Op-Ed | Fallout from City Hall protest clash continues

Rikers Island as seen from the air.
Rikers Island as seen from the air.
Photo by Dean Moses

I once heard the saying, “If you give people enough time, you will eventually see their true colors.” Last Wednesday, on the steps of City Hall, that is exactly what happened. My fellow advocates and I showed up to have our voices heard, calling for the end of the inhumane practice of holding incarcerated individuals in solitary confinement. As someone who has spent time in what is otherwise called “The Box,” or “The Hole,” I have also experienced mental stagnation and the long-lasting trauma it causes.  This is what I live with every day. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to express those feelings on Wednesday, because we were prevented from holding our rally as belligerent individuals from the so-called Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association (COBA) first refused to leave the City Hall steps for 30 minutes, and then shouted over us as we tried to start our rally. They were intent on bullying us, as well as the City Council members who stood with us. That was triggering for me. Let me explain.

I spent most of my life in prison for crimes I committed out of anger and poverty while living in a dysfunctional household. No excuses here. Friends, family and the courts told me I needed to take responsibility for those acts, and I did. It took me a long time to change my behavior and my outlook on life. Transformation is not easy, but I must say, “correction” officers  did nothing to help my process. While growing up in jail and prison, guards used racism, humiliation, intimidation, and aggression to make sure I knew exactly how they felt about me every single day and night. It did not matter if I was weak or strong, smart, or struggling, in their eyes I was less than a human being. On the steps of City Hall last week, I saw that same disregard in the words and actions of the guards who taunted us. 

My work as a community organizer has its challenges. There are people who support our goals – to close Rikers, reduce incarceration, protect the rights of incarcerated people, and transform our approaches to community safety – and there are people in opposition. I have no problem with principled disagreement, but what confronted us with last week was a level of aggression I have not seen since my incarceration. It transported me back to prison again, experiencing that fear. To make matters worse, the NYPD officers assigned to City Hall that day showed their loyalties and allowed it to happen – a reaction I cannot imagine if the roles were reversed. Jesse Jackson once said, “Deliberation and debate is the way to stir the soul of democracy.” Though this is true, when those efforts are confronted by hostility and malice, then war is waged, and everyone loses. 

The disgusting behavior exhibited by these officers is but a glimpse of how they act when they are patrolling cellblocks, dormitories, and the visiting room area on Rikers Island. Just pause for a minute and imagine knowing that a person with so much hostility holds your life in their hands – controlling your access to visits, medical care, court, law library, mail and more. Remember also if you get on their bad side, they can beat you, lie about it, call you the aggressor, throw you in solitary, and all you’ll get is a “hearing” held by their fellow officers without anyone there to represent you. 

New York City’s jails are full of people who have been failed by society – who often need treatment, housing, and stable income – and are enduring the further duress that comes with being incarcerated before having a chance to make their case in court, as 90% of them are. DOC’s workforce does not have the case management skills to support the population in need of these important services – and so they keep failing at the “care” part of their “care, custody, and control” mandate. But without care, they can never achieve control, because something fundamental in all of us demands to be treated with dignity. 

Throughout the hearing on Wednesday, we heard the word “accountability,” and I agree that accountability is key in building a just society. I have taken responsibility for everything I have done – good or bad – in this world. But what about bullies disguised as civil servants? No one from COBA has issued an apology – not to the public for acting like fools; not to the advocates who came to participate in what should be a democratic process; and not to the family members whose loved ones died in DOC custody, who COBA tried to intimidate and silence. Who will hold them accountable?  

Edwin Santana is a former Rikers Island inmate, an advocate, and a community organizer with Freedom Agenda. 

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