Opinion: Island’s War on Drugs Is Part of a Long History

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the resurrection of the campy Reefer Madness-type posters displayed for the nascent Roosevelt Island War on Drugs.

There’s a lot of information for Roosevelt Island residents to process these days: the juxtaposition of million-dollar condos alongside the trap house-esque Youth Center, the rodent infestation, scandals at the Senior Center, the resilience of a transportation infrastructure struggling with the current population, and Cornell Tech not yet arrived. How do we find the signal among the noise?

The documentary The 13th is available on Netflix, so I will avoid recounting how a constitutional loophole in the amendment to abolish slavery was appropriated to decimate the true target of the War on Drugs. At last winter’s Public Safety Department (PSD) Town Hall, I wanted to point out Rockefeller Law statistics to the angry petitioners, as if they would put down their pitchforks knowing how policing leads to Black and Brown bodies hanging like strange fruit from a poppy tree. However, it was abundantly clear that this was never about marijuana; it is about our community standing as a case study for the current national polarization, including the disregard for Black life.

That PSD meeting was partially a platform for the provincial infighting that has passed too long for discourse on the Island. But my takeaway was a surveillance program including facial recognition cameras already under way. The initiation of this five-year program coincided with the Cornell Technion bid win in 2012. There are significant ethical and privacy issues with the NYPD facial-recognition cameras already installed in the City, including the agency’s refusal to clarify their purpose to Georgetown privacy experts through the Freedom of Information Act, as reported in The Intercept in May.

The look of our Island is changing. Cornell Tech has been erected on land that formerly held Goldwater Hospital. Together with Coler Hospital, they once formed the largest free long-term rehabilitative care facility in the country. I wrote before about the moral implications of a research center being built on land where disabled people have been evicted. It bears repeating. Many of the handicapped people ejected from Goldwater were forced into a sleek East Harlem skilled nursing home despite their wish to live independently. In the infographic of community development, the omission of these disabled people, evicted for the promise of modernity, rises above the noise.

Mayor DeBlasio’s promise to close the troubled Rikers Island prison – echoing the decision of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia before him to dismiss the administration of Roosevelt Island’s own Blackwell prison – is yet more noise.

In 1936, according to a June 2015 Politico article by Judith Berdy, president of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society, “Rikers Island opened as a showplace of modern correctional facilities – a direct response to the glut of corruption and mismanagement that had defined the era’s own version of a prison industrial complex.” The corruption is embodied in an image from that era taken at Blackwell prison. “A photograph shows a German Shepherd named Screwhater, the mascot pet of the prison’s Irish gang, eating cooked steak off of a plate; downstairs, less fortunate prisoners ate the mush from the mess hall menu.”

At least during the 1930s, the vicious income inequality and injustice driving placement into the municipal asylum and Blackwell prison invoked essays by famous prisoners like Emma Goldman and Charles Dickens. Thank you to the liberal criticism of this current crusade to “Make Roosevelt Island Great Again.” However, it is time to meditate on the most vulnerable among us who have already been made to “Get Out.”

Khadijah Abdurahman

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