At 8:45 a.m. on a frigid January morning, the protesters are warming up:
“Mic Check!” “Mic Check!”
“Mic Check!” “Mic Check!”
Outside the New York Criminal Court Building on Centre Street a crowd of about 50 huddles behind a row of metal barricades as a few N.Y.P.D. officers look on. A red sign reads “WE ARE IN A POLICE STATE.” Next up is Kassandra Frederique of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA); her breath visible as she speaks, a chilly cameraman from NY1 a few feet away.
“What would you do with $75 million?” Frederique cries. “The City Council could use $75 million to do better things for our community. Instead they’re using $75 million to pen up black men!” It’s the amount the DPA says was spent arresting New Yorkers for marijuana possession in 2010.
Although e-mails have gone out under the banner “Occupy the Courthouse,” this isn’t an OWS action, per se, nor is it a rally against stop-and-frisk. In their parkas and winter hats, the crowd is here to support one man in particular: 70-year-old community activist Joseph Hayden, better known as “Jazz.” Or as Frederique calls him, “a freedom fighter for our rights.”
Born and raised in Harlem, Jazz technically lives in Yonkers now. But “I just sleep up there,” he says. “My life is in Harlem.” Besides running a local media company called Still Here Harlem—and covering virtually every consequential event on the community calendar—Jazz has spent the past few years monitoring the police presence after dark. Armed with a flipcam at all times, he tapes the N.Y.P.D. carrying out stop-and-frisks and warrantless car searches, a ubiquitous sight above 125th Street especially on Fridays and Saturdays when, as he puts it, “the police go on safari in communities of color.” He posts them on his website, All Things Harlem.
This summer he posted a video of two plainclothes police officers pulling over a pair of black men and searching their car. It was at the intersection of 126th Street and Adam Clayton Powell, near the State Office Building, and around the corner from the Seville Lounge, where Jazz is a regular. (“That’s the last waterhole for old timers like me,” he says.) The corner is a “hotspot” for stop-and-frisks. “Every time it happens I run out of the bar and everybody goes, ‘Aw man, there goes Jazz again.’ I keep telling them, listen, you can’t hide from them. You have to go at them.”
The video shows a large black police officer searching a vehicle and checking IDs as the other cop, who Jazz thinks is Latino, shines his flashlight in his face. Jazz berates them for betraying their community. “What did they do, man? What did they do to have to go through this frisk? They commit any violent acts? They display any weapons?” They respond by calling him a drug dealer. At one point the mother of one of the men comes over. “So sad,” she says, shaking her head.
Jazz posted the video on August 1. Four months later, on December 2, he was pulled over at 132nd Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard. It was a Friday night, and he was on his way to visit his daughter and young grandson after a meeting at Riverside Church. Every week he meets with members of a group he founded, the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow, a name inspired by the influential prison book by Michelle Alexander. For Jazz, a former prisoner, the book was a revelation; the fully realized version of a paper he’d once written on the problem of felon disenfranchisement. “It led to the same conclusion: that mass incarceration was a push back to the successes of the civil rights struggle.”
That night, as he tells it, the cops pulled him over, then recognized him immediately. “You’re that murderer,” he recalls them saying. “And I’m thinking, ‘Damn these are the same guys I videotaped abusing those two guys.’” Ignoring his refusal to let them search his car, the cops emerged with a penknife. They arrested him and took him to the 32nd precinct on 135th Street, where he was charged with felony possession of a deadly weapon.
“Because of my past criminal record, what would ordinarily be a misdemeanor is now a felony,” he says. “And this is what Michelle Alexander talks about. I’ve become a part of a permanent underclass.”
Jazz says he spent 48 hours in custody, including hours at a nearby hospital because his blood pressure was dangerously high. Prosecutors requested a ludicrous $16,000 bail, which was thrown out. Jazz was released of his own recognizance. A hearing was set for January 19.
As Larry White, a longtime friend and fellow activist says, “I guess they had their eye on him.”
The crowd is ready to go inside the courthouse, but one person is still missing: Jazz. (He’s reportedly on the West Side Highway.)
As we wait, I spot Amir Varick Amma. Tall, with an easy smile and a scar running along his cheek, he spent 19 years locked up under the Rockefeller drug laws. He’s been out for two years. I ask if he’s been stopped by police much since he got back. “Man, I’ve gotten stopped in downtown Manhattan, up in Harlem, Queens—matter of fact, I got stopped and frisked last night.” He says it’s because of his kufi cap. “Luckily I know their rules and I keep enough ID on me.” It helps that he’s non-confrontational. “Sometimes we have to learn how to curse the police out without cursing.”
Amir, like most people, says he’s known Jazz for a long time, referring to him as a “beacon.”
“He turned his life around from being a knucklehead at one time to knowing that it’s up to him to help empower the people through his experience.”
Jazz will be the first to admit to his checkered past, which he calls “an open book.”
“I’ve done everything that men do in the underclass,” he says. Indeed, a New York Times profile of Still Here Harlem described his “earlier decades” as resembling “chapters in a crime novel”: arrested at 16 for heroin possession, two stints in state prison, and a onetime “associate” of one of the city’s major heroin dealers.
In 1970 he was convicted of attempted murder of a police officer, which he describes as a “complete fabrication.” (“The initial police report said that these guys, the perpetrators, were 6 foot 4, 6 foot 5,” he said. “I’m 5 foot 5 and a half.”) He was sent to Attica Prison, then notorious for its racism and overcrowding.
“I was bitter, angry, and dangerous,” he recalls. “You know, bad.”
But in D Block, where he lived, there were classes and inmate-led study groups. He joined other prisoners in studying history, sociology, and political science. International publishers would send books. “All we had to do was write to them.” And soon, he became a leader among the prisoners. “It was a place and a time where people were hungry for that.”
A few days before the infamous Attica rebellion—in which the state killed 29 prisoners and four guards—Jazz was transferred to a different prison closer to the city. “Had I been there, I would’ve been dead,” he says. His conviction was overturned two months later.
Talking about the massacre tends to choke Jazz up. “These were guys that were looked upon as throwaway people,” he says. “Social garbage.” But he was inspired by the courage displayed by men like L. D. Barkley, who famously read from the inmates’ manifesto—crying out “We are men!” and demanding to be treated as such—before being shot dead.
Last fall, Jazz helped organize an event to mark the 40th anniversary of Attica at Riverside Church. Heading it up was Sarah Kunstler, daughter of the legendary radical lawyer William Kunstler, who today works alongside Elizabeth Fink, who represented the Attica prisoners in the years after the raid. Kunstler and Fink are representing Jazz as his case moves to a grand jury.
A cheer rises up. Jazz has finally arrived, along with Carlton Berkley, a former N.Y.P.D. officer who taught Jazz to videotape stop-and-frisks, and who has authored a guide to resisting police abuse: What To Do About This? Short, with a gray beard and glasses, Jazz wears a heavy hooded jacket over his suit and tie. He has been sick for the past few weeks and he has not gone out to film since his arreStreet
Jazz thanks people for coming out, then says, as he has hundreds of times, “I see Harlem turning into an open air prison.
“Our communities are under siege! It’s not normal. But we have become accustomed to seeing things like this ... We see 10 kids lined up against the wall sitting on the curb and we walk right by. We don’t take out our cell phones and videotape this. Because the police, more than anything else, they fear the camera ... And that’s why I’m here today.”
The crowd heads into the building, patiently waiting to go through the metal detectors and up to the courtroom. Red ribbons are distributed for people to wear. City Councilman Charles Barron sits next to Jazz. People slowly defrost during the tedious procession of defendants and their lawyers. A black man with broken English pleads guilty to disorderly conduct. Attorneys call the names of clients they barely know. The judge calls out case after case and then:
Everyone stands up.
The judge demands that people sit and sets a date for Jazz to appear before the grand jury: April 17. With that, we’re back on the street.
“We want you to come every time,” says Fink before we disperse. “We’re gonna fight ’em on every level. We’re gonna fight ’em on the grand jury. And we’re gonna win.”