There is another concern brewing in the communities of Black and Brown people. Please consider this a warning from the great community of East New York, Brooklyn.
Last week, a new smoke shop opened up in our neighborhood—directly across from a middle school in the district. J.H.S. 166 or George Gershwin campus is the school, which is surrounded by various safe havens for young people. Directly behind the school sits Sonny Carson (Linden) Park which has a track, tennis courts, playgrounds, outdoor workout facilities—the school boasts a recording studio and directly around the corner sits the Prince Joshua Avitto Community Center. All of these are amenities that have been supported under the elected leadership of Assemblymember Charles Barron and Councilmember Inez Barron to improve the lives of our young people.
This smoke shop and all others are a direct assault on that positive vision for all young people. Once this smoke shop appeared in this odd location, questions were asked of its owner and why on its awning it was advertising itself as ‘Van Siclen Candy Shop’ when it was clearly a smoke shop. There was ultimately no resolution after a preliminary discussion happened since the owner stated so much was invested in making the shop what it was. Brother Andre T. Mitchell of Man Up Inc. reached out to me as a local organizer and chairperson of Operation P.O.W.E.R. to collaborate on a rally to communicate our concerns another way. On Tuesday, Dec. 7, at the time of dismissal (2 p.m.) we let our displeasure be known as a collective. As a collective community—which included Assemblymember Charles Barron, Community Board 5, Man Up Inc., the Nation of Islam, Operation P.O.W.E.R., Brite Leadership Coalition and various community members—we demanded the business be shut down.
In the windows of the business were cartoon characters that had bongs, hookah and blunts in their mouths. Along their walls other smoke-related paraphernalia were on display with brightly colored smoke devices. If you didn’t know any better, the location could’ve been a toy shop or even a candy shop. This blurred line was only underscored by the workers saying they wouldn’t remove anything without the owner’s approval. As a community we went back outside chanting for the location to be shut down and put the community on notice. Within 10 minutes our demand was met as the workers left the premises and the gates shuttered. After this, we made a collective decision to be back out there every day at the same time until the business would really shut down indefinitely. The next day we would meet very little resistance with the business gates already shuddered.
We got on the bullhorn chanting, “No smoke shops…in front of our schools,” as students and parents alike joined in. It was a beautiful display of community solidarity and to our joy we got word that the shop would be closed indefinitely. We won! A true community victory that was won collectively but this is a wakeup call for all Black and Brown communities. Our community is littered with liquor stores, fast food, and now we’re dealing with a surge in smoke shops. Throughout the pandemic several locations just like this one have opened up in various sections of the community. In fact, these smoke shops seem to see opportunity in advertising these shops to our children for long-term gain. We must push back on that notion even if it takes rallies and confrontation. The youth will take our place someday and the community they inherit is just as important as the educational foundation they receive. As a community, we quit smoking and we join the fight to safeguard the community’s future.
Keron Alleyne is co-chair of Operation P.O.W.E.R.