Charge of the White Brigade: Closing Markets and Collective Punishment

By Mark David Blum, Esq.

S’pose for a moment I am a successful business owner. It is a small market in a relatively poor and low income neighborhood. But I keep my shelves stocked and am the only source of staples in a vast food desert. There isn’t a lot of money to be made but a man can earn a living. In Syracuse, you would think the City would stand behind such an operation. We would hope the City would embrace a small business that serves a community with food and jobs.

But, it is on a “bad” non-Manliusesque street. Outside in the community, there is danger. Police are nowhere to be found. A 19 year old man was shot outside the market. A month before that a woman was killed when a gun accidentally went off in a vehicle driving through the market’s parking lot. A year later, someone who stabbed someone else ran into the market for cover and the clerk called 911. Oh, and in Midland Avenue for some surprising reason, police “linked” 12 marijuana arrests and three “other” drug arrests in two years to the area of the market. (One drug arrest every two months -- bet they cant show such low numbers on the Hill).

Note, NONE of the activities happened in the market, because of the market, or having anything to do with the business at the market. How can I as a business owner be responsible if some idiot kills themselves with their own gun in their car driving through my parking lot? Is that my faut? What am I supposed to do if a criminal runs into my store – other than call 911? People are selling drugs in every quadrant, nook, and cranny of this nation and its’ my fault that some of those sales are going on outside in the nearby neighborhood? Seriously, where is the outrage?

These are not the problem of the business owner. The Midland Avenue store was closed because of what private citizens were doing OUTSIDE the store and which activities had nothing to do with the business or the community it serves. For some reason, City Hall thinks that the business owner or home owner must take responsibility to the behaviors of other people outside their property. Syracuse wants private citizens to do police work and when they do not, the City will come and take your property. With due respect; if you want to enforce the law, send the police -- not plywood. If Syracuse police and City Hall are truly concerned about the health safety and wellbeing of the folks who live in the market’s neighborhood, perhaps the Department can put one of its fancy schmancy Neighborhood Policing trailers out front. But, like with the homeless, police and Syracuse City government prefers to use the fist and to destroy instead of building neighborhoods and communities.

What is really startling is that Syracuse Common Councilor Khalid Bey, whose district includes the market, supported the closure. This man is the one delegated the responsibility to speak for his community. Councilor Bey ignores the fact that how in one of the poorest sections of the City, an area otherwise ignored by government, residents, including the elderly, the infirm, and young children no longer have access to a local market. Thanks to the ignorance and failed social policy, folks in this neighborhood have to walk farther just to secure the basic staples and necessities of life. It is the poor who lack resources to drive to another store. Children will have to walk longer. Those who cannot walk the extra distance and do not have a car, will just have to do without. With yesterday’s morning temperature in the mid 20’s and winter not yet here, I am sure this extra walking distance will be much appreciated by the local residents.

In a community sorely lacking in jobs and growth, one from where people are fleeing as fast as the taxes are rising, we find City Government working overtime to shut down a business. This is the same community that is funding the nation’s largest white elephant, the War on Drugs, clamoring for jobs and taxpayer funds for welfare, and is constantly bemoaning the lack of community growth. Even our former governor once referenced this region as ‘the Appalachia of New York’. (For the record, the economy of Appalachia is doing far better than are we here in Upstate).

What we are looking at is a well designed program based on the policy of weed and seed. Attack a business, close it down, chase away its clientele and the assumed evil element amongst them; all in hopes that clean normal white people will gentrify the neighborhood.

As someone who likes to garden, when I pull weeds and debris from the beds, they are thrown into a mulch heap. Query now that the Midland Avenue Market has been closed, where the “weeds” that were dislodged from the area go. No doubt, some of them will be composted in our Department of Prisons. The rest … probably coming to a neighborhood near you.

It is always easier to target the poor and especially Black and Hispanic communities for these types of Prohibition attacks. Setting aside the political impotence of the poor and the willful blind eye of their elected legislators; the culture in those neighborhoods is turned outward. People there live their lives in their front yards. Children play together in the street. Folks who live in crowded public housing projects and apartments need somewhere to go when they tire of sitting in a concrete box all day. Compare this to the affluent neighborhoods and White culture which by contrast tend to turn toward their back yard and living rooms. Thus, folks in the poor neighborhoods find themselves more exposed than their suburban or affluent counterparts.

Additionally, there is the question of youth. When you are a teenager, where do you go after school – especially when you live in a small apartment? Most folks go outside and hang out with their friends. Back in the “old days”, it used to be the malt shop or the pizza shop, or some local hang out where you can buy a soda and do teen stuff with your friends. The neighborhood market is a gathering spot; a place to meet up.

Yet today in Syracuse, a group of teenagers of a certain skin color standing together outside a market automatically draws the attention of police. Instead of making friends, police will swarm the group and anybody who runs is arrested. All are searched and is consistent with our failed policy in managing drug misuse in society, drugs will be found in a certain percentage of those stopped. I have called it Ethnic Cleansing and the statistics bear that out.

“Arrest rates and corresponding arrest ratios that were calculated for Onondaga County were then compared with statewide averages with a few nearby counties. … Specifically, the arrest rate ratios indicate that the chances of arrest for black residents in Onondaga County are substantially greater in Onondaga County than nearby counties or the state as a whole. … During the years of the study, the arrest rate ratios indicate that chances of being arrested for drug felonies or drug sales are 20 to 40 times greater for black residents.”

“According to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Statistics, arrest rates for black residents within New York State as a whole are about 4 to 5 times higher than that for white residents. … The unique nature of street drug markets in urban areas has sometimes been offered as an explanation of why minorities experience higher drug arrest rates than whites. Statistical evidence indicates that drug use patterns within these two racial groups are similar. However, the corresponding arrest rate ratios in Onondaga County are significantly higher than the arrest ratios in Erie or Monroe counties and also significantly higher than those for NY State as a whole. … These large differences in arrest rate ratios for Onondaga County have persisted over the time period included in this evaluation (1995-2004).”

In 2000, 2002, 2004, 2005, and 2006, studies, reports, and neighborhood evaluations of Syracuse Police activities show a rising effort of energy concentrated in low income minority neighborhoods. Significant numbers of Citizens and scientists have decried ‘profiling’ as being the basis for the disparate impact of police activity upon Blacks in Syracuse and Onondaga County. Racial profiling is not the issue; but instead, it is racial stereotyping that is causing the problem.

What is really going on is that white folks and old folks just don’t like kids hanging around. Drive down the street and see a group of young Black people and the first thought is criminal activity. Add to that mix “that music”, and “those clothes”, and “that hair” and the next thing you know, some old white lady is on local WSYR radio thanking the police for ridding the neighborhood of that “vermin”. You don’t see this in Manlius because folks have backyards and big houses and living rooms and basements with swimming pools where they can engage in their community gathering and clandestine activities and so nobody complains. Don’t see, don’t tell.

In the end, what we as citizens get is a closed market, a worsening hardship in the neighborhood and a shift in the so-called crime problem from one street corner to another. Can the Mayor, the Police Chief, the Corporation Counsel or anybody in City government assure the community that closing the market will have a substantial impact upon drug use and distribution? Will the killings stop just because we border up a grocer? As a reader, ask yourself whether you really think we can rid the streets from sales of drugs by boarding up a viable neighborhood business.

Supposedly this entire discussion is about quality of life issues. Who’s quality of life has been enhanced by this act? There is no courage in closing down a market, putting someone out of business, and disturbing the lives of thousands of people. Collective punishment is not American justice.

Back to the MarkBlum Report

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