Community Control, Bangladeshi Garment Workers and the NYPD
“I’m going to make sure you’re staying in that cold, wet jail cell tonight,” the sergeant told me the moment I got into the car.
It was a rainy summer day in Brooklyn, New York. Earlier in the day, peaceful demonstrators staged a protest against the Target Corporation at the Atlantic Center Mall, calling on the multi-million dollar company to sign factory safety agreements for workers.
The protest that took place in Brooklyn can be placed in a global context. Last November, a factory fire took over 150 lives in Bangladesh’s Tazreen Plaza – this was the deadliest fire in the country’s history. The tragedy was one of several workplace disasters that have captured the media’s attention recently. This past April, the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh took over 1,200 lives – most of which were women, poor people, and victims whose families will not live to see justice.
The Bangladeshi garment industry generates a profit of 20 billion dollars yearly, supplying the economies of the European Union and the United States with a steady revenue stream. Workers make up to as little as $0.20 an hour, laboring under harsh working conditions that have been illegal in the United States for some time already. Sweatshop conditions and worker exploitation are commonplace. From opting exclusively to use the cheapest manufacturers and equipment in constructing the workplace itself, to neglecting to pay the auditors who could have prevented the deadly structural problems, the role of retailers needs badly to be addressed.
Organizers and activists have been strategic in taking action to call out companies, distributing fliers that inform consumers of the millions of lives lost at the hands of corporations like Target. Building a campaign targeting multi million dollar corporations that must be held accountable for the continuous exploitation of the global south is necessary. In solidarity with the workers, many of the organizers know the impact of direct actions and building solidarity with large consumer markets. At our demonstration we chanted: “Target, Target sign the accord!” Within fifteen minutes, the noise from the trumpets, clarinets, pans and other noisemakers drew over fifty undercover cops to the Atlantic Center Mall. Target’s security screamed at demonstrators to leave promptly.
I continued with the demonstrators, handing out fliers amidst the chaos of Target’s second floor main lobby, screaming, “Target kills poor people!” I was told I was soliciting (I was protesting, freedom of speech) and informed I was to immediately leave the premises. The attempt to silence my dissident opinion did not surprise me, and my initial reaction was to continue marching forward with the crowd. We were escorted by police while hundreds of shoppers watched. Some looked intrigued, some annoyed, some startled. I was made to stop distributing flyers by another undercover police officer, and he continued to accuse me of breaking the law. I clarified that I was exercising my right to freedom of speech and the right to assemble. I was then followed by a group of twenty cops, most of which were undercover and white.
As I walked through the mall, I made sure to avoid the exit where there were crowds of protesters and police officers. Later I learned that was my mistake: sticking to crowds during demonstrations would have prevented the personal altercation that followed. Instead, I overheard the cops speaking behind me in loud, violent tones.
“What a stupid bitch,” one of them said.
As an organizer who has been at quite a few rallies – I was accustomed to the presence of police and the blatant violation of space and safety that comes with that presence. From May Day to the marches at local fast food joints, the police always rolled deep. I was used to feeling like my body was in danger and ability to express myself was limited, used to feeling like at any moment a cop could violate me and walk away without any repercussion. I had witnessed Occupy Wall Street, where peaceful protesters were brutally assaulted by police officers whose actions were caught on camera. I lived in a reality where Richard Haste, the murderer of seventeen-year-old Ramarley Graham who was shot in his home in the Bronx, had the charges against him dropped by the Bronx district attorney.
I live in a police state, one in which I am violated by the NYPD on a daily basis.
I turned around after being triggered by the language, with my iPhone in my hand to record the officer’s badge. I recognized the officer as the same one who had shoved me upstairs while leaving Target. I knew the New York Civil Liberties Union had an application that let activists submit recordings of officers violating NYPD protocol, and I was livid. I was overwhelmed by the raw anger I felt at being made powerless in that situation. And all because I chose to stand up against the corporations who dictate what happens in the public and economic spheres of our lives. With my camera trained on his badge, Officer Rosborough aggressively shoved me backwards after stomping on my left foot and shoving my breast.
“Oops, it was a mistake.”
I was enraged. Every part of me was in shock over what had just happened, but I knew shoving or hitting the officer back would only result in a minimum ten year sentence. I knew that police officers have power, and they abuse that power. They use it to assert their domination over people who are caught up in the emotional responses to poverty: rage, helplessness, and desperation.
I ran outside of the mall, with the cluster of officers still behind me. Within a moment of speaking to two officers outside the mall, I was attacked by Officer Rosborough and Levine. As they handcuffed me, with my body against a wall and excessive force, they told me I was resisting arrest.
I spent my night in central bookings for “resisting arrest” and “disorderly conduct.” But as a community that has been infiltrated by the FBI’s COINTELPRO, Muslims that have been spied upon by these same departments, we don’t believe in these charges. This was just another routine process in a prison industrial complex that criminalizes 20% of the world’s prisoners. I don’t believe the NYPD is designed to create safer spaces for social movement and improvement within communities, because time and time again they have proved their brutal, racist politics under Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Ray Kelly. We also have access to history, which tells us that the NYPD was originally created to protect the rich.
I was greeted by organizers, comrades, and young organizers that waited all day for my trial. I could write more articles on the way prisoners are treated and the disgusting conditions of the American criminalization system, but you can look at Assata Shakur’s autobiography or The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander to learn more about the history of these aspects of U.S. politics.
This experience has forced me to confront my position in society, living in a militaristic police state that deems many lives irrelevant and exercises full control. It has forced me to think of how I can “better” police myself and the way I react to violence, racism and sexism in my community, in order to avoid “conflict.” It has reminded me of the trend of police brutality within nations worldwide, and how the masses continue to be brutalized continuously. It forced me to pay respect to the Brazilian indigenous communities that are also being brutalized by local authorities who are bought out by companies supporting the 2014 FIFA World cup.
The idea of “conflict” has been misconstrued, though, because as we attempt to organize mass demonstrations to hold corporations accountable, the real conflict turns out to be de-escalating situations and minimizing interactions with cops, even if they may outnumber the demonstrators. The real conflict happens as we deal with the police state, being organizers and community activists that want to resist violence and oppression.
I would love to talk about organizing against police, with extensive efforts for campaigns against Mayoral control that can potentially hold our politicians accountable (or oust them, if they don’t respond in our best interests), eradicating structures like the school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately target Black and Brown youth. There have been extensive efforts made by organizers and certain politicians who are in support of holding the NYPD accountable, while pushing for a radical change to end racial profiling and discriminatory policies. The Community Safety Act has been supported by hundreds of organizations and advocates for protecting individuals from police brutality and profiling. But, we still need more substantial changes in the culture of the NYPD and the manner in which they exercise their power, as well as their overwhelming presence in our streets. We need community control of our police, and progressive policies implemented in our communities to address power dynamics.
Follow Sharmin on Twitter @SharminUltraa.