When I took my seat as a juror in The People v. Abraham Cucuta, a murder trial in Manhattan several years ago, the first question on my mind was, why the delay? Two young men were shot to death in a New York City Housing Authority project in East Harlem 10 years earlier. Why had it taken so long to bring the defendant to justice?
“Defund the Police”: A Simple Slogan for a Complex Problem
After hearing from the two eyewitnesses, we had our answer. For years, both had refused to testify, even though they saw the victims get shot, even though they knew the perpetrator well. As gang members, they felt constrained by an oath of silence — and by fear of retribution. Only when they were facing long sentences in other cases did they agree to testify, in exchange for reduced jail time. Their testimony was key to our jury’s vote to convict the accused, Abraham Cucuta, and to his later sentencing to life in prison. That trial, and my account of how young men grow up in East Harlem, are the subjects of my just-published book, “Juror Number 2: The Story of a Murder, the Agony of a Neighborhood.”
These days, I think a lot about my jury experience as we close the books on 2020, a year of horrific violence in American cities. In New York, in addition to a near-doubling of shootings compared to 2019, from 777 to 1,531, there were 462 murders, a 45% increase. At the year’s end, about half were unsolved. Other cities have experienced similar surges in killings: Chicago, with 769 murders, the most of any city, saw an increase of 55%. Milwaukee, New Orleans, Memphis, Minneapolis and Phoenix registered increases in murders ranging from 52% to 95%.
Whether it’s COVID-19 deaths or the victims of violent crime in our own cities, we are besieged, and ultimately numbed, by statistics. It’s all too easy to forget that behind every crime statistic is a life cut short — and often a young life at that. In the month of July 2020, in New York, Shatavia Walls, 33, was shot to death in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn, three days after confronting men setting off fireworks near children. Anthony Robinson, 29, was gunned down crossing Sheridan Avenue in the Bronx while holding the hand of his young daughter. One-year-old Davell Gardner was killed by gunmen spraying bullets at an outdoor family cookout in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.
In New York City, a handful of police precincts in troubled neighborhoods account for an outsized share of violent crimes. These include Precinct 75, East New York, Brooklyn; Precinct 73, Brownsville, Brooklyn; Precinct 44, Grand Concourse-Bronx Terminal Market; and Precinct 23, East Harlem. Like Shatavia Walls, Anthony Robinson and Davell Gardner, the great majority of murder victims in these and in similar neighborhoods are black and Latino.
Precinct 23 was the scene of the murders in the trial of Abraham Cucuta. In the early morning hours of June 7, 2007, five young men were playing dice in the courtyard of East River Houses when another man entered the courtyard and started firing. Two of the dice players were shot dead in a matter of minutes. A third man, the intended target, got away, but was killed five years later in a shootout with police. The two other dice players, the eyewitnesses in the trial, have been in and out of jail multiple times in other cases; one will be in prison until his mid-50s. And the sixth, Abraham Cucuta, will spend the rest of his life in a New York state prison.
The toll of that dice game, what preceded it and what followed, is stark: six young men, six ruined lives. Meanwhile, the violence in East Harlem continues. In the first 11 months of 2020, there were seven murders in Precinct 23 versus two in 2019.
More Than Slogans
In the aftermath of the trial, my search for why — why the young men caught up in the murders and the trial were cutting schools, joining gangs, selling drugs, getting arrested and spending time in jail — took me into housing projects, police precincts and schools in East Harlem.
That search, and the months of shootings and killings in New York as I was writing “Juror Number 2,” have convinced me that dealing with this level of violence requires more than slogans. The cry to “defund the police,” for example, was an understandable reaction to the horrendous killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But with violence taking a heavy toll in minority communities, what is needed is a three-legged approach: safe streets, outreach to potential offenders, and true educational opportunity for today’s children.
To achieve safe streets, the first leg requires not less policing but better policing: improved recruitment and training, genuine police engagement with the communities they serve. But equally necessary is support by community residents for the legitimate role of the cops in protecting neighborhoods. When witnesses refuse to identify perpetrators of violence, in effect they are giving shelter to those who kill while denying safety to future victims.
The second leg is exemplified by the city’s Cure Violence programs, with leaders like Tara Brown-Arnell and Freddie Charles of Bronx Connect, Erica Ford of LIFE Camp in South Jamaica and Omar Jackson of SAVE in East Harlem. Their outreach workers seek out young men prone to violence, urging them to put away guns and embrace alternatives like paid internships, jobs, education.
Ford’s motto, “Peace is a lifestyle,” is an umbrella for her organization’s work in mental health counseling, feeding hungry people, education and outreach. Jackson and his small staff are “credible messengers” who draw on their own experience of criminal activity and jail time to establish rapport with those at risk of settling scores with knives and bullets. “You can’t tell these guys nothing,” he explains to me. “They have to trust us 100% because if I won’t trust you, I’m not sharing anything with you.”
I’m a big fan of these organizations, but at present, they cover only a fraction of the most dangerous neighborhoods, and it takes months to recruit and train the right violence interrupters. Expanding these programs is a no-brainer, as long as we understand that they won’t produce instant results.
The third leg offers a long-term payoff in reduced violence: targeting children in grades prek-8 and insuring they attend schools that succeed. Of the 23 regular schools in District 4, East Harlem, only at six are the majority of pupils proficient in English. Normal attendance in District 4 is poor; in the Department of Education’s haphazardly organized remote learning environment, it’s been a disaster.
Until we’re serious about fixing failing schools, too many children will grow up lacking needed skills, tempted by gangs and crime, and without knowing in their bones that a neighborhood undisturbed by violence is every person’s right. True, improving schools will be a long and arduous process. It won’t be achieved by appointing some miracle-worker chancellor from out of town to impose change from on high. This approach of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s yielded little.
Instead, success will require recruiting exceptional principals and giving them the autonomy to organize their schools and pick their teachers free of bureaucratic hamstrings. We have such principals today. In “Juror Number 2” I single out, in East Harlem alone, Dimitres Pantelidis of PS 171, Bennett Lieberman of Central Park East High School and Tara Stant of Success Academy Harlem 3. We just need a lot more of them.
Shatavia Walls was killed because she had the temerity to confront men who were endangering children. Davell Gardner, a toddler, died for no reason at all, other than to be in the wrong place when young men were brandishing guns. The wrong place? As Omar Jackson said to me after another accidental shooting death at another barbecue in another borough, “Who brings a gun to a cookout?”
It’s past time to act as if their lives mattered.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.