Harlem Speaks Its Mind

Reporter's Notebook

Debbie Lang

Revolutionary Worker #977, October 11, 1998

Harlem is known as the "capital of Black America." It is probably the most famous Black neighborhood in the world. At the turn of the century it was a predominantly white suburb of the central city in lower Manhattan. In 1901 the Lenox Avenue subway line was built and Harlem was connected to the rest of Manhattan. This subway access to the neighborhood triggered a real estate boom. When too many buildings were built and landlords couldn't rent them at the prices they wanted, they were forced to lower rents. At about the same time, African Americans were being forced out of other neighborhoods close to the business district in Manhattan. And the great migration of Black people from the South to northern cities began. Hundreds of thousands of Black people settled in Harlem and by the 1930s it was the largest Black neighborhood in the entire country with over 200,000 people.

Since the "Harlem Renaissance" in the 1920s, Harlem has been a center of African American cultural and political life. Billie Holiday, W.E.B. Dubois, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Marcus Garvey and many other famous writers, musicians and activists lived and worked here. In the early 1960s, Malcolm X spoke on Harlem's street corners before he was assassinated in 1965 at Harlem's famous Audubon Theater. Harlem has a rich history of struggle against the oppression of Black people and African Americans take great pride in this.

This year, when organizers of the Million Youth March made plans to hold a rally in Harlem, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani attacked the event and tried to prevent it from happening in Harlem. The MYM organizers announced if they didn't get a permit to rally in Harlem, they would do it anyway. The city was forced to grant a permit. But on the day of the event thousands of cops occupied Harlem and the police viciously stormed the stage and attacked people at the end of the rally.

I went to the MYM as a reporter for the RW and I remember how deeply angry people were, how disrespected they felt when Giuliani sent in an army of cops to corral, control and attack Black people in their own neighborhood. At the time, it was difficult to get into deep conversations in that police-state atmosphere. Some of the mainstream reporters near the stage even got maced! So after the march, I decided to hook up with Shango, a supporter of the party, and we went back to Harlem.


We started on 125th Street, the main shopping, business and commercial strip. The street is alive with cultural life and political struggle. Vendors sell revolutionary nationalist books from street-side tables. People from different political groups speak on street corners. Artists sell paintings and crafts with images of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. In the Record Shack you can get all kinds of music, from rap to calypso, reggae, blues, jazz, soca and stuff from all over Africa. Red, black and green flags and decals are everywhere. There is the world-famous Apollo Theater, where blues, jazz, Motown and rap shows have been held since the 1930s. Shango told me one of his favorite childhood memories of Harlem was when he saw groups like Smokey Robinson and the Miracles or the Temptations at the Apollo with his family. In the Mart 125 you find vendors selling homemade Caribbean food and hand-made things from Africa. We could hear the music of at least four generations as we walked down the street. Rap blasted out of storefronts and radios. An elderly man did his version of a beautiful Otis Redding song. In the late afternoon and evening people hang on the street corners to talk, argue and debate.

The Rulers' Plans for Harlem

Almost 90 percent of the people who live in Harlem are Black. Most are African Americans. Some are from the Caribbean and different countries in Africa. The remaining 10 percent are Puerto Rican with very small numbers of other nationalities. Unlike some Black neighborhoods, many different class forces and strata live side by side in Harlem and the contrast between lifestyles here can be extreme. Wealthy Black businessmen and politicians live down the street from families below the poverty line. There are also a significant number of middle class people including professionals, people who work at Harlem Hospital and those who run their own businesses. Still, about half of Harlem's residents live below the poverty level. The median income in Harlem in 1990 was $14,141 a year or about $270 a week. The unemployment rate is very high, particularly for young men. As of 1993, 48.4 percent of the population received public assistance, supplemental security income or Medicaid. Asthma, infant mortality rates, T.B. cases and HIV infection are high. Harlem is a study of extremes. On the one hand there are sparkling new business developments, retail stores and renovated apartments. Turn a corner and there are abandoned buildings, vacant lots and intense poverty.

Harlem is close to the business and financial centers of mid-town Manhattan and Wall Street. Major subway lines and commuter trains to Connecticut crisscross and connect every part of it to these areas. In short, from a capitalist point of view, this land is very, very valuable. And the rulers have a plan to make use of that fact and change the character of the neighborhood. Harlem has been declared an "empowerment zone" by the federal government. Federal, state and local authorities have begun to pump hundreds of millions of dollars in to "develop" the neighborhood. Subway lines will be renovated. A $65 million complex known as "Harlem USA" will include big chain stores as well as Magic Johnson theaters. The "empowerment zone" has awarded the corporations involved with the complex an $11.2 million loan. At least $15 million in federal, state and city funds were awarded to help build a complex that will contain a large Pathmark grocery store, and the city also gave Pathmark a 25-year mortgage at 1 percent interest for the first 10 years.

The city claims the new stores will provide hundreds of jobs and there will be more "retail options" for people in the neighborhood. Some Black bourgeois and middle class forces believe all this will usher in another "golden age" for Harlem. But the masses can't live on minimum wage jobs at chain stores and they don't have a lot of extra money to take advantage of increased "retail options." None of this government money has gone to help people who are poor. People can't find work, yet welfare and other public assistance is being slashed. And hundreds of medical professionals have been forced to leave their jobs at Harlem Hospital because of severe city budget cuts.

So who is Harlem being "developed" for? This free market dream will quickly become a nightmare for the majority of people as the cost of living rises through the roof and poor people are forced out of their homes and businesses. The empowerment zone has even been used as an excuse to justify police brutality in Harlem--Giuliani claims that the police crackdown on "quality of life" crimes has created the conditions for investment because it has reduced crime by more than 30 percent.

An Epidemic of Police Brutality

We talked with close to 100 people in Harlem and almost every single person--whether they were young or old, middle class or proletarian--had stories about police brutality.

In recent years there have been a number of police murders in Harlem. And a few years ago, in the 30th precinct here, dozens of cops were caught dealing drugs, stealing money, and brutalizing people to cover their ass.

An 18-year-old told us, "I don't like police. I don't like 'em cause they don't treat you right. They don't treat you with no respect or nothing. None at all. You know, they rule, they do what they want to do cause they have a badge and a gun..." Another young brother said, "I was walking down the street one day and a police officer just came to a Dominican person and said, `hey, where you from?' I thought that was kind of racist because just because he's from the Dominican Republic or anything like that, why he just targeted him? I mean he just came out of his van and just came straight to him. Where you from? He started checking his pockets.... The man was just standing on the corner. So the way that they view us, they view us as we on the corner selling drugs and I don't think that's right, you know what I'm saying? There can be a group of people just standing on the corner. Why do police have to go up there and always try to stop 'em, see if they have any drugs on them? I'm not gonna say that there's not no people out here that don't sell drugs on the corner because there is. But then again, there's no jobs."

A woman in her 50s who walked with a cane stopped to talk with us for a while. When we asked her about her experiences with police brutality, she went off. She told us she thought the police had to be involved in the drug trade because, "They sittin' right here, got the kids and everybody under surveillance." She said she'd been harassed by the police a bunch of times. "I remember one time I was driving, right. One cop gonna pull me over and tell me to get out of my car. And I said for what? Why should I get out of my car? I didn't do anything wrong so why should I get out of my car? He gonna open my car door and put his foot on my car. And I said baby, you ain't gonna plant no drugs in here. Get your f-ing foot off of my property, okay? Now this is where this is at. I didn't do anything. See you! And I went on about my business."

One woman told a story about her husband that showed how pervasive police brutality is in Harlem: "He stands in front of the building taking care of the garbage, they running up on him. Put your hands up. Where's your I.D.? You don't have no I.D., you gonna have to go through the system. He calling me out the window like he crazy. I'm like what's the matter? What's going on? Can you bring my I.D. downstairs so they can leave me alone? And he's like, my father owns this building. So that means every day that I come out here to manage the building, they're going to come over here and mess with me? You know, they have no reason.--`Oh, we're sorry, sir. We're sorry. You fit the description.'

"My husband comes home, I'm not gonna exaggerate, I'll say twice a week, he says if it's not them pulling him over in a cab just because he dresses nice, he has a cellular phone, he has a pager, he has to be a drug dealer. But little do they know he has that pager and that cellular phone through his office so they can keep in contact with him. He's not a drug dealer hustling. They pull him over. `Yeah, where did you get this from? What did you do to get this? How much money you got in your pocket?' `Why are they pulling me over to ask me how much money I have in my pocket? Now, did you see me come out of a drug spot? Did you see me with an open bottle of liquor and I got in a cab or something where you can say you have a reason to pull me over? No. You want to pull me over just to mess with me and that's not right.' "

One 20-year-old told us, "The undercover cops, they don't drive in the usual police van or police car. They dress as regular people. And as you about to go home, they usually ride up to you. And then they'll just ask you to cooperate with them. And they'll just search you, which I believe that's against the constitution for them to just say hey, we'll search you. It seems like they usually just go after the youth. They think like the youth always carry the drugs or the youth always carries the guns or the youth is always the destructive one. And it's not really like that."

Every single young person we talked to said they were routinely stopped and searched by the police for no reason.

A man from the Caribbean wearing a T-shirt that said something like "Ain't gonna hold us down no more" on the back said he came to the United States to make a better life. Instead, things just got worse. "I always call America concrete jungle. It's a rough place, man. It's not easy. Every day they just here jacking them folks like dogs. That's it. I mean it seems like they just have nothing else to do.... They just see us standing up here, they want to know what you're doing. You've got to get off the sidewalk, like we some kind of criminals and we ain't like that, you know?"

A group of teenagers waiting for a bus checked us out for a while and at first didn't want to talk. When we stressed how important it is for people to tell their stories about police brutality so that others will understand what's going down and we can build a movement to stop it, they all starting talking at once. One kid said, "It's like every officer want power and that's why they took the job. All of them want power. They want to have that feeling of putting people in check." His friend added, "We're young and people think we're immature, but I'm saying we probably have got a lot of knowledge about all this because, you know, we come from the streets. We want to tell other people about where we come from and all these cops around here they think we sell drugs and all that and we gonna shoot up the place when that's not it. We trying to make a living for ourselves."

We met Andre up on the corner of Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard and 125th Street. He's a 25-year-old man from a country in Africa who came to Harlem for a better life and got a world of trouble. He said lots of people in Africa think that life is better in the United States. They leave their families, some sell businesses to come and are then faced with grinding poverty. He said, then they're ashamed to tell relatives back home what a mess they're in.

"Well, honestly, I'm not a criminal or nothing like that, but I don't like the police. Here's what I'm saying, because soon as Giuliani got in office it was like an okay for the police to do whatever they wanted to do, you dig what I'm saying, to the Blacks and the poor. And honestly speaking if you don't got money or financial backing or political power, your word don't mean nothing in New York, man. And that's the truth.... Police brutality is not just physical. It's psychological and it's mental, too, as far as how they would approach a Black brother in the streets that's not doing nothing and tell 'em they rousting him or bothering him or that they're suspicious of him just because he's in a known drug area, things like that. That's brutality. Because you free to go wherever you want to go. If they sell drugs or anything on that block, that's the drug dealers' business. You can't harass me because I'm on that block, you understand what I'm saying? Yeah, I have several stories of police brutality. I've seen 'em roust brothers for nothing, and sisters for that matter, in the streets."

A guy in his early 20s who had just bought his lunch from a street vendor told us he considered himself lucky because he had a job and was not on the corner selling drugs, which kept his contact with the police to a minimum. "There's so much damn cops, you know? I was on my block one day in front of my building standing up smoking a cigarette. Two cops approached me, asked me, where's the weed? I wasn't smoking no weed. I was smoking a cigarette in the daylight, like everybody could see. They grabbed me, jacked me up, popped my chain I had around my neck."

Not far from where the Black Panther Party Harlem headquarters used to be a group of kids who looked about 12 years old rode up on their bikes and stopped in front of us to check out what we were doing. One of the kids, who looked much younger than 12, told us in a quiet voice, "I bought this bike, this new bike right here, and I was riding and a whole bunch of police came up to me and told me it was stolen. It was a whole bunch of police surrounded me. My mother had to come with the receipt for the bike to tell them that it wasn't stolen cause they thought I stole the bike. I think they thought I couldn't afford it cause I was young and Black."

No Jobs, No Future
Under this System

In Harlem, one of the things weighing real heavy on people's minds is how they are going to find work that will pay enough to put food on the table and pay the rent. Even young teenagers are agonizing about this. There is no industry here any more. If you don't have an education the best you can hope for is a job at or a little above minimum wage. For many young people, the choices are a minimum wage job, becoming a street vendor or selling drugs--with the last two the most "popular" because you can't live on minimum wage.

As we walked up Malcolm X Boulevard we met a brother named Mark. He's in his 20s, was wearing a "Million Youth March" button and pulling boxes of address books to sell. He had a lot on his mind. He was not "encouraged" by the chain stores being brought in. "Nobody wants to work for no $5.65 an hour.... That's why there's a lot of people out here peddling. You got people out here selling drugs. Because they feel that they can make more money doing it their own self. But then again you got the guy in the blue suit [cops]. He always wants to come by. Hey, you got a license? I'm trying to eat, man. Okay? That's how I'm looking at it. I'm trying to eat. I could have said, "Hey, I'm going to take my money and invest it into cocaine or I'm going to invest my money into doing something negative in the community." But when I take my money and put it into something positive as far as getting a business for myself or trying to do for myself so I don't have to go out there and rob nobody or I don't have to go out there and sell any drugs on the street there's always somebody that comes up to me and shields a badge at me and says hey, do you have a license? I mean we bust our asses, we try to do the right thing but we still can't get what we want."

Later, when Shango and I sat down to go over a draft of this story we thought back to what Mark had told us, that he was always being set upon by the police who demanded to see his vending license. And Shango pointed out, "The people need a license to survive, but the pigs have a state-issued license to harass, brutalize and kill the people."

Some of the young people we talked to were trying to get their GED or get into or stay in college so they could get a degree or skills to get a decent job. But more and more the system has enacted policies that make it very difficult to do this. Budget cuts, cuts in tuition assistance, affirmative action and remedial education have all had a major impact on people's lives. Angela is one of a number of people we met who was going to school to try and get a better future for herself and her son. She's 21, a CUNY student with a young child on public assistance. She angrily told us how at every turn she had huge barriers placed in her way by the system.

"I can't even get a TAP (Tuition Assistance Program) grant for school. I have to take out student loans and stuff. But nobody wants to take out $10,000 and then gotta pay that interest back. You know, I don't even have $10,000. Where am I gonna get $10,000 to pay that? I mean they're making it so hard, they're cutting the grants and everything. And it's difficult and you know you need education to get anywhere. Nobody wants to work at McDonald's or Burger King. You want to go to school but they're making it hard for you even to go to school.... I only got a Pell grant and that's not even covering half of my tuition! My tuition is $5,000 a semester. It's just so hard to manage out here and then still take care of your family and live decent and send your kids to school looking decent and giving them the things that they need and some of the things they want at least. It's just so difficult and it is ridiculous. Nobody should have to live like that. Nobody, you know?"

New York has phased out welfare and phased in workfare. People can only receive their welfare check if they work at menial jobs. Their hourly rate equals much less than minimum wage. This, in turn, has forced out the people who had these jobs. Then the city has the nerve to claim that people are gaining valuable "job skills" by sweeping subway platforms and picking up garbage in parks. Angela has a disability that should exempt her from workfare. But she may not be. "Like as long as I'm not blind or I don't have HIV I would still be classified as one who has to work. You understand? I'm like, I have to take my medication every four hours. I go to school three hours of the day then I have to come home and take care of my son. Where's that gonna leave me time to work? I'm pushing it just by working and then going to school..... So I'm like how are you gonna say that people who are disabled have to work for their welfare check? $68.50 for one person and $109 for two every two weeks? I mean come on." Many single parents have already been forced to drop out of school because of the workfare program.

People also brought up how they are discriminated against when they apply for jobs. One woman said her daughter, who is light skinned, could get a job but her son couldn't get hired because he was dark skinned. Angela told us, "I mean they say equal opportunity employer and I've been trying to get a job for actually about a year and a half now. And I have a disability also. And they look at that and they say oh, you have a disability, you can't work. My disability doesn't limit what I'm able to do physically and it's not fair. Nobody wants to be on welfare, but I mean it's like you have no other alternative. It's either that or hustling, prostitution and come on now, that's no way to live, especially if you have a child. But I mean people do whatever they have to do to take care of their family but it shouldn't be that way."

Deteriorating Living Conditions

If you take a walk down Malcolm X Boulevard one thing jumps out at you right away--more than half the buildings are boarded up. These beautiful old, solid stone structures with their fancy style, many of them built over 50 years ago, have been left to rot by their owners. Like many Black and Latino neighborhoods in New York, the housing in Harlem is in a sad state. Federal funding of low-income housing started being cut in the 1970s. And since then, landlords, including the city, state and federal government, let much of the housing literally fall apart because it's not profitable to fix it. Some landlords defaulted on their taxes and more and more property fell into the hands of the city, who for the most part didn't fix the buildings. By 1991, 1,026 buildings were vacant while thousands of people lived on the streets or in homeless shelters. As a result, the population of Harlem fell by about 35 percent from 1970 to 1990. People were forced out because they literally had no place to live, including people who had been born and lived in Harlem their entire lives.

When we met Angela she was sitting in a window on the second floor of her building. She listened to us talk with some of her friends and finally came down to speak her mind. "As far as the housing, these buildings are mostly rat infested...people still live in them but they look as if you would think they were condemned. And the prices they're asking, $700 for one bedroom? We're in Harlem, okay? We're in Harlem. Where are people getting $700 for one bedroom, you know? Then they're complaining about homelessness, the shelters being overcrowded and I mean why do you think that homelessness is a problem, that it's a factor? It's because look at how much money you charge us for these apartments.

For my apartment, I have a one bedroom and I pay $600. I mean that's ridiculous. And my apartment, if I take you up there right now, you'll be like girl, how are you living like this?... My floor, the tiles are cracking. My son cut his foot up on the tiles. Now the plumber's here because sewage is backing up into the apartments and overflowing. I mean we're talking about shit, okay? Who wants to see someone else's, let alone the whole building's, backing up into their building, you know, into the apartment? I mean the living conditions is, oh, man, I wouldn't wish that on anybody."


While writing this story, I thought about what the future holds for the people we'd talked to in Harlem, especially the youth. This got me to thinking about a group of kids I'd met at the Million Youth March. A crew of about six 14-year-olds were making their way to the stage to hear the speakers when they stopped to talk to me. They took a bunch of the fliers with the RCP Statement to the MYM, "Revolution is the Hope of the Hopeless." And they told me about how the police roll up on them every single day and search them. One said he came to the march "to represent my people and just to fight for what's right, you know? Just to fight against police brutality and what they been doin' to us for so many years." Before I knew it, the youth ran off towards the stage, passing out the RCP leaflets--with the picture side up, so people could see the cartoon of two teenagers, walking proudly off a basketball court after slam-dunking "the pig system."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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