In communities across the country, efforts to remove the statues of colonizers the "legal"
way have taken decades of work, and the results have often seemed symbolic. But if you
know your history, you know that when people stop appealing to higher ups and take
direct action to symbolically depose tyrannical monarchs and plunderers, acts such as
these can turn into revolutionary moments. If you know your history you know the
American Revolution launched when revolutionaries toppled King George';s statue at the
tip of Manhattan. And if you know your history, you are able to situate recent calls for
abolition within a series of other once-radical calls, first and foremost for the abolition
of slavery, but also for the abolition of debtor';s prisons, the gallows, and so on. These
radical calls for abolition were, and continue to be radical - in the sense that they
fundamentally get to the root of the problem.
Let's take a moment to think about recent successes. Within days of the first George
Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arberry protests in major cities and small towns across
the world, LA.'s mayor got behind talk of $150M in cuts to the LAPD, and a week later
members of the New York City Council proposed $1B in cuts to the NYPD. These
proposals followed long, now successful campaigns to reverse 50a, a law that shielded
police from transparency around wrongdoing. Countless other related Senate bills are
now in the works and passing as we speak. Perhaps most surprisingly, the Minneapolis
City Council vowed to disband the Minneapolis police department.
Breonna Taylor's case has been reopened. The man who filmed Eric Garner's death and
went to prison in retaliation, Ramsey Orta, is finally home after four years. Floyd's
killers have been arrested. So has a cop who threw an elder to the ground, cracking open
the 75 year old protestor's skull.
Various companies are coming out against facial recognition tech (after years of
profiting from it, of course). An autonomous zone has been established around Seattle
City Hall. Black Lives Matter Plaza now spans the street leading up to the White House.
All these "wins" didn't come from nowhere, and they didn't just happen in a week. Who
built us up to this point, and what tactics did they use? Who has been holding the radical
end of the strategic spectrum, pulling competing orgs into coalition, sometimes
alienating politicians, or pushing the public to be more imaginative?
All these successes might appear sudden, and immediate. But SJT, along with many
others, wants to call attention to the fact that they are rooted in decades, if not centuries,
of struggle. As a collective, we trace the roots of the problems we face, so as to better
understand how we can address present challenges. But more than that, we highlight
the movements we build upon, and we study their cycles, so as to learn what we can
from those that came before us.
New York City has a painful history of criminalizing blackness that should be understood in
order to help us move forward. In 1819, Rose Butler, a 19-year-old enslaved woman who I talk
about in my Women’s History Tour, was the last person executed in the cemetery that eight
years later would become Washington Square Park. Her crime was attempting to emancipate
herself by setting fire to her mistress Mrs. Morris’s house while the family slept, considered akin
to attempted murder at the time. According to minister John Stanford’s account of her story, she
had confessed to doing it out of revenge for the harsh treatment Mrs. Morris gave her, claiming
she was convinced to do it by two white male accomplices she refused to name. While she was
in jail the Morris house did actually burn down and Butler said the two men had sent her a
message in a loaf of bread confessing to it, though she refused to name them and they were never
found. She also confessed that she had a history of stealing from her masters, using the money on
one occasion to buy her aunt a dress, treat her friends to a carriage ride and a steamboat party,
and go dancing in Corlaer’s Hook. No one was injured in the attempted arson, and only a few
stairs in the house were burned, but Butler received the death penalty, something which was
rarely used for women at the time. The case garnered a lot of attention and supporters for Butler,
going to the state supreme court to argue whether arson should be a capital offense. However, in
Stanford’s account the judge said Butler had “a wicked and depraved heart” for betraying the
trust put into her by her masters, and “it is necessary that you be cut off from society by an
ignominious death”. He then followed the sentence with a speech for Butler to repent of her sins
under instruction by the ministers of the Gospel of Christ before she meets her creator.
Of course what’s missing from this judgement is the acknowledgement of the greater injustice of
the entire context within which this occurred: that of Butler’s birth into a world that betrayed her
trust in her fellow white human beings to recognize her equality; that stole all the labor of her
and her people without remorse so that families like the Morris’s could be wealthy; that branded
her as inferior because of her color. To me, Butler had every right to bring a bit of joy into her
life by stealing back some of that wealth which African-Americans largely helped to create yet
were at nearly every instant denied a share in. Even if there was a way for her to achieve freedom
and exact revenge without trying to burn the Morris’s, how much responsibility should we put on
someone in such circumstances as hers, with all its ineluctable trauma and degradation, to take
the moral high ground, no matter how badly you are treated, when your oppressors have a
monopoly on morality and claim that your oppression is God’s will?
Butler’s execution was said to have drawn thousands of spectators, though a somber silence
covered the crowd. One of the saddest part of Rose Butler’s story is that New York state was just
eight years away from the full abolition of slavery which would have granted her freedom. New
York City was already home to several communities of free Black citizens, a very long standing
one being just south of Washington Square called Little Africa, where Butler frequented the
dance halls and surely would have had a taste of emancipated life. On the one hand there was a
permissiveness for Black NYers so that they would not grow too resentful and rebel, but to many
white New Yorkers this was the cause of the increasing “disorderliness” of the city. These
neighborhoods and their venues were centers of sin, and without strict guidance the Black
population would easily fall into criminality, as Butler did. Stanford was a conservative Christian
whose moralizing account of Butler painted her as remorseless and cold-hearted, corrupted by
her masters’ laxity. On the other hand, Quaker anti-death penalty activist Dorothy Ripley visited
Butler the night before her execution and described her as sorrowful and repentant, proving she
could be reformed. We will never get to know the real Rose, but we can see that this period of
change in Black New Yorkers’ status, and the growth of such neighborhoods filled with
successful Black entrepreneurs and mixed-race tenements and businesses, seems to have instilled
enough fear in the status-quo to want to make a strong point. Though they shall be free, African-
Americans were still to remain under the boot. Perhaps they thought a more lenient sentence
would only embolden other Black folks to likewise take revenge. Perhaps they saw in Butler a
wickedness and depravity that existed not through her actions but her very constitution as a
Black woman, a bias that, even in our “liberal” north, allows for the most minor offenses to be
treated with undue severity and potentially an “ignominious death”.
Unfortunately, as we’ve seen recently not much has changed in this respect, though the
justification for heavy handed policing is now couched in the language of social science rather
than Christianity. There had also been a continued lack in acknowledging the context of the
greater injustice of our persistently racist society, though hopefully now that’s finally
transforming. This lack of context made it easy for “experts” to put forth seemingly neutral,
unbiased theories and solutions to crime and poverty that when put into practice in our racist
society had devastating results. Such is the story of “broken windows” policing in NYC.
Two Bridges, Three Luxury Condos: How One Community's Fight Against Gentrification Reveals the Processes that Power It
Bring Me Your Rich, Your Criminals, Your Scheming Entrepreneurs Longing to be Free: Trump’s Hypocritical Immigration History
Yes, in My Backyard! Brooklyn Waterfront Neighborhoods are Leading the Fight for Sustainable Industry
Walking around Brooklyn, it’s easy to see neighborhood change as a natural progression of events. The barbershop wasn’t doing well, so it’s replaced by a Dunkin’ Donuts. The brownstone across the street was crumbling, so someone bought it and put up condos. Bed Stuy was largely African American, but now there are white people at Key Foods. It not great, you might think, but it just happens. In fact, the realities are the physical consequence of a long history of deliberate racist and classist policies and decisions, and the people making them have spent a lot of energy making these changes seem organic or inevitable. But the neighborhoods themselves are actually clues to the past, and one goal of Social Justice Tours is to do detective work, uncovering the motives and the methods that made the physical and political landscape what it is today.
By now, we all know the term gentrification, and we all know we should feel vaguely guilty about it. But because it’s sold to us as a natural process caused by individual people choosing to move to cheaper neighborhoods, we don’t see the big, structural decisions that created segregation, poverty and struggling neighborhoods in the first place. And that’s deliberate. If we think of gentrification as an individual problem, we see the solution as individual, too. People need to stop moving into neighborhoods that aren’t theirs. But, of course, wrangling hundreds of thousands of individuals to make different choices—especially in a market where even the middle class can’t afford rent—is impossible. And so gentrification carries on.
But if we start to uncover some of the big, political actions that made gentrification possible, we can start thinking about big, political actions to stop it—or repair the damage done.