Tuesday, May 23, 2017
"Army Major Danny Sjursen, who grew up in Midland Beach, shares his research and reflections in a report that's intended to get Staten Islanders talking. Read Advance editor Brian J. Laline's introduction here. And comment on this report when you're done reading. (Sjursen will will engage in the comments Monday at 2:30 p.m.) Sjursen wishes to make it clear that the views expressed here are his alone, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
By Major Danny Sjursen, U.S. Army
November 2014. I watch with my students -- 16 West Point cadets -- as Eric Garner chokes to death in a grainy YouTube video. It all rushes back. See, I grew up in it -- a lower-middle-class white kid on the borderlands of Staten Island's East Shore. Wedged between, yet wholly apart from, the affluent, hyper-Caucasian South Shore and denser African-American enclaves to the northeast, Mid-Island kids gained some unique perspective.
We learned the ropes fast: Stick with your buddies and beware of the "other" (read: Puerto Rican) side of Midland Avenue.
The irony, of course, is we had plenty of problems on "our" side of the avenue. South Shore residents considered Midland Beach a "white trash" haven -- drugs marred the neighborhood and robbed my mother of two brothers. But on "our" side of town, see, we labeled petty offenders or addicts as characters, not criminals like the neighborhood Hispanics and North Shore blacks. Language is a peculiar, powerful device, delineating boundaries and partitioning the populace.
High school meant new lessons: Take heed of black teens riding the train in red hoodies -- probably Bloods gang members.
Purchasing one's first car brought a warning: Stay off Jersey Street and blow through the traffic light at Targee and Vanderbilt Avenue.
The message was clear. Play it safe and look out for minority communities in New Brighton and Park Hill. Subtle rules shaped our generational paradox. We were proud of the Island's own Wu-Tang Clan, yet wary of minorities in our midst -- blacks and Hispanics lost in segregated corners of a forgotten borough.
East Shore neighborhoods reflected the whole -- a radicalized geography in microcosm. And nothing so starkly polarizes the city like allegations of police brutality.
Tragedy strikes and we often race to familiar battle stations. North Shore minorities (and most of the city) rally to the victim, while the vast majority of South Shore whites vehemently defend the police and some, taking it a step further, attack African-Americans, activists writ large.
Consider the coded (and not-so-coded) language posted in Staten Island Advance online comments during a protest of the Garner grand jury decision held on the Staten Island Expressway.
"Let the people who pay for your government cheese and welfare checks get through so they can get to work -- so in turn you can continue to protest and not work." Or: "It's over! Law & order won. Now go home and start being respectful if the police ever stop you. Better yet, don't do anything that would give them reason to stop you."
Multiply these by a few thousand to get a sense of the intense backlash so pervasive in many corners of the borough.
THE BACKSTORY MATTERS
Lost in these seemingly age-old disputes, as in most political conversation, is even the barest sense of historical context. A few unanswered questions linger. Why did the police choke Garner on that North Shore street corner? Why were blacks incensed and whites unmoved?
The backstory matters.
Consider this: If slavery is America's original sin and wrought contemporary social strife, perhaps Staten Island's lengthy and determined history of racial segregation set the stage for Eric Garner's death.
The borough's relative lack of integration is hardly deniable: Though the Island remains about 60 percent white, more than 61 percent of African-Americans live in districts where blacks and Hispanics make up a hefty majority.
Over 65 percent of blacks also live in neighborhoods with greater than 50 percent of the population classified as low-to-moderate income. Minorities cluster in several hypersegregated census tracts in West Brighton (53 percent black, 5 percent white), Mariners Harbor (54 percent black, 7 percent white) and Stapleton (47 percent black, 7 percent white).
Driving 15 minutes south reveals a contrasting community fabric. You can hardly find an African-American in Annadale (0.2 percent), Prince's Bay (0.2 percent) or Eltingville (0.1 percent) -- where, incidentally, Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who choked Garner, resided.
Segregation does not -- and never did -- reflect mere personal preference. A confluence of individual, community and government decisions deliberately shaped an explicit racial housing pattern for Staten Island.
This isn't ancient history, either. Most of the story unfolded in the decades following the 1964 opening of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Despite boasting the United States' oldest free-black settlement, few minorities (about 4 percent) called Staten Island home by 1960.
That suited most residents just fine. Lacking a physical connection to the rest of New York City, the borough remained a curious hybrid -- at once rural, suburban and urban -- well into the 20th century.
"Native" Islanders crafted, and still propagate, the myth of a bucolic pre-Verrazano utopia, but in actuality 220,000 people lived here in 1960. That was more than Nashville, Tenn.; Charlotte, N.C.; or San Jose, Calif.
Nonetheless, for years Staten Islanders fretfully lived in the shadow of the Verrazano's looming construction. Many feared the impending change, afraid of crowds, apartment houses, crime and ... "Negroes."
Hundreds of local newspaper articles in the 1960s and '70s decried the influx of migrants from the "other" boroughs.
Naturally, many natives condemned black and white newcomers alike, but only African-Americans faced a multifaceted, systemic process of residential discrimination.
During debates over the comprehensive rezoning resolution from 1960 to 1961, South Shore community organizations doggedly battled the city planning commission to exclusively zone their neighborhoods for detached homes on 40- to 60-foot lots.
Nearly every civic organization fought, successfully, to prohibit attached structures, apartment buildings or any low-cost housing on the vast vacant tracts of -- largely city-owned -- land. With few in positions of power willing to lobby on behalf of impoverished minority communities, tedious and seemingly innocuous zoning maps converted Staten Island's oldest and densest North Shore districts into segregated prisons.
Blacks received no aid from fellow -- mostly Italian and Irish -- migrants, since many whites left other boroughs seeking refuge from minorities.
WHITE FAMILIES FILL SOUTH SHORE
Meanwhile, middle- and lower-middle-class white families filled up and enjoyed the immense expanse of the suburban South Shore.
Every public housing project completed after 1960 stood north of the expressway, even though the first three of four complexes (constructed from 1950 to 1954) were to the south.
In 1967, when city officials proposed a planned low- to medium-priced apartment community in the seemingly limitless acres of the Annadale neighborhood, the natives quickly balked. One builder bluntly summed up the locals' obstinacy: "Let's be honest. To them (apartments) means Negroes."
Thus, thousands of blacks and Hispanics seeking tranquility were instead corralled in duplicate ghettos -- Bronx facsimiles in neglected corners of Staten Island.
Should the rare family attempt to buy (and could afford) a Staten Island home, real estate agents regularly steered blacks to the older, densely populated and economically depressed northern sections.
Numerous federal and city housing audits confirmed this pervasive pattern of real estate bias throughout the 1960s, '70s, and '80s. Agents showed African-Americans only the houses in existing (North Shore) minority enclaves -- and even then, often jacked up down payments by 15 to 20 percent.
Unsurprisingly, these neighborhoods were situated adjacent to the recently padlocked factories and idle piers of one-time manufacturing centers in Stapleton and Mariners Harbor.
A perfect storm of inherited poverty, de-industrialization, plus pervasive housing and employment bias burdened blacks across the United States, but hit particularly hard on Staten Island. Relegated to the least desirable -- and economically destitute -- communities, most newcomers lacked the requisite education or skill set to transition into an increasingly professional, service-oriented economy.
The very industrial jobs -- of which there were once 12,200, or one-sixth, of the borough's workforce -- that had served as a catalyst for the upward mobility of white native Islanders moved south, to New Jersey or overseas, in the intervening decades.
Thus, reliable, blue-collar jobs were unavailable or denied (last hired, first fired) to blacks. African-Americans stagnated in impoverished districts of overcrowded, subpar schools and consequently social mobility opportunities dissipated.
NO ISOLATED INCIDENTS
White citizens' frequent violent outbursts -- which drew far more attention than black-on-white attacks -- enforced the boundaries of Staten Island's racial geography. Whether perpetrated by police officers or private citizens, such skirmishes reflected twin features of borough society -- a casual culture of prejudice and strict separation of racial spheres.
In April 1972, unknown assailants set fire to a New Dorp home the day before the new black family's scheduled move-in date, an attack the City Commission on Human Rights labeled "arson and terrorism."
August of the same year brought more tragedy when a police officer shot in the back and killed an unarmed, black 11-year-old in New Brighton as the boy allegedly fled in a stolen car. Although unclear exactly how many shots the officer fired, the body count was unmistakable -- one dead 11-year-old and both his companions wounded along with two bystanders on a nearby stoop.
That's five gunshot victims on account of a nonviolent crime. Months later, a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict the officers involved. Sound familiar?
The '80s ushered in a wave of racial incidents at New Dorp High School. In 1980, on the heels of a limited integration effort -- 85 percent of the student body remained white -- a "race riot" broke out so severe that outnumbered black students hastily evacuated in buses. White teens gave chase, hurling stones and racial slurs. Administrators temporarily shuttered the school and it was several days before black students could return.
Three years later, 15 white teenagers confronted Brooklyn students at a middle school picnic on nearby Miller Field.
"This park's for whites only," someone yelled.
"Go back where you belong," another cried.
With bottles tossed and punches thrown, a lone teacher waved a bat, desperately attempting to shield his students. Ultimately, police escorted the students out of the area in new school buses (theirs were littered with broken glass).
Interviewed later, one New Dorp store owner proudly defended the attack.
"We've got a neighborhood to protect," he declared. A teen outside the store chimed in: "You let in one colored, and you gotta let in a thousand!"
In 1985, 30 white teenagers stashed bats and tire irons in bushes near the bus route of black students headed south to New Dorp High. Although the targeted teen was not, in fact, on board, the frenzied youths smashed the bus windows and struggled to pry open the bus door, screaming, "Open the door so we can get that nigger!"
Check the archives. These were no isolated incidents, but rather a systemic and familiar pattern of racial violence spanning several decades. Nor are such attacks relics of a cruel, distant past.
On Labor Day 2003, white teens attacked a young black woman from New Jersey in a Great Kills park. Neighborhood kids yelled racial epithets, a verbal confrontation ensued and a white girl punched the black college student in the jaw. Two of the woman's friends were seriously injured by the Great Kills crew -- one cut with a sickle and another slashed with a knife (requiring 17 stitches).
Later, the NYPD suspended two officers who were found to have discouraged the victims from filing a complaint.
Or, think back to Election Night 2008, during which four white teens viciously beat a random Liberian immigrant with a steel pipe, landing the victim in a coma for several weeks.
Or just a year earlier when four white men screamed racial epithets as they brutally thrashed a young black man for allegedly jumping on their parked car.
THE INNOCENT CHILDREN
Tragically, innocent children bear the brunt of racial and class segregation. Take the awkward, yet formative, middle school years. Blacks and Hispanics comprise 70 percent of the student body at Intermediate School 51 (Port Richmond), 75 percent at I.S. 49 (Clifton) and 77 percent at I.S. 61 (New Brighton).
Drive half a dozen miles south -- or less -- and blacks are 2 percent at I.S. 75 (Huguenot) and an astonishing 0 percent at both I.S. 7 (Huguenot) and I.S. 34 (Tottenville). It should come as little surprise that students at I.S. 7 performed fully 30 percentage points over the city average on state math and English assessments while children at I.S. 49 scored 15 percentage points below the city average.
Separation matters. Sixty years later, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education still resonates:
"Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. ... A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. ... (It), therefore, has a tendency to (retard) the educational and mental development of Negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racially integrated school system."
Why should it matter whether segregation is "official" -- written in law -- or "de facto" -- caused by injudicious policy and apathy -- when the effects on blameless children are the same?
A LOOK AT THE STATISTICS
Why, then, was it Eric Garner the detectives approached on that day? To broaden the point a bit, why did police stop a black man in the northeast corner of the Island?
Furthermore, why all the alarm -- and repeated police encounters -- regarding Garner's alleged sale of loose cigarettes?
Check the research: Whites and blacks use and distribute drugs at remarkably similar rates. In fact, Staten Island is quite representative. Though still the whitest borough, it has led the city in opioid (including heroin) overdoses over the past several years.
Probably owing to irresponsible minorities in North Shore housing projects, right? Hardly: In 2013, 32 of 34 heroin overdose victims were white.
The Island's south and whitest shore faces a veritable heroin pandemic. The Great Kills neighborhood (90 percent white, 0.3 percent black) is particularly hard-hit. The South Shore actually leads the newest borough drug crisis, but you wouldn't know it from the way the NYPD polices the Island.
Annually, from 2000 to 2009, the North Shore's 120th Precinct made an average of 775 felony drug arrests -- 14 times the average in the South Shore's 123rd Precinct -- and higher than the notorious 73rd Precinct in Brooklyn's Brownsville section.
Such disparate arrest statistics derive from outrageously uneven -- and recently discarded -- "stop and frisk" procedures in Staten Island's communities. "Stop and frisk" required little to no probable cause and left much to the discretion (and biases) of individual officers.
In the second quarter of 2013, the North Shore's 120th Precinct clocked in at an astounding 1,245 stops. That's four times the rate of the South Shore's 123rd Precinct (despite comparable populations), and way more than Brownsville's historically violent 73rd Precinct.
Among those stopped on the North Shore, 64 percent were black, 22 percent Hispanic and just 13 percent white -- this within a precinct population that is 40 percent white and just 22 percent black overall.
Lest one conclude that Staten Island blacks are disproportionately predisposed to crime, of the 75 suspects arrested -- just 6 percent of those frisked -- 23 percent were white.
Additionally, even with a highly white (85 percent) and token black (1 percent) population that they serve, police in the 123rd Precinct stopped African-Americans at four times the statistically appropriate rate. Worse still, the top two reasons for North Shore stops included "furtive movements" (50 percent) and "fits a relevant description" (24 percent) -- hardly explicit justifications.
Beyond the aggravating inconvenience of repeated stops, racial disparity in neighborhood policing has real, often tragic, consequences. More stops mean more arrests, usually for minor drug-possession offenses, which translates to disproportional incarceration rates.
Things spiral downward from there. A felony conviction translates to fewer employment opportunities, eviction from public housing, disqualification from government benefits and a lasting social stigma.
The stats astound. On the Northwest Shore, in the Mariners Harbor section, 77 percent of the population is black or Hispanic. In this remote corner of the Island, the prison admissions rate is 13 times higher than in Great Kills -- the very neighborhood most plagued by the South Shore heroin epidemic.
If the South Shore is battling heroin use and abuse, then why the utter lack of street-level stop-and-frisk in those neighborhoods? Easy. Most Island police live down there. So do their friends, neighbors, relatives and other "respectable" middle-class white people.
Imagine the public outcry in Great Kills or Annadale if police officers used the same aggressive, war-on-drugs, "stop-and-frisk tactics" against a few thousand white teenagers.
Most of the Island's wealth is in the South. So is political power (two-thirds of City Council districts are south of the expressway). And the North Shore selected its first-ever black elected official in 2009!
It's simple: Different policing produces different, usually inequitable, outcomes. This, in turn, creates powerful, lasting cultural stigmas that many Island residents still live with.
THE TRUTH DISCOMFITS
We are all, in a sense, prisoners of the borough's very old and quite deliberate racial geography.
Staten Island's spatial inequality triggers a stark racial mapping in the imagination. Perhaps this explains the offhand, if veiled, racial language we all learned while growing up.
Where did most blacks live on the Island? North of the "Mason-Dixon line" (the Staten Island Expressway).
Which housing projects were most dangerous? "Crack Hill," of course (the Park Hill Apartments).
What's the "bad" side of Midland Avenue? Easy: the Puerto Rican side.
It's but a short walk from these potent cultural constructs to biased, unjust public policy. In 2011, a Staten Island police officer pleaded guilty to charges of falsely arresting a black Stapleton man and bragged to a female friend about how he'd "fried another nigger."
In a leniency plea addressed to his federal district judge, the officer claimed that he "did not use that word out of a racist motivation, but, instead, as part of the culture that I was accustomed to." Language reflects culture, exudes meaning and exerts power.
The enforcement of racial hierarchy, contrary to popular imagination, does not require overt, Jim Crow-era decrees. The absence of "whites only" signs on public drinking fountains did not preclude construction of a complex, subtle and highly pervasive system of racial -- and spatial -- caste in Staten Island.
Notably, this mostly occurred after the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Fair Housing Act of 1968.
Most citizens (even in my own family) fervently deny the very existence of such arrangements and, quite frankly, get anxious at the very suggestion.
But the truth discomfits -- perhaps it is well that it does -- and requires this admission: There's nothing accidental or inevitable about pervasive racial segregation.
The present was not preordained. Neither is our future. Human beings -- grass-roots citizens' councils, local power brokers, city bureaucrats and cranky curmudgeons -- made millions of decisions that erected a system of racial geography on Staten Island.
Like it or not, we avoid the historical context of local -- and national -- problems at our peril.
"Blissful" ignorance satisfies our natural desire for clear, simple solutions and obviates collective responsibility for an untidy past, but we'll find no wisdom in expediency.
Erecting a structure of systemic repression demands a subtraction of context. Tyranny is the deliberate removal of nuance. Rejecting one-dimensional analyses and considering the long game leads to an unnerving conclusion:
Eric Garner died because he was the wrong color, standing on the wrong corner, on the wrong side of Staten Island.
Major Danny Sjursen is a U.S. Army strategist and former history instructor at West Point. A native of Staten Island, he graduated from West Point and served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He earned his master's degree in history from the University of Kansas and is working on his Ph.D. in civil rights in New York City. His recent book, a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War titled "Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge," was released by University Press of New England in October 2015. He lives with his wife and three sons in Fort Leavenworth, Kan."
Disturbing, deep-rooted patterns in Staten Island's racial geography | SILive.com