Bronx Defenders need to be defended

March 5, 2015

Jason Farbman reports on the campaign to cut the funding and autonomy of a legal services organization that has a record of standing up to the police department.

NEW YORK City Mayor Bill de Blasio is threatening to defund a non-profit law firm that represents tens of thousands of the poorest New Yorkers every year.

A furor erupted after two lawyers for the legal services firm Bronx Defenders appeared in a video for "Hands Up," a rap song which portrays frustration with unpunished police murder. In one scene, two men hold a gun to an actor dressed as a police officer.

Stills of this scene have been seized on and circulated by the local tabloids as a "cop killer" video. Patrolmen's Benevolent Association head Pat Lynch, who never misses an opportunity to portray the NYPD as a force under perpetual attack, further fueled the uproar by demanding that the lawyers should be disbarred. De Blasio himself said that all options remain on the table.

Each visitor to the Bronx Defenders website is now greeted by a pop-up window containing a message directed at the controversy. "The Bronx Defenders never approved the music video 'Hands Up,' and never saw it before it went online," the statement reads. "We deeply regret any involvement with this video."

Members of the Bronx Defenders organizing team
Members of the Bronx Defenders organizing team (

This message is undoubtedly true. The Bronx Defenders have suffered an escalating series of punishments, and it's unclear where it will end.

In early February, Ryan Napoli and Kumar Rao resigned from the Bronx Defenders over their participation in the video. Rao told reporters he was heartbroken about leaving the agency; both insisted they would not have participated if they known about the scenes with police.

The scenes in which Napoli and Rao do appear don't suggest any violence. They portray lawyers counseling grieving Bronxites, which is not an unrealistic depiction of some of the work they perform.

Because scenes were shot at the offices of the Bronx Defenders, the entire organization has come under fire. Executive Director Robin Steinberg was placed on unpaid leave for 60 days. More significantly, the de Blasio administration has threatened to defund the entire organization.

But if the Bronx Defenders can't do their work, it is actually the tens of thousands they serve in the Bronx who are being punished.

BROKEN WINDOWS policing, which has the full support of the de Blasio administration, has produced a skyrocketing rate of arrests in New York City over the past two decades.

As violent crime has continued to drop, misdemeanor charges have increased by more that 240 percent in the past three decades. In 2013, the NYPD made 394,539 arrests citywide--more than the population of Cleveland, Ohio. Many were for petty behaviors Broken Windows targets, like turnstile jumping or marijuana possession.

Bronx Defenders holds two contracts with the city for $20 million to provide legal services in the poorest district in nation with more than a quarter million people living under the poverty line. Each year the Bronx Defenders defend nearly 30,000 Bronxites against criminal charges, and they represent parents in 85 percent the abuse and neglect cases in the Bronx Family Court system.

They also pursue cases that take up broader issues of criminal injustice, bringing them in direct legal combat against the NYPD on numerous occasions. The Bronx Defenders participate in class action lawsuits against the NYPD, like one in 2005 for targeting "based on poverty, race and sexual orientation." In 2012, they won a $15 million settlement on behalf of 20,000 Bronxites.

Defunding the Bronx Defenders would disrupt or jeopardize some of these services and have a chilling effect on other legal providers thinking about challenging the city.

Although the threat of defunding looms large, it is more likely a tactic to force the Bronx Defenders to accept oversight and training from the city's Corporation Counsel, which handles civil claims against the city, including negotiating settlements and defending the city when it is sued.

In other words, the de Blasio administration is using this episode as an opportunity to force a major defender of the poor to fall under the control of prosecutors, who want to see every suspect convicted and put in jail.

The Bronx Defenders might remain formally intact under this arrangement, but their important work would be totally undermined, subsumed farther into a New Jim Crow regime described by Michelle Alexander:

Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you're labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination--employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service--are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.

AS ONE considers the mounting set of consequences facing the Bronx Defenders--and the Bronx at large--it's worth remembering this entire episode is over lyrics to a song.

The furor over "Hands Up" comes amid the growing use of rap lyrics as evidence, now used in hundreds of trials. In San Diego, rapper Brandon Duncan is facing nine charges, which could leave him with a life sentence.

Duncan "is charged not with active participation in a crime," writes Matthew Pulver at "He is not accused of having any prior knowledge of the crime or being materially or organizationally involved."

Duncan's indictment was based on the charge that his album sales might have risen due to an affiliation with a gang, making him a beneficiary of that gang's crime. These prosecutions require the suspension of the understanding that song lyrics are not reality. Writes Pulver:

From Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov to Brian de Palma's Scarface to Eminem's "Stan," the freedom of speech permits one to depict criminality and violence without being suspected of engaging in it. American society doesn't function without that bedrock protection. But prosecutors know their juries. The specter of the thug so frightens, is so despised, that entire courtrooms in America don't realize when they've careened full-speed into unconstitutionality.

As anti-Black racism is harnessed, so to is the myth of that police work in perpetual danger of attack from violent criminals. The December 2014 shooting of two NYPD officers was continually used to this effect, and to shame protestors off the streets.

We are led to believe that policing is such a dangerous job that anyone, at the slightest urging, might pick up a weapon and attack. "Any conversation about police by their apologists," writes Cassandra Rules, "could easily be about Batman rather than our revenue generators in blue."

At the same time, there is the persistent fact of just how dangerous policing isn't. Policing is not America's most dangerous profession. Nor is it even among the top ten. Jobs like logging, aircraft piloting, garbage collection or construction work prove far more perilous each year than police work.

And of the cops that do die on the job, few are killed while being attacked on the street. In the first forty days of 2015, 13 police officers died throughout the U.S., not a single one from a street shooting. In that same 40 days, U.S. police officers have killed 113 people--nearly three killings per day.

In fact, the most common causes of police deaths in 2015 have been automobile accidents (five) and heart attacks (three). According to the Officer Down Memorial Page, the single gun-related death--of a Director at the Mississippi Gaming Comission--came from an accidental shooting by another agent during a training exercise.

UNLIKE THE lyrics about a hypothetical character's hypothetical thoughts, actual police killings of actual people almost never actualize in any punishment.

Just months after police choked Eric Garner to death, de Blasio promised to veto any attempt to make police chokeholds illegal. While outrage and bluster continue to build over song lyrics, none of the six police officers involved in Garner's death will even face trial.

In its unbending support for police, the de Blasio administration has been little different from those of Bloomberg or Giuliani. The past 15 years have seen routine humiliation and arrest, punctuated violence and murder that is rarely punished.

Since the 1999 murder of Amadou Diallo, 179 fatalities involving on-duty cops have resulted in just three indictments and only a single conviction. Of these fatalities, "86 percent were black or Hispanic," according to the Daily News.

If the Bronx Defenders disappear, the services they perform will be put in peril, while the need for them will continue to grow. This much is ensured by the de Blasio administration's commitment to Broken Windows policing and refusal to meaningfully punish NYPD murder and violence.

As the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow wrote in an open letter to Bill de Blasio, it is imperative to both defend the Bronx Defenders and wage a larger fight against the regime of racist criminalization which makes those services so necessary:

Mayor de Blasio, this is the "tale of two cities" that you promised to end. A tale that tells a story of Black lives having no real value. Their deaths at the hands of police are inconsequential; their mass incarceration is justifiable; their alarming unemployment rates are acceptable, their frustrations are trivial and their reactions to injustices are objectionable.

While we all stand firmly in denouncing violence, we stand as firmly in supporting many of the messages in the video and in the right of expression. Mayor de Blasio, people are angry; parents are scared; policing is out of control. There must be a better way forward.

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