Rights Wire

The Human Rights Blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice


The violence of gentrification

By Urooj Rahman

Recent news coverage and events around the country have riled up discussions about the militarization of police and the over-policing of certain communities, predominantly neighborhoods of working and middle class people of color. These over-policed neighborhoods are also the same neighborhoods whose long-time (decades-long, in many cases) residents are slowly being pushed out for newer residents who can afford to pay higher rents, live in luxury condos and afford pricier shops, boutiques and restaurants. Places like El Barrio (aka Spanish Harlem), Harlem, Washington Heights, Bushwick, Williamsburg, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights and Long Island City have all seen this change happening within the last few decades. As the New York Police Department (NYPD) continues to target working and middle class black and brown communities, continually arresting people for petty offenses and misdemeanors (widely known as “quality of life” offenses or “Broken Windows policing”), they pave the way for proponents of gentrification to come in and rezone neighborhoods until the longstanding residents are gone and the culture of the community is gutted. Militarized over-policing goes hand-in-hand with the gentrification of neighborhoods in New York City and throughout the country. Even NYPD Police Commissioner Bill Bratton expressed sentiments that, “a safe city means business thrives… If you make it safe, they will come, they will build, [and] we need to make those remaining areas of poverty and depression safe, so you will come and build.”

Gradual displacement of people, small businesses, art, and culture is often the result of discriminatory rezoning codes and real estate practices which allow wealthy real estate developers to build luxury condominiums and public spaces for the benefit of new residents, with very little consideration, if any, for providing affordable housing to the long-time residents of the area. This is often followed by an increase in the quality of services in the neighborhood—timely garbage pick-ups, development of public spaces, more access to healthy food and actual police assistance rather than police harassment—that were not there when the neighborhoods predominantly consisted of low to middle income people of color.

As the process of gentrification runs its course with the help of institutionalized racism, whole communities are erased and replaced. This process, concealed in symbolic violence, is also aided by physical violence. In order to maintain gentrification, the NYPD patrols and targets these already over-policed communities, and arrests individuals committing petty offenses, such as the selling untaxed cigarettes, evasion of subway fares, panhandling, sex work or simply standing (dubbed “loitering”) in the hallway of their New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) housing project. Such practices have often resulted in the asymmetric targeting, incarceration and killing of black and brown people, such as the killing of Eric Garner who was choked to death in Staten Island by a police officer performing an illegal chokehold on him for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. The intersection of policing and gentrification is not to be dismissed, as NYPD Police Commissioner Bill Bratton even expressed that he feels that creating “safer communities” lead[s] to tourism and job creation, and that policing was the “necessary ingredient for an inviting business climate.”

As rents continue to rise and working and middle class neighborhoods throughout New York City continue to be swallowed by gentrification, discriminatory and aggressive policing is also increasing in these fast-changing areas, despite the fact that crime continues to decline. Yet, the targeting of people who are committing petty offenses only occurs in certain areas. You will not see police officers patrolling around Columbia University on 110th and Broadway looking for local Morningside Heights residents who are “loitering” or selling and buying drugs. You will see the police only a few blocks away in Harlem patrolling NYCHA housing projects and the surrounding areas for anyone committing “trespass” offenses or loitering in the hallways, even when those individuals are actual residents of the housing projects. Often these patrols can go wrong as we saw with the tragic killing of Akai Gurley, a young black man from East New York, Brooklyn, who was gunned down by a rookie police officer in a staircase of the Louis Pink housing projects. The NYPD targets these areas because they view these predominantly Black and Latino communities as threats to safety and to a welcoming business climate for gentrification.

It has been well documented that people of color throughout New York City have experienced an increase in profiling and criminalization, often through unwarranted stops (previously, stop-and-frisks before the practice was halted) for aforementioned “quality of life offenses.” The first half of 2014 alone resulted in 27,527 stops, of which 82 percent “were totally innocent,” according to the New York Civil Liberties Union. Eighty-one percent of stops were of black and Latino New Yorkers, whereas only 12 percent of stop were of white New Yorkers. Making “quality of life arrests,” patrolling NYCHA buildings for loiterers, harassing street dancers and artists and the continued policing of minor offenses by police has resulted in the disproportionate targeting and continued killing of unarmed black and brown people.

The need for a policing overhaul must go hand in hand with the need to acknowledge gentrification’s violent effects on communities of color throughout the city. Recently, Mayor de Blasio announced a plan to build even more luxury condos, which in his mind, would somehow allow for the alleviation of gentrification by encouraging developers to build 20 percent of their units for affordable housing through a tax break. Investment in business and neighborhoods is not the only way to alleviate crime. The need to invest in and provide better services to underserved communities can also lend itself to making neighborhoods and communities safer. Conversely, petty offenses occur because of the lack of opportunity and investment in a community. If we continue to ignore the people who are the bedrock of this city—the long-time residents, the artists, the working class, people of color—then New York will continue down the dark path of becoming a shining example of inequality for the rest of the country to emulate.

Urooj Rahman is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Alan Greig/Creative Commons