In Working-Class NJ Town, Activists Push to Invest in Community, Not Police

Just past midnight on December 14, 2020, Osamah Alsaidi walked near a police cruiser on a dark city street of Paterson, New Jersey’s third-largest city just outside New York City. Shortly thereafter, that very same police car cut off Alsaidi’s path and out jumped officers Kevin Patino and Kendry Tineo-Restituyo.

They immediately accosted the 19-year-old, striking him numerous times and dropping him to the ground where they continued their assault. The police report they filed described Alsaidi as “acting belligerent” and “screaming profanities.” That report would remain the only evidence of the incident until surveillance footage surfaced from a store just across from where the beating took place. That footage, vindicating Alsaidi’s claims, would ultimately go viral at the beginning of 2021. On April 26, over four months since the incident, the U.S. Department of Justice charged the two officers with assault and filing a false police report. Many wondered if such an outcome would have been possible if it weren’t for the surveillance footage and community response that made the tapes go viral.

The federal indictments of the officers would bring the total number of federally charged officers from the Paterson Police Department to 10 in just over a year since federal investigations into the department began. That a police department in a city less than nine square miles can have no less than 10 officers under federal indictment is a remarkable statistic. Yet, we must resist the temptation to view these 10 officers as simply “bad apples.” How can we understand the long-standing problems of the Paterson Police Department as not just the consequence of a few individuals but the result of 21st century carceral logics and racial capitalism?

Hyper-Criminalizing Post-Industrial Cities

The story of Paterson, New Jersey, is the story of many post-industrial cities in the United States. The contemporary modes of policing and broader carceral apparatus present in this city are undergirded by the logics of anti-Black racism, dispossession and underdevelopment that have historically run through the region.

After displacing the original Leni-Lenape people in what was known as Lenapehoking land, Alexander Hamilton envisioned the first industrially planned city in the United States in 1789. The new centerpiece for this industry would be the 77-foot-tall waterfall near the middle of the Passaic River that ran from the Hudson River on through Paterson. For nearly 200 years, industry would flourish in this region, drawing Italian, Jewish and Greek immigrants, as well as internal migrants by way of the Great Migration that saw southern African Americans move north for better jobs and opportunity in the mid-20th century. With a large textile industry, most notably silk, Paterson — or “Silk City,” as it would also be known — developed into a hub for social and political organizing, serving as an arena for the contentious labor politics of the early 20th century.

One of the first strikes for an eight-hour workday would be organized in Paterson. In 1913, around 100,000 workers took to the streets, clashing with police and union busters for over five months. Ultimately unsuccessful, the legacy of the Industrial Workers of the World, and other prominent figures like radical thinker Hubert Harrison, would inspire many to take up the struggle elsewhere. The strike would be a pivotal moment of the era, a period which saw anarchists, syndicalists, and other labor activists routinely clash with police, drawing the ire of United States Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, who would launch his infamous Palmer Raids during the first Red Scare, arresting and deporting numerous Paterson radicals by the end of the decade.

It became clear early on that the state would mobilize violence as a barrier between capital and the poor and working class. By the 1960s, global divestment had begun to encroach on the industrial cities of the north. The factory labor force, which by this point consisted of mostly Black and other people of color, was no longer needed, as factory owners could count on moving their factories elsewhere. Global corporations increasingly saw the urban centers of the north as less profitable than the maquiladoras of the southern border or the textile factors of South Asia. By the 1980s, globalization would leave behind shuttered factories and laid-off workers. Many of the white residents would move out to the surrounding suburbs, taking with them the capital that sustained the city’s revenue, a phenomenon known as “white flight.”

After decades of pollution along the river, the federal government would designate much of the region along the Passaic River a superfund site, a territory exhausted and exploited to the point where the subsoil needed to be frequently monitored. This was the new urban reality for Black people and people of color in the post-industrial city of the later 20th century — neoliberal ruins defined by pollution, underfunding and hyper-criminalization.

The bargaining power that earlier waves of workers relied on seemingly evaporated with the rise of globalized capital. A new era of Reaganomics would transform the state, unhinging it from its social welfare responsibilities and pushing it toward new mechanisms of social control and criminalization. The poor and people of color that were left behind were now deemed undesirable by the state, labeled “super predators” and used as scapegoats in a new era of globalization. In turn, the social and economic disaffection felt by the increasingly outnumbered white populations would shift into racial animosity that would be channeled toward workers of color, including many immigrants, who had to contend with the realities of neoliberalism and racial injustice.

The Afterlives of 1964

By the 1960s, like many other post-industrial cities, Paterson was plagued by deplorable housing conditions, aggressive policing, deregulation and growing rates of incarceration. After years of harassment and intimidation, the Paterson police were seen as an occupying force in Black neighborhoods, wardens in a city suffering from urban decay brought about by years of social and economic neglect. The police checked the poor while looking the other way at conditions of overcrowded housing mismanaged by slumlords in one of the most densely populated cities.

On the night of August 11, 1964, after the conclusion of a party, around 200 youths spilled into the streets of the city’s Fourth Ward, a predominantly Black neighborhood, a constructed “ghetto” — the result of redlining and de facto segregation. Police quickly moved in to disperse the crowd. Witnessing the manhandling and aggressive tactics, community members began to shout and toss debris at the officers in defense of the youth. An uprising ensued, fueled by years and decades of abuse at the hands of police.

Lesser known and preceding the rebellions of Watts in 1965, Detroit and nearby Newark in 1967, the Paterson uprising was sparked by much of the same violent socioeconomic conditions present in those cities. For three nights, the poor residents of Paterson rose up to express their frustration at the status quo. At least 65 people would be arrested and eight people injured. Not until the comedian and social activist Dick Gregory came into the city to negotiate a truce with civil leaders would the unrest stop. Luckily, no one was killed. But instead of acquiring the promised federal investment for better housing and employment, money would be redirected to an ever-growing police force.

Mapping State Violence

“I’m tryin’ to go mango hunting. Let’s goooo,” read a text sent on November 6, 2017 by Paterson Police Officer Jonathan Bustios to his partner Frank Toledo. Federal agents believed “mangos” was code for money. Over the span of a few years, Toledo, along with at least four other officers, ran an extortion unit on the streets of Paterson around 2016. Toledo and other officers would stop civilians they believed to be holding large amounts of cash and shake them down. Toledo and his gang would force their victims to sign illegal agreements under pressure before searching their property or confiscating their money.

On several occasions, Toledo would lead a band of officers to beat up petty drug dealers and users on the streets, assuming correctly that the city would never hold up the claims of the destitute in a society that criminalizes and ignores the poor. An open campaign of excoriation began playing out in the streets of Paterson, which Toledo knew quite well was illegal: In pretrial hearings in late 2018, federal prosecutors presented a copy of Toledo’s “everything we do is illegal” text, which he sent to his partner Bustios before they went out to extort residents. Numerous victims have come forward, not only to denounce the actions of Toledo but to say that many of their complaints to the department’s Internal Affairs office went ignored.

Environments such as Paterson’s are undergirded by particular logics which shape its specific socioeconomic realities. Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls the interrelationship of landscapes, natural resources, policing and the controlling of population “carceral geographies.” The basis for these punitive geographies lies in the new role of the state under neoliberalism. Under austerity, social welfare shrinks, and thus money is redirected toward institutions of correction and containment.

The human excess of neoliberalism is swept up by an ever-growing carceral state that relies on a new labor force contracted to warehouse the newly criminalized population. As Gilmore notes, “Agencies start to copy what the police do: The education department, for instance, learns that it can receive money for metal detectors much more easily than it can for other kinds of facility upgrades. And prisons can access funds that traditionally went elsewhere — for example, money goes to county jails and state prisons for ‘mental health services’ rather than into public health generally.”

For Paterson, this means nearly half its city budget is earmarked for policing. Although the city has less than half the median income of neighboring Clifton, it counts on nearly three times as many police. A recent study found that based on arrests, Black people in Paterson are 459 percent more likely to have force used on them than a white person.

Now nearly two years since the five officers pled guilty, not one has faced any jail time, a symptom of how false systems of “justice” are slow to impact those with privilege and power. Even in the unlikely scenario these officers do receive the maximum sentence, it does nothing to dismantle the structures enabling these carceral geographies. Sentencing has been delayed as federal prosecutors bring charges against their former sergeant, Michael Cheff. Cheff, although suspended and facing his own slew of charges, is currently earning a yearly taxpayer-funded salary of $134,678.

Building Abolitionist Futures

However, amid a massive police apparatus and many decades of abandonment and dispossession, organizers are working toward racial and social justice from the ground up. Since October 2020, Black Live Matter Paterson (BLM Paterson) has been distributing food, clothes and hygienic products on Carroll Street, one of the most notorious streets in a city plagued with violence.

BLM Paterson deliberately chose this location, a reflection of the ideals of revolutionary solidarity and mutual aid, abolitionist practices that are predicated on an embedded presence in the community. Since first coming together in July 2016, BLM Paterson has been cognizant of carceral geographies, their abolitionist projects extending beyond advocacy, proposing community alternatives to address different forms of violence and poverty. Ever since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, the collective has mobilized to provide food runs for the elderly, check-ins and the distribution of other community needs. They have also held various kinds of trainings and workshops, including Know Your Rights and first-aid workshops for the community.

BLM Paterson’s ongoing commitment to the community is an embodied practice of abolition and keeps with what the scholar Cedric Robinson described as the Black Radical Tradition, “a revolutionary consciousness that proceeded from the whole historical experience of Black people.” For Zellie Imani, a Paterson schoolteacher and organizer with BLM Paterson, “Abolition isn’t just about dismantling the institutions that are oppressing us, but also creating systems to support, heal and affirm Black lives.”

As the city scrambles to save face, organizations like BLM Paterson continue to work toward a future beyond carceral logics. “Mutual aid isn’t charity,” says Imani. “Mutual aid is community building and building community, not carceral institutions, is how we create safer and stronger communities.”