Led by Jews of color and their allies, nearly 300 marchers calling for greater police accountability wound their way through downtown New York on Thursday night, ending in the arrest of seven activists for civil disobedience.
The evening demonstration came with songs of solidarity and signs in support of the Right to Know Act, a bill before the city council would require New York police officers to identify themselves, like with a business card, during stops and provide more information to citizens about why the stops are happening, and give citizens the right to refuse a search.
The legislation comes amid nationwide calls for more police accountability in the use of force. The bill in New York counters decades of “stop-and-frisk” policy, with its height under the reign of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, that sought to circumvent the constitution in the name of pulling guns off the street.
One of the marchers, Jason Salmon, a leader of the Jews of Color Caucus in Jews for Racial & Economic Justice (JREJ), said that these kinds of policies affect Jews, both as stewards of social justice and as people of color as well.
“Our community is being directly affected as well. Jews historically have stood with black lives,” Salmon said. “Throughout the civil rights movement we stood with black lives. We marched with Martin Luther King. It seems as a community we are not identifying with the people who are being oppressed now. These marches are meant to call out our community to stand with black lives.”
The 30-year-old was arrested for disorderly conduct along with six other activists, whose names and titles he provided to me via JFREJ: “April Baskin, Vice President at the Union for Reform Judaism; Leo Ferguson, Community Organizer at Jews For Racial & Economic Justice; Graie Barasch-Hagans, Community Organizer at POWER, a member of the PICO National Network; Yumi Tomsha, Performing artist and Jews of Color Caucus member at Jews For Racial & Economic Justice; Julia Carmel, Jews of Color Caucus Member at Jews For Racial & Economic Justice; Mark Tseng-Putterman, Media Justice Campaigner at 18 Million Rising; Jews of Color Caucus Member Leader at Jews For Racial & Economic Justice.”
Each was charged each with two misdemeanors and one civil violation: disorderly conduct for blocking vehicular traffic, disorderly conduct for refusal of law of order, and a ticket for being pedestrians in a roadway. Their court date is on October 24.
Before his arrest, I asked Salmon about other parts of the Jewish community who don’t have such charitable views towards people of color, or the movement for black lives. His answer was simple, blaming the powerful for spreading a false prophecy of division meant to keep minority groups from uniting against systemic oppression.
“Minority groups in this country have been pitted against each other since the beginning. Since the inception of this country. I’ve just had it,” Salmon said.
Last week, an extensive policy platform released by the Movement for Black Lives exposed that division. The language described Israeli policy towards Palestinians as a “genocide.” Conservative Jewish groups condemned the description, while more liberal ones called for the removal of the word, while still supporting the rest of M4BL’s platform on domestic police policy. I asked Salmon as the march made its way down West 10th Street.
“I’ll address that and I’ll address it pretty simply: ‘Black Lives Matter!’ And also it’s the fact that I am totally willing to have a conversation about Israel and Palestine together and with organizations around the city, Jewish organizations, but like I said in my speech, this is the priority now. And I am tired of Black Lives Matter taking a back seat.”
“Do you think what is going on in Israel is a genocide?” I asked
“I think at this moment, all that matters is ‘Black Lives Matter,’” he replied.
To Salmon, the question of the word “genocide” merely served as a distraction drawing away from the urgency of police reform.
Sandy Turner, 73, also gave a simple answer to her thoughts on whether Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip qualifies as a genocide.
“It’s true. It does. What Israel is doing to the Palestinians is a genocide. What it continues to do in the West Bank is genocide. What it did in Gaza is genocide,” Turner said.
Turner said she was impressed by the awareness and access to information of the young protesters, when compared to previous generations of Jews prepared to get arrest records for their cause.
“I think at that time there were Jews who didn’t even know what blacks are going through. Now particularly the younger kids know what’s going on,” she said. “I didn’t know until I saw a movie comparing apartheid in Israel with apartheid in South Africa. But the information now is out there because of social media.”
Some of the marchers on Thursday night were IfNotNow activists who were arrested during a Passover protest at the Anti-Defamation League, outraged that Israel’s abuses of Palestinians are happening in their name. With a lifetime of being told to care about Israel, it’s no surprise that young American Jews take a passionate interest in Israel’s military Occupation of the West Bank and, via siege from land, sea and sky, the Gaza Strip. As free thinking individuals, they don’t like what they see.
In the same way, it’s no surprise that an alliance is growing between American Jews of Color and Black Lives Matter. The tone of a citizen’s skin can affect how police officers administer justice and interpret the constitution. In the eyes of a cop, their Jewishness is invisible. Ethiopian Jews in Israel, even ones in uniform, see their skin color erase their Jewishness when settlers fling racial slurs their way. It doesn’t make life pleasant.
Skin color and the erasure of black Jewishness divides and endangers Jews and their loved ones in Israel, as well as the United States. With the focus on the policies of the largest police department in the country, the NYPD, Salmon and other JFREJ members seek to raise awareness of similar social ills here in the United States.
In the United States, where rabbinical courts can’t say no loving unions between Jews and non-Jews, there are now generations of biracial and multiracial Jews who are finding their place in American political life. They’re finding their place as smartphone videos and the social media hivemind reveal indefensible police conduct that traditional media, reliant on police accounts of arrests, would’ve cataloged as legitimate uses of force.
“We’re asking for our community to recognize their privilege, but also to recognize that we are multiracial,” Salmon said. “My dad is a lawyer. He’s black and he’s a lawyer, and I’m still worried about him leaving the house. It doesn’t matter what class you’re in, or what neighborhood you’re from. We’ve seen time after time with police and communities of color go completely wrong. We need reforms to fix that.”
Anthony B, a member of Cop Watch, stood and observed as police ready to arrest protesters came out of the 6th Precinct, a normally quiet NYPD outpost. Cop Watch members observe police behavior in an effort to combat abuse by using their first amendment right to record the officers on duty.
“I’m inspired because this is the third or fourth JFREJ action that I’ve been to. And they’re using their privilege to show that black lives should be honored and respected,” he said.
I asked him if he thought Israel is committing genocide against Palestinians.
“It is genocide out there,” Anthony said. Connecting Israel back to the NYPD, he said that the Israeli Defense Forces trained New York police offiers.
“They’re learning from each other to oppress the people and oppress the message. They don’t give a shit about our lives or the lives of our allies. People here are out here advocating for the lives of black, brown and indigenous people that the NYPD has been murdering.”
Anthony said he found it disappointing that white working class people who had been oppressed themselves by European colonialism and racism were now wearing NYPD blue.
“Slaves uprose and we’re going to uprise as well. Look at a lot of these officers here a lot of them are Italian, Scottish and they don’t realize that they were slaves as well to the Europeans. They’re so quick to sell out their own people and their heritage and their past, from when they were slaves as well, just to be proclaimed ‘White’ and have privilege.”