To the Editor:
Recently, the Roosevelt Island Residents Association’s Public Safety Committee, in conjunction with the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation’s Public Safety Department, initiated an education campaign that involved posting signage about smoking marijuana near playgrounds and schools on Roosevelt Island. The campaign was characterized by Ms. Abdurahman in her Island Observer column in the last WIRE and, cynically, by several Island bloggers, as racist and disrespectful of Black Life. I am writing to vigorously condemn these distorted, uninformed, and outrageous attacks on well-intentioned residents who have devoted considerable time and effort to make our community better and safer.
In fact, the education campaign represents the antithesis of racism. I am a RIRA Common Council member, though not a member of the Public Safety Committee. Nor did I attend the town hall meeting where parents voiced their legitimate concerns about the safety of their children. However, I did attend a Common Council meeting, where the Public Safety Committee chair, Erin Feely-Nahem, asked us to endorse the signage idea proposed by her committee.
While she presented the rationale using politically correct terminology, it was apparent to us that the committee felt some parents had exaggerated the extent of the drug problem and had proposed draconian measures that RIOC Public Safety did not wish to implement. The concern was that most of those smoking marijuana in public on the Island are teenagers, and yes, Ms. Abdurahman, primarily of color. The PSD did not want to go around threatening or arresting them for precisely the reason Ms. Abdurahman cited – it would be perceived as targeting the Black population.
However, PSD did wish to address parents’ concerns. The committee’s intent was to warn users that the law would be enforced in the vicinity of our playgrounds and schools. (Drug-Free Zone signs are posted at schools all over the city). There was no intention to round up those who are discreet and keep away from areas with children, nor was it meant to lock up any particular minority group. Quite the opposite is true.
The Common Council is diverse and its elected delegates come from across the Island. These include African-Americans and even Africans. We are not naïve, and are sensitive to the viewpoints of all Island residents. We did vigorously debate the wisdom of depicting a marijuana leaf on the signs and I, for one, was not convinced that the signs would change anyone’s behavior. But it seemed worth a try.
The attack on this campaign is an attack on Ms. Feely-Nahem and also on Adib Mansour, who designed the signs. These are two of the last people who could be accused of disrespecting Black Lives. Ms. Feely-Nahem leads a small non-profit organization that provides affordable housing, supportive services, food, and emergency shelter to indigent individuals, many – if not most – of whom are members of minority groups. Mr. Mansour organized an after-school leadership program for young people, primarily minority students, here on the Island. The two teenage participants in the program who came and were introduced to the Common Council were both African-American. Mr. Mansour and Ms. Feely-Nahem were also vocal leaders of efforts to draw attention to the mistreatment of Black youth by the previous regime of Public Safety officers. There are few Island residents who have given more to their community than these two outstanding individuals.
Full disclosure – my wife and I did conspire to live in this vibrant and diverse community. However, no one was forced to get out when we moved to Southtown.