A two block stretch of West Harlem once religiously strolled as a source of inspiration by such cultural deities as Malcolm X, James Baldwin and Billie Holiday is now drawing dimmed comparisons to such battle zone areas as The West Bank, South Africa and Wall Street in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 as conflicted residents continue to grapple with a police lockdown that has now festered for well over two weeks.
From dusk to dawn, West 129th Street between Adam Clayton Powell and 5th Ave. remains almost completely barricaded and all residents and their guests are required to show ID as they travel to and from through contingents of armed guards and checkpoint areas readily littered with metal barriers.
The barricades went up on the night of June 3, following what police term the gang-related shooting death of 25-year-old Ackeem Green on a nearby park basketball court. Those who knew Green, a member of the Harlem Youth Marines nonprofit that steers youth from gangs and violence, insist he was simply an innocent bystander caught in the middle of a brazen, broad daylight shootout.
Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and even Mayor Michael Bloomberg have continued to defend the inarguably unconventional patrols by maintaining they’re only being erected as an ode to public safety.
“We understand it doesn’t make everybody happy,” said Kelly. “We understand people are inconvenienced by showing identification. But what we’re trying to do is save young lives,” added Bloomberg. “What would they say if we didn’t do that and one of them was killed in a random shooting?”
Apparently lost in all the translation among top city officials is internalizing all the added stress and strain the burden of being made to feel like prisoners in ones own home has placed on so many innocent residents.
“I feel like we’re in a concentration camp,” 13-year-old neighborhood teen Jovanni Santanna Jr. told the New York Post. “Cops asking me for ID just to get on my block … what the hell kind of ID do I have.”
Comparing it to South Africa’s apartheid era, longtime Carmelite John Barnes shares he has been forced into heated exchanges with officers after he observed a white neighbor being allowed to freely walk through the barricades without having to show ID while he has always been systematically detained.
“It was about to get ugly,” he said. “Why do I need an ID to go home… and when did this become a gated community?”
“Why hasn’t the NYPD considered increased foot patrols instead of transforming a two-block area into a Constitution-free zone?” said New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman.
Adding to all the tension, just last Sunday on Father’s Day tens of thousands of protestors, led by the Rev. Al Sharpton in a silent demonstration that stretched for more than 20 blocks and numbered as many as 50,000, marched through the neighborhood to call further attention to the city’s equally controversial stop-and-frisk policies.
According to ACLU officials, stop and frisk encounters have spiked by more than 400 percent in recent years (685, 724 stops in 2011 compared to just 160,851 in 2003 when the policy was first implemented), with nearly 90 percent of all stops targeting blacks and Latinos.
“Stop-and-frisk is the most massive local racial profiling program in the country,” said NAACP President Todd Jealous. “All children, of every color, should feel protected by our police, not threatened, harassed or intimidated.”
Also taking part in the march were the parents of 18-year-old Ramarley Graham who was shot to death in his Bronx home on Feb. 2 by since criminally charged detective Richard Haste, who wrongly maintains he was under the impression the teen was armed.
“Today sends a message that something is wrong with the system,” said Frank Graham. “It made me feel so good to see all the people come out. We just want to show people that we’re tired of the policies that discriminate against people of color. The policies have to be changed.”
Hours later and upon observing the armed guards and metal barriers still lining his neighborhood, Sintora Simpson sought to put all things in perspective. “I’m a citizen of this city and I’m not a criminal,” he said. “I pay taxes… I can walk up and down any block I choose. People don’t realize that their rights are being taken away. How is this making me safer?”
When pressed as to when their operation might end, police remained noncommittal, cavalierly shooting down raised hopes and reports that circulated throughout the day that the barricades might all be coming down in the days ahead.