On April 27, 2016, 120 young men in the Bronx were arrested in an early morning military-style action by the NYPD and federal agents that would become the largest “gang raid” in New York City’s history. The young men are known as the Bronx 120, and more than half of them have already taken plea deals, meaning that much of what the NYPD and the Department of Homeland Security have as evidence against many of them will never see the light of day. Yesterday, exactly one year after the raid, the families of the Bronx 120 took to the steps of City Hall to demand the end of the NYPD’s use of gang-policing tactics, where Facebook status updates can put you on the NYPD’s gang database and make you a part of federal racketeering charges.
“We need to make it known to the NYPD that we can’t let this continue,” said a mother of one of the Bronx 120 who asked not to be identified, for fear of retaliation against herself or her son by the NYPD. “Our children are sitting in jail. They have charges on these young people, these RICO [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act] conspiracy charges, which were created for the mafia. Even the mafia got bail. It’s dirty in there, it’s so filthy. The charges against these kids are nonsense. The police are the most corrupt people we got in this city.”
The 2016 raids, which took place in the Eastchester Gardens housing project, tied the 120 men to a vast, almost decadelong criminal conspiracy that included eight murders, as well as gun possession and drug distribution. The indictment from Bronx County following the raid never surfaced, and only federal charges were made public.
But looking at a New York County indictment filed as part of the 2014 raids in Harlem’s Manhattanville and General Ulysses S. Grant Houses, which resulted in the arrest of 103 men and was the city’s largest raid until last year’s, the NYPD and district attorney built cases that heavily relied on Facebook status updates like “Fuck Grant” and “Money Ave Up.” Much of the government’s case was built around normal interactions between individuals who happen to be growing up close to one another, and are shouting out of the buildings they live in.
In taking down entire social networks, critics of the practice say the NYPD and DHS imprisoned an entire generation of a neighborhood’s young people. Then–U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara included the social media use as part of the evidence against the Bronx 120, saying they used Facebook and YouTube “to promote, protect, and grow their ranks.”
“I don’t call these young people gang members. . . . I call them people that need some guidance, that need some people to go out into the community to show them the right way to live,” said Taylonn Murphy Sr., whose daughter, Tayshana Murphy, also known as Chicken, was shot and killed in 2011. His son, Taylonn Murphy Jr., was arrested by the NYPD and FBI during the 2014 raid in the Manhattanville projects. Murphy has since gone on to start an anti-violence program in the Queensbridge Houses in Queens, which are about to celebrate two years without a single murder. The death of Murphy’s daughter, the arrest of his son, and his own efforts to stop the cycle of violence were the subject of a New Yorker feature in 2015.
“When you take 103 individuals out of any community,” Murphy said, referring to the 2014 raids, “you absolutely and positively take away a generation. You’re weakening our community. You’re losing all these resources,” Murphy said.
CUNY law professor Babe Howell has traced the NYPD’s use of gang policing from the court-mandated end of its stop-and-frisk program, which they used to keep tabs on and track young black and brown men throughout the city.
“New York City does not have a gang problem,” Howell said on the steps of City Hall, noting the record low numbers of murders in the city, and the miniscule amount of those that could be tied to even the most generous definition of gang-related violence. The NYPD began going after “gangs” in a more concerted effort in 2012, when they announced an initiative called Operation Crew Cut.
“In the year before Operation Crew Cut, they only had 200 crimes they considered gang-related. Less than 1 percent of all crimes in the city,” Howell said. “But once you slap the name ‘gang’ on something, all of the New Yorkers who were concerned about stop and frisk stop being concerned. They say these are the worst of the worst. But they’re not. There were only two homicides in the Harlem indictments.”
Howell says the lack of critical media coverage of the raids in comparison to the widespread outcry over the use of stop and frisk gives the NYPD license to continue policing in a way that turns public housing in the city’s boroughs into war zones, constantly surveilled by the NYPD with nighttime raids placing entire generations of young people in the criminal justice system.
“Out of the 120, 12 of those boys I taught,” said Cynthia Turnquest-Jones, a teacher in the city’s public schools for over twenty years. “According to their indictment, they were watching these boys while I was teaching them, which was when they were in middle school. We have a plethora of boys who are being preyed on. Because black lives do matter. It matters for their pockets. Black boys are wanted alive so they can be imprisoned. How can these boys spend years of their life under police surveillance?”
The Bronx 120 family members and their supporters marched from City Hall to the steps of the U.S. Attorney’s office, where speeches against the raids continued. Naz Ahmed, an attorney with CUNY’s Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility (CLEAR) project, which works with individuals who are either being surveilled by the FBI or approached to help the FBI surveil Muslim communities, spoke about the connection between the two efforts.
“Gang raids and Muslim surveillance are no different. The NYPD was surveilling these kids when they were twelve. The FBI does the same thing to Muslim communities. It looks at their online activities and says, ‘Oh, you’re going to be a terrorist,’ ” Ahmed said.
Last year, following the gang raid, Mayor Bill de Blasio, a staunch opponent of stop and frisk while campaigning for mayor, thanked the NYPD and the federal government for “apprehending these dangerous individuals and keeping New York the safest big city in America.”
“These boys should have been scientists. They should be lawyers. Doctors. Instead, they’re sitting behind bars, because they’re worth more behind bars than in the educational system,” Turnquest-Jones said. “We need to look closely at those indictments. Because those indictments show that they’ve been preying on our sons, Black and Latino, from the age of twelve. We need a change right now. We need to get those 120 boys out, and we’ll make sure they become the doctors and lawyers and kings that they were supposed to be.”