Hip-Hop Artists Arrested in East Harlem Claiming Surveillance by NYPD
Just after 4pm on December 15th, two members of the activist hip-hop group the Welfare Poets, along with four additional males, were arrested at the Wagner-Johnson housing project in East Harlem and charged with trespassing, a misdemeanor. Welfare Poets members Michael Pacheco (a/k/a Legendary M.I.C.) and Keith Hughes (a/k/a Dahu Ala), along with filmmakers Rickey Turner and Wander Acosta and local artists Iz the Truth and Boom Box, were filming a music video on the building's roof when a pair of NYPD officers doing rounds in service area #5 asked them for a permit to film on the premises. Things quickly got out of hand.
According to Pacheco, the officers knew immediately who they were and told them that they've been under surveillance for some time. By this time, four additional NYPD officers had been called to the scene. When Pacheco opened his jacket to pull out a cigarette, the officers noticed the Welfare Poets logo (a seal featuring interconnecting Puerto Rican independence and African freedom symbols) and began searching the hip-hop artist's jacket without permission.
"He said, 'Oh you guys are Macheteros,'" remembers Turner. "As soon as they arrested us, the same officer then came back and said, 'I was going to let you guys go but the sergeant said no.'"
"The first cops entered with guns drawn to [Pacheco's] chest," remembers IZ. "We all stood there in peace and told them they didn't have to go that far, as were only shooting a video."
"The cops laughed," he continued.
The sergeant and lieutenant present made the decision to take the sextette to central booking where they would remain for over 24 hours. By accusing them of involvement with Los Macheteros, the officers implied ties to a group the FBI previously labeled as terrorists.
Los Macheteros ("Machete Wielders") are a clandestine militant organization based in Puerto Rico who campaign for the independence of Puerto Rico from the U.S. and have been accused of stealing over $7 million from private U.S. bank accounts to further their cause. In 2005, the FBI assassinated its leader, Filiberto Ojeda Rios, surrounding his house in Hormigueros in what they claimed was a simple attempt to serve an arrest warrant gone violent.
How the Welfare Poets became associated with Los Macheteros goes back to 2007, when a federal grand jury handed down subpoenas to a number of NYC-based Puerto Rican activists, all of whom refused to testify except Julio Pabon Jr.. Pabon told Juan Gonzalez of Democracy Now! in '08 that he saw two people he recognized in a book of photos shown him at FBI headquarters. One of the two was Hector Rivera of the Welfare Poets. No action was taken on the part of the grand jury, but the Welfare Poets and other groups, like the Puerto Rican Freedom Project, have felt the need to make more concerted efforts in protecting fellow activists from what they call baseless accusations and inquiries on the part of the government.
"We have been targets of the police and feds," writes Pacheco from Iceland, where the Welfare Poets are currently on tour for the next three weeks, "because music with a purpose is ultimately liberating. For years, we have consistently used our music to give information and inspiration to oppressed people everywhere."
The six men who were arrested finally stood before a judge on Sunday around 10pm, weary and more than a little shaken. "The way it took 10 hours to be allowed to make a phone call," recalls Turner, "the way my food had been slid under the metal bars, even having a gun pointed at me, I felt I was being imprisoned as a mass murderer or something."
Pacheco went first before the judge, where he quickly accepted an Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal (ACD) without legal counsel. The other five members were represented by attorneys Lamis J. Deek and Roger Warham, who recommended not taking the ACD offer, as it forgoes the defendants' right to sue the police for malicious prosecution. However, the defendants all followed suit and accepted the ACD, whereupon they were released without bail.
"[What] this demonstrates [is] the expansive nature of the NYPD's intel operations," says Lamis J. Deek, an attorney representing the six arrested parties. "The different ways they target activists and those who dissent, and the unfortunate price the taxpayers of New York are forced to pay for illegal activity on the part of the NYPD."
"I'm not a criminal," insists Turner, "just an educated lower class artist." The case has been sealed for six months in accordance with the ACD.
When reached, the NYPD had no comment.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.