I have been reading the news incessantly these days. As always, I am concerned about where we are going as a city and a nation. I always tell people, if you want to know me, I’m pretty basic, I love cities and Black people. As our newly elected leaders get settled into their respective roles, I am always observing whether their actions will benefit Black people in New York City.
I am particularly interested in Alvin Bragg as he settles into his new role as Manhattan’s district attorney. A son of Harlem, Bragg won a very crowded primary on the promise of rethinking how we punish Blacks and Latinos in New York City. Bragg’s resume is quite prestigious, however, his degrees from Harvard University could not shield him from the realities of being a Black man in America. Bragg won in large part because he fully understood and articulated to voters how communities could be afraid of both the cops and the robbers.
Bragg finds himself in a new position which looks like he is trying to turn around the Titanic in a bathtub. His now infamous memo to his team made its way into the press and a collective pearl-clutching commenced from casual observers and many who did not read the document. Bragg outlined the types of crimes his office would prosecute and those they would not. The first item outlined was, “Success and promotion will no longer be tied to conviction rates.” Amen! We cannot have a criminal justice system where promotion is based on locking up poor people from marginalized communities. People from our communities are not scalps to be collected in order to get promoted.
What Bragg outlined during the campaign season and has consistently reiterated is a more holistic approach to crime and prosecution. Why are we locking up people and sending them to Rikers for jumping a turnstile? I understand we can’t have rampant fare evaders; however, I hardly think we should possibly ruin someone’s life for a crime of poverty. Many of the offenses that prosecutors have historically viewed as criminal have been in many ways crimes of people who lack financial resources and act out of desperation. They are also crimes that wealthier New Yorkers have been able to pay and make go away.
As we all know, crime, or the perception of crime, is of great concern to all communities, no matter how wealthy or underfunded. I do not envy Bragg because what he is attempting is a culture shift. After all, he is the first African American to hold this role and has become the proxy for whether NYC is a safe city or not. What I would implore is a level of patience as we allow Bragg to reconceptualize a long overdue analysis of how we view crime, criminality, and our communities.
Christina Greer, Ph.D., is an Associate professor at Fordham University, the author of “Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream,” and the co-host of the podcast FAQ-NYC.