This story is the fourth in a new Truthout series, Severed Ties: The Human Toll of Prisons. This series will dive deeply into the impact of incarceration on families, loved ones and communities, demonstrating how the United States’ incarceration of more than 2 million people also harms many millions more — including 2.7 million children.
Paula Clarke and her family found themselves crawling half-naked on the floor of her Bronx home at 4:51 am on April 27, 2016, after multiple heavily armed men broke through her front door and demanded that she tell them where her son was.
Helicopters could be heard hovering right about her home. The loud flashbang grenades that initially woke Clarke up even left marks on the back of the house.
“I thought we were at war or something,” she told Truthout. “Just being woken suddenly from your bed to all of this. It was like we were in a war zone.”
As her home was being violently invaded, Clarke, who is visually impaired, tried to figure out who these armed intruders were.
“You could hear them breaking through the front door. And the house was like shaking, literally shaking,” she recounted. “I didn’t even know that we were being attacked by our own government. I thought it was like maybe ISIS. Trust me, my mind was going crazy. I was terrified ’cause all of that [was] going on at the same time.”
Her daughter Brie, a nursing student who was scheduled to take a final exam that morning, was also abruptly awakened by the war zone right outside her room.
“My sister and I were sleeping in the bedroom, and we just heard bombs go off and we saw flashes of light happening outside our window,” Brie said.
After almost instinctively rolling off her bed onto the floor, she was also confused about what was happening.
“When you’re sleeping, you don’t really have that much clothes on, so I went over and shouted from the bedroom door. I didn’t even see who it was or who was out there,” Brie told Truthout. “They just said, ‘Come out! Come out!’ and I told them, ‘I have no clothes on’ and asked if I could put some clothes on before I came out there. They said, ‘No, just come out on your hands and knees.’ So I just got on my knees and did what they asked me to do. They didn’t say who they were, what they were there for. They just told me to get on my knees and move toward them.”
After Clarke and her daughters were forced to crawl their way toward their living room, they finally saw who’d been shouting at them: a group of police officers with helmets who were pointing guns in their direction. The family was then detained on their own couch as cops searched the entire house, breaking down the basement door in the process.
The police initially asked for somebody named “Michael,” but the family didn’t know who they were talking about. Clarke’s son is named “Mark.” After asking for a “Michael” didn’t work, the police began asking Clarke what her son’s name is and where he could be found.
Clarke’s daughters told the police that Mark was at his father’s house, located about 10 minutes away by car. As most of the police then left and made their way to that house, a few officers remained to continue detaining Clarke and her daughters until Mark was arrested. The cops repeated everything they had just done at Mark’s father’s house and caught Mark.
After about an hour of being detained in their own home, Clarke and her family were finally let go and allowed to go back to bed after the officers guarding them received word that Mark had been captured. As the police left, Clarke still had no idea why the police were after her son.
The family later found out that Mark was only one of 78 people who were arrested that morning in the Bronx, and one of 120 people (now known as the Bronx 120) indicted on charges under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), a law originally used to crack down on the Mafia. Many of those arrested were young men who came from the New York City Housing Authority’s (NYCHA) Eastchester Gardens projects, located only a few blocks away from Clarke’s home. The projects were raided that morning by hundreds of officers from various local and federal law enforcement agencies. The raid was, according to a Department of Justice press release, “believed to be the largest gang takedown in New York City history.”
I’m laying in my bed and somebody just came into my house and basically ripped my son out of my arms.
After the entire ordeal, Brie still managed to take her final exam that morning and passed it. But family life for the Clarkes, as well as other families affected by the raids, would never be the same again.
Mark, described by his family as a playful and loving young man who would visit his mother and sisters on a daily basis, has been locked up since the raid, and has been in solitary confinement since September. His family hasn’t been able to see him since he was put in solitary. When he and other members of the Bronx 120 went to their first court date on October 19, 2016, family members, including Mark’s mother, were not allowed into the courtroom. They were instead put into an “overflow” room, where they watched the proceeding on static-filled monitors with no sound. When family members demanded to be allowed into the courtroom, court officers threatened to arrest them.
A Pattern of Life-Shattering Raids on Public Housing Residents
Even though it’s been deemed the largest raid in New York City history, the Eastchester Garden raid was certainly not the only raid on residents of the city’s public housing projects in the last few years. From the Bronx to Harlem to Brooklyn, hundreds of people — mostly young, poor men of color — have been rounded up by heavily armed cops and thrown into jails and prisons, leaving their families and communities damaged, divided and even more impoverished.
“The research suggests that these raids are very disruptive,” Alex Vitale, an associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, told Truthout. “They can lead to family members being evicted or, in order to avoid eviction, family members having to agree to the permanent banishment of their children from their homes as a condition for remaining there.”
In addition to splitting up individual families, raids often also fracture communities.
“You have situations in these large cases where the district attorneys are pressuring people to testify against each other, which can create real animosity, resentment, fear and paranoia as everyone is concerned about who’s saying what,” Vitale said. “So it’s very detrimental to any kind of community solidarity or sense of security.”
The justifications for such state terror are often composed of the typical, racist drug war rhetoric used to facilitate mass incarceration for decades. Just as the “super predator” myth was used to justify the arrest and incarceration of large numbers of young Black men in the 1990s, the specter of “gang membership” is now used to excuse massive state violence. When it comes to raids, law enforcement, often with the help of mainstream media, usually label the young people they’re targeting “gang members,” accuse them of dealing drugs and bring up tragic deaths in the area in order to justify collective punishment through mass arrests.
During the Eastchester Garden raids, the NYPD; US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (ICE HSI); the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA); and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) all conspired to violently invade people’s homes and make mass arrests at gunpoint — ironically justifying these invasions with claims that the young men living there were part of violent gangs and conspiracies.
The authorities claimed in a press release that the 120 people arrested in the raids were “members and associates of two rival street gangs operating in the Bronx: the 2Fly YGz (“2Fly”) and the Big Money Bosses (“BMB”).” Authorities charged all 120 people with drug, gun and conspiracy charges. In addition, the authorities claimed that the two gangs were involved in the deaths of eight people since 2007.
Raid in Harlem Was “Senseless Violence,” Father Says
The same blueprint was used two years earlier in Harlem for a multipronged raid on the Manhattanville and Grant Houses, which is now considered the second-largest raid in New York City’s history. The murder of Tayshana “Chicken” Murphy in the Grant Houses in 2011 — a result of a rivalry between the two projects — led to raids ending in the arrest of more than 100 people, including Tayshana Murphy’s brother, Taylonn Murphy Jr.
Their father, Taylonn Murphy Sr., who now does antiviolence activism and is also working with families affected by other raids, was appalled at how the authorities used his 18-year-old daughter’s death to arrest so many young people and destroy so many families.
“From that day, her physical demise just activated my rebirth, and I became an activist against senseless violence in the community,” Murphy told Truthout. “To me, it’s very personal because my daughter was used as the pretext for these raids, and the two young individuals who killed my daughter weren’t even named in the conspiracy. So it just looked odd — the way that these pieces were put together to give some validity to kidnapping young people out of their communities and giving them a massive amount of [prison] time.”
Cops Cite Marijuana Use as One of the Justifications for Brooklyn Raid
The same justifications were made by authorities after a February raid in Brooklyn’s Kingsborough houses. In an NYPD public meeting on the raid held in Brooklyn on February 24, 2017, police went so far as to mention the fact that they received many calls and complaints about young people smoking weed in the hallways. With all of these raids, tragic local deaths and drug war propaganda were used as an excuse for police to go in and start rounding up people — in many cases, based on flimsy evidence of alleged gang ties.
“For the vast majority of young people charged in these cases, there’s no evidence of their actual involvement in violent activity,” Vitale told Truthout. “These conspiracy cases only require that there be a showing that these kids are connected, or that they’ve engaged in other kinds of low-level criminal activity together. Like maybe they got busted selling pot in the park together five years ago, and then one of them goes off and shoots someone. And now [the police are] saying ‘Well, both of them are guilty of conspiracy to commit murder because they’re part of a criminal enterprise.’ It’s disturbing how loosely they’re constructing these conspiracy cases.”
Heartbreak and Fears of Eviction Following Raids
In addition to the pain of having a relative taken away and having to deal with the legal system, many of the families in public housing also face eviction after having relatives arrested in these raids.
Eve’s family is one such case. But of course, “Eve” is not her real name. In order to avoid any more hardship for her or her currently incarcerated son, she requested that neither of them be referred to by their real names in this piece. When Eve’s home in the Eastchester Gardens projects was raided, the cops broke down the front door and pointed rifles at Eve and her children. “Bitch! Get up against the wall,” the cops screamed, before detaining her and the kids, asking where her son was, and searching the entire apartment. The cops soon found and arrested her son Seth in front of the building. The next day, Eve found out about all the other arrests on the news while viewing painful footage of her son shackled from head to toe.
“When it first happened, I couldn’t really sleep. I couldn’t focus. I’m like damn, I’m laying in my bed and somebody just came into my house and basically ripped my son out of my arms,” Eve told Truthout. “Every time I see his clothes, I’m crying. Every time I pass his closet, I would just break down. When I go to see him [in jail] and I leave, [I cry] just seeing him in that place. And he has a little girl now, two months old.”
When society is throwing the worst that it has at your child, there’s nothing to do but to fight.
Along with her son being locked up and the emotional scars that go with a relative’s incarceration, Eve and her family are now facing eviction from their home. The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) had put Eve on housing probation a few years ago after two of her sons were arrested for gun possession. The two young men served their time and got out, but NYCHA made Eve sign an agreement to keep her two sons out of her home in a notoriously family-destroying process known as “permanent exclusion.”
“Permanent exclusion is routinely imposed against individuals for minor offenses and even when criminal charges have been dropped,” Lucy Newman, staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society, wrote in an email to City Limits. “Its impact can be devastating: breaking up families, forcing young men of color into homelessness and subjecting those who remain in the apartment to years of intrusive, humiliating, unannounced inspections. Every resident has a right to feel safe in his/her home, but there is no evidence to support NYCHA’s position that exclusion needs to be permanent or that, in most instances, permanent exclusion is making anyone safer.”
Eve was often subjected to NYCHA inspections of her home, as the agency attempted to force her to keep her own sons out. She says that she expects to be evicted soon; the raid has “just put the dirt over the coffin.”
“Basically, that was it,” she said. “I might’ve got a chance before, but the raid just made it worse.”
Eve’s lawyer told her that she has a few months until she has to leave. As a result, Eve is currently looking for a new place, but she is worried and uncertain about what the future holds.
“I feel like I’m sitting on death row waiting for my execution,” she told Truthout. “I’m just waiting for the papers in the mailbox.”
Evictions are not simple after-effects of raids; some advocates suspect they may sometimes be a motivation for them. According to a report released by the Regional Plan Association in March 2017, 71 percent of households in the Bronx are at risk of being displaced, more than any other borough. The area in Eastchester where the raids happened is one of the areas of the Bronx most at risk. Whether it’s getting people evicted directly by arresting them or causing them to flee their homes for fear of being next, raids have proven effective at quickly displacing poor communities of color.
However, as the raids continue, they will be faced with a mounting resistance.
Organizing to Stop the Raids
Eve, Clarke and other family members affected by raids on public housing projects in New York are taking their pain and putting it into action. They, along with a coalition of various activist groups and academics, have decided to organize in order to fight current criminal charges, to prevent at-risk communities from falling victim to future raids and to end raids in general.
“Whatever problem these communities have, we need to figure out ways of managing those problems that don’t rely primarily on coercive, punitive methods,” Vitale said. “We need to find ways of really empowering and strengthening those communities, rather than tearing them apart and putting whole generations of young people in prison or under some other form of criminal justice supervision.”
Grassroots abolitionist groups like Why Accountability, the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) and the Coalition to End Broken Windows have connected with family members like Murphy, Clarke and Eve to put together panels, marches, rallies, noise demos, fundraisers to pay legal fees and to stop Eve’s eviction, and workshops to support people affected by the raids.
“NYCHA residents need to rise up … and critically understand how city, state and federal authorities are colluding to extricate us,” Shannon Jones, an activist with Why Accountability and a NYCHA resident herself, said. “I say we’re at war and that’s a solution: accepting the fact that we are at war and to mobilize.”
A panel set up by the activist coalition on March 17 at John Jay College of Criminal Justice featured Ms. Smith, one of the mothers of the Bronx 120 (who asked to be identified by a pseudonym to avoid her son being punished for her speaking out), and Murphy. They spoke about the harmful effects of the raids and how to stop them.
Meanwhile, other activists are playing a supporting role, bolstering the mothers’ efforts.
“We’ve been reaching out, pooling our resources, trying to combat all the raids and upcoming raids,” Joel S. of IWOC, who asked that his full name not be used, told Truthout. “Some of the good stuff that the mothers are doing is that they’re bringing awareness to the raids that already happened to try to prevent other ones from happening and to try to build support networks with people affected by ones that happened.”
The activists are also holding workshops in communities that are at risk of being raided and teaching young people how to avoid incriminating themselves on social media and how to fight back against police surveillance. The workshops also teach participants how to organize Copwatch groups in their neighborhoods, which monitor and document police activity in an effort to prevent police brutality.
One such workshop, moderated by Josmar Trujillo of the Coalition to End Broken Windows, was recently held in Brooklyn and featured talks by Murphy and Clarke on their experiences.
“What these moms are doing [are] some of the most inspiring things I’ve ever seen,” Trujillo told Truthout. “For all parents, when your child is involved, you fight to the very end, ’cause you brought them into world and want to keep them safe. And when society is throwing the worst that it has at your child, there’s nothing to do but to fight.”