On Saturday June 16, 2018, I left the Bronx on the D line headed to Coney Island. There I departed with my bike, intending to visit the Jamaica Bay shore which has several beaches, including Brighton Beach, Manhattan Beach, Plum Beach, and on through the Gateway National Recreation Area. My goals were 2 fold: Searching for horseshoe crabs that were reported coming ashore to lay eggs as this was their breeding season was first. From there I was to visit and document the Jamaican Wildlife Refuge. I had planned to bike past Floyd Bennett Field and across the Marine Parkway Bridge towards Riis Beach and then back westward across the Cross Bay Veterans Memorial Bridge which crosses direct into the Jamaican Wildlife Refuge.
The weather was balmy, in the mid-70’s, and quite breezy. Usually the train is almost empty by time we reach the last stop – Coney Island – but this time we picked up more passengers the closer we got. At Coney Island the crowds were enormous. It didn’t take much though to lose the crowds, biking past cars stuck in traffic and strolling beachgoers, heading eastward.
The afternoon wore on as I approached Floyd Bennett Field. Flatbush Avenue here is a 4 lane highway, and while there wasn’t a lot of traffic, cars were still moving fast as few signals were there to slow them down. Grateful to have a separated bike lane, I meandered along, enjoying sliced apples and a granola bar as I pedaled. I spotted a trash can up ahead on a corner which also happened to have 2 NYPD cars sitting perpendicular to one another just in front of a stop sign specifically for bikes. Ordinarily I would have slowed to check the traffic and totally ignored the stop sign but I wanted to toss the granola bar wrapper in the trash so I actually stopped. The officers were talking, one outside his car, and from the corner of my eye I saw him glance my direction as I meandered across the street towards the toll plaza and bridge, a short distance away.
I hadn’t gone that far when I noticed back across the highway about a hundred feet from where I had just crossed were 2 New York State Police cars parked tail to tail on the opposite side of the road. Between them was a 30-ish black fellow, long dreads tied behind his head, sitting on the curb. Literally standing over him were two NYS troopers, 1 male and 1 female, in a stereotypical authoritative stance. If I had wanted to describe a film character as overbearing, either of these would fit the description to a “T.”
Checking myself, it just didn’t look right.
Ahh, I thought, he’s fine, but still I slowed down. He’s sitting on the curb and no one is running or anything. So maybe everything is all right. and what can I do, anyway?
Of course then I remembered how many times a black man (or child) had been shot while fleeing, sitting in his car, or doing nothing; all under the representation of “he was threatening ______….” (fill in the blanks).
I stopped my bike and thought about it.
I wondered what he must have done to have not even one, but 2 New York State Troopers questioning him?
I checked myself again – he was black, that’s all that mattered.
I also considered where I had just biked, where I was now, and where I was headed.
While all of New York City is comprised of smaller neighborhoods, there are some that are literally segregated by ethnicity, cultures, sometimes even international differences. There are most definitely racially separated neighborhoods as has been demonstrated many times over, not the least of which such infamous incidents as the deaths of Michael Griffith (1986) or Yusef Hawkins (1989).
Both incidents involved the deaths of innocent black men who were set upon by young white men for essentially being in the “wrong” place at the wrong time, with the quintessential “wrong” place being a white neighborhood in Brooklyn.
Several of these predominantly white enclaves, such as Howard Beach, I had just biked through. I was now on the easternmost end of Flatbush Avenue, a street that had once been the main artery of black neighborhoods. Businesses included cafes serving the best Jamaican roti in New York, along with African textiles and dressmakers. Recent years had seen a rampant gentrification transform Brooklyn and while encounters were not always as violent as a few decades ago, tensions definitely still existed just as everywhere else racial lines intersected in the U.S.
I hadn’t been in this particular area in years, though, so basically all I knew was that neighborhoods all over New York had been changing rapidly as more affluent, upwardly mobile populations were replacing and displacing those who had lived here for generations. I also knew that just like neighborhoods, beaches were also sometimes unofficially segregated. This can often spell trouble for people of color as stereotypes too often create misunderstandings which can lead to disputes and sometimes worse. All too often the darker-skinned individual is labeled as the problem.
Ok, so now they’ve been there a while, there must be witnesses besides me? Except people were driving, no one was walking and the bike path that I was following now was on the opposite side of the highway. I had also noticed earlier how I appeared to be the only one going eastward – the few other bikers who passed were all headed west, in the opposite direction. They were also mostly young white males, and definitely no other single females.
Essentially this man was on his own – completely alone – with one towering, hulking male New York State Trooper and the other female, not so tall but definitely stout.
As all this processed at rapid-fire speed in my brain, I knew it was time to take out my camera. So I did. I raised it up and starting shooting. Since the fellow sitting down was facing my direction, he saw me almost immediately. The state troopers had their backs turned so they didn’t even notice – yet.
Traffic proceeded, sometimes fast and it was as I had originally ascertained: none of the drivers stopped and maybe were not even noticing or expressed visible concern as they were all driving home after a Saturday afternoon at the beach.
There simply were no other pedestrians; no one at the bus stop about 30 yards up. This man was definitely on his own.
Not satisfied with what I could see through the lens, and now fiercely determined to document whatever was happening the best I could, I decided what the heck – bring out the 200 mm lens.
I put the camera down, backed up my bike and secured it better against a barrier. Opening my bag, I reached for the bigger lens I usually used for shooting wildlife such as birds, or close-ups of flowers. With the first glance it was clear that this was so much better and now I could get details such as the license plate of at least one trooper’s car.
Just in case.
The black fellow had been watching me closely by now and I hoped he understood I was there for him and his safety as I willed him to not feel so alone. The female trooper noticed me first, and then the larger, very stout, male trooper. They repositioned themselves a bit farther away from the fellow but whatever was being discussed continued. Now I could see the fellow sitting appeared to be reading a summons (ticket) that he had been issued. There was no vehicle nearby, though, so again, whatever was the reason was a complete mystery.
Yes, I was completely clueless as to what legal justifications were transpiring for this entire episode but unfortunately, there are just so many incidents that kept popping up in my mind about how otherwise innocent encounters with the police inexplicably turned violent and even deadly all too often when people of color were involved. I took a drink of water and resolved myself to stay until this was over. As I raised my camera back up I heard voices and saw the young black fellow smiling and could hear him speaking as he also stood up. He had been looking at me intently and I felt that he had been reassured and encouraged that my motives were at the very least, to provide a photography record of his encounter should it be necessary.
In the next few seconds a bus approached and the male officer flagged it down.
There was a bus stop only a short distance further up, so one might expect the bus would have stopped anyway but somehow I sensed that all parties were now acutely aware they were being photographed and the police were eager to prove everything was on the up and up. This was certainly agreeable to me – I had no desire whatsoever to photograph anything dramatic or violent even though I was prepared to do so if necessary.
The male officer began speaking to the bus driver through his window while on the other side I could see feet moving as the female officer and the black fellow walked alongside the bus towards the rear entrance. I could see then that he got on the bus and the bus took off leaving the officers behind.
All was well and I was satisfied the young man was out of danger.
As I turned off my camera and tucked it back into my bag the male officer turned directly towards me, actually stepping out in traffic headed my direction. For what reason, I had no idea as I certainly could not be accused of interfering considering the distance and traffic between us.
Truth was, however, I simply wasn’t interested in finding out. Unfortunately, whatever he wanted to say I couldn’t accept as being the entire truth but only his version. That’s just the way it is with the police and pretty much commonly understood so it’s certainly not just my opinion.
While much of Earth Documentary Resistance’s focus is on the natural world, as part of our mission we also focus on stories of communities, especially marginalized ones. As power structures are part of communities, comprehending how those power structures are implemented is fundamental to recognition of how and why equitable access to public lands and facilities does not always exist. The nonprofit, ACRE (Action Center on Race & the Economy) recently released the report Police Brutality Bonds, How Wall Street Profits from Police Violence, which goes into great detail explaining how taxpayer funds – funds which could definitely be better utilized in more sustainable ways – are instead fueling profits for big banks and doing nothing to resolve over-aggressive policing.
Lack of access to public spaces is but one of the losses communities suffer for lack of sufficient funding. Consequently, it is reasonable to assume lack of access creates barriers to understanding and appreciating the natural world as well as the multitude of environmental concerns literally surrounding and threatening all of us in contemporary times.
Therefore in order to broaden awareness, share knowledge and recognition of humanity’s intersection with nature, examination of who power is executed towards and why is critical to creating fundamental solutions to improving conditions overall for everyone.
That is, acknowledgement that encounters with law enforcement too often intersect and divide us as a people is mandatory to facilitating the essential healing and progress everyone wants to see in society as a whole.
I pedaled on to cross the Marine Parkway Bridge and continued my journey, satisfied that at least one young black man had successfully survived his interaction with law enforcement. For now, at least.
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This article has been presented as a part of the mission of Earth Documentary Resistance, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to documentary storytelling:
Because Humanity is Changing Our Planet.
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