Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 25, 2014

The “accidental” killing of Akai Gurley was no accident

Filed under: housing,New Deal,New York,racism — louisproyect @ 7:45 pm

As the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri was calculating how to avoid bringing killer cop Darren Wilson to trial, another ignominious homicide took place in the Louis H. Pink Housing Project in Brooklyn, NY. The New York Times reported on how a rookie cop named Peter Liang killed a young Black man named Akai Gurley:

Two police officers prepared to enter the pitch-black eighth-floor stairwell of a building in a Brooklyn housing project, one of them with his sidearm drawn. At the same time, a man and his girlfriend, frustrated by a long wait for an elevator, entered the seventh-floor stairwell, 14 steps below. In the darkness, a shot rang out from the officer’s gun, and the 28-year-old man below was struck in the chest and, soon after, fell dead.

The shooting, at 11:15 p.m. on Thursday, invited immediate comparison to the fatal shooting of an unarmed man in Ferguson, Mo. But 12 hours later, just after noon on Friday, the New York police commissioner, William J. Bratton, announced that the shooting was accidental and that the victim, Akai Gurley, had done nothing to provoke a confrontation with the officers.

A follow-up article detailed how such an “accident” might have taken place:

From different corners of Brooklyn, the lives of Mr. Gurley and Officer Liang, two young men separated in age by a single year, collided amid the faint shadows of the stairwell inside 2724 Linden Blvd., one of the buildings in the vast the Louis H. Pink housing project.

For Mr. Gurley, the stairs, even in their sorry state, offered the best alternative to chronically malfunctioning project elevators. For Officer Liang, their darkness presented a threat.

Often the department’s least experienced officers are sent.

“This is a result of poor in-street field training; you literally had the blind leading the blind out there,” said another high-ranking police official.

Both police officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the shooting investigation is still unfolding.

Most of the reporting centers on the cop’s inexperience as if a way to ward off interpretations that he was acting out of a KKK mentality so prevalent in the St. Louis police department. Since Chinese-Americans don’t tend to be seen as vicious racists, it is more difficult to mount Ferguson type protests over the killing. But in a very real sense, Brooklyn = Ferguson. It was the poverty and neglect of East New York that created the conditions for just such an accident.

Furthermore, a look at housing projects in general and the Louis H. Pink project in particular will demonstrate that we are dealing with institutions just barely distinguishable from South African shantytowns, even though they were at one time a staple of New Deal reform.

Louis Heaton Pink was an advocate of public housing in the 1930s who became the director of the New York Housing Authority, the city agency responsible for projects all across the city now in various states of disrepair. He was first appointed to a state housing agency by Al Smith, the governor of New York who despite having a solid record as a reformer got on FDR’s wrong side after running against him in the 1932 presidential primary.

This article from the February 14, 1934 NY Times should give you some idea of how Pink envisioned public housing:

louis pink article

When I worked for the Department of Welfare in Harlem in 1967, housing projects were considered a step up from slum buildings on the side streets even though they were beginning the steep decline that would eventually lead to the violent crime, broken elevators and darkened stairways that served as Akai Gurley’s death chamber.

The explanation is obvious. Like most public institutions that sprang up as a result of the modern welfare state, NYC public housing was the first to be sacrificed at the altar of austerity. The first to go was public housing. Next came hospitals and now it is CUNY that has to tighten its belt.

But austerity is not the end of the story. If the Housing Authority was truly broke, then the broken elevators, etc. might be understandable even if not forgivable. It turns out that there was money available for repairs but the rich white bastards who run the NYCHA had other ideas about what to do with it as the Daily News reported on August 1, 2012:

Screen shot 2014-11-25 at 2.18.05 PM

In a New York Magazine article that appeared shortly after the Daily News revelations, the sad state of the Louis H. Pink Houses was detailed in a lengthy article:

That said, I was in the Pinks because of its namesake, Louis H. Pink. Born in Wausau, Wisconsin, in 1882, a former resident of a Lower East Side tenement, Pink was a leader in the fight to rid New York of its slums, which in 1920 reputedly covered seventeen square miles of the city. Three decades after Jacob Riis depicted the horrors of slum life in How the Other Half Lives, city children were “still being brought up in dark, ill-ventilated, overcrowded, unsafe tenement houses,” Pink wrote in his 1928 book, The New Day in Housing. Taking his lead from the Gemeindebau, or “community construction,” built in “Red Vienna” following World War I, Pink felt New York would benefit from “modern, sanitary housing for the great mass of our less well off citizens.”

Pink was joined by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who blamed the TB death of his first wife on the evils of slum living. “Down with rotten, antiquated ratholes! Down with hovels! Down with disease! Down with crime!” the Little Flower proclaimed, saying every New Yorker deserved “a bit of sunshine in every window.” On December 3, 1935, Louis Pink joined La Guardia, Governor Herbert Lehman, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to dedicate First Houses on Avenue A and 3rd Street. It was the beginning of public housing in the United States.

In 1959, when the Louis H. Pink ­Houses opened, no First Lady appeared. Public housing was in its stolid middle age, the era of idealism long gone, and NYCHA’s enterprise had morphed into a full-scale building boom pursued with typical assembly-line zeal by the city’s chairman of slum clearance, Robert Moses. Filed under the rubric of “urban renewal” (James Baldwin called it “Negro removal”), slum-clearing was done for private development as well as great municipal feats like the Cross-Bronx Expressway. The displaced, especially white lower-middle-class workers who otherwise would have moved to places like bucolic (and racially segregated) Levittown, were encouraged to move to public high-rises full of Mayor La Guardia’s sunlight.

Not surprisingly, New York Magazine—prime reading material for Manhattan’s upwardly mobile—gave NYCHA head John Rhea an opportunity to defend himself.

The centerpiece of Rhea’s “public-­private solution” for NYCHA has been the city’s 2010 funding deal with Citigroup. In exchange for fifteen years’ worth of guaranteed federal low-income-housing tax credits, the bank helped secure $230 million for 21 troubled developments that were built but no longer funded by the city and/or the state. The arrangement triggered NYCHA’s eligibility for the onetime infusion of $75 million of federal stimulus funds.

“If you want to save the proud tradition of public housing in this city, you’ve got to think differently,” Rhea declared, adding that while heading NYCHA was “by far the biggest challenge” of his career, he had come to love his job and the projects themselves. “NYCHA is supposed to be this great problem,” the chairman said. “But if your rich uncle left you NYCHA in his will, that would be the luckiest day of your life. NYCHA, with its vast holdings, is a tremendous asset for the City of New York.

You would of course have to conclude that any bureaucrat who thinks in terms of “public-private” and cuts deals with Citibank would be the last person to attend to public housing woes in New York, even if he is African-American (another version of Barack Obama, to be sure.) After four years of getting nothing done, Rhea resigned in December 2013 before Bill de Blasio had a chance to fire him.

I don’t think the Black community expects much from the new “reformer” based on this August 27 article that appeared in the NY Observer.

Bill de Blasio Heckled While Touting NYCHA Safety Gains

Mayor Bill de Blasio today at the Lincoln Houses in East Harlem. (Jillian Jorgensen)

Mayor Bill de Blasio went to the Lincoln Houses in East Harlem to talk about crime reductions and safety upgrades in the city’s public housing stock — but some residents just didn’t want to hear it.

The mayor was heckled by at least two people who gathered to watch his press conference in a sunny courtyard Wednesday, where he stood strategically in front of construction workers removing scaffolding residents have long complained are a blight and a danger.

As the mayor sought to take the microphone after Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito spoke, a man shouted in Spanish at the mayor about needing more security. Mr. de Blasio at first tried to keep talking, but eventually paused and offered: “Thank you, brother.”

Shortly after, NYPD Chief of Housing Carlos Gomez was also met with a skeptical response from a local resident as he spoke.

“July first, the crime in housing was up. It was up for the fifth year in a row. With the additional officers, and resources, the additional work being conducted by other city agencies, I’m proud to say as we stand here today crime in public housing is down, more than 4 percent — that’s higher than the city averages,” Mr. Gomez said.

“Since when?” a woman called out. “Since when it went down?”

“From July 1 until now crime is down double-digits throughout NYCHA in the city, down 13 percent. Murders are down 18 percent, and our shooting incidents are down in NYCHA,” Mr. Gomez said.

But as he spoke, the woman responded “That’s a lie. That’s a lie.”

When asked by a reporter about that response, the mayor said he understood why it seemed to some residents that crime had not truly fallen.

“Because it takes time, first of all, for everyone to feel it. And I don’t blame anyone who is feeling there isn’t enough yet in the way of improvement. We have a lot to do. The numbers that Chief Gomez gave are the numbers, and that clearly means progress,” Mr. de Blasio said. “That means some people are alive today who wouldn’t have been otherwise, some people are safe today who wouldn’t have been otherwise.”

Though the city has had 29 fewer murders this year and 1,000 fewer robberies, the mayor said, people won’t believe in change until they see it — comparing it to the focus of his press conference, the removal of the scaffolding or “sheds” that residents argued served as hiding places for guns and illegal activity.

“Until people see the sheds down, they aren’t going to feel the benefits,” he said.

After the press conference, Mr. de Blasio enjoyed a brief and seemingly friendly chat with the man who had shouted at him in Spanish.

Earlier this summer at the same housing development, Mr. de Blasio vowed to remove scaffolding and add cameras, lights, and hundreds more police officers to the city’s public housing earlier this summer to combat rising crime there.

According to Mr. Gomez, crime in public housing is now down: Year-to-date, in the Housing Bureau citywide crime is down 4.2 percent, with murders down 5.9 percent, rapes down 3 percent, and robberies down 5.6 percent.

Still, shootings are still up in NYCHA developments over the course of the entire year — and are up citywide, outside of public housing complexes — though they have fallen in the Housing Bureau since July 1.

3 Comments »

  1. Great post. We can see how social democratic reforms can not only be rolled back but actually used against workers if the struggle that created them is not maintained.

    Really loved the old NY times piece. Funny how then every one referred to workers as workers. Since the culture war has really been won by the bourgeoisie. Workers aren’t called workers anymore. Now it’s the american people, the low income, the middle class or some other new socially constructed term. Wonder how much this plays into the lull in class struggle in the US even as it has burst open in other countries around the world. Noam Chomsky manufacturing consent would be a good reference.

    Comment by Swifty — November 26, 2014 @ 4:03 am

  2. PS. John Rhea is the “rich white bastard” in charge of nycha and he’s actually black. Another case of black faces in high places meaning nothing for black people, same as Obama’s election did nothing for them, same as Hilary’s will do nothing for women.

    Comment by Swifty — November 26, 2014 @ 4:06 am

  3. When I was growing up in an all white environment I found black complaints about racism hard to believe. It did not make any sense to me that a white person would wake up with an attitude that I am going to fuck with any black people that I come across today. I would have thought a person would wake up with the idea blacks have suffered enough if I come across one today I am going to use an opportunity that I have to be exceptionally nice.
    Yet I myself, alone, can not come up with any explanation with why blacks are arrested at far higher rates for drug crimes than whites. Well of course I can easily come up with one explanation. One that I hope and wish were not true. That is that at some level of the institutional hierarchies that run our nation someone wakes up each morning with an attitude of fucking with black people and his attitude, of course it is a he, filters down through the hierarchy because those lower do not ask any questions or raise any objections.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — November 28, 2014 @ 12:55 pm


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