I was born and raised in Soundview, a neighborhood located towards the southern end of the Bronx. Soundview largely consisted of small, multi-family homes and was dotted with various project tenements for good measure. The neighborhood wasn’t (and to the best of my knowledge isn’t) the treacherous inner-city hellscape most people picture when they think of the Bronx. I’m always
Soundview in particular was relatively clean by New York City standards, which I know for some of you isn’t saying much. It was also fairly quiet unless you were near one of the shopping centers or one of the drug corners. Even then, the spots where folks were dealing was quiet minus the occasional flare-ups over territory, or money, or respect, or women, or… well you get the point. The local corner boys often helped my mother, who babysat neighborhood kids from our home, with the groceries and generally just keep an eye out for her. Looking back, it was a time when even the worst among us lived by a certain code of ethics. The crack era would change that drastically.
The part of Soundview that I grew up in was affectionately known as Cozy Corner. It was named after a popular neighborhood bar that closed sometime around the mid-seventies, shortly before I was born. The corner of Randall and Commonwealth Avenues, at its height, had the bar, and an arcade back, when arcades were a thing, along with the hood staples, a Chinese takeout, and not one, but two bodegas (I never understood how multiple bodegas could survive in such close proximity but they regularly do) and Umberto’s pizza. Umberto was the equivalent of Sal from Do the Right Thing minus the white people on the wall. He knew better.
Growing up, I don’t remember much of a police presence early on. Whether that is because I paid them no mind or that they just weren’t around much I couldn’t rightfully say. That changed by the end of the mid eighties however, as the crack era and everything that it entailed landed, or more accurately crushed Cozy. Police were suddenly ever present in Soundview. Patrol cars either shot down my quiet street with reckless abandon heading to some indeterminable location or crawled at a pace slow enough to eyeball everyone sitting on their respective stoops. Police omnipresence would ultimately culminate with a mobile tower that squatted on Cozy as an attempt to intimidate and defuse any and all nefarious activity. What it really did was make the corner look like a dystopian version of my childhood.
Overall, at its core, Soundview had a rhythm, a formula, that was fairly different from what you hear of most inner-city neighborhoods. There were understandings and deals that kept the neighborhood from spinning out of control. It was something unspoken yet understood to those who lived and worked in the neighborhood and it kept the innocents from being touched for the most part. Generally speaking, if you caught a bad one it was because you were involved the life by way of drugs, gangs, or both. But this was only understood if you understood the neighborhood.
Rudy Giuliani became the mayor of New York in 1993. He followed David Dinkins, New York’s first black mayor who, depending on who you ask, sent the city into a downward spiral of crime and lawlessness. The perception, which has been challenged by many including Dinkins himself, allowed for Giuliani to ride into the mayorship like a wild west sheriff set to save the town. Giuliani’s ran quality of life campaign and subsequent laws targeted inner-city neighborhoods and people of color and were the precursor to broken windows policing. Summonses were issued for petty offenses and warrants were issued for those who missed court dates. Not having government ID on you during a stop and frisk meant arrest, questioning, and possible arraignment regardless of whether or not a crime was actually committed. But even as oppressive as these policies were to people of color in NYC they weren’t our greatest worry. That dishonor belonged to the Street Crimes unit.
If Giuliani was the sheriff of New York, the street crimes unit were the wild cowboys. A plain clothes unit, street crimes roamed the entire city with the mission of catching muggers as well as racking up gun related arrests by any means necessary. Street crimes always gave the impression that they didn’t really report to anyone other than themselves. With the unit motto being “We own the night” it’s possible that they didn’t.
By the time I was in my mid-teens, despite my athletic/straight-laced nerd tendencies, I was both drug and gang adjacent; not by any level of attempt or modicum of “coolness” but by virtue of us all being gang and drug adjacent. Specifically, one of my best friends homes was the drug spot. It wasn’t the trap in the traditional sense. Instead, there was a gentleman’s agreement of sorts. Keep things quiet and clean and there would be no need to involve police or make any kind of fuss about the hustle happening in front of the house. It was an agreement that, in all honesty, worked out really well. Drama rarely ever touched the block. No beef of great importance, little to no violence that went beyond shooting the fair one, and by some miracle the one detective that would come through actually stopped and talked to the hustlers. It was hood nirvana.
I first became aware of the street crimes unit while walking home one night from my friend’s house with another friend. I was roughly sixteen at the time. It was a typical summer night. An unmarked yellow cab came screeching down on us from behind and four white men jumped out. I remember initially being confused at the idea of a yellow cab in the Bronx. At the time (and I’m sure to some degree still) the prospect of getting a yellow cab to stop for black people was laughable, even more so the prospect of getting one to take you to the Bronx. Four white men poured out of the cab, guns drawn yelling indecipherable directions simultaneously. My friend and i were pushed up against the gate to his house and were patted down.
“Do you have any weapons on you?”
“What do you know about the guns that were sold in the area”
As quickly as they descended they were gone. My friend and I facing the gate confused and scared.
I went home and told my parents what had happened. My father drove me to the precinct to file a complaint. We walked into the precinct and my father had me tell the desk sergeant what happened. “Yeah that sounds like the street crimes unit. It definitely wasn’t one of our officers.” The sergeant further explained that there wasn’t any real recourse as far as filing a complaint. We headed out of the precinct. My father and I never actually discussed what happened that night. There was no great lesson to be had. Be still. Comply. Stay alive. That was about it. It was just life as a black boy in New York.
February 4, 1999, a couple years after my run in, the street crimes unit would make national news. Not for any great act of heroism or spectacular detective work, but for the shooting death of Amadou Diallo, a 23 year old Guinean immigrant. Diallo was struck by nineteen of the 41 bullets shot by street crimes detectives in the vestibule of his home. The police shot so many times and for so long that the coroner removed a bullet from the bottom of Diallo’s foot. The officers claimed that they mistook the wallet he was holding for a gun. Diallo lived in the same neighborhood and precinct as I did.
In the days following the shooting there were vigils and protests. The local precinct was surrounded by barricades and officers were put on guard duty outside the building. It was the first time I ever saw the police afraid of the community they were supposed to be protecting. It was the first time I saw civic action and outrage up close. It was the moment when fear of the police went from an an abstract understanding to a concrete acceptance. If there is an “innocence” to be lost growing up where I grew up it was washed away in the collective fear and anger of a community who wanted justice.
The four officers would all be acquitted of second degree murder charges by an all white jury in Albany.
In an age before social media, before Black Lives Matter, and smartphone cameras, Amadou was the spotlight that shone down on the oppressive policing practices that put people of color in a state of continuous danger.
The irony of it all being that while the scourge of crack and gangs were a blight on my little neighborhood the community still survived and in some ways thrived despite it all. Neighbors, community organizations, and schools made the unbearable bearable. My greatest sense of danger occured on a random summer night at the hands of those who were supposed to be protectors of the community.
James Baldwin once asked “Does the law exist for the purpose of furthering the ambitions of those who have sworn to uphold the law, or is it seriously to be considered as a moral, unifying force, the health and strength of a nation?” It is a question that is the crux of every police related death before and since Diallo. But it’s a question that also assumes the acceptance of the humanity of people of color. It is an acceptance that I am not convinced exists.
In the nineteen years since Diallo’s murder it feels like everything has changed and nothing has changed. And while my interactions with police after that night have been rare, and to be fair, uneventful, the fear that the passing of time and the series of mundane interactions with law enforcement are nothing more than single ticks on a clock counting down to something inevitable and tragic. It is a fear born of the rippling trauma of seeing black folks shot, choked, tased, and beaten on television and in our social media feeds on a daily basis. And in that sense I and every Black person in America has already been assaulted psychically.
This is the point where I’m supposed to have some poignant observation to neatly wrap-up this entire essay. The truth is I don’t. 0I was scared the night street crimes swooped down on me. I was shocked when Diallo was shot. I was angry when Michael Brown was killed. I was saddened when Philando Castile was murdered. But now I’m just tired. What do you do when tragedy becomes mundane?