Stopped, Frisked and Speaking Out

I was recently given the opportunity to lend my voice to a news piece about a New York Police Department policy that many in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Fort Greene are upset about.  The video was published this week on “The Local,” a New York Times/CUNY Graduate School of Journalism blog.

The NYPD stopped and frisked more than 684.000 people in 2011. The NYPD set a new record with this number, almost 90 percent of these people are black or latino. Four victims in Fort Greene, (Brooklyn) tell their story about being stopped for no reason.

Lindsey Groot and Robin Antonisse are two Dutch filmmakers who joined the Hyperlocal Blog (New York Times) in February 2012 as part of a journalistic exchange program.

Have you heard of this policy? What are your thoughts? Is there a similar policy where you live? How does your community feel about it?

-NativeJournalist

Columbia University Paves the Way for West Harlem Expansion

A sign on the side of the Tuck-It-Away self storage facility in West Harlem reads in both English and Spanish, "Stop Columbia! We won't be pushed out!"

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal by West Harlem business owners of Columbia University’s use of eminent domain on Monday. This paves the way for Columbia to expand their campus into the manufacturing zone of Manhattanville and means local business owners and residents must move.

In June, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled that Columbia could begin condemning private properties in the area using eminent domain—the process by which the government seizes private property for the “public good,” in exchange for payment of fair market value—as justification. The Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the appeal this week means there is nothing standing in Columbia University’s way.

After a four-year battle, building owners and tenants will have to vacate the properties in the area to allow for the university to proceed with their $6.3 billion development project of the 17-acre site that sits just north of Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus. According to the Columbia University Campus Planning Task Force, the area “consists primarily of the four large blocks from 129th to 133rd Streets between Broadway and Twelfth Avenue, including the north side of 125th Street, as well as three properties on the east side of Broadway from 131st to 134th Streets.”

The university will build mixed-use spaces as well as research facilities and classrooms for their business, arts, science and math and engineering schools. Those in support of the project maintain that this will improve the blighted neighborhood and create thousands of jobs.

“An institution like Columbia, committed to research and teaching, in addition to public service, has enormous value to the surrounding city,” University President Lee Bollinger told the Columbia Spectator earlier this year.

However, Nick Sprayregen, owner of Manhattanville storage company Tuck-It-Away, which will be forced to vacate does not agree. Though calls to Sprayregen were not immediately returned, in a series of YouTube videos about his uphill battle with Columbia University, he says, this condemnation is being used “in an abusive way and in a way that I think is unconstitutional in that the beneficiary is a private school.”

In addition to Tuck-It-Away, a handful of low-rise commercial buildings as well as two gas stations and a McDonald’s will be forced to move.

Tachira Tavarez, a neighborhood resident, agrees with Sprayregen. “I don’t think it’s fair. Where does the school expect us to go? They keep pushing us out,” she said.

This newest development project is not the first time Columbia has come after land in the West Harlem area.

Background:

According to the Coalition to Preserve Community (CPC), Columbia University has “actively pursued a policy of privatizing community facilities and displacing low-income residents in the surrounding communities.” On their website, stopcolumbia.org, they outline what they consider “decades of assaults which lave laid the groundwork for [Columbia University’s] current efforts.”

CPC says they can trace the “assaults” as far back as 1947 when Morningside Heights Inc. (of which Columbia University is a member), initially led and funded by David Rockefeller, sought out to stop “white-flight” and the growth of the Hispanic and Black communities in Harlem.

From 1954-1957, the university demolished 10-acres of land closest to the campus. The residents who were forced to vacate, according to CPC, were almost all low-income families.

The university purchased more than one hundred buildings in the area during the 1960s, in an effort to save the university. Then, according to CPC, as the new landlords, the university raised the rent again, displacing hundreds more minority and low-income residents from the area.

In 1968, Columbia attempted to take part of Morningside Park, in order to construct a private gymnasium for its students and faculty, according to CPC.
The local community as well as Columbia University students, who supported them, started one of the most effective uprisings on any U.S. college campus, taking over campus buildings, forcing the university to shut down for the rest of the term. The protesters sought to stop the project because it would have “privatized parkland that was once open to the public” and had “overtly racist overtones.”

According to CPC, in only eight years, Columbia University displaced over 3,000 Manhattanville residents by purchasing, and in most cases demolishing, the apartment buildings in which they lived.

As a mostly white university at its inception, to this day many see Columbia as a colonist and Harlem residents (the minority and low-income tenants in particular), as the Native Americans it keeps displacing to make room for their expansion.

“Columbia’s presence seems really oppressive,” Tavarez said. “I know it’s a prestigious university, but most people in this community won’t ever even have a chance of going there. It just doesn’t seem fair.”

The present issue:

According to Community Board 9 District Manager, Eutha Prince, who oversees Manhattanville, the issue of gentrification has been a problem for years.

“I have seen countless businesses close and many people leave the area,” she said. “They either can no longer afford to rent or they are forced to move by [Columbia University] expansion efforts. Gentrification is a big problem here in West Harlem.”

Despite the objections, according to the university’s Planning Task Force, the university is committed to creating “a new kind of urban academic environment that will be woven into the fabric of the surrounding community.”

The plan features “new facilities for civic, cultural, recreational, and commercial activity,” according to a statement on their website. “And its improved, pedestrian-friendly streets and new publicly accessible open spaces will reconnect West Harlem to the new Hudson River waterfront park,” the statement said.

While some feel that these improvements are at a great cost, others are looking forward to the changes.

“I actually think [the project] is a great idea,” Anne, an undergrad at Columbia, said. Anne declined to provide her last name, saying her opinion conflicts greatly with the majority of her classmates.

According to the task force, this kind of growth will generate thousands of new local jobs and ensure “Upper Manhattan remains a world center for knowledge, creativity, and solutions for society’s challenges.”

Despite some objections from the community, Columbia University’s 25-year expansion plan is expected to improve the appearance and overall property value of Manhattanville. The plans include major infrastructure improvements, including a renovated 125th Street subway station. In addition, the university plans to build a school for the community (which might be a charter).

These expensive changes are expected to improve the overall “curbside” appeal of the area. Many, however, wonder at whose expense.

Editorial: Remembering Rosa Parks and Those Battling HIV/AIDS

Today marks two very important days. One is the 55th anniversary of the day black civil rights activist, Rosa Parks, refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. This act of courage propelled the black civil rights movement and many equal rights laws were passed because of it. The other is also very important – it’s World AIDS Day.

Remembering Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks (1913 – 2005) having her fingerprints taken after her arrest on 1st December, 1955.

Today I’m remembering Rosa Parks’ activism and dogged determination to make life better, not just for black Americans, but all people. Thank you for your sacrifices. When I feel like my life is difficult, I always think back to those who came before me and everything they had to endure. The fight is not over, though, and I promise to keep my commitment to make things better for the next seven generations.

World AIDS Day

December 1st is World AIDS Day (Photo courtesy of The Guardian)

In a similar vein, I’m also remembering the lives lost and the battles being won against HIV/AIDS. We have lost too many innocent people to this awful disease. We need more education, outreach and prevention. I am glad that so many celebrities are supporting efforts like the “Sacrifice Your Digital Life” campaign and bloggers, tweeters and social network users alike are changing their default photos to red ribbons. I just hope people will continue the activism in the coming year, starting first by getting tested. The best way to begin the health revolution to end the spread of HIV/AIDS is to use protection and get tested regularly because, as Mahatma Gandhi once said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

And, as my very wise and eloquent Mother said today, “I hope this is the last World AIDS Day.”

-NativeJournalist

Happy Halloween: A Superhero (Not an Ethnic Minority) is a Halloween Costume

I love Halloween…but I don’t love racist Halloween costumes. And, sadly, it seems like the “go to” Halloween costume is often an “Indian Chief” or a scantily clad “Indian Princess.” When in doubt, wear something brown, cut some fringe, put a headband around your head and attach a feather. Now, you’re an Indian!…??!!

image credit: jenmust.blogspot.com
Click the photo to read a great article at Colorlines.com

What kind of statement are we making when we dress up as a marginalized people? What makes us think we own their culture in this way?

I thought I was the only one who felt sick to my stomach seeing someone dressed up in costume as an “Indian Chief” or “Muslim,” but to my surprise, I’m not! There is quite a bit of buzz online about racist Halloween costumes and how to avoid being racially/ethnically offensive, while still having fun.

As ClayCane.net explained,

I saw people dressed as Mexicans, Asians and sporting the ever popular Afro wig. Putting on an Afro wig or a sombrero is not a costume. Batman or Superman is a costume, being ethnic for a night isn’t—it’s offensive.

"Native American boy" costume

Check out Gawker’s list of offensive Halloween costumes including the “Geisha girl,” “Samurai Warrior” and “Alaskan ‘Eskimo.'” TheRoot.com also has a great slideshow of wigs and masks (and glasses like the pair below) that made my jaw drop.

This is not okay.

Please think critically when you pick your Halloween costume. Just because your friend who is Native American/Black/Asian/Latino/whatever is not offended, does not mean the costume is not offensive to others! Halloween is about fun…not disrespect.

-NativeJournalist

Artist Profile: Traditional Native American and R&B Singer, Mother and Activist – Kyra Climbingbear

Click the photo to see the video

This is just a short glimpse into the life of Kyra Climbingbear, an urban Indian living in New Jersey.

She is Eastern Band Cherokee and Lumbee and Black, is a singer and an activist. Climbingbear is the mother of two small girls and is an R&B and traditional Cherokee music singer.

To learn more about Kyra visit her website.

For more about the producer and editor of the video visit AmyStretten.com

Note: I apologize for the rough introduction. I will be refining this video shortly. Please check back for a new and improved version soon!

-NativeJournalist

Reconsider Columbus Day

I would normally write something here, but I think the video speaks for itself.

Note: I would love to give credit to the makers of the above video, but the ReconsiderColumbusDay.org website is no longer working. If you find any further information on this organization, please send it my way!

Also, take a minute and check out an article I just found by Aisha Brown about why we should consider renaming Columbus Day.

…So, what are your thoughts about Columbus Day? If you feel we should be celebrating Native American Day instead, you can sign a petition here.

-NativeJournalist

Rangel Lends Support to NY Assembly Candidate Robert J. Rodriguez

Rep. Charles B. Rangel and New York state 68th district candidate Robert J. Rodriguez (D) greet early morning commuters on Wednesday (Photo by: Amy Stretten)
“It’s a beautiful day in El Barrio,” a campaign volunteer shouted over a blaringly loud megaphone to early morning passers-by walking near the No. 6 subway line entrance. “Meet Harlem’s new dream team.”

Wearing pressed suits, snazzy ties, campaign buttons and large, unnaturally perky smiles, state assembly Democratic candidate Robert J. Rodriguez (D) and Rep. Charles Rangel shook hands with commuters while wishing them a good day on their way into the 116th and Lexington Avenue subway station early Wednesday morning.

Rangel, who had won the primary against Adam Clayton Powell IV, was there to support Rodriguez, a candidate who is running to fill Powell’s empty seat as well as campaign for his own reelection. Ironically, Powell stepped down as state Assemblyman representing the 68th Assembly district – the same seat Rodriguez hopes to fill – in order to run against Rangel. To add an even bigger twist, Rangel had supported Rodriguez’s opponent, John Ruiz, during the primaries. Ruiz is now on the Working Families ticket, though he is not expected to win the race.

While he had held meet-and-greet events with morning commuters during the primary, this was Rangel’s first appearance with Rodriguez, according to Bob Liff, Rangel’s press contact.

Rangel expressed his confidence in the duo’s campaigns. “We’re running hard and we don’t take anything for granted. That’s why we’re out here,” Rangel said. “We’re out here asking the people for their support in the general election.”

Volunteers in plain clothes only identifiable by their matching Rangel and Rodriguez campaign buttons accompanied the candidates. The squad eagerly ushered passers-by to shake hands and take photos with the two local politicians. Many hesitantly met the two men while others eagerly pleaded strangers to take a photo of them with the “dream team” despite the fact that they would probably never see the photo again.

Yale educated Rodriguez, who is a native of East Harlem and of Puerto Rican decent, made his commitment to his community clear. “State government in Albany has been ignoring the needs of New Yorkers – particularly New Yorkers in this area. I think there’s no question, the demographics don’t lie. We still have the lowest income levels, the highest rate of health disparities. We can’t continue to have the highest percentages within all of those categories and say that those issues are being suitably addressed,” Rodriguez said.

East Harlem’s unemployment rate currently rests at a staggering 14%, while the national unemployment rate is 9.5%. Rodriguez hopes to lower the community’s unemployment rate to at least that of the national average.

Rodriguez, who’s campaign website gives only a few pieces of information about the candidate, comes from a political family. His late father, Robert Rodriguez Sr., represented City Council district 8. In 2009 Robert J. Rodriguez unsuccessfully ran for his father’s seat.

As chairman of Community Board 11, Rodriguez helped pass the East River Plaza mall project in hopes of bringing jobs to East Harlem. Campaign volunteer, Emma Jackson, believes that projects such as this do bring jobs to East Harlem – but to outsiders – not to community members. She hopes Rodriguez will change things for the better.

“He’s young. He’s got energy. He comes with the least amount of personal and professional and political baggage, which means he doesn’t have to give into a lot of things that some of the other candidates have to,” Jackson said. “And, I think he can be more open and listen to the people and hear their concerns.”