By: Sara Sugar
Before he was allegedly thrown to the ground, handcuffed and pepper-sprayed by police outside the 79th Precinct on Tompkins Avenue on June 2, Josh Williams says he had never been the victim of hate speech or violence and or felt unsafe in his neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. But since that incident, he thinks about things differently.
“It's definitely changed me. I think I have more sense of how important being a community is,” says Williams. “I feel like sticking together in this community is the only way to really feel safe.”
Besides sticking together, the city's lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) advocates are also hopeful that legislation passed overnight Wednesday by the City Council might reduce what they say is abundant mistreatment of their community by the NYPD.
The Council approved by veto-proof majorities the first two bills of the Community Safety Act, a landmark collection of legislation which, its backers say, will provide greater oversight and accountability to the NYPD and end discriminatory policing tactics.
The legislation, co-sponsored by Councilmembers Jumaane Williams and Brad Lander, is predominantly known as a response to the NYPD's controversial use of stop-and-frisk, but advocates say the legislation will also help ensure the rights of the LGBTQ community when interacting with the police.
John Blasco, lead organizer at FIERCE, an advocacy group for LGBTQ youth of color in New York City, says that the legislation makes clear that discriminatory profiling is not just about race.
“It is a system that is based off a foundation that is homophobic, that is racist, sexist and that is xenophobic,” says Blasco. “A lot of people tend to forget that the Stonewall Riots were between nonconforming people and police.”
In the wake of a violent spring towards the LGBTQ community in New York City—including the May 17 murder of a gay man who was shot in the head in the West Village) supporters believe the Community Safety Act would have a profound effect on members of the community, who historically have had a tense and suspicious relationship with law enforcement.
Shelby Chestnut, senior organizer at the New York City Anti-Violence Program, says that the legislation will encourage a level of trust between the LGBTQ community and law enforcement. “This kind of ensures that they can have trust with the NYPD or police in general and ensure their safety and ensure their rights when interacting with the police,” she says.
Among the population the Anti-Violence Project works with, Chestnut says that those who tend to have the worst experiences with police are transgender people of color—particularly transgender women.
“Time and time again I hear stories,” says Chestnut. “Like ‘I was walking home and because of the way that I was dressed and because they perceive me to be transgender they stop me [the NYPD], questioned me and asked me questions that if I wasn't a trans woman they wouldn't be asking me.'”
Williams says he was mistreated along with two other gay men, Ben Collins and Antonio Maenza, on June 2 outside the 79th Precinct as they were being arrested on charges ranging from public urination to obstruction of governmental administration. The men allege that they were called “f—–g faggots” by NYPD officers and believe they were specifically targeted for being gay. Their lawyer, Cynthia Conti-Cook, praised Intro. 1079, the portion of the legislation that would establish an inspector general to provide greater oversight for the NYPD.
“It would just create more of an environment where officers are not so willing and so brazen about violating people's rights,” says Conti-Cook. “Another thing that I think the Community Safety Act would do is just send a very strong message to officers that there is going to be consequences for these types of really unfortunate circumstances that happen all the time.”
NYPD officers are already prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion and national origin. But under Intro. 1080, the second of two bills approved by City Council this week, the list would be expanded to include age, gender, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, immigration status, disability and housing status.
“It's not a black issue, it's not a Latino issue. It's an issue for everybody in general,” says Williams, 26. “I think it is sad that we have to be so specific in regards to what discrimination is. But that seem to be the need.”
Williams will appear in court on July 29, facing charges of public urination and resisting arrest. Both Collins, 26, and Maenza, 24, were also arrested on June 2 and charged with obstruction of governmental administration, but both took an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal and will have their charges dropped in six months.
Conti-Cook says the men are keeping all legal options open, but right now are focusing on getting the charges against Williams dropped.
“What we really want is for these officers to be disciplined, and for reform,” she says. “Down the road, filing a civil rights lawsuit will have less of a lasting impact, but it certainly is an option.”
Collins says that since the incident, he feels differently about the police presence in his neighborhood.
“It's made me think differently about the role the police officers play in the community of Bed-Stuy,” says Collins. “An increased police presence definitely raises tension within the community and I don't think that it necessarily does a whole lot of good.”
The confrontation between Williams and NYPD police officers was filmed by Maenza and subsequently posted on YouTube. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who has viewed the video of the incident, said at a press conference on June 11 that, “it's appropriate to have it investigated by Internal Affairs,” according to DNAinfo. Maenza was unavailable for comment.
The remaining two bills in the Community Safety Act, which are not expected to be voted on this summer, include legislation that would protect New Yorkers against unlawful searches and require officers to provide specific reasons for police activities like stopping and frisking someone. Officers would also have to provide documents to individuals with their names and how they are able to file a complaint if they choose.
As optimistic as LGBTQ advocates are about the legislation, Chestnut says a complete overhaul in policing practices could take some time and thinks it's dangerous to say that the Community Safety Act would completely prevent an incident such as what Williams, Collins and Maenza allegedly endured. “I think the implementation will take just as long as the advocating of passing such legislation,” she says. “But we need to pass it in order to implement it.”
This story was updated on June 27 to reflect the passage of Intros 1079 and 1080.