louder cheers.

Now Rubenstein will likely sue the pants off of the city but behind the family and the larger community pushback against the long-abusive precinct is El Grito de Sunset Park, the neighborhood's longtime grassroots police watchdog organization. Dennis Flores, El Grito's founder, cop-watcher and well-known community organizer, has been doing this for a long time. He knows that Menchaca and Velazquez, like most politicians, won't push as hard as residents will. This rings even truer in 2014. In the first nine months of the Bill de Blasio administration the city council, including self-described progressives, has largely avoided going after de Blasio's NYPD or confronting his recycled police commissioner, Bratton. Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito is even being sued for firing a city council analyst-turned-whistleblower when he disproved Bratton's public testimony on the department's use of force just last month. Both politicians and activists who routinely went after Mike Bloomberg and Ray Kelly's NYPD have been virtually silent this year.

Flores, on the other hand, is taking on not only abusive cops but their superiors, too. El Grito is targeting the jobs of precinct commander Captain Tommy Ng and Bratton, as well as the broader Broken Windows policy for its role in the NYPD's abuse in his community. So if the council is working to protect Bratton and de Blasio's left flank, then keeping politicians and a City Hall-friendly Sharpton at arms length is not only symbolic but practical. Flores tells me that Menchaca had already been dragging his feet on El Grito's concerns about the 72nd before his group released video of Amezquita's assault and video of a family of street vendors accosted, harassed and assaulted by cops from the same precinct.

One of those officers, though unnamed in most media reports, is known by Flores and members of the community as an abusive cop. PO Elvis Merizalde has been videotaped by Flores behaving badly before. But that didn't stop Merizalde from being awarded "Cop of the Month" by Menchaca in others shortly after the incident. Merizalde was one of the brave cops who violently arrested street vendors last month. One of the street vendor's sons, Jonathan Daza, lay handcuffed on the ground with cops cops draped all over him when he was kicked in the back. For the kick, a cop was suspended (with pay) when the video hit the press. But while the media's focus in that incident was limited to the kick, the entire context of what happened before, during and after the kick are crucial to truly understanding the 72nd precinct's relationship with the Sunset Park community.

El Grito's video shows officers telling street vendors to scram. When they didn't pack up and leave quickly enough, one cop threatens "If you wanna f*ck with us, we're gonna f*ck with you." Daza's sister, Cindy, argues back. A cop demands to know her age, trying to intimidate her. Jonathan tells her she doesn't need to give the cop her age. The cop then tries to arrest him and all hell breaks loose. Daza ends up on the floor blanketed by cops. One cop throws a punch at Daza's head. Why that punch didn't merit a suspension (if not more) but the kick did, is anyone's guess. Both Daza and his sister were arrested for the usual: disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and (more seriously) assaulting a cop.

Then there's Officer Joseph Degen, the cop videotaped (in the same month) throwing the 5-months pregnant Colombian immigrant, Amezquita, to the ground. Amezquita was defending her son, who was being arrested by cops for supposedly having a knife in his belt, when cops forcibly arrested the mom. In the video, another woman tries to tell cops that they're manhandling a pregnant woman. She's shoved across the screen as a cops knee presses on Amezquita's back while they cuff her. But the video, which shocked some, is really reflective of what residents spoke out about during Saturday's rally. These short videos we're seeing are only glimpses of what residents said goes on all too often in their community.

El Grito has plenty of other videos that underscore the 72nd's aggressive approach. Long before these last two incidents reignited the city-wide conversation on police brutality, resident-activists have consistently documented over-the-top police tactics during community events. Sunset Park's annual Puerto Rican Day Parade is rife with police aggression almost every year. From 2004 to 2014 Sunset Park regularly becomes the stage for cops gon' wild. In 2003 an entire Puerto Rican family, from kids to grandmother, were similarly involved in a melee with cops from the 72nd. Latino and immigrant families somehow continually become the targets of the NYPD in the Brooklyn neighborhood.

Flores, who has armed neighbors and friend with cameras with money from a wrongful arrest settlement after cops attacked him when he stuck up for a kid cops were arresting on a Brooklyn street 12 years ago, has advanced his cop-watching tactics. He's learned to file FOIA requests to get footage from the NYPD, for example. Requests for NYPD surveillance footage from Amezquita's assault have yet to be answered. He's also learned that media is a double-edged sword. It can amplify a community's voice while it omits key portions of it. It can help to put pressure on the powers-that-be, but it can be gone as quickly as it came.

Then there's the politicians.

During an interview on WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show the day before Saturday's march, Councilmember Menchaca spoke of "training" and improved "dialogue" between cops and the community in between awkwardly-timed reminders that there are "good" cops in the 72nd. He also left unanswered a caller's question about the disparate impact dragnet, kick-ass policing in Sunset can have for an immigrant community wary of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which often deports immigrants caught up in our criminal justice system. At best, Menchaca is woefully out of touch with residents affected by the 72nd precincts deliberately predatory relationship. At worst, he is trying to be a buffer between El Grito's grassroots efforts and the NYPD by quelling anger and redirecting demands.

In a September 24th open letter Menchaca goes on about "healing" and "partnership" with a more "culturally sensitive" 72nd precinct. He himself plans to start going more often to precinct community council meetings (which are often just NYPD fan clubs) and precinct roll calls. He's confident that the NYPD will investigate itself.

Flores and El Grito are taking a different approach. Having had a front row seat to the 72nd's policing, they've had enough. They've organized a community town hall meeting scheduled for tonight at 6:30pm. They demand that Bratton show up to "face the Sunset Park community".

We'll be watching.

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