‘Using Media to Create This Idea There’s a Gang on Every Street Corner’

Janine Jackson re-aired an interview with Josmar Trujillo about gang hyperbole for the August 17, 2018, episode of CounterSpin; it was originally broadcast May 6, 2016. This is a lightly edited transcript.


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Janine Jackson: When local and federal law enforcement conducted an early morning raid in the Bronx in May 2016, arresting more than 100 people accused of “gang membership,” tabloids didn’t waste any ink on words like “alleged.” But the New York Times wasn’t less cartoonish: They told readers, “For the last ten years, life in the northern Bronx has largely been defined by wanton violence.” And the Times was no less quick to cheer for this kind of militarized intervention, supposedly aimed at reducing violence. CounterSpin asked writer and organizer Josmar Trujillo for some context.

Josmar Trujillo: Raids, and gang raids in particular, aren’t new in New York City, or really in the United States. But last Wednesday’s raid, the size of it and the media hype around it, they’re expanding from the last, I’d say, two to three years. And probably even more so since the death of a police officer in my neighborhood, Spanish Harlem, last October. A lot of that had to do with the strategy of the district attorney there, Cy Vance.

Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance, pictured in the Daily News (8/20/09)

Now, Cy Vance’s father was the former secretary of Defense under Jimmy Carter. Cy Vance has really ambitious political aspirations.  And so when he came in, I think he wanted to peg himself as, like, a gangbuster.

If you look around in the city today, we have probably the lowest crime stats in the city’s history, or for like the last 50 years. There’s no Lucchese crime family, you know; there’s no big-name mobsters or gangsters out there. So how can you become a gangbuster? You find gang members, or maybe in some cases create or hype up what are known as “crews,” which are these local groupings of young men in public housing that a lot of law enforcement equate to gangs. So Vance in 2014 launched this huge raid in West Harlem, where 103 people were indicted, and that had set the city’s record, up until last Wednesday.

Another part of that might have been the arrival of Bill Bratton. He not only has a lot of experience going after gangs in Los Angeles when he was the LAPD Chief, but he’s also really good at squeezing as much mileage out of the media in terms of law enforcement. He’s kind of renowned for being a media master —

JJ: Right.

JT: —as much as a police mind. So my best sense is that the raids in Eastchester Gardens last week—which, again, is first of all in the context of a city that is much, much safer, but even that particular neighborhood, when you look at CompStat reports—again, the police department’s own reports—has crime stats for, I think maybe the last six, seven, eight years, every single year more safe than the last. And in shootings and murders in particular, which is what the media was hyping up, the last CompStat report we saw was there were two shootings year-to-date in 2016. So, again, not zero, but definitely much lower than the highs of New York City at its peak, which had a couple thousand murders a year.

My best sense is that the raid itself last week—which included several federal agencies—one of the reasons is, federal charges are being used against these suspects, so these guys are no longer being tried in state courts, they’re being tried in federal courts. But part of that is also just normalizing the role of federal authorities to deal with basically street crimes, violent street crimes, but still street crimes. My best sense is the federal agencies are trying to just find a place in crime, because there’s really not a lot of use for them in a lot of other areas.

JJ: Everybody wants a slice.

NYPD chief William Bratton given a platform in the Daily News (12/13/15)

JT: Everybody, come on into the party while it’s getting hot. Because the police department is making it a point, and in December, and with the help of the Daily News, they basically announced that they were going to be doing this, and this is going to be the new normal. And part of that is using the media, like the Daily News, to create this idea that there’s a gang on every street corner of New York City.

JJ: They also had that useful-to-the-reader guide about your own relationship to gangs, right?

JT: Yeah. I think the quote was, “How close are they to you?,” and they had this interactive map where you could basically — you know, very conveniently, you could plug in your street address and find, oh, look, honey, there’s a gang nearby.

JJ: Yeah. I know listeners understand that we’re not saying that none of the people arrested is guilty of anything. You know, that’s a strawman argument we can dispense with. But the New York Times, in their story, had basically a single community source that wasn’t an authority, and that was a woman who said, “I’m so glad, I would kiss the captain’s feet,” you know, talking about the raid. Well, you also talked to people in Eastchester Gardens in the wake of this most recent raid. What were some of the thoughts that people were telling you that didn’t make it into that Times story?

JT: So the very first person that we spoke to, and we went in there on Wednesday, you know, early evening, ten, 12 hours after the raid. And the first person that we spoke to, she was like, “I don’t know what they’re talking about. I am out here with my—” and she was out there with her two kids and her dog. She was like, “I’m out here every night with my kids, I feel pretty safe, I’ve been living here since I was born.” She was 37, so she’s been there 37 years. “I don’t know what they’re talking about. If there was any violence, it was probably like ten years ago, and it’s much safer now.” She said, “As you can see, I’m out here at night with my kids.” And the media’s playing this up as if this is a place that people were afraid to step out of their front door.

So we went and talked to a few other people, and a couple of people didn’t want to talk, because some people may be apprehensive about talking to the media, because they think that their words are going to be twisted. We really didn’t find anyone who said anything about kissing the captain’s feet. I’m sure there’s some people there who thought that this was a good idea, but most of the people we talked to, actually every single person we talked to, said the raid was over the top. Some of them differed on whether the violence was big or not big. Again, the shootings and the murders are above zero, so any number above zero, you could say deserves attention.

But one young woman that we spoke to, she was with another young man, she was crying, because she knew some of the people who were caught up in the raid. And she said these people didn’t have anything to do with it, or if they were involved in anything, low-level drug dealing or anything like that, this was years ago, and many of them had served sentences and were already coming back, were starting to raise families. So to the extent that there was even people who were involved, a lot of them were changing their life around. And the raid kind of threw them on these federal racketeering charges that made it sound like they were John Gotti.

And the heartbreaking part of it is, a lot of these young people don’t have lawyers that a John Gotti could afford. They didn’t even have the opportunity to speak to a lawyer before they were thrown in front of New York Post and Daily News front pages as gangbangers.

Josmar Trujillo

Josmar Trujillo: “They’ll look for someone that fits the narrative that they’re already going in with, and they’ll run that, and they’ll run it prominently over and over and over and over.”

This is something that, I have to say, as just being kind of a city-based writer, I’ve gone to places, and I’ve seen reporters for local news organizations talk to people who give completely different accounts of what the narrative is, and they won’t run it. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

There was a shooting a couple of years ago. I went over there, I talked to people, and I saw people being interviewed, saying things that were like, no, this is not what’s happening; this is what’s really happening, and the local news coverage just won’t run it. They’ll wait, or they’ll look for someone that fits the narrative that they’re already going in with, and they’ll run that, and they’ll run it prominently, over and over and over and over.

And that’s why I think it’s important to have alternative media be able to come in and say, like, this is what some other people are saying. To at least create some kind of conversation around it, because it’s so completely self-evident, if you were to read a Daily News article or a New York Post article, or a New York Times article for that matter.

JJ: There’s a point at which the conversation about protecting a community becomes, really, demonizing the community. I mean, how are you helping anybody by declaring that their life is “defined by wanton violence”? We see neighborhoods turned into problems in themselves. It’s not the crime, it’s the community that becomes the problem. When you talk to community advocates, they have their own ideas about how to improve things in their community, if, say, the question is gang membership, you know, or violence in public housing. What are some of the things that those community members would point people to, that we’re maybe not hearing about?

Juvenile Justice Internet Exchange (6/5/14)

JT: There was a great article in a website called the Juvenile Justice Internet Exchange, back in 2014, after the West Harlem raids. And it was actually being written before the raids happened. And the headline said it all; it said, “We Asked the City for Help, We Got a Raid Instead.” And what people were saying, and what that author and a lot of people had been saying for a long time, is that to the extent that there was violence, community members wanted to steer youth away from violence to begin with, give them other options, in a place where there’s virtually no job opportunities, education is crumbling or nonexistent. There is a sense among a lot of people of color and low-income communities across the city that this condensation of poverty is at the root of any violence.

And, again, the violence is being hyped. But to the extent that there is violence, community members wanted an approach that really steered people away and got at root causes. And they were continually ignored, over and over. And so what they got instead from the city was a giant raid, because that’s what the city understands, that’s what the police department understands. And politically, for their own reasons; it was self-serving. They want to show that they’re tough on crime still, even if the crime is a fraction of what it was 20 years ago. So they place these kids on, basically, a superpredator pedestal, and frame them in this way. And all of those conversations about after-school programming, community centers that need to be reopened because they’ve been closed for five years—in Manhattanville, which is one of the houses in West Harlem, they had a community center closed for five years straight—all of those issues just are completely ignored.

Poverty, we don’t want to hear it. Opportunities, what’s that. It’s about the gang raid, it’s about the gang members, gang member this, gang member that, and that’s all it ends up being for the people who hear about this in the media, and that’s all they’ll ever see about it. That’s the double slap in the face. On one side you get the raid, and on the other side you get the media painting your entire life as just revolving around violence.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Josmar Trujillo. You can find his recent piece, “NYPD Raids Won’t Solve NYCHA’s Violence Problem,” on the No Backspace blog at CityLimits.org, and “Gang Raids and Our Addiction to Super Predators” on Huffington Post. Josmar Trujillo, thank you very much for joining us today on CounterSpin.

JT: Thanks, Janine.

This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission from FAIR.