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The New Orleans Police Raid That Launched A Dancer Resistance

From local charities, to the editorial pages, to city politicians, New Orleans strip clubs were blamed for human trafficking, leading to abusive police raids – harming the dancers they claimed they were protecting, and pushing the dancers to fight back.

Lyn Archer
Photo: Jason Kerzinski

The New Orleans Police Raid That Launched A Dancer Resistance

From local charities, to the editorial pages, to city politicians, New Orleans strip clubs were blamed for human trafficking, leading to abusive police raids – harming the dancers they claimed they were protecting, and pushing the dancers to fight back.

On a quiet Thursday night in mid-February, just two days after the revelry of Mardi Gras day, the narrow gutters and treacherous potholes lining Bourbon Street are nearly empty. Only days earlier, tangles of gold and purple and silver beads, drifting like sea foam trapped by French Quarter curbs, were swept away just before Ash Wednesday services began.

Cutting easily through the thin Bourbon Street crowd was Lyn Archer, with pale blonde hair and an efficient walk. She turned us right onto Iberville, past the Penthouse Club and its cool blue spotlights, to stop at an adult establishment called Gentleman’s Quarters. It was closed. Next to Gentleman’s Quarters was Dixie Divas, also shuttered. This whole stretch of Iberville, just a block away from the mayhem on Bourbon, heading in the direction of the Mississippi River, was hushed in the dark, and for a few minutes we were all alone.

Archer has worked as a stripper in New Orleans for two years, after growing up in California’s Central Valley and dancing in Portland and in Key West. She had dreams of one day taking over Dixie Divas, imagining it as an establishment run by dancers. Dixie Divas was one of the smaller clubs that wasn’t connected to a larger corporate brand, like Hustler or Penthouse. It shared a wall with the equally modest in size Gentleman’s Quarters. “You could drill a hole through the wall and hit the stripper on the other side,” Archer said.

But Dixie Divas was closed – permanently – after state and local law enforcement raided it and seven other clubs in late January, putting hundreds of dancers out of work just weeks before Carnival season kicked into full swing.

Law enforcement portrayed the clubs as fronts for human trafficking, but their evidence was thin to nonexistent. Prior to the January raids, undercover agents posed as club customers, itemizing conduct – such as a dancer touching their own body – that they said was in violation of the regulations clubs have to follow to maintain their liquor licenses. But these alleged regulatory violations, documented in notices of suspension from the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control (ATC), were not indicia of trafficking. So why the highly publicized raids and the club closures that followed?

Prior to law enforcement’s undercover club visits, local paper the Times-Picayune ran a three-part investigative series purporting to reveal trafficking on Bourbon Street and French Quarter clubs. Reporters said the head of a local arm of an international charity with ties to the Catholic church, Covenant House, was “integral” to their reporting. While the Times-Picayune stories included two previously reported cases of potential trafficking, they offered no examples of trafficking inside the clubs. The Washington Post’s Radley Balko criticized it as a  “three-part newspaper series in search of a problem” but the Times-Picayune’s editorial board claimed “the French Quarter’s most famous street is a hub for sex trafficking.”

Then came the raids. In eight clubs during one week in late January, ATC agents along with officers from the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) entered the premises during business hours, corralling and questioning dancers. Officers refused to let them change out of their work attire. They read dancers’ legal identification aloud in front of customers, and photographed them – partially undressed – on their mobile phones. “I witnessed women weeping until they vomited,” one dancer said.

At a Jan. 29 press conference, Louisiana ATC Commissioner Juana-Marine Lombard acknowledged that that no trafficking arrests were made, yet NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison deemed the undercover investigations and raids a “first step” to “confront human trafficking.” Meanwhile, the New Orleans City Council was prepared to vote on a proposal to cap French Quarter strip clubs, with the goal of limiting them to one per block. That meant more clubs would share the fate of Dixie Divas.

More harm than help

From the charities to the editorial pages to the politicians, backers of the campaign against alleged human trafficking in New Orleans clubs failed to take into account the harms they perpetrated against the dancers they claimed they were protecting. Official explanations of the raids caricatured strippers as, at best, unwitting victims, and, at worst, as willing participants in a “hub” of human trafficking, But most important, and what most city officials failed to acknowledge, was the raids put hundreds of strippers out of work.

Within days of the raids, dancers and other workers in the French Quarter clubs led an “Unemployment March” to protest the club closures. They sold dollar bottles of water labeled “Stripper Tears,” carried signs reading “Twerking class hero” and “Your political agenda shouldn’t cost me my future.” They chanted, “Strippers’ rights are human rights,” “my body, my choice,” and “I am not a victim! I do not want to be saved!” The large and passionate protests brought media coverage that was starkly different from the pre-raid pieces with Covenant House-guided narratives: it actually acknowledged the dancers could speak for themselves.

Photo: Lyn Archer

The Times-Picayune was now covering their protests, somewhat sympathetically, and so was the national media. An energized and powerful protest movement of dancers trained its sights on a Jan. 31 press conference by departing Mayor Mitch Landrieu to announce Bourbon Street’s infrastructure progress. Dancers gathered behind local tourism officials and drowned them out by chanting “Sex work is real work” and “Workers’ rights are women’s rights.” Landrieu himself appeared to be a no-show even though he was scheduled to speak at the event, leading to speculation that he had been scared off by the large and boisterous protest.

Dancers organizing under the name BARE—Bourbon Alliance of Responsible Entertainers—had taken the attention off of Bourbon Street infrastructure and onto club closures. It was an action that tapped into BARE’s roots: some dancers had been organizing back in in 2015, after another series of ATC strip club raids, dubbed “Operation Trick or Treat.” That’s when Lyn Archer began working as a stripper on Bourbon Street. By the January 2018 raids, Archer was BARE’s most visible spokeswoman.

When we met after Mardi Gras, Archer explained a theory that her colleague, Devin Ladner, had about the 2018 raids: If the clubs raided closed for good, then the city would have achieved its one-club-per-block plan. “Let’s just drum up the grounds to raid these clubs anyway, and then we’ll just say it happened through ‘natural attrition,’” Archer said. “They died on their own.”

Ladner was getting ready to return to work at the Penthouse Club on Iberville when we met that same week. The club is on the same street as the now-shuttered Dixie Divas, but on the brighter end nearest Bourbon. Ladner took a seat on her living room floor in her house in Uptown, her long legs in thin over-the-knee socks. Though the Penthouse club was not raided, she said she has to go to work and interact with patrons under the assumption that any one of them could be for undercover with the ATC or NOPD.

Despite ATC Commissioner Juana Marine-Lombard’s claim that “we have no issues with the dancers,” it was the dancers’ conduct that officers monitored, not the conduct of the club owners or management. “It’s been hard to be a fantasy anymore,” Ladner said. “I’m worried that it could incriminate me for a solicitation charge, even if I’m not facilitating.” For example, if customers want her to engage in dirty talk, purely as a fantasy—a common request—she’s concerned that could be misconstrued as facilitating prostitution.

Ladner brought over her makeup kit, spreading out eyeshadows in their lidded black plastic pots on the glass-topped coffee table, next to copies of the books Striptastic! and The Modern Herbal Dispensatory. Her mobile phone, wrapped in a pin-up skin, was at her knee. She hasn’t been stripping for long, she said—almost a year and a half. But the idea of losing her job frightens her, because that would mean a return to the work she used to do.

Before dancing, she had been a bartender and a waitress. “The hours that I was working and the emotional abuse I put up with being in the service industry as a woman,” she explained, “and making shit for pay and not ever being respected and always being something that can be easily replaced … I can’t go back to it. Because I know what something else is like.”

A history of and against vice

Despite its reputation for perpetual, decadent decay, New Orleans—which celebrates its 300th birthday this year—has a history of running vice out of town, especially when political opportunity and sensationalism collide. “This is what they used to shut down Storyville,” Christie Craft, a New Orleans dancer and writer who had been documenting some of the protests on her Instagram account, said as she sipped a lemonade that Mardi Gras week. She sat in a French restaurant on Rampart Street, which separates the French Quarter from the historic African-American neighborhood, Treme.

One hundred years ago, Craft began, the city’s legal red light district, Storyville, was shut down in a swirl of wartime propaganda about venereal disease, bolstered by a national campaign by social reformers attacking “white slavery.” Brothels shuttered and workers scattered. “What’s there now,” Craft explained, “is leveled public housing and dilapidated buildings.” Storyville had been bounded on one side by Iberville, now home to several newly closed strip clubs, and it ran along the legendary Basin Street, parallel to Rampart. Craft notes the irony that Covenant House sits right between Rampart and Basin. Covenant House, of course, is the Catholic-affiliated charity that helped shape the media narrative that the French Quarter was a trafficking “hub.”

The executive director of Covenant House New Orleans, Jim Kelly, has long campaigned against the clubs, claiming that stripping leads young women to become victims of trafficking.

In 2016, Kelly offered to help the New Orleans city government hire an attorney who specializes in creating city ordinances that regulate adult businesses, according to emails obtained by BARE and shared with The Appeal. That attorney, Scott Bergthold, has been working at least as far back as two decades to tightly regulate strip clubs and other adult businesses. Bergthold describes his law practice as “assisting communities in protecting their citizens against the detrimental impacts of the sex industry.” A few months before the raids, the city hired Bergthold.

Covenant House’s anti-club campaign, which helped drive the raids, Craft explained, was an extension of a long, historical arc beginning with the moral panic about “white slavery” that helped take down Storyville a century before. But this time, sex workers would not be so easily disappeared.

Hundreds of dancers, far beyond those directly involved in groups like BARE, organized in resistance. “It was a turning point,” Ladner, the dancer, said, adding that one of her friends who had not been politically active told her, ”I have to say what is going on in my life because I don’t know how else I am going to feed my kids.”

By targeting so many dancers—one owner said they had 1,500 contract workers across two clubs—there was simply no way to ignore attempts to erase them from the French Quarter. On the black gas lamp posts along Bourbon, stickers fast appeared and remained through Carnival: a dancer’s bright red heel crushing an NOPD patrol car, captioned LEAVE US ALONE / NO PIGS IN OUR CLUBS.

And when dancers took to the streets in the days after the raids, they marched under that simple, yet powerful slogan: Leave us alone.

“That’s actually all we want,” Lyn Archer from BARE told me, as she joined Craft at the Rampart Street restaurant. “All you have to do is leave us alone. And it’s not possible for them, for law enforcement and even city officials to comprehend that that could be a possibility.”

If what public officials really want is to prevent trafficking, Archer continued, then they “need to create a space where people can report their crimes. And every human rights group in the world has said that.” Among those groups, who support the rights of sex workers by calling for the decriminalization of sex work, are Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and several UN agencies including the World Health Organization.

But with the raids, New Orleans is moving in the opposite direction: Instead of decriminalizing prostitution in order to protect sex workers, law enforcement is trying to link dancers to prostitution. “They are taking the biblical shepherd’s crook,” Archer said, “and pulling you into criminality.”

In the wake of the raids, one club, Dixie Divas, closed permanently; according to the ATC, another club, Lipstixx, surrendered its liquor license, while another, Temptations, lost its permit. The remaining clubs agreed to temporary license suspensions and hefty fines, as well as to hold mandatory human trafficking trainings for workers and some to fire workers “being involve [sic] with prostitution or drugs” on the first offense.

Now, according to Archer, “there’s a bunch of new rules, rules that aren’t going to protect the worker or make them feel better. It’s kind of like TSA.” And club owners and management have just shifted the burden of protecting the club from crackdowns onto the dancers themselves.

A surprise win

About one month after Carnival season concluded, the New Orleans City Council finally voted on a cap on Bourbon Street strip clubs, a variation of the measure  which had been introduced by Councilmember-at-Large Stacy Head last fall, without the one-club-per-block restriction. As written, the proposal would allow existing clubs to remain. But in capping “through attrition,” the proposal meant that if clubs were cited for new violations—like those shuttered in January after the NOPD and ATC raids—they would not be allowed to reopen.

But it was a very different political moment when the City Council convened on March 22: With their disruption of Mayor Landrieu’s press conference in late January, the dancers had scored a significant direct hit on a popular Southern politician, who, with a popular new memoir, was making the rounds on national television and garnering talk of a 2020 presidential run. The dancers’ protests themselves also received surprisingly sympathetic coverage in the mainstream media.  BARE and their supporters packed the meeting, with Lyn Archer the first to speak. “I’m here standing for a group of strippers and nightlife workers that was founded because of these measures,” she said.  “Please take us at our word that it is us–we are the people being hurt by this. … Please don’t look at us and take our jobs away, and just say, ‘Let them eat cake.’”

Photo: Lyn Archer

Proponents of the club cap like Head called it “merely a land use matter”—but no one from the community showed up to speak in its favor.

The hearing then took a stunning turn when Councilmember-at-Large Jason Williams said he could not support the cap because the NOPD and ATC-led raids were carried out “seemingly in conjunction” with the legislative effort at the council. “I do have some deep concerns with why we would have wasted police manpower on those raids,” he began. “I understand that there were a number of what I believe were clear constitutional violations: having people line up against the wall, that are workers, and patrons are just sitting there watching, using their real names, taking photographs of them wearing their dance attire. That’s horrible, it’s offensive, it’s misogynistic.”

Williams’s broadside against January’s club raids, along with Archer’s passionate protest about the harms that would come to sex workers because of the cap, moved other council members to vote against it. “I assumed I was going to walk in here and vote for it, and it was an easy vote,” Councilmember James Gray said. “And I am going to vote against the proposal…. and what convinces me is the statement that a grown person has a right to do what they want to do, with themselves and their bodies and their lives.”

Minutes later, the cap was defeated in a 4-3 vote, the clearest sign yet that the protests had made their mark.

The next fight

It has been nearly four months since the raids, and the NOPD and ATC have yet to to announce any alleged human trafficking in the French Quarter clubs. Meanwhile, despite those saying they have the best interests of dancers at heart—like Councilmember Kristin Palmer, who in a 2016 petition in support of dramatically curbing strip clubs in the city suggested she spoke for women in the clubs “who have no voice and no resources”—more deep-rooted and long-standing challenges faced by New Orleans dancers remain unaddressed. This has only been exacerbated by the raids: The dancers have expended so much energy on simply keeping the clubs open and keeping their jobs that day-to-day struggles have been ignored.

The issues dancers actually face are far less sensational than fears of human trafficking. Some of the clubs in the French Quarter possess beautiful historic architectural details like “medallions on the ceilings,” as Archer told me, and solid wood stages. But their age often means that they are decaying and unsafe to work in. In one Bourbon Street club where Archer worked, rainwater leaking into the building produced “a waterfall coming down into a trash can at the top of the stairwell.”

“I stopped working there,” Archer continued, “because I saw a rat in the dressing room that was literally the size of a cat, and faced it off on the dressing room counter. There’s no respect here.”

And just as before the raids, there’s no incentive for club owners to improve working conditions. “They don’t have to care about their workforce because they are always going to have a work force,” Archer said. “No matter how bad it gets it’s always going to be better than the minimum wage here.” When Archer worked at the rat-infested and problem plumbing plagued Bourbon Street club she could have gotten a job tending bar. But she remained at the club nonetheless. “It was still better,” she said. “Rat world was better.”

City officials clearly grasp the often rough conditions at the clubs but have yet to understand that their crackdowns merely make things worse for dancers. “You want to be treated like other workers,” Councilmember Head told one speaker at the club cap hearing in March. Then she asked why dancers weren’t fighting the clubs when they didn’t respect their rights, like by offering workers’ compensation. “That is something you should be fighting for.”

“We don’t have any time to fight for this,” the speaker responded, “because we are here fighting you.”

A Florida Sheriff’s Dramatic Drug Raid Went Viral, But It Wasn’t What It Seemed

In the ‘fentanyl’ bust at a ‘narcotics house,’ no opioids were seized at all.

A Florida Sheriff’s Dramatic Drug Raid Went Viral, But It Wasn’t What It Seemed

In the ‘fentanyl’ bust at a ‘narcotics house,’ no opioids were seized at all.

Sheriff Darryl Daniels of Clay County, Florida, is positioning himself as a social media celebrity in the ongoing war on opioids. In January, Daniels’s office filmed the aftermath of a SWAT raid that he and masked officers  carried out on a so-called narcotics house on a tree-lined suburban street in Orange Park, Florida. The video documenting the raid—in what the sheriff dubbed “Operation: You Were Warned”—went viral, garnering 30,000 shares and 3.4 million views on Facebook.

The raid video opens by panning over a line of young people handcuffed on the curb. The camera then moves to a group of officers, wearing helmets and backed up by two armored cars. The video finds Sheriff Daniels, who announces to the viewer that criminals must leave his county or face the consequences. The camera follows him to the house, briefly focusing on a broken window before Daniels opens the door. Standing in the raided home, Daniels takes a large swig of his morning cup of coffee and declares, “Fifteen going to jail, three big gulps.”

Despite the sheriff’s announcement, the “raid” resulted in only five adult arrests and one juvenile arrest, according to Elaine Brown, a lead records specialist at the sheriff’s office. According to police records reviewed by The Appeal, the drug seizures from this “narcotics house” were fairly small scale and did not include opioids. In an email to The Appeal, Sgt. Keith Smith, an office  spokesman, clarified that during the the raid, narcotics deputies found what they believed to be 1.2 grams of heroin and fentanyl after an initial field test, but subsequent tests revealed the seizure was not a controlled substance.

Police actually nabbed most of the suspects for marijuana, of which they found less than two ounces during the raid. Of the five adult arrest reports, four indicated  marijuana possession, with three charged for drug equipment. Two of the individuals charged for marijuana had less than 20 grams, according to the documents. The fifth suspect was nabbed for positive field tests of MDMA and a few grams of cocaine. It is not known what substances, if any, were mentioned in the sixth arrest report, which was not released because the subject was a juvenile.

The Clay County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to The Appeal‘s inquiries about whether the department considered issuing public corrections about the initial arrest figures and drug seizures posted on Facebook. The department also did not respond to questions about the decision to film the aftermath of the operation and about their use of armored vehicles.

One former Clay County sheriff’s deputy, who requested anonymity citing concerns over police harassment, told The Appeal in a phone call that he wasn’t surprised that the operation didn’t turn up opioids. “Of course they didn’t, there never was any,” he said. Asked about the errant initial field test, the former deputy pointed out that “false drug findings on site happen all the time.”

“The really good ones cost money, but those take away your probable cause,” he said, referring to arrests and police searches for which error-prone drug test field kits can provide legal pretext. “It’s probably the cheapest ones they could get to do the minimum standards for an investigation.” Clay County Sheriff’s Office spokersperson Keith Smith said that the department recently acquired field kits from a Florida company called MEDTECH Forensics, but did not confirm whether these devices specifically were used during the January 5th drug bust.

The former deputy also argued that the marijuana charges were overkill. According to sheriff’s office documents reviewed by The Appeal, 34.8 grams of marijuana were found in the house, yet two individuals arrested in the house were charged with possession of more than 20 grams of marijuana.

The drug quantities found suggest the raid targeted a house of small-time users, not major traffickers, Joe Frank Martinez, a border sheriff in Val Verde County, Texas, said in a phone interview with The Appeal. “This would probably would be personal use,” said Martinez. “If you’re talking about ounces, that’d be users.”

Martinez added that in his jurisdiction, SWAT teams and armored vehicles would not be used for low-level users, unless police had clear reason to believe there was a threat at hand. The Clay County Sheriff’s Office Facebook post about the raid justified the need for the “safety equipment” citing past reports of shots being fired and fights taking place at the house. In addition to the use of armored vehicles and SWAT team personnel, four flashbang grenades were used during the raid, despite the fact no guns or other weapons were found during the operation, according to police records reviewed by The Appeal.

Individuals swept up in the raid argued that Daniels’s public presentation of their home as a drug house was overblown and complained about what they perceived as intrusions on their privacy. “I don’t understand why they have to take camera footage of my house,” said one young man, who told News4Jax that he was facing charges.

This raid is not Daniels’s first success, at least in terms of social media publicity. Last summer, Daniels shared another video of himself describing the aftermath of what he called another narcotics operation in which he issued his trademark warning to criminals and gulped down a thermos of coffee.

Through such highly publicized operations, Daniels has jumped into the national spotlight as a drug warrior. At a press conference last year, he announced homicide charges were being brought against a drug dealer whose client had overdosed after taking fentanyl, according to the Florida Times Union. Daniels appeared on HLN, a CNN-affiliated national news network, to discuss the case and his department announced that its detectives would investigate all 49 overdose deaths from 2016 as homicides. Since his election in 2016, the office’s drug-related arrests have increased.

These public appearances have attracted significant publicity from local press and media. But some locals express skepticism about the sheriff’s frequent attempts to stay in the spotlight. The former Clay County deputy called the raids “a damn joke.”

“He’s creating a self-aggrandizing mythology,” said the former deputy. “It’s all choreographed—such a chicken shit bust, instead of the MRAPs [military vehicles] and a SWAT team, they could have used two deputies for that.”

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How the Push to Close Rikers Went From No Jails To New Jails

Activists say a once-radical campaign has been co-opted.

Activist Carla NPSG at a press conference at New York City Hall to ask Mayor de Blasio, Governor Cuomo and Department of Correction Commissioner Ponte to immediately shut down Rikers Island.
Erik McGregor/Getty

How the Push to Close Rikers Went From No Jails To New Jails

Activists say a once-radical campaign has been co-opted.

On Nov. 10, 2015, Joseph Ponte, then New York City’s Department of Correction (DOC) commissioner, addressed a packed hearing of the Board of Correction to discuss violence on Rikers Island. Soon after Ponte began speaking, three people walked toward the front of the room, unfurled a banner for the Campaign to Shut Down Rikers, and chanted “Hell no to the status quo! These prison walls have got to go!” They kept chanting, even getting louder, as they were kicked out of the meeting. Before they were escorted out, though, two more people in the crowd stood up, and raised a sign bearing the face of Kalief Browder, a Bronx teen who spent three years on Rikers, much of it in solitary confinement, for allegedly stealing a backpack. Browder took his own life soon after his release, a tragedy that helped catalyze the movement to close the jail. The protesters began shouting reasons Rikers Island needed to be shut down: “Rikers is racist!” “Rikers is a torture chamber!”

The activists were part of a group called the Campaign to Shut Down Rikers, a coalition including Akeem Browder, Kalief’s brother; advocates from Millions March NYC, a grassroots collective; and members of Jails Action Coalition, an alliance of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people and their supporters. The campaign’s mission was to get the notorious Rikers Island jail complex shut down for good. But in addition to closing Rikers, the coalition also had a more radical demand: that the city divest entirely from police and prisons and invest in communities. The campaign demanded that the money being put into incarcerating and policing people be used for education, healthcare, housing, and other basic needs.

Organizers had long targeted Rikers Island for reform. Groups like Resist Rikers had been holding rallies at the jail complex since 2014, calling attention to its use of solitary confinement and the infamous brutality of its guards. Jails Action Coalition had been organizing against the DOC’s solitary confinement practices for the previous two years, and its members were some of the first people to publicly call for Rikers’ closure. For the next year, the Campaign to Shut Down Rikers would organize vigils, marches and rallies, including one in which they dropped off a coffin at City Hall bearing Browder’s name.

But as the movement gained momentum, it also lost its focus. At the beginning, calls to shut down Rikers Island came from grassroots activists with an abolitionist agenda. Prison abolitionists aim to make police and prisons obsolete by addressing the root causes of social ills. By 2017, when Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city’s “Roadmap to Closing Rikers Island” within 10 years and open four new neighborhood jails, advocates say, the plan to close Rikers had been defanged and distorted.

“The topic of shutting down Rikers has breached and found some permanence in mainstream conversation,” the #ShutDownRikers group wrote in a public statement in 2016. But that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. “A variety of liberal political figures began weighing in, rapidly co-opting the work of the grassroots movement that valued, above all else, community inclusion,” the statement continued. “The conversation [about] closing Rikers has become increasingly synonymous with building new neighborhood jails, which is entirely incompatible with our campaign’s abolitionist perspectives.”

Same goal, different paths

Calls to shut down Rikers started to grow louder in the fall of 2015. City Council member Daniel Dromm began to speak out in favor of closing Rikers, and it became a frequent recommendation from advocates at Board of Correction meetings.

On Nov. 18, 2015, Glenn Martin, then president of JustLeadershipUSA (JLUSA), a  group focused on ending mass incarceration, spoke at a conference about whether to reform or shut down Rikers Island. Participants included City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who agreed that Rikers should be closed. It was a precursor to JLUSA’s not-yet-public campaign, #CLOSErikers, which quickly took off. The nonprofit received grants in late 2015 and 2016 from the Open Philanthropy Project, which also helps fund The Appeal, to support its campaign, as well as multiple grants from the Ford Foundation since at least 2014. With this support, JLUSA led a coalition of 50 other organizations and publicly launched its #CLOSErikers campaign on April 14, 2016, with a rally at City Hall.

But the goals of the earliest advocates fell by the wayside. “Unlike us, [JustLeadership] never took a clear stance from the beginning on building more neighborhood jails,” said Nabil Hassein, an organizer who worked on the Shut Down Rikers campaign. “We were always very clear and explicit about [opposing new jails] from the beginning and we didn’t see that from them. And when you have these well-funded nonprofit groups coming in,  in a lot of ways, they had more capacity to do things than we did.”

When then-Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito made her State of the City address on Feb. 11, 2016, Kalief Browder’s mother was in the audience. Mark-Viverito dedicated a section of the speech to Kalief, saying, “Kalief entered [Rikers] as a child, but left as a broken man. A few months later, Kalief died by his own hands. It was not one failure which led to his death; it was generations of failures compounded on one another.”

Mark-Viverito announced that she would be forming a commission led by former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman (later dubbed the Lippman Commission) to identify ways to reduce the population on Rikers Island so that closing the jail complex could become a reality. It consisted of 27 commissioners, including Martin, along with representatives from nonprofits like the Vera Institute for Justice and the Legal Aid Society. The commission also included multiple judges from New York City courts, a former U.S. attorney, the president of the Ford Foundation, and the president of the Citizens Crime Commission.

Meanwhile, the #CLOSErikers campaign had grown into a coalition with more than 170 partner organizations, including some of the city’s biggest nonprofits. JLUSA’s support from foundations also grew, with grants from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Google’s charitable arm, Over the next year and a half, the campaign organized rallies outside de Blasio’s fundraisers when he was up for re-election. Its members confronted the mayor at his Brooklyn gym and attempted to confront him at his polling station to persuade him to shut down the jail complex. They also put up billboards in Harlem and Times Square urging de Blasio to close Rikers.

Martin saw closing Rikers as a moral imperative that would involve multiple reforms to New York City’s criminal justice system, like reducing the use of cash bail. He called for increased social services and public investment in healthcare, education and jobs, but saw at least some of those services being delivered through community-based jails. “There is no question that access to job training, healthcare, drug and alcohol and mental health treatment are among the important services that will be easier to provide in community facilities rather than at Rikers Island,” Martin said in a 2016 interview with Grist.

But organizers with the Campaign to Shut Down Rikers say Martin, who had become the leader of #CLOSErikers, was too quick to agree to replacing Rikers with other jails.

“All the problems with Rikers are symptoms of the larger problem of incarceration,” Hassein told The Appeal. “The only reason to build new jails is because the city is actively planning to incarcerate more people rather than actually addressing the issues that lead to incarceration.”

“I’m not saying that people in jail shouldn’t have access to services, but you’re putting human beings in a cage,” he added. “What kind of mental health effects do you expect? If you want to improve their mental health, why are you keeping them in a cage?”

Five Mualimm-ak, a Jails Action Coalition member, echoed those concerns. He told The Appeal that by investing in new jails, the city will end up simply “shipping old problems and old brutal cultures to a new address.”

For JLUSA, a gradual approach seemed more pragmatic. “Glenn and campaign leaders directly impacted by Rikers felt an urgency to get people off of Rikers as a human rights imperative being that the culture of violence and toxic air conditions they experienced are intolerable,” Brandon Holmes, the #CLOSErikers campaign coordinator at JLUSA, told The Appeal. “On the way to creating the conditions and support for complete decarceration of New York, we must demand the least restrictive conditions, and keeping anyone who is detained close to their homes, their families, and their community-based support services.”

In December 2017, Martin resigned from JLUSA after being accused of sexual misconduct. He declined to comment for this story.

But organizers’ critiques of the #CLOSErikers campaign extend beyond Martin or JLUSA’s decision to support community jails; they question the group’s ability to decouple itself from its funders’ interests. “The police and the prisons, at the end of the day, exist to preserve the existing social order, which is one that benefits rich people and harms the people being incarcerated,” Hassein said. “I think there’s an inherent tension in trying to have an organization be against incarceration while also being accountable to wealthy donors as opposed to being accountable to the communities that they’re working in.”

The 27 Lippman commissioners met for over a year—going on jail visits, analyzing data and hosting town halls. When their report came out in April 2017, their recommendation on what should be done with Rikers was clear.

“We have concluded that simply reducing the inmate population, renovating the existing facilities, or increasing resources will not solve the deep, underlying issues on Rikers Island. We are recommending, without hesitation or equivocation, permanently ending the use of Rikers Island as a jail facility in any form or function,” the report said. “The Island is a powerful symbol of a discredited approach to criminal justice—a penal colony that subjects all within its walls to inhumane conditions.”

The report was split into three categories: reducing the jail population in New York by “creating off-ramps” before arrests occur and shortening pretrial detention; building more humane jails; and reimagining Rikers Island as a place for development.

In order for Rikers Island to close, however, the jail population would have to decrease significantly. The Lippman Commission’s suggestions for reducing the jail population included eliminating bail in favor of pretrial supervision, which can mean house arrest, curfews, electronic monitoring, or required drug treatment. “It should become the default option, replacing money bail, for those who are charged with misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, as well as for some young people charged with more serious offenses,” the report states. (Most people charged with misdemeanors now get released on their own recognizance, depending on the outcome of their risk assessments.)

But even with fewer people detained pretrial, its authors asserted, the city would still need new and renovated neighborhood jails to close Rikers. “The Commission believes that confinement is necessary when individuals are a threat to others, but that its use should be a last resort,” the report stated.

To reduce the jail population, the commission also recommended that the city use risk-assessment tools to determine a defendant’s risk of re-offending, risk of future violence, and risk of future domestic violence. Currently, the criminal court system uses a tool that assesses whether a defendant will show up to court dates. Other recommendations included elimination of all sentences with a jail time of 30 days or less.

Hassein and other advocates from the Shut Down Rikers campaign saw the recommendations as insufficient. 
“The movement to abolish bail is important and is a step towards abolition,” Hassein said, “but I feel like the expansion of pretrial supervision is just more surveillance and repression of communities.”

Demonstrators hold aloft signs inscribed with the reasons that they demand Rikers Island be closed.
Albin Lohr-Jones/Getty

The mayor’s plan

By this point, Mayor de Blasio, who had described closing Rikers as a “noble concept” but virtually impossible to achieve, was having City Hall staff research possible jails to replace the complex. For the past four years, de Blasio has been trying to implement reforms on Rikers to address its “culture of violence.” The reforms, some of which were described by advocates as punitive to the people housed there, were generally considered a failure. Just two days before the Lippman report was released publicly, in what observers considered a capitulation to public pressure and an attempt to save face, he came out in favor of closing Rikers but said the process would take 10 years, a timeline that dismayed many activists.

“Ten more years means at least $10 billion of taxpayers’ money wasted on a failed jail system. Ten more years means over 400,000 New Yorkers going to Rikers. He won’t even be in office in 10 years so the 10-year timeline doesn’t make sense,” Darren Mack, an organizer with JLUSA, told The Appeal.

Three months later, on June 22, 2017, Mayor de Blasio officially released his plan to close Rikers, but it wasn’t until February 2018, that the mayor announced that he had reached an agreement with the City Council to build new “community-based facilities.”

De Blasio’s plan to close Rikers consists of a neighborhood jail in every borough except Staten Island. In Brooklyn and Manhattan, this would mean significant renovations on two currently operating jails. In the Bronx, the city would build a new facility and in Queens, the city would reopen and renovate the Queens Detention Center. The Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center, a jail in the Bronx known as “The Barge” would remain open. The result would be five DOC jails with a total capacity of 5,000 people. Council members responsible for the various jail locations reached an agreement with the mayor to conduct a single public review process for all four sites to expedite building the new jail facilities.

Even if it is sped up slightly, however, many organizers are not impressed with de Blasio’s plan. For the people who first called to shut down the island, the idea of “neighborhood” jails sounds absurd.

“There is no such thing as community jails,” Mualimm-ak of Jails Action Coalition told The Appeal. “We live in a city with well over 60,000 homeless people and thousands more living in someone else’s home. There are more vital needs that aren’t being addressed in New York City than investing in properties that will hold people instead of helping people.”

Mack said Mayor de Blasio did not consult with campaign members or the people most directly impacted before releasing his plan. “The #CLOSErikers campaign [doesn’t] support the mayor’s proposal,” he told The Appeal. “We believe in human rights and dignity and that no one should be on Rikers, which is completely inhumane and irredeemable. It’s the Abu Ghraib of New York City. … We don’t want Rikers or the culture of violence to be moved from that toxic wasteland into our communities. We don’t need 21st-century jails. We need 21st-century communities.”

Patrick Gallahue, a spokesman from the mayor’s office, noted that its Implementation Task Force includes nonprofit advocates—some of whom were formerly incarcerated—service providers, and government officials like the city’s five district attorneys and the New York Police Department commissioner. “Before and after the Roadmap’s publication, the City has met with and worked closely with a broad group of leaders,” Gallahue wrote in an email. “This has been carried out both in private meetings as well as public events. We are by no means finished. … That will continue and expand very soon. While the work is firing on all cylinders, we welcome input and there remain many opportunities to be involved.”

In order for de Blasio’s plan to work, the jail population, currently at about 9,000 would have to shrink by around 44 percent, according to the mayor’s office. (Former Correction Commissioner Martin Horn says the city could squeeze in 3,000 more beds, if necessary, under current zoning laws.) This is where the city’s other planned reforms come in. In the Roadmap to Closing Rikers Island, the mayor’s office outlines a number of changes aimed at achieving a 50 percent reduction in the jail population in ten years. The reforms include: making it easy to pay bail, replacing short jail sentences (30 days or less) with programs that reduce reoffending, improving the city’s assessment tool to determine flight risk, reducing case delay, and speeding up the transfer of people who violate their parole to state prisons (thereby reducing their time spent in New York City jails).

The Roadmap also envisions building more humane jails by expanding mental health units in DOC jails, for instance, allocating $100 million to a new correction officer training academy, and bringing all facilities including the eight jails on Rikers Island to a state of good repair as an interim measure before the complex is closed.

But these reforms mainly focus on speeding up the process of putting someone through the system and then improving their experience—not stopping people from getting in contact with the system in the first place.

That doesn’t sit well with the first generation of activists who tried to close down Rikers, or the second generation. While JLUSA stands by the Lippman Commission’s report calling for neighborhood jails, Mack said the report was a compromise that did not include all of JLUSA’s demands. As for Mayor de Blasio’s plan to close Rikers: “Our campaign is committed to justice and systemic change, not just reform. The mayor’s Roadmap lacks serious investment into communities that have been historically under-resourced,” he told The Appeal. “It falls short on ending the mass criminalization of communities of color and poor people in this city.”

A ‘vicious cycle’

All the activist groups contacted by The Appeal expressed disappointment in de Blasio’s plan. Many noted one glaring omission: There was no mention of ending broken windows policing, or other aggressive NYPD policing practices, in the plan to reduce the number of people incarcerated in New York City.

Critical Resistance New York City, a prison-abolitionist group, has demanded that Rikers be shut down and not replaced with new jails and that the NYPD end policies like broken windows policing and community policing which, the group wrote, “only increase police presence in our neighborhoods and broaden their jurisdiction over virtually every aspect of our lives, especially in communities of color.”

Demonstrators carry a symbolic coffin bearing the name of Kalief Browder as they march outside NYC's City Hall.
Albin Lohr-Jones/Getty

Although de Blasio and the city’s police have said they stopped arresting people for possession of small amounts of marijuana, for example, they continue to do so. The NYPD also continues to arrest a large number of people for “fare-beating,” going so far as to pressure Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance’s office to continue prosecuting fare-beating arrests after the DA announced reforms.

“When you just look at the scale of resources that the city is investing in incarcerating our communities versus the scale of resources that go to things like education, to jobs, to health care including mental health care—or you know, the damn subway,” Hassein of Shut Down Rikers said. “Instead of locking people up and sending them to Rikers Island over $2.75 subway fare, maybe that money could be going to free subway fare.”

In 2017, JLUSA launched the #FREEnewyork campaign to demand statewide bail reform, speedy trial reform, and discovery law reform. “#CLOSErikers is in the process of gathering community input through forums in majorly impacted neighborhoods and we are prioritizing a mapping of needed community resources. We are pushing for decarceration in all ways,” Holmes said. “We are calling for an end to broken windows policing, ensuring diversion before arrest, etc. Building communities includes repairing the harm caused by Rikers Island.”

Despite all that has occurred in the fight to close Rikers, grassroots activists have held tight to the abolitionist goals of the movement. Community groups have voiced their opposition to new jails being built in their communities while also demanding that Rikers Island be closed.

Although the Campaign to Shut Down Rikers officially disbanded in June 2016 after releasing a statement, members of the coalition have continued to organize with other groups. The group now plans to strategize “effective next steps in confronting agendas that promote re-incarceration, such as smaller community jails and other rebranded extensions of the racist police state,” Shut Down Rikers wrote in its statement. “We continue to demand that the City of New York divest from jails and instead, invest funds into communities that are sorely lacking adequate educational, health and mental health, and employment resources and services—all of which would serve to ultimately decarcerate NYC.”

Critical Resistance, South Bronx Unite and the Diego Beekman Mutual Housing Association of Mott Haven have all published public statements opposing the proposed jails, while calling for Rikers to still be shut down.

“The problem is not the facilities; this is a vicious cycle and there’s no way to reform a system that isn’t meant to work,” said Reuben, a Critical Resistance comrade incarcerated in New York, who provided only his first name. “Rikers is only a holding place for victims of an unjust system. Closing down a jail is not really addressing our real problem.”

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