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More Than “Insensitive”

by Miriam Axel-Lute on March 28, 2013


“We support the residents of Ida Yarbrough.”

That was the central theme of the 50-person community response rally that gathered on the corner of Livingston Avenue and North Pearl Street on Tuesday evening. Many residents of the Albany public housing development have spoken out about their outrage and fear stemming from the Albany Police’s decision to conduct a hostage rescue training exercise with flash bombs and assault rifles there last Thursday. The exercise was conducted in a vacant building scheduled for demolition that was directly adjacent to two occupied buildings, in an attempt to have a “realistic” setting.

After residents posted pictures of the scene online—and complained of their children being terrorized and being threatened with arrest if they asked questions, left their apartments or crossed the grounds of their own residence—the story went viral on social media. This prompted national news coverage and an apology from Albany Police Chief Steven Krokoff. Krokoff said it was “insensitive” to conduct the training so near to where people lived and they wouldn’t do that again.

I’m relieved he said that much, and did so quickly. It’s not to be assumed.

But it’s not enough, and many residents, former residents, and community members are looking for more. It doesn’t address the arrest threats for one thing, which is completely not OK. It doesn’t address the assertion that notice was given, when clearly large numbers of residents were caught by surprise. It would have been thoroughly possible to reach everyone. And it doesn’t address the idea that, as Sherome Ross said at the rally Tuesday, residents of the development don’t even have a say in whether such a thing happens where they live.

“It is no longer OK for a paramilitary police force to come into our community and act in a way that creates terror,” said Pastor Patrick Avery, speaking at the event.

To me, it’s also seriously disturbing that the best case scenario explanation of how this came about in the first place is that it actually didn’t occur to the people planning it that it might be a bad idea. The sentiment I heard among some in the crowd at the rally was that it was more likely instead done on purpose as a show of force and intimidation. I’ll reserve judgment on that, but I can’t blame anyone for coming to that conclusion, especially not this soon after the shooting of Kimani Gray in Brooklyn and the journalist-free “frozen zone” police imposed on his neighborhood when his neighbors protested.

But even if it really didn’t occur to them, that betrays a startling lack of ability to think of the residents of public housing as having normal every day lives—lives that can be disrupted by gunfire, children who can get scared, and a sense of dignity that might be marred by having their environment sound and look like, a war zone.

If there were no hierarchy of whose lives are worth disrupting in place, vacant residential buildings in non-residential or even less dense residential areas would have been obviously preferable, since instead of a high-rise full of people subject to the chaos, you’d have a smaller number of neighbors affected. In a neighborhood that sees less actual gun violence and police activity, you’d also probably have less likelihood of surprised witnesses believing it was real. And if the worry is mass shooters and hostage takers, the suburbs would be a more realistic place to work, frankly.

But that’s not actually what police are using the weapons of war for these days. According to a recent Huffington Post piece, the “total number of SWAT raids in America jumped from just a few hundred per year in the 1970s, to a few thousand by the early 1980s, to around 50,000 by the mid-2000s. The vast majority of those raids are to serve warrants on people suspected of nonviolent drug crimes. Police forces were no longer reserving SWAT teams and paramilitary tactics for events that presented an immediate threat to the public. They were now using them mostly as an investigative tool in drug cases, creating violent confrontations with people suspected of nonviolent, consensual crimes.”

That, of course, sounds a lot more like what happens disproportionately in poor neighborhoods of color, and might make someone think of public housing as a “realistic” place to train for it. And looked at in that light, Krokoff’s statement about being sorry to disrupt the “very people they were training to protect” becomes a little more hollow. Yes, many people in poor communities welcome a cooperative relationship with the police and look to them for protection, for good reason. But occupying those neighborhoods with a military force, continuing to pursue a failed and racially coded drug war, and ignoring the dignity of those residents is not the way to go about that.

This matter is not closed until the people affected say it is.