Policing and the Puerto Rican Day Parade

Bird's eye view of PR Parade in 2006

Bird's eye view of PR Parade in 2006

Yesterday was the 52nd annual Puerto Rican Day Parade on the island of Manhattan’s 5th avenue, between 44th and 125th streets. Annually it brings almost three million participants, which is equivalent to the population of Jamaica. Without a doubt, the absolute majority of those who go to the parade truly enjoy themselves, showing pride in their Boricua nation through dress or costumes, and partaking in dancing, eating, and noise-making. Children are also brought by parents and relatives in order to expose them to the great deal of pride, of nationalism, that defines the Puerto Rican mentality. While it is truly a family event, an event enjoyed by a mass of people, there are consistently a number of arrests made that no doubt take away from the positive mood of it—and the number seems to be increasing.
A June 12, 2007 New York Times article is very telling (particularly when understood from a critical perspective). Let’s just use the opening statement: “The police disclosed yesterday that 208 people were arrested at the Puerto Rican Day Parade on Sunday — more than in previous years — after reports that members of the Latin Kings gang planned to join the parade. But several of those arrested said they had simply been swept up with the crowd and denied having any gang associations.”
So, why the mention of the Latin Kings? Well, because they apparently decided to take it upon themselves to organize a group of people wanting to participate in the march down 5th avenue. Why was this a problem? Because they were not given permission by the official parade organizers to participate.
Now there is something to address and think about. If this many Latin Kings (and the article also mentions members of the Bloods as well as Ñetas organizations) were arrested, the following question might be asked: If they had not been gang members would as many people have been arrested? Looking closer at the article we get somewhat of an answer to this question, and also the realization that supposed gang affiliation, once such a gang presence was announced among officers, was only of secondary importance to the officers on the scene, second to the mere colors you happened to be wearing.
Within the New York Times article, and probably in other accounts not related by the Times, there are a number of claims that people were simply “swept up with the crowd.” How was this possible? According to the article, just to take one case that covers several people, a group of young men and women from Yonkers were wearing yellow t-shirts with black lettering that was produced and given to them by a friend trying to advertise his rap album. According to the youngsters, these shirts were mistaken by police as shirts used to represent an affiliation with the Latin Kings street organization, which uses black and gold as its representative colors. In the article, the girlfriend of a young man wearing one of these shirts, herself wearing a pink shirt, stated that they “were bum rushed by a bunch of cops”, then arrested.
But why mention the pink shirt? Because she was not the only of those arrested who did not have any identifiable “gang” colors or something that might suggest “gang” affiliation. An example of this that ought to embarrass the NYPD was the arrest of a 55-year old postal worker from Paterson, New Jersey who admitted he was “swept up in a large crowd of people” around 47th street then knocked to the ground by arresting officers, skinning an elbow. His 22-year old son, joining him after his release the next day, commented that he is a “peaceful man”, going to work daily and coming home to cook. So why was he taken in with the crowd who police would like us to believe were targeted because of “gang” colors? The parent of a 20-year old arrested might have been on to something when he said, “If he was arrested because he’s 20 years old and he’s Latino, there’s a problem.”
Of the 208 NYPD-confirmed arrests in 2007’s parade, the great majority, 164 of the arrests, were for unlawful assembly (132) and disorderly conduct (32). There were four felony charges, two for illegal weapons possession, one for assault, and one for evidence tampering. In addition, according to the Times article, other charges were for marijuana and/or weapons possession.
Now let’s assume out of the close to three million people at the parade there were four street organization members, a Latin King or Blood for example, paranoid from the threat of rival gangs and prison time. That covers the felony charges of weapons possession, assault, and evidence tampering (of course you would have to acknowledge a war going on in the streets), since it can be argued that they were measures for self-defense and -preservation. As for the main reason for arrest, unlawful assembly, this is actually what official parade organizers had in mind themselves, as becomes clear when noting the statement of Paul J. Browne, the NYPD’s then deputy commissioner for public information, that “The parade organizers did not invite the Latin Kings, and they did not want them in the parade.” As for the disorderly conduct—well, usually unlawful assembly (an arrest sometimes experienced by civil protestors) is considered, by police, disorderly conduct.
It is clear that the New York Police Department was notified beforehand that Latin Kings (and Queens) would be at the parade, and that official parade organizers did not invite or want them there. This was in 2007 and should be remembered. While 2008 and 2009 might have been different, simply because they took place in different years (duh!), it should be noted that, all the same, police are looking at Puerto Ricans as possible unlawful assemblers and bringers of disorder simply because they have organized people on the street into groups capable of asserting the perspective of people often left, not for better, but for worse, in the projects, hoods, and underserved and underprivileged streets of New York and elsewhere. That is not to say that certain street organizations do not bring about negative consequences with some of their actions, but it is to point out that the simple fact that they are organized (to various degrees) and attracting a majority of underclass members makes them unwanted in the eyes of some.
Nevertheless, the people continued to represent, whether as the friend or relative of someone locked up, waiting inside and outside the courts for their release, or as the millions of other pride-displaying Boricuas able to avoid the tornado that seemed to be sweeping up innocent Puerto Ricans due to fears of street organizations.
It is important to be aware of your surroundings and of what is going on, but that should not make you unable to enjoy gathering as a single family of community. In fact, we ought to be hyper-aware of such things as the policing of our people during parades, because the more we know about how our people are being affected by forces in society, and the more we stay connected with our people, the more empowered we will become. We will become empowered because we will be more connected with our Boricua family, in a better position to not only understand what is really going on, but to then support those that are affected, by showing up at the courts as was the case here. We will become empowered simply for being kept in the loop, enjoying our family together, protecting our family together, and never being blind to what affects it.

“Power in defense of freedom is greater than
power in behalf of tyranny and oppression.”
– Malcolm X


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