Thousands of New Yorkers flocked to city parks all over the five boroughs last weekend to enjoy sunny spring weather and temperatures in the 70s. While still in the midst of a global coronavirus pandemic, many city residents went out to exercise, meet friends or get together with family members who have been in lockdown for weeks. Mayor Bill de Blasio even praised New Yorkers for practicing proper social distancing outdoors. “The big story here is what New Yorkers have done right,” he said Sunday. “The vast majority of New Yorkers have really risen to the challenge.”
But not all parts of the city were enjoying the respite equally. In contrast to Central Park in Manhattan, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and Domino Park along the East River in hip Williamsburg, parks in the Bronx were less occupied. Blogger Ed García Conde, who runs the Instagram page Welcome2TheBronx, posted an image of a police van patrolling St. Mary’s Park in the South Bronx on May 2, the cops inside ensuring that visitors were adhering to social distancing. “This is the largest park in the South Bronx and is generally full,” Conde wrote on the photo’s caption. “But it was relatively empty yesterday despite the warm weather.”
This image was in stark contrast to a viral image Conde also took on May 2, showing Christopher Street Pier, on the edge of Greenwich Village, packed with New Yorkers enjoying the sun, in close proximity without masks. No officers were in sight, according to Conde. In another image Conde took at the same park on May 3, an officer is calmly passing out face masks to visitors.
“I guess in the police force’s eyes, people of color need to be policed,” Conde said in an interview with Yahoo News. “We need to be told what to do.”
It seems like two different cities: residents of affluent and mostly white neighborhoods enjoying the warm weather and receiving masks from friendly officers, while police cars patrol parks in the mostly Latino and black Bronx communities, an implied warning to residents not to enjoy the warm weather too much.
“To me it was very disturbing,” Conde said. “It’s glaring. Just the audacity, the privilege that these people were exhibiting on the pier when almost 20,000 people have died in New York City from this alone. We are the epicenter. But then it doesn’t surprise me because, you know, between Manhattan and the Bronx, we know this is a tale of two cities.”
Last week there was an uproar after de Blasio broke up crowds gathering in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for a rabbi’s funeral and threatened arrests. He called out “the Jewish community,” and religious leaders accused him of anti-Semitism for his comments. He later apologized for his hurtful rhetoric but maintained that he had “no regrets about calling out this danger and saying we’re going to deal with it very, very aggressively.”
Specific NYPD social distancing enforcement rules for the general public have not been announced. De Blasio’s office did not return Yahoo News’ request for comment. Yahoo also reached out to the NYPD for comment on policing differences, and it issued this statement: “We are absolutely committed to being as transparent as possible. [We] would anticipate releasing quite a bit of information detailed down to the precinct level, possibly even [down to] different parks.”
New York City began distribution of 7.5 million face masks to residents on May 2 and plans to continue the effort for several weeks. But through Tuesday, certain communities were noticeably left out, including portions of southern Brooklyn, the East Bronx and Queens. These communities include some of the hardest hit in the city by the coronavirus pandemic. Brooklyn lawmakers criticized de Blasio’s office for excluding areas from mask distribution.
“This glaring omission leaves out more than a million southern Brooklynites — including many essential workers, senior citizens, non-English speakers, individuals with high-health risks and NYCHA [New York City Housing Authority] residents — without access to a protective face covering,” wrote Rep. Jerry Nadler, a Democrat who represents parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, along with 15 other elected officials. “As long as the city will require everyone to wear a face covering as part of social distancing protocols, then the city must ensure that it makes every possible effort to provide access to face coverings for all New Yorkers, not just a select few.”
New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams on Monday held a virtual presser and said he wants to know by ZIP code and demographics where masks were being handed out because he’s not seeing it in his community.
“At this point I believe they’re purposely not putting out information because it’s going to show what all of us know: Primary enforcement has been in black and brown communities, even though we see pictures and videos of people in all communities not adhering to social distancing,” Williams said. “We shouldn’t have one policing style for one community and another for a different [one].”
In response, NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea said he planned to release this information by precinct, and possibly even by park, but was “working it through legal.”
De Blasio’s office said mask distribution will come to southern Brooklyn on Wednesday, with dates of other sites to be determined.
“We want to get a face covering in the hands of every New Yorker who needs one,” de Blasio spokeswoman Jane Meyer said in a statement. “The launch of the parks’ face-covering distribution initiative was successful, and it continues to grow.”
Activist Shaun King called the difference in police enforcement and mask distribution “white privilege” on full display. “White privilege is something else,” he wrote in a caption on Instagram. “In white spaces the NYPD is wearing gloves and masks and gently, cordially pass out gloves and masks. In Black communities 2 miles away, the police don’t wear masks and gloves, don’t pass out masks or gloves, and are beating the life out of Black people for not social distancing.”
King referred to a video posted to social media over the weekend, showing an NYPD officer in the East Village in Manhattan tasing and repeatedly punching a black man, then sitting on his head for not staying socially distant during another arrest in progress.
City Councilwoman Carlina Rivera, who represents the East Village, slammed the officer’s actions.
“We have demanded an investigation for excessive force,” she tweeted. “Regardless of what transpired before the video, what is the justification for the rage? Where’s the professionalism and de-escalation tactics we should expect? We will hold these officers accountable.”
Commissioner Shea said each social distancing enforcement case is being reviewed individually. “The common denominator here is starting with a lack of compliance,” he said. “Respect here is a two-way street.”
Shea said the NYPD is reevaluating its social distancing enforcement policies and procedures.
“We’ll look at what went well, what areas do we see crowding,” he said Monday. “We’ll make adjustments both in deployment as well as in the messaging.”
Not everyone believes police should be responsible for enforcing social distancing. Police Benevolent Association president Patrick Lynch released a statement Monday, reading in part, “The NYPD needs to get cops out of the social distancing enforcement business altogether.”
“The cowards who run this city have given us nothing but vague guidelines and mixed messages, leaving the cops on the street corners to fend for ourselves,” his statement continued. “Nobody has a right to interfere with a police action. But now that the inevitable backlash has arrived, they are once again throwing us under the bus.”
Between mixed messages, vague guidelines and varied approaches to enforcement across New York City, many see stark contradictions in the NYPD’s handling of social distancing.
Conde said the abuse needs to end. “Given the history of previous police brutality against people of color, they really should not be the ones to be enforcing social distancing,” he said. “On one hand, I do get it. They are an intimidating force, so people think that maybe that's going to help. But everyone's on edge. … We need an end to this abuse that continues to happen.”
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