With progressive Bill de Blasio installed in the Mayor’s office in 2014, some Loisaiadas thought they glimpsed a new era dawning in the city. An unprecedented number of Latina women were selected for top jobs; stop-and-frisk seemed finally on the outs; and affordable housing was a main plank of the mayor’s platform to end what he called “a tale of two cities.”
Now, two years later, members of the Lower East Side Latino community gathered in a small community room at Campos Plaza, disillusioned that too little seemed to be changing in their neighborhoods. The mayor’s housing proposals were unsatisfying, they said. The new/old police chief, Bill Bratton, a disappointing reminder of past injustices. Under the umbrella of the Campaign for Fair Latino Representation they discussed their goals for a stronger and more united front with Latino activists and organizers from around the city.
“We see a lot of diversity in high places, and so it’s this odd moment where it feels like it should be changing,” Andrew J. Padilla, director of the documentary El Barrio Tours: Gentrification in East Harlem, told the forum. “It’s not. In a very practical sense, it’s not shifting ”
Topics of discussion ranged from equal representation in decision-making positions (28 percent of the city is Hispanic, per the last census; the number in de Blasio’s administration began at 26 percent but has since fluctuated) to worries over unemployment, housing and displacement trends.
Padilla criticized the mayor’s affordable housing program that, he said, “targets working class communities of color for up-zoning.” (Up-zoning refers to the mayor’s controversial proposal for rezoning certain neighborhoods to allow developers to build taller but requiring them to include mandatory affordable units in the process). This is a complaint we’ve also heard out of Chinatown, where a working group is pushing a different zoning plan. “These are processes that are not being accepted in other communities — we are not seeing the Upper West Side get up-zoned for taller, denser buildings,” Padilla continued.
Josmar Trujillo, an activist and writer, reminded the forum that police tactics are still negatively affecting the Latino community. “In the last two years a Black Lives Matter slogan or movement has started, but missing from that conversation is that Latino lives often run parallel with Black lives,” he said. He added that broken windows “quality of life” policing, which focuses on public order transgressions like stopping a loud block party or people jumping turnstiles, was not only a question of police brutality, but also of displacement and cultural oppression.
“This also has links to housing. It’s ‘quality of life’ for who? Who are they cleaning this neighborhood up for?” he said. “‘Quality of life’ is different in different communities.”
He continued: “A progressive platform for policing cannot be one that just talks about policy. It has to be one that talks about reinvesting money that goes to police officers and putting them into our communities.”
The panel agreed that the most important key to change would be getting more young Latinos to the ballot box — or, as Aixa Torres, tenant president of Alfred E. Smith Houses, put it, to “awaken the sleeping giant” of the hundreds of thousands who live in New York’s public housing.
But the challenge of getting people who have little faith in government to vote also seemed clear. Towards the end, the panel heard from Ramsey Orta, the 24-year-old whose video of Eric Garner being choked by NYPD officers sparked national protests (Orta has since been arrested multiple times in what he believes is police retaliation). Dressed all in black with a Cop Watch jacket and Cop Watch hat, he spoke about his own early feelings of alienation and frustration with the system, growing up in the Lower East Side.
“I was a youth at one time and I felt like y’all was just talking, not going to do anything. You’re not making us young people comfortable even to go out there to sacrifice what we need to be sacrificing for,” he said. “So it was like, when NYPD killed my friend right in front of my eyes […] I’ve seen something that changed my life around. Now I’m more comfortable because I see that there’s people who do want to see a change and it’s like…there’s not enough elderly people out there promoting that there needs to be change. There’s only young people doing it and then people get tired of fighting and surviving when we see nobody else is fighting and surviving.”
We’ve reached out to the city for comment and will update tomorrow.