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Police Killed Saheed Vassell in a Gentrifying Neighborhood. Did That Make a Difference?

Eric Vassell, Saheed Vassell’s father, makes an appearance at a rally in protest of the police-involved shooting death of his son Saheed Vassell, in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Drew Angerer / Getty

Police Killed Saheed Vassell in a Gentrifying Neighborhood. Did That Make a Difference?

Last week, the night after Saheed Vassell was shot and killed by the NYPD, a large crowd gathered for a vigil and a speak-out on the Brooklyn street corner where Vassell died. Several of the speakers asked rhetorically who called 911, summoning the police who shot him. As reporting in the New York Times showed, many of Vassell’s neighbors in Crown Heights were familiar with him. They knew he was harmless and that he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. So, was it newcomers to the neighborhood who called the police that day?

The three 911 call transcripts do not provide many clues, and the NYPD does not release identifying information about 911 callers. One caller sounds like a laundromat employee or owner. While it is hard to know in this case if gentrifiers were among the three callers, the aggregate trend is clearer: Calls to the NYPD are higher in gentrifying neighborhoods, and Vassell’s neighborhood was gentrifying.

Requests for service provide one window into this trend. While New York City does not release data on emergency calls, it does release data on non-emergency calls to the NYPD made via 311. These include complaints about noise, drinking, drug activity, urinating in public, and illegal parking.

Last year, the NYPD received 319 non-emergency complaints from the typical neighborhood. The median gentrifying neighborhood, however, generated 386 complaints, and Saheed Vassell’s neighborhood generated 451. As with emergency call data, the identities of 311 callers are not known. But, as these numbers show, as more middle-class, credentialed, and white residents move into New York City’s formerly working-class areas, calls to the police increase.

Saheed Vassell’s Brooklyn neighborhood was, by any metric, gentrifying. A common definition of gentrification includes neighborhoods with below-median incomes in a given year and above-median growth in property values and residents with a bachelor’s degree in subsequent years. Vassell’s neighborhood meets these criteria — and then some. In 2009, the typical household there made less than half the city median income according to Census data. Seven years later, in 2016, real estate prices had gone up 30 percent, median monthly rent increased by $170, and the percent of residents with a B.A. rose over 55 percent. The racial composition also changed, with the white population growing from 9 percent to 14 percent of residents.

The map below shows the number of 311 complaints to the NYPD for New York’s 2,000 census tracts. While it is clear that gentrification is far from the only trend affecting call differences, some neighborhoods commonly understood to be gentrifying experienced high call volume. These included Long Island City, Greenpoint, Williamsburg, and Crown Heights. Wealthier, whiter, more stable neighborhoods experienced few calls, including most of Staten Island, the Upper West Side, the Upper East Side, and low-density Queens. The north shore of Staten Island, where Eric Garner died from an NYPD chokehold in 2017, is another gentrifying neighborhood that experienced high numbers of complaints to the NYPD.

While gentrification often includes changes in a neighborhood’s class composition and housing prices, ethnoracial differences can prove the most salient. A 2016 study by Joscha Legewie and Merlin Schaeffer found 311 complaints increased in the “fuzzy boundary” areas between racially homogeneous neighborhoods. These “transitional areas” are often where gentrification is most acute.

In the context of neighborhood change, conflicts can arise between newer and long-term residents. The groups might disagree about norms for behavior in public space, about appropriate noise levels or parking etiquette. Racial bias by new, white residents might make them fearful of their Black and Latino neighbors. And new residents, no matter their identity, will be less likely to know their neighbors. Any neighborhood experiencing a frequent churn of residents is likely to be a more anonymous neighborhood.

Besides generating more calls to police, does gentrification affect police behavior? A 2017 study by Ayobami Laniyonu found a strong association between gentrification and increased police stops. In an unpublished study, I found police made, on average, more pedestrian stops of Black and Latino people and fewer stops of white people in New York City when a neighborhood’s white population increased. Instances of police killing unarmed Black people are the tip of an iceberg that includes frequent, lower-level police interactions.

The public conversation around gentrification includes discussion of how it can raise housing prices, displace long-time residents, and reshape neighborhood retail options. In addition to rent hikes, evictions, and coffee shops, gentrification might bring more police activity. And as Saheed Vassell’s death shows, the consequences can be severe.

A Letter to Jay-Z: Don’t Keep This Promise

Jay-Z speaks at a Grammy Awards gala
Mike Coppola/Getty Images

A Letter to Jay-Z: Don’t Keep This Promise

Dear Jay-Z,

We need to talk. I want to understand how funding your new app, “Promise,” is going to dismantle what you’ve called the “exploitative bail industry.” The Black Youth Project, among others, has rightly criticized the profiteering possibility of Promise. I’m down with liberty and justice for all. And I know you are too. So let me unpack for you how, even with the best intentions, your app is going to put more people behind bars.

Promise — a new app that “extend[s] the capabilities of community supervision” through intake/assessment, virtual support, and supervision/oversight — fundamentally misunderstands the problem. Promise collects a fee from government agencies to develop individual “Care Plans” and monitor a person’s compliance with the plan. Via smartphone, a person under supervision can check in to locations, receive calendar reminders for appointments and court dates, as well as be monitored via GPS. All information collected digitally is then provided to the responsible government agency.

The individualized “Care Plan” referrals for “job training, housing, and counseling” sound great, if these programs actually existed in sufficient numbers. The problem is not that people can’t find these programs — it is that these programs hardly exist and those that do exist are often oversubscribed. We would love to see more investment in the people and programs dealing with the leading causes of incarceration, such as substance use, mental illness, homelessness, unresolved trauma, and unemployment. How will your new project support and expand these critical programs?

Image from the Promise website

Second, your developers don’t seem to understand how the criminal justice system works on the ground. I get that you want to reduce recidivism by helping people keep appointments, and track the many confusing fees demanded by pretrial supervision. However, many of the different court data systems are entirely offline, or incompatible with other systems. Here in New Orleans (where we have the highest rate of jail incarceration in the nation), we still process people on paper because the court’s computer system can’t “talk” to the jail’s computer system. The Promise app can’t possibly be as comprehensive as it claims, and could in fact sow more confusion.

The shuttered New Orleans House of Detention (1965–2012)

Third, the app conflates people who are being held pretrial, and have not been convicted, with people who have been convicted and are living in the community on probation or parole, by offering the same tools for both populations. The danger here is that the government may start requiring of pretrial participants what is currently demanded of those who have been convicted — such as monitoring or program participation — because those tools are available through the app for all participants, whether they are convicted or not. Additional conditions expose people on pretrial release to further sanctions if they fail and in some cases, the conditions can be just as punitive as being detained in jail pre-trial. For people on probation or parole, the app doesn’t appear to distinguish between technical violations, such as missing an appointment because the buses stopped running during a flash-flood, and new criminal activity. The app simply records compliance or non-compliance without local knowledge or insight. Your app may perpetuate or even strengthen “the cycle of incarceration and supervision” for individuals at both the pretrial and probation or parole level.

Signs for our march and rally supporting formerly & currently incarcerated women and girls on December 15, 2017

If it isn’t clear already, I don’t think Promise is designed to help us. Tellingly, the Promise website refers to the government as the “client” and the person under supervision as the “participant.” It is designed to help the government control us by providing “real-time location tracking and immediate notification of violations” to government agencies. Why would you help the government find new ways to reliably and cheaply track a person’s day-to-day movements? (See e.g. Facebook and Palantir data collection/mining systems). Promise is part of a technological approach to old practices of mass incarceration that have never worked in favor of Black, Brown, and poor white people.

The government has never needed investors to create systems of control. Electronic monitoring has been used to expand the prison-industrial complex into our own homes. These “monitored releases” are not an alternative to incarceration, they are incarceration by an alternative means. Electronic monitoring is typically used to put literal shackles on people who should be released on parole or bail. Digital technology has brought us the databases used to discriminate against over 100 million Americans with criminal records, regarding housing, employment, education, volunteering, and voting. Digital controls are the incarceration of the future.

The solution to poor people’s inability to pay bail is not more monitoring, but less bail. We could curb excessive bail, and eliminate it entirely for lesser crimes and misdemeanors. Release on your own recognizance, without money security, should be the starting point for bail decisions. Creating a byzantine system of monitoring and special requirements before someone is convicted actually leads to higher incarceration because even unintentional acts are deemed “violations.” We would welcome your investment in our reform campaigns in Louisiana, the most incarcerated state in the nation.

Baton Rouge Lobby Day for Louisianans for Prison Alternatives, March 27, 2018

We need so much more, though, than the end of the cash bail system. We need infrastructure. We need schools, hospitals, and jobs. We need reliable transportation and access to social services. We need police who are educated, trained, and rewarded for treating us with dignity and respect. We need humane jail and prison conditions. We need sheriffs, judges, and prosecutors who learn about rehabilitation and re-entry from the people who have succeeded and are leaders in the community. We don’t need an app that reinforces the current systems of incarceration or props up a system that profits off of people.

I would love to persuade you to put your money and your time elsewhere. You can’t claim the mantle of “anti-incarceration” by offering to help the government enforce arbitrary rules against us. Supervision is just another word for control. If you want to reduce the number of people in prisons or jails, we need to change the rules. I’ve got ideas for you. We can do this work together.


Andrea Armstrong

Professor of Law, Loyola University New Orleans

p.s. Your investment notwithstanding, you will always have my deep appreciation for “99 Problems,” which I use to teach my students the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment.

* Thanks to Bruce Reilly, Deputy Director of Voice of the Experienced, for his thoughtful comments and suggestions.

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Anti-Backpage Law Not Yet Enacted, But the Crackdown on Sex Workers Has Already Begun

Anti-Backpage Law Not Yet Enacted, But the Crackdown on Sex Workers Has Already Begun

On Friday, April 6, the same day that Congress sent FOSTA — the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act — to President Donald Trump for his signature, the Department of Justice seized, the website FOSTA was meant to take down. After weeks of arguments about why this legislation was necessary to attack sites hosting sex work ads, it turned out the government could target Backpage without it.

Before the Senate had finished its vote on FOSTA on March 21, its co-sponsors gathered for a press conference, livestreamed by the Senate GOP. “We had a big victory,” began Senator Rob Portman (R-OH). “We now have the ability to go after these websites that are exploiting women and children online.” A few minutes later, an adult model named Brie Taylor said she was trying to access, a website that hosted sex work-related ads. “I was flagging an ad with my pics in it,” she tweeted, “…and then the site was gone.”

That advertising site is still offline — along with Craigslist’s entire Personals section, and the ad sections of several lesser-known websites. But the big news came Friday afternoon, when Backpage had its homepage replaced with a notice stating, “ and affiliated websites have been seized as part of enforcement action by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation Division.”

Groups that had long been mobilizing against Backpage, like the anti-sex work lobby group Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) and the religious right group National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) have celebrated the takedowns. FOSTA is not yet in effect, but in demanding the law, its supporters have already created a political environment more favorable to such law enforcement actions.

FOSTA, as advocates warned, offered a symbolic win against Backpage that went beyond a legislative victory for people who have been trafficked. “It seems to me that a lot of FOSTA’s supporters simply want Backpage to be unprotected, period,” Alexandra Levy, adjunct professor of law at Notre Dame Law School, where she teaches about human trafficking, told The Appeal. “And FOSTA is indeed necessary if that’s your goal.”

At least one of FOSTA’s authors acknowledged that link explicitly. Though the bill is not yet signed, Representative Mimi Walters (R-CA) tweeted Friday, “Thanks to #FOSTA with my #SESTA Amendment, the Department of Justice has seized and affiliated websites that have knowingly facilitated the sale of underage minors for commercial sex.”

Supporters of the legislation pitched FOSTA, along with the original bill that inspired it, SESTA (the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act), as a tool to fight trafficking by making it easier for victims to file civil suits. Backpage’s alleged involvement in trafficking was also the subject of a 2017 Senate investigation, which sparked this legislation. But despite claims about the site, the seven Backpage owners and staff named in this week’s indictment have not been charged with trafficking. Rather, they face the same charges — money laundering, violation of the Travel Act for facilitating prostitution — already used against the sex work sites and in recent years.

By the time FOSTA came to a Senate vote in March, the tech companies that opposed it on free speech grounds had largely backed off. The remaining opposition came from those who stood to lose the most from the legislation: sex workers themselves. The disappearance of ad sites like Backpage is what sex workers’ rights advocates had feared. They argued that the sites helped them stay safe by allowing them to screen clients and avoid more dangerous situations — a form of harm reduction, as they described it — though those concerns went unheard in Congress. Now “people are angry, terrified and panicked,” Lola, a community organizer with Survivors Against SESTA, a newly formed campaign for sex worker rights’ advocates, told The Appeal.

Since the Senate vote, the group has collected reports from sex workers about websites that have shut down or changed their terms of service so as to exclude sex workers. “Some of the content that’s getting removed is livelihood-related,” she said. “Some of the content is activism-related.” At the same time, the anti-Backpage group NCOSE is keeping its own tally of site takedowns, celebrating them on Twitter. A CATW policy adviser and former staffer in the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons tweeted “#SESTA impact” and an image of a 2009 Israeli air force bombing of Gaza.

As these groups claim victory for FOSTA’s passage — and still fundraise based on it — much about the actual enforcement of FOSTA remains uncertain. What is clear is that the ad platforms sex workers rely on for income are going offline. And that leaves sex workers desperately trying to figure out how to respond — and how to survive.

FOSTA, the bill that passed both the House and Senate, is expected to be signed by Trump. (The bill known as SESTA is essentially dead, though elements of it were included in FOSTA.) FOSTA amends both the Mann Act, a 1910 law concerning what was called at the time “white slavery,” and the Communications Act, to allow state attorneys general and victims of trafficking to take legal action against website operators for “the intent to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person.”

“Facilitating” prostitution, however, could cover a very broad set of activities. SESTA co-sponsor Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), in a floor speech before the Senate vote in March, said the legislation before them “would not criminalize so-called ‘harm reduction’ communication.” But that’s far from a guarantee, critics say, since we don’t know how prosecutors might try to make these “facilitating” cases. There’s also no guarantee a site sex workers use to exchange “bad date” lists or other health and safety information couldn’t also be exploited by traffickers and thus be vulnerable to lawsuits.

In the weeks after the FOSTA vote but before the law has gone into effect, two cases against Backpage advanced in courts in Massachusetts and in Florida. Ironically, these are the kinds of lawsuits, charging Backpage with trafficking, that FOSTA’s supporters said would be impossible without changing the law. The Massachusetts case may provide a glimpse into the legal problem FOSTA was supposed to solve. In that case, a judge ruled that since one plaintiff showed evidence Backpage had altered an ad she was featured in, her case against the company could proceed.

“This result shows that even the slightest bit of evidence that Backpage creates ads for trafficking victims will allow those victims to have their day in court,” said Levy of Notre Dame Law School. The existing law targeted by FOSTA, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, said Levy, “doesn’t offer protection to any traffickers, including websites, and this case demonstrates that fact.”

While it’s impossible to predict how FOSTA will be enforced, said Levy, “it doesn’t even matter that much, because uncertainty does most of the heavy lifting when it comes to chilling speech. Nothing is as destabilizing as confusion in this context…. no one can honestly assure people that they won’t be on the hook.”

Backpage was a clear target, but before it was taken offline, more than a dozen other ad platforms had been taken down by their owners since the Senate vote on March 21. All of this is contributing to the panic sex workers are reporting. These takedowns are about how different owners of different sites and platforms interpret a law that has yet to be enforced, and many of those owners are making those calls without notice.

The same week as the Senate vote, some sex workers began reporting that their content was vanishing from Google Drive — not only content related to doing sex work, but educational materials intended for the general public. “The actions tech platforms have taken on individual accounts can be so isolating — they’re hard to prove,” Lola from Survivors Against SESTA said. “They come without warning. Sites like Google are denying that they’re SESTA/FOSTA-related.” (A Google spokesperson told The Guardian in March, “Google is aware of the new legislation and we are reviewing it, but we haven’t reached a state where there are any proposed changes.”)

At least one site made an effort to communicate its new content rules, which provides an indication of how site owners are making these decisions. Alex Empire, a sex worker who moderates the r/SexWorkers subreddit, said she received a message from Reddit advising her that “any posts that could facilitate the connection of sex sellers and sex buyers would be a violation.” Empire briefly closed the group to the public, but it is active again, featuring discussions like “New podcast episode about sex work, stigma, and the State” and “6 Sex Workers Explain How Sharing Client Lists Saves Lives.” But that’s not the norm, said Lola, when it comes most of the takedowns she and other advocates have seen.

The consequence is that sex workers are left to fend for themselves. For some of the sex workers interviewed by The Appeal, that has meant scrubbing any mention of sex work from their online profiles; for others, it’s meant deleting much of their web history altogether. Some have opted to use platforms hosted outside the United States.

But even that is no guarantee. Elliot Harmon, activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said taking content outside the U.S. isn’t necessarily a solution. “If I operate a message board that puts me at risk of prosecution under SESTA/FOSTA and I move that message board to a hosting platform outside of the U.S., I may still be at risk,” Harmon said. Right now, he added, there are no easy answers. “Be leery of anyone claiming to have a solution for everyone,” Harmon said“Talk to a lawyer.”

Kate D’Adamo, a partner with Reframe Health and Justice, was one of the advocates who predicted the current fallout. “I didn’t want to be right,” she told The Appeal this week. As the bills moved closer to a vote, D’Adamo and other sex worker rights advocates sounded the alarm. “I had moments of feeling like Chicken Little over and over,” she said. “Lawyers who supported the bill, like Mary Mazzio [director of anti-Backpage documentary I Am Jane Doe], and tech advocates opposing it kept telling me I was wrong and wouldn’t budge.”

D’Adamo continued, “But that’s the same social gaslighting that makes legislation like this, which says you can just pull yourself out of chronic, generational poverty if you work hard enough or only people with something to hide avoid police.” FOSTA claims to be anti-trafficking legislation, but it doesn’t attack trafficking, she added. It attacks websites, and those who use them.

With or without Backpage — or FOSTA — sex workers aren’t going offline. “Sex workers will know how to survive this,” D’Adamo said. “But sex workers also know that it’s going to hurt for a while and we’ll lose folks along the way.”

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