I’ve been working with photographer Chris Arnade to document stories in Hunts Point, Bronx and often-ignored areas of New York City. Over the course of the last year, we have noticed the impact the city’s Stop and Frisk policy has on the neighborhood. Recently, we made the decision to start documenting that in action should we see it. This Sunday, we did:
Maria was standing against the brick of her Bryant Avenue apartment in Hunts Point, Bronx when police car 4643 pulled over, and two young female officers stepped out, palms on weapons. A black sedan idled in the rear, containing two more officers masked behind darkened windows: backup. Close to 7:30pm on a Sunday, much of the neighborhood milled on the sidewalk, despite the looming storm and 90 degree temperatures. A young officer with blackened mascara eyes and glittering blue nails asked Maria to remove the lid of her Styrofoam cup and upon seeing the amber-colored liquid, charged her with open container, ignoring the explanation of juice. The officer then aggressively gestured at the grasping-at-calm, sober Maria, and dumped the cup’s contents, tossing it off the curb and into the street, where it washed and caught in a corner storm drain. While the officers wrote her citation, an action that took upwards of 15 minutes, during which she was supposed to stay against a wall, Maria dropped a gum wrapper on the sidewalk. She was ticketed for littering as her brother Vinny paced, hands clenched behind his head, and the neighborhood voiced calls of disbelief. The empty apple juice-bearing cup drifted out of the storm drain and continued its journey, rounding the corner on Seneca Street. The gum wrapper blew away. Littering was only illegal for one.
Nearby, with the snap of a photo at the scene, Chris was ticketed for parking with a wheel on the curb, and we were peppered with non-disguised threats of more “play.” He tells, and shows, what happened here.
I’ve been going to Hunts Point routinely, days and nights, for the past six months, and I’ve never been afraid. I’ve been told by colleagues and friends to be careful. “There are drug dealers.” “There’s gang violence.” Only now do I have a tight gut, realizing in a twisted turn of logic that if I am to be hurt in Hunts Point, it’s more imminently to be by the police. By taking pictures and writing, talking to those stopped on the street, legally (and respectfully) documenting police encounters, I pose the risk of being frisked, ticketed, arrested or beaten with wild card reasoning: antagonizing the situation, obstruction of justice. By continuing to comb the neighborhood, I nearly guarantee myself a forceful police encounter.
On Sunday, the block’s strain impeded my quiet stance against the parked car, the heat rising in the already sweltering summer scene, neighborhood onlookers drifting ever closer. There was a sense of desperation as the policewomen scribbled notes, avoiding contact with the people, propped behind the glaze of their cruiser doors. With every flick of the pen, every use of “fuck” — “stay the fuck over there,” “I wasn’t fucking talking to you” — every repositioning of a finger on a hip holster, I worried. Worried that someone would make a wrong move on the sticky summer afternoon in the “Central Park of Hunts Point,” as Vinny called it. Worried that I, by raising my iPhone, by talking to those around me, would tip a reactionary domino.
This danger is the closest I’ll know of the near certain brutality of life in the neighborhood — the fear of being stopped for no reason, ticketed, beaten for no reason. Here, I risk my ability to say no, to defend my basic rights. I risk the unease and mortification of having someone run his hands over me, asking me to empty my pockets and purse, spreading my belongings for all the world to see, of having to keep my tongue in a vice even while I know it’s wrong. I risk the helplessness and dismay of knowing that I can’t help a friend being hassled and abused mere feet in front of me, and that if I do, I’m in for worse.
This time, I was — we were — lucky. Lucky that Maria kept her cool. Lucky that the officers weren’t men. Lucky that the lines violated weren’t physical. This time.
The people of Hunts Point don’t get lucky that often, and I may not get that lucky again. But I’m not the one on my front porch, spending a weekend on the cracked cement lawn of my family home. I’m just visiting.