By Arthur Z. Schwartz
It was almost Christmas Eve when I sat down to write my last WestView News piece for 2020. I have a habit of glancing at my NY Times feed numerous times a day, as this crazy year dishes up new news by the minute. I saw a report, for the first time, that a young Black man named Andre Maurice Hill had been shot in the garage of his home by a White police officer in Columbus, Ohio. The cops had gone to his house because a concerned neighbor called to report that Hill had been sitting in his car, in the garage, with his engine on for a half-hour. A video cam that the officer was wearing shows Officer Adam Coy, a 19-year veteran, approaching the garage with another officer and shining a flashlight inside. A vehicle and Mr. Hill are in the garage. Mr. Hill gets out of the car, holding a cellphone in his left hand, and walks slowly toward the officers. The video has no sound initially.
Within seconds, Officer Coy pulled his gun and opened fire. Mr. Hill fell to the ground. Then, the audio recording started. Officer Coy, still pointing his gun, ordered Mr. Hill to put his hands to his side and roll onto his stomach. “Don’t f—n move, dude,” Officer Coy said as he patted down a groaning Mr. Hill. “Roll over, dude.” Mr. Hill did not roll over. No first aid was administered. He was dead.
2020 will be “best” remembered as the Year of the Pandemic. The year when a president who took little responsibility for fighting COVID-19 will be remembered (among other reasons) as being responsible for more deaths (in the US) than any other president in US history. But in late May, as COVID-19 cases temporarily started to decline, we were distracted for six weeks by the killing of George Floyd by a cop in Minneapolis. Demonstrations by angry protestors ensued for weeks, some violent, and for a few weeks 80 percent of Americans supported the Black Lives Matter movement. We saw streets painted, Confederate monuments toppled, and hand-wringing confessions by the media, government officials, schools, and business leaders that the US still suffered from systemic racism, a scar dating back to the days when our country was founded on an economy dependent on enslavement of Africans.
Here in New York, demonstrators were often terrorized by the very cops they were protesting against. A recent dispassionate Department of Investigations report found that the police response tactics heightened tensions and only served to exacerbate anger, without real supervision or consequence. A big debate occurred in late June as demonstrators camped outside City Hall, demanding, without much success, that the NYPD be “defunded.”
Race was discussed every day, everywhere, for a few months. And then, as some of my friends in Black Lives Matter predicted, much of that discussion dissipated. So, when Andre Hill was shot on December 22, 2020 in Columbus, there were some protests there, but little was said elsewhere. And, yes, although 3,000 Americans a day were dying from COVID-19, the response was massively quiet.
There are two big themes which we need to draw out of 2020. The first is the woeful inadequacy of our healthcare system. It remains a profit-making machine, led by mega-hospitals and behemoth insurance companies. Our only local hospital in Lower Manhattan, Beth Israel, had 400 beds in mothballs until Penny Mintz and I pulled what the hospital called a “publicity stunt” outside their front door on March 19th. Then they opened the beds, and now say those beds will remain available. But the system must be fixed; and profit-making must be taken out of healthcare.
The second theme is race, and its role in our society. And not just the need to be self-reflective and wring our hands. The emphasis during this past June must be revived. The NY Times recently pointed out (December 4, 2020, Why Did Racial Progress Stall in America?) that every time advances occur, the body-politic in the US reacts negatively—part of the explanation for Trump getting 75 million votes. It is shameful that in our democracy, race still determines so much—educational success, employment, healthcare, housing, and how one is treated by the police.
I am a big believer in public safety. I have a wife and two teenage daughters, and I worry—not just about COVID—every time they leave the house. But the money we allocate to the NYPD does not all have to go there. Police should not be asked to address every ill facing our society, especially when the overreaching approach is not to solve a problem but to address its symptoms violently. Only two percent of the US population has untreated mental illness, but 25 percent of police shootings involve people with mental illness. There are 10 times more mentally ill people in prison than in psychiatric hospitals. We spend too much money attacking the symptoms rather than addressing them. The NYPD budget in New York is close to $8 billion, more than the combined budgets of the Departments of Health, Homeless Services, and Youth and Community Development combined. NYC spends more on the NYPD than on building affordable housing; and our schools are woefully underfunded. What we need to focus on to address systemic racism—housing, education, and healthcare—suffers because we spend too much on sending armed uniformed officers to deal with problems that they should not be addressing.
This is not a condemnation of all cops. As a labor lawyer I have represented law enforcement unions (court officers and traffic agents) and individuals in law enforcement (at the Port Authority). The problem is that there is no leadership at the top to make things better. I was a big supporter of Bill de Blasio in 2013, but his leadership this year has been disastrous. So too has been the absence of leadership from our City Council member and Speaker Corey Johnson, who seems to have disappeared from sight. None of these leaders have had a plan. In 2013 de Blasio ended Bloomberg’s “stop and frisk” program that saw one in 10 Black men in NYC stopped by a cop every year. But that was it. And Corey’s plan? He did more to promote bike lanes than NYPD reform.
I am running for City Council, with the support of Black Lives Matter. I do not want to “defund the police.” I want to “reimagine the police.” Doing that is critical to our city’s future. Look at my website and read about it; www.arthurfornyc.com.
And, as we start 2021, do not forget about George Floyd…or Andre Maurice Hill. We really have not come very far since the day a cop put his knee on George Floyd’s neck and killed him.
Arthur Schwartz is the Democratic District Leader in Greenwich Village, and a candidate for the New York City Council in the district encompassing Greenwich Village, Chelsea, and Hell’s Kitchen.