The employment agency is nestled on the third floor above a shop in New York City. No sign outside suggests its existence. Inside, there is an undecorated, white-walled office where a dozen middle-aged Chinese immigrants sit and wait in nervous silence. The owner of the agency is a heavyset woman. She snacks on walnuts from a foam cup as she considers people’s job requests.
“I have a job as a cook at a Vietnamese restaurant,” she tells a man in his 50s.
“A Vietnamese restaurant?” he asks. “But I’ve never had Vietnamese food.”
“It’s just noodles,” she says. “They use a different sauce than we do. That’s all. Give them a call and try it out for a day.”
He pays $60 for the job offer. I catch the tail end of this conversation. It is not clear where the restaurant is located.
“Were you smuggled in?” the agency owner asks me.
“No,” I say.
I was born and raised in Maryland. My Mandarin has an American accent. I later realize it was a mistake to admit my legal status. The woman asks me a few questions about what type of restaurant jobs I want. She says she’ll call me if anything comes up.
She doesn’t call. Other employment agencies I contact also do not return my calls after hearing my Mandarin.
Some Chinese restaurants hire undocumented Chinese and Latino workers, pay them well below minimum wage and make them work 12-hour shifts six days a week but offer free housing and food. These workers often are packed at night into roach-infested apartments and houses. Sometimes they are forced to sleep on cardboard in the basements of restaurants. They make $800 to $2,000 a month—regardless of how many hours they work.
Much of their pay goes to fees charged by traffickers and smugglers—known in Chinese as “snakeheads”—and to private employment agencies that charge clients for finding them a job. The smugglers, like the agencies, do not advertise. Snakeheads charge $60,000 to $80,000 to smuggle someone into the United States. They have networks of enforcers, which means that, if you do not pay, you or your family members in China will be subject, until the money is paid, to beatings or even death.
Restaurant jobs in big cities fill up fast. There are more immigrants looking for work in cities, where wealthier customers tip generously. Most employment agencies in the area where I applied specialize in sending immigrants to jobs in remote towns where Chinese restaurants are often short of staff. Once offered a job, an immigrant often has to be on a bus within hours and can soon find him- or herself halfway across the country.
My legal status and my American-accented Mandarin are impediments. Labor trafficking, which can take place before the immigrant is smuggled into the country, is dependent on the powerlessness of the worker. Snakeheads routinely lie about jobs, wages and employment conditions, knowing that once workers are in the United States they are unable to appeal to law enforcement. It is also common for snakeheads and employers to confiscate passports and identity documents in order to hold workers hostage.
These snakeheads do not only traffic in Chinese workers. They routinely “buy” undocumented Latino workers who have crossed into the United States from Mexico and drive them to Chinese restaurants around the country where they, too, are held in bondage. Those who traffic human beings also often traffic drugs, carrying narcotics along with their human cargo across state lines.
“Employment agencies buy Mexicans at the border from smugglers and sell them to Chinese employers,” said a former snakehead I’ll call Edward, whom I interviewed in Atlanta. For one year, an employment agency paid Edward $2 per mile to pick up undocumented Latino immigrants from Fort Myers, Fla., and drive them to the agency in Georgia. The employment agency owner would pack the Latino migrants into crowded rooms in a nearby apartment complex while he waited for Chinese restaurant owners to purchase the immigrants like indentured servants.
“Chinese restaurant owners don’t pay Mexicans for the first two months of work. They pay the smugglers instead,” Edward told me. “They pay $1,000 per person, maybe $1,200 per person, to the smuggler.”
After two months, restaurant owners typically begin to pay new Latino workers $800 a month. They tend to work in the kitchen, so they don’t receive tips. In busy restaurants, experienced kitchen workers might eventually make up to $2,000 a month.
The employment agencies, restaurants and human smugglers have informal ties to one another, which makes it efficient to supply cheap labor but difficult for authorities to prosecute. Most of these labor agencies are never charged with trafficking.
I change my tactics when I enter a second employment agency in New York City. The office is not much larger than a walk-in closet.
“Hello, little sister,” a woman greets me in Mandarin from behind the counter. The small space behind her counter is stuffed with notebooks, instant-noodle packs and an electric kettle.
I speak haltingly. I give vague answers about my ability to speak English. She doesn’t ask about my immigration status.
I tell her I’m looking for a busgirl job. I decide on busgirl because I have limited Chinese writing skills and would struggle to write orders down in Chinese.
“The closest job is four hours away,” she says.
“That’s fine,” I say.
She begins calling restaurant employers across North America and mumbles a few words to them before handing me the receiver. I get on the phone with a Chinese restaurant owner in Indiana.
“We’ll pay $2,000 a month. Food and housing is on us,” he says. “Everyone sleeps at my house. It’s very nice. You can sleep upstairs with the girls. Or, if you want, you can sleep downstairs with me and the boys.”
Sexual harassment is commonplace for female immigrants working in Chinese restaurants. The hint was stated clearly. I knew from speaking with other women that if I arrived and did not have sex with the employer, I would probably be fired. These women say that in the group houses, the male employees openly watch pornography, pressure the women to have sex and masturbate in front of them.
Without legal status or documents, unable to speak English, dependent on employers for every necessity of life, including the ride to and from work, without the ability to send money home to families or make trips to the drugstore or the bank, these women are virtually enslaved. They know that should they resist the sexual desires of the boss they will be instantly penniless, homeless and subject to deportation. Being trapped in one of these houses where the men demand sexual service is my greatest fear.
The lewd restaurant owner decides not to hire me because I don’t have enough experience.
The woman at the agency puts me on the phone with Chinese restaurant owners in Canada, Maryland and Alabama. They all say I don’t have enough experience, or that I’m not from their region in China. The woman gives up and starts to interview other applicants clustered around her.
A Chinese man in his early 20s, wearing earphones, walks in. He asks if there are takeout delivery jobs. She says the closest job is four hours away. He walks out.
She offers agricultural jobs to an elderly couple. They say they are not physically able to do farm work.
Depending on one’s age, legal status and English proficiency, these underground employment agencies offer jobs that range from farmer to dental assistant. Restaurant jobs, especially kitchen jobs, require the least amount of English and training. The most vulnerable immigrants are sent there.
I wait three more hours. The woman periodically calls other restaurants. I read the New York City Consumer Affairs Agency license and New York employment law posters plastered on the wall.
The posters include information about minimum wage. They explain that there is a maximum fee that employment agencies can charge for placing someone in a job. The fee cannot exceed 30 percent of a worker’s first full-month salary. The agency is legally required to provide a refund if the job doesn’t work out. These posters are in English and Spanish—but not in Chinese. I suspect I am the only person looking for work here who understands them.
Suddenly, the woman hands me the telephone and tells me to “sound confident.” I speak with a Chinese buffet owner in Georgia. She tells me she’s looking for someone from northern China because her current busboy is from there.
I’m hired. She tells me to get on the 8 p.m. bus that night and to bring black clothing. She abruptly hangs up.
I’m charged a $35 fee for this match. I’m supposed to pay the rest of the fees after I begin working. It is unclear how much I owe the agency in total.
The woman hands me a piece of paper with the phone numbers of the bus driver and the restaurant owner. Nothing is on it about employment terms. The wages, fees, deposit and balance are left blank. She tells me nothing about my employment rights.
I ask if I have free housing and food, since the owner in Georgia did not address the issue.
“Of course these restaurants give you free housing and food,” she said with annoyance. “You’ll have to work more than 10 hours a day. How can they not?”
“You don’t even speak English very well,” she tells me. “You have no experience. This is a very good deal for you. You should be grateful, little sister.”
Read the second part of this investigative report here.
NEW YORK—Naila Amin was an American teenager who wore pink velour suits and smoked cigarettes. She had a contagious, loud laugh, and envisioned herself as a police officer when she grew up. Fast forward four months, Naila found herself trapped as a 15-year-old wife in Pakistan. Ten days after her forced marriage, she rebelled by running for her life through the streets of Islamabad.
There were few females out on that January afternoon in 2005. Naila quickened her steps as she walked by men in huts, men on dusty buses, men in honking trucks, and men buying fruits and kebabs from street carts. Many of them eyed her suspiciously.
Naila was still donned in Pakistani nuptial attire—a red dress, and Henna-laden hands. It looked strange that she was not with her husband.
She thought she should check into a hotel so she could avoid bumping into familiar faces. But the manager refused to take her in without a man by her side.
So there she was, stranded in the capital. Running out of options and time, Naila considered getting into a taxi; two hours away from the city, in a remote village called Formulli, the men from all sides of her family were searching for her. Her father was at his house clutching his gun, armed and ready for an honor killing.
Naila’s decision to reject her marriage to her 28-year-old cousin brought dishonor to her family. As tradition goes, the disgrace needed to be paid for with her life.
Yet Naila could not bring herself to get into the taxi. She would have to tell the driver she was going to the U.S. Embassy. And that was a very dangerous thing for a girl to say in Pakistan.
In a Taliban-occupied country where Americans were frequently kidnapped for ransom, a situation that occurred so often that the U.S. Department of State issued a travel warning, Naila feared she would not make it to the embassy by herself.
Wrapped in a stranger’s shawl purchased from a poor woman in her village, Naila blended in with the myriad of shoppers at a large supermarket. There, she called a trusted uncle.
The trusted uncle answered, picked her up, but drove her right back to her husband’s house.
Numbed by fear and rage, Naila silently prepared to die.
Forced child marriages happen to American citizens like Naila more often than is known.
Forced marriages and betrothals are prevalent for American girls as young as 4 years old, and on average 14 to 25 years old.
From 2009 to 2011, at least 3,000 forced marriages occurred to girls and young women from 47 states in the United States, and many involved girls under the age of 18. This data was from a surveyconducted by the Tahirih Justice Center, an NGO that provides pro bono legal services for abused immigrant women and girls in the United States.
“We regularly get calls from people under 18,” said Heather Heiman, Tahirih’s Forced Marriage Initiative Project manager. “Our survey was just scratching the surface.”
The Forced Marriage Initiative Project was founded in 2011 as a response to the onslaught of forced marriage calls the center had been receiving over the last decade.
While much attention and resources are directed toward overseas child marriages, for years advocates did not know how to grapple with the issue of forced marriages in the United States.
Forced marriages are a culturally sensitive and complex issue that most government agencies—like women’s shelters, Child Protective Services (CPS), the U.S. State Department, U.S. consulates, and local law enforcement agencies—are not quite equipped to handle due to a lack of awareness of the issue in the United States.
In many cases, CPS would not classify an impending forced marriage to a minor as abuse. The department cannot do anything until after abuse occurs.
“We’ve seen widely different responses. Some people from Child Protective Services don’t think it falls under the category of abuse and neglect,” Heiman said. “They don’t see it as abuse until it happens.”
But after a forced marriage happens to an American girl overseas, it’s too late to do anything because the U.S. government cannot intervene in a marriage deemed legal in another country.
Minors who are looking to run away from forced marriage situations have fewer options than adults. Most women’s shelters do not take in people under the age of 18. For those that do, legal guardians or CPS are called after 24 hours.
Around 67 percent of the girls and young women surveyed by the Tahirih Justice Center said their issues weren’t identified as problems by local agencies.
“An agency’s inability to identify forced marriage cases may be attributable, at least in part, to their lack of awareness of and attention to this issue,” The Tahirih Justice Center wrote in its report. “Less than 10 percent worked for agencies that had a working definition of forced marriage.”
Yet, the stakes can be high.
After a 20-year-old Iraqi-American named Noor Almaleki backed out of an arranged marriage in Arizona, her father struck her with his car and killed her in 2009.
The Tahirih Justice Center creates individualized escape plans for girls in forced marriage situations in the U.S.
It arranges a safe mode of transportation, as well as a plan for dealing with the family’s responses by contacting the police proactively.
For girls in immediate danger of a forced marriage, the organization communicates with local service providers and explains the nuances of the situation so victims can find temporary shelter in the U.S.
Perhaps most important, it provides emotional support for girls after they make the decision to leave.
Young girls, sometimes very young girls, have to choose between everything they know and love—mothers and fathers, sisters and best friends, homes and schools—and a solitary new life where they have the freedom to choose when and whom to marry.
While many of these marriages occur when girls are sent back to their native countries, not all happen that way. Many forced marriages happen on American soil.
In New York and most other states, girls as young as 16 are legally allowed to get married if there is parental consent. In some states, the age minimum is even lower. In Massachusetts a girl can be as young as 12; in California there are no age limits if there is parental consent. Yet the consent of the child is ignored.
Other times, a private religious ceremony is conducted at home.
“They’ll do an Islamic marriage or another kind of marriage,” said Naheed Bahram, a program director for Women for Afghan Women, an NGO based in the United States that finds shelter for forced marriage victims. “It happens everywhere in the U.S.”
Although the marriage is not legal, it’s considered finalized by the family and the community.
Girls and young women are forced into marriages for reasons such as security, companionship, and the preservation of a family’s reputation.
Sometimes it’s a way of stopping behaviors that the family disapproves of, like dating outside of one’s culture or religion.
Yet oftentimes, when forced marriages are in the works, the signs are not visible to outsiders.
For many years, there was no indication of trouble in the Naila household.
Naila had a normal immigrant childhood in many aspects. When she was 4 years old, her family moved from Pakistan to Queens in pursuit of a better education for their children.
Her father owned a gas station, sometimes working 18 hours a day so the family could buy a house on Long Island.
It was the American Dream that began to go askew when Naila went back to Pakistan for a visit at age 8. During that trip, her father’s brother claimed Naila for his 21-year-old son.
His son wanted to be a doctor in the United States. Marrying an American would facilitate his immigration process.
It didn’t seem like a big deal at first, to be engaged at 8 years old. It was a normal occurrence in her family. Naila’s mother married at age 14.
Naila’s family is Pashtun, an ethnic group with populations in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is part of their culture for girls to get engaged and married while they are still children.
The issue, however, is not limited to the Pashtun culture.
In the United States forced marriages occur to girls and young women from various ethnic and religious backgrounds—most frequently Pakistani, Afghan, Indian, and Somalian. The religions vary from Muslim to Orthodox Jewish to no religious affiliation. The Tahirih survey found it happened to females from 56 different countries of origin.
An engagement at 8 and a marriage at 15 may sound young, but perhaps only young by Western standards, and the Tahirih Justice Center is mindful of that. The center only helps girls and women who have chosen to reject a marriage by reaching out to advocates.
It’s not to say that arranged marriages are bad. Arranged marriages can turn into healthy relationships if there is mutual consent. But forced—particularly forced early marriages—tend to lead to domestic violence, early pregnancies, and higher risks of maternal mortality.
During a trip to Pakistan at age 13, Naila’s family held a religious wedding ceremony called a “Nikah” for her and her fiancé.
But she did not consider herself married to her cousin, a stern, thin man who was 6 feet 2 inches tall.
After the “Nikah,” Naila returned to New York and carried on with her normal teenage life.
She met a boy with braided hair during her freshmen year in high school. He complimented her pink outfit on her birthday and she found him charming. He asked her to be his girlfriend on Christmas Eve, and they fell in love.
A neighbor caught him sneaking into her house and told her father.
Her father was incensed and beat her until there were bruises. Despite her wounds, Naila shouted back at her parents that she did not accept her “Nikah,” and that she wanted to marry her boyfriend. This caused her father to beat her harder and her mother to bite her.
A social worker at school noticed Naila’s purple marks and called CPS. Naila was put into foster care.
At her foster care group home, Naila looked forward to Saturdays the most. Saturday was family visitation day. Her mother would bring a week’s worth of home-cooked Halal food. She’d always make her favorite: Keema, a ground beef dish with pita bread.
“No one can love you like your mom, there’s no place like home,” Naila said.” I didn’t want this marriage, but I loved my culture and my family.”
Not long after, Naila decided to run away from foster care and secretly returned to her family.
She stopped going to school at age 14 and lived secretly at home. CPS workers would make surprise visits at their house every week to check if she was there and Naila would hide in the closet during these inspections.
Finally, her family decided it was best for them to live in Pakistan until Naila turned 18.
Little did Naila know, a formal wedding was awaiting her in Pakistan.
When Naila’s uncle drove her back to her husband’s house after she ran away, she begged her uncle to call U.S. Child Protective Services if anything happened to her upon her return.
He promised her that everything would be all right. Her family had locked her father in his house and they expected him to calm down in a few days.
Then, they saw her cousin in the village. He was carrying a gun. He got into the car and gave her a harsh, backhanded slap.
Once they arrived at her husband’s home, her uncle’s confidence in the situation deteriorated.
Instead of gratitude, her husband coldly accused her uncle of eloping with Naila. This reaction offended her uncle, who in turn alerted Child Protective Services of Naila’s whereabouts.
But the U.S. government could not intervene in a marriage recognized as legal in another country.
There was nothing that Child Protective Services could do for Naila when her husband punished her that night.
In front of her in-laws and her mother, he dragged Naila by her long, black hair, from one side of the house to the other, and then from the other side back, and then back again, not stopping even though her mother screamed for mercy.
He went on to kick her in the head. He kicked her so hard that she began to lose her vision and see stars and flashes of light.
Later that night, he raped Naila in her pink marble bed, as he would do so on many nights in the months to come.
Throughout their marriage, she would make two more failed attempts to escape. But the beatings worsened after each run.
He pummeled and thrashed her on a regular basis, making her nose bleed and leaving choke marks on her neck.
But the torment was mental as well, for he was a psychologist.
He’d make her lie, undressed on the cold, cement floor, and tell her, “It’s your body but you have no control over it. I rule you,” Naila recalled.
With her passport and cellphone locked away by her husband, Naila gave up and acquiesced to a life of captivity.
She dreaded sunsets. It represented the arrival of night, the time when she would have to sleep with him.
“It was unbearable,” Naila said. “I cooked for my enemy, cleaned for my enemy, slept next to my enemy.”
She would stare at his hunting rifle on the wall and thought about killing him. But she did not have it in her to kill.
Once, she swallowed bleach. But the taste was too pungent for her to drink enough to die.
Another time, she held a fruit knife in her hand and thought of ending her life. But she could not muster the will to stab.
“I just couldn’t go out like this, not like this,” she said. “I have so much to offer to this world. I have always felt that way, even as a little girl.”
During the fifth month of Naila’s marriage, her parents returned to the United States.
Upon their return, her mother was arrested on charges of kidnapping. She had taken Naila out of the country when she was no longer considered her legal guardian.
Her father had no choice but to ask her husband to allow her to return to the United States.
Naila almost couldn’t believe it when she received the call.
During the ride to the airport, her husband grabbed her and warned her that she was not allowed to sleep at anyone else’s house during her stay in the United States. But she didn’t mind.
“I’m never going to see you again!” she recalled thinking.
Upon landing at the JFK Airport in New York, the pilot announced that no one could leave their seats until Naila was found.
A team of 20 officers—social workers, Child Protective Services, and airport police—waited for Naila.
Naila was taken to the Nassau University Medical Center’s psyche ward, where doctors ran tests on her mental and physical health.
She awoke the next morning to a ray of sunlight on her face, her body tucked in hospital sheets that reeked from unknown chemicals and stains.
But it was one of the happiest morning of her life, the first morning she woke up without him.
Ten years later, Naila stares out the window from her childhood living room, the same living room where she and her parents had fought over her high school boyfriend.
She moved back into her parents’ home after she turned 18 and has since then, for the most part, reconciled with her mother and father.
Naila, 25, is still going to therapy every two weeks to help her make sense of her pain.
Some scars never go away, like a dent on her upper left thigh that appeared after her ex-husband’s repeated kicks.
She currently suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She has anxiety attacks—and little things, like driving past a wedding ceremony during the day, can trigger flashbacks.
Up until a year ago, she found herself screaming at her mother during unguarded moments.
“Why? Why did you put me through that?” she recalled yelling.
This past St. Patrick’s day marked the 10-year anniversary for Naila’s return to the United States, and the end of her forced marriage. And it was the first year that she did not remember the anniversary.
She said therapy helped her make a breakthrough in January, when she spoke to her ex-husband on the phone for the first time since she left.
“I said hello. It got quiet. Then he said softly, hello, [pause] Naila?” Naila recalled.
He spoke to her robotically at first, throwing around cliches like “let bygones be bygones.”
She was determined not to have her heart drop from fear at the sound of his voice.
“Then I asked him to forgive me for breaking his heart,” she said. “If he approached me in a softer manner maybe I would have eventually learned to love him. But he handled it very badly.”
She told him she was studying psychology at school. He said that was nice.
Their two-minute conversation gave her the closure she had been missing for 10 years.
“He took a part of my soul that I’ll never get back,” she said. “But I forgive him. I have to forgive before I can let go. You give that person power when you don’t forgive.”
In January, her parents moved back to Pakistan, where her father built a hospital for the poor. He asked her to go back and see his hospital. Naila was reluctant at first, but plans to visit after she graduates from Nassau Community College at the end of the year.
“My parents have said they’re sorry and I’ve accepted it,” Naila said. “I hope everyone’s story can end with a happy ending like mine, but many end with mental illness, it ends with depression, it ends with death.”
As for the next phase of her life, she plans on attending Molloy College to get her bachelor’s and master’s in social work, while specializing in forced marriages.
“Before addressing the worldwide issue, we need to address it here in the States,” Naila said.
She finds solace in the thought that perhaps there was a reason for her suffering. Perhaps she had to go through it so that she could gain the strength and wisdom to help young girls in forced marriage situations in the United States.
After she receives her master’s, Naila plans on starting a special group home for South Asian girls that will allow them to follow their religion and diet after they leave home.
“I remember them looking for a Muslim home through all of New York and not finding one,” Naila said.
She recalled how the foster care system did not know what to do with Naila, who stayed in a total of four foster homes and seven group homes. “No one was culturally competent enough to help me,” she said.
In some ways, Naila has already achieved the most rewarding results.
After witnessing Naila’s suffering and the havoc that it wreaked, her family will not make her youngest sister or nieces go through forced marriages.
Naila Amin with her niece Ameera Rehman. Ameera is eight years old, the same age as Naila when she got engaged. Because of Naila’s grueling escape from her child marriage, Ameera will not be a child bride. (Benjamin Chasteen/Epoch Times)
Naila turned and looked deeply into the face of her 8-year-old niece, Ameera Rehman, who is the same age that Naila was when she got engaged.
“Aren’t you glad I went through what I went through so you don’t have to?” she asked her niece.
Adorned in a pink head band and a One Direction watch (themed after the popular pop boy band), Ameera is not entirely aware of what a forced marriage pertains to.”Yes!” she answered sweetly.
NEW YORK—A shard of shattered glass slashes the tip of Yabi Luo’s left ring finger. She grunts, then pauses to examine the droplet of blood that is beginning to emerge from her dusty, stained skin. It does not appear to be a deep cut. There have been worse cuts. She sucks the blood from her finger and resumes her work sorting the sticky bottles and cans that she collects from the trash receptacles of New York City.
Luo is a canner, a person who collects cans, bottles, and other plastics for a five cent deposit. For this 72-year-old illiterate Chinese immigrant, canning is her sole source for survival.
She emigrated to New Jersey with her husband in 1994. They were sponsored by his aunt, who owned a Chinese restaurant in Long Beach Island. Luo was one of the chefs, her specialty was hong shao fish, fish simmered in peanut oil, soy sauce, Chinese red wine, and sugar.
Luo’s husband passed away six years ago; her sister-in-law passed away three years later. The restaurant closed, and Luo was left to fend for herself.
So Luo spends four hours each afternoon sorting and counting the cans she collected from various garbage bins throughout Bushwick and Bedstuy. She wears royal blue arm warmers to protect the sleeves of her sweatshirt from grime, a jade bracelet to protect her soul from evil spirits.
She and four siblings grew up on a fish farm on the coast of rural Shanghai. Their father died when she was 14. She speaks broken mandarin, tidbits of English, and never attended elementary school.
She has one son living in the U.S, and two in China. But they have their own wives, children, and money worries. Her son who lives in New York is conscientiously saving to bring his wife over from China. Luo refuses to burden them.
Yet where can a 72-year-old Chinese woman with limited English proficiency and no education go at a time when the American economy is languidly recovering from a recession? China would be ideal, but there is no pension for rural retirees.
New York City, her Chinese friends told her. It’s one city with a lot of trash.
In 1983, New York became one of the 10 states to enact the container-deposit legislation. It requires customers to pay a 5-cent refundable deposit on each beer, soda, and water container they buy in New York. The deposit goes to beverage distributors, who returns the deposit if the customer chooses to recycle its products at a supermarket, drugstore, or another business registered as a redemption center. The distributor then recycles the cans, plastics and glasses. But consumers often don’t go out of their way to recycle in this form; hence, an informal economy is born.
Many homeless New Yorkers, and others living on the margin, make a living from redeeming the deposits of thrown away bottles and cans. And it’s not easy. Canners like Luo can wait up to four hours in line at a supermarket, which legally restricts them to redeem a maximum of $12 worth of cans per visit.
The bottle legislation creates a dilemma for supermarkets for some canners are drug addicts and some have diseases. Sometimes, they also cause scenes.
“We just had a situation just a few moments ago,” says Gloria Curiel, 33, a Gristedes supermarket manager. “A lady canner was yelling and saying she was going to call consumer affairs.”
There are more than 100 canners who come to redeem their recyclables each day at the Gristedes in Chelsea. Canners are not the only ones using the redemption machine, it is open for the public. “You can see why the machine fills up fast,” Curiel says.
Usually it’s not a problem, but on some nights employees call in sick and they are short on staff. On those occasions, the machine may remain full for the evening.
That is why in 2007 a Roman Catholic nun and a former canner decided to create a non-profit redemption center dedicated solely to the redemption of cans.
On the border of Bushwick and East Williamsburg, optimistic graffiti deck the metal garage doors that stretch across the entrance of this redemption center: a dolphin, fantastical animals, and a woodpecker pecking at a tree while speaking through a bubble speech that read “Sure We Can.”
Behind the metal garage doors, the Sure We Can redemption center consists of a series of trailers that is the humble abode to hens who fertilize a community garden for the canners. Scanty, barren trees grow from fertilizer amassed in car tires painted sky blue and pink; festive-colored cans hang from its branches like Christmas lights.
Sure We Can is the only licensed, non-profit redemption center in the city. Its sole business is to facilitate the redemption of cans and bottles. It was founded by the destitute to help the destitute in 2007. Canners receive extra cash for sorting their own bottles and cans and can redeem an unlimited number of recyclables. Most important, canners are sure they can get their full five cents for a can, while pick-up redemption trucks often cheat them to four cents.
The center was founded by Eugene Gadsden, a former canner turned community activist, and Ana Martinez de Luco, a Roman Catholic nun.
De Luco came from Spain to New York in 2004 to work for the UN Civil Society. In New York, she had an enlightenment that she should to do more for the poor from the micro rather than the macro. She chose to live on the streets in 2005, where she met Gadsden.
They decided to create a redemption center that could make canning a little easier. De Luco gathered up her contacts from the UN—Florence Erb and Douglas Erb—and a Wall Street broker named Joseph Mula to form a board. Over pizza, they figured out the business side of things.
Sure We Can set the precedence for a non-profit model of redemption centers during a time when many major business-registered redemption centers have closed due to gentrification. According to a report by Picture the Homeless, a grassroots organization founded by homeless people, some crucial redemption centers below 125th Street in Manhattan have closed in recent years. As a result, canners must turn to smaller stores and further supermarkets to cash their recyclables, where there are often longer waits and full machines.
Canners have the option of going to roughly 282 recycling centers in Queens, 103 centers in Brooklyn, and 13 in Manhattan. But at Sure We Can, there is a community garden to feed hungry canners and free English and computer lessons to help improve their job qualifications.
De Luco, 59, has vivid black eyebrows and a head of short, graying hair. She has worked tirelessly to build a community for canners. She is at the redemption center even when she has the flu. Her English is excellent, but sometimes, she is so fatigued that she switches to Spanish mid-sentence without realizing.
She organizes events at the center, like a cookout to celebrate Earth Day last month. Around fifty people attended, including a NY1 journalist who is producing a documentary about canners. He brought his wife, they made pasta fresh on the spot.
De Luco implores Luo to join their feast, but Luo modestly declines. She does not want to stop working.
The rims of her irises are beginning to match her gray hair. Her thin lips are fixed in a frown. Her work clothes consist of a faded military green Boar’s Head apron, a plaid vest, and a burgundy hooded sweatshirt. Every now and then, she finds a semi-full soda can that leaks. She steps aside to pour it away from her precious pile. Her face contorts, unconsciously, into a grimace while she pours the old soda.
She is hungry and considers joining the cookout, but decides against it. Luo does not feel comfortable eating western food. She thinks of the red wine fish she has sitting at home, an apartment on Flushing Avenue where a friend is letting her live pro bono.
Luo has no cell phone, no computer, and a sparse selection of clothes. If she needs to get in touch with one of her sons, she uses her friend’s son’s phone. Nonetheless she indulges in cooking, her sole luxury. She has cooking utensils. She has red wine. And she pays for her groceries herself. Luo cannot access food stamps because she does not have a formal address. The apartment she is staying in is already registered for someone else’s food stamps.
But Luo does not represent the phenomenon of canning; there are many canners who, unlike Luo, have other full time jobs.
Alberto Miguel, 50, is a canner by day, and an indoor soccer referee for New York City schools by night. He emigrated from Ecuador in 1980. He and his wife have been canning for the past year and a half. Through canning, they bring in a little extra support for the perennial needs of their three children and seven grandchildren.
Wen, who does not want to give his first name, is a canner who lives in a studio in Manhattan’s Chinatown with his wife and their two adult children. He was a technician in China, but since he speaks limited English he has not been able to find a job in that sector. He currently works in maintenance at a mattress store in Manhattan.
Then, there are those who have passed their primes and yearn to feel useful.
Sixty-eight-year-old Wang, who also does not want to give her first name, collects cans roughly twice a week. Her hair is dyed black and embellished with a curly perm. Wang’s granddaughter, who will be attending the Fashion Institute of Technology this fall, is the one who picked out Wang’s stylish black pea coat. They live in Manhattan’s Chinatown and whenever Wang is caught rummaging for cans, her son scolds her.
“I used to think it was embarrassing too. We would see her going through other people’s trash around town,” says Angela, her granddaughter. “But now I think she’s doing it, well, just to do something. It has to do with her age. There’s not much she can do, she wants to feel productive. ”
Wearing jeans, a black t-shirt, and chipped hot pink nail polish, Wang’s granddaughter follows her awkwardly around the Sure We Can Earth Day cookout. Her parents do not know she is there.
It is easy to assume, but difficult to determine the precise demographics of canners. The only data on canners that are easily accessible is a survey conducted by Picture the Homeless in 2005.
“Unfortunately, this is an issue where there aren’t a ton of folks doing work on their behalf,” says Sam Miller, the communications director for Picture the Homeless. “This may be the most accurate data that exists, even though it’s outdated.”
The National Employment Law Project, a non-profit research organization that advocates for workers’ rights, has never dealt with canners because they fall under an informal sector.
The Chinese Progressive Association, a non-profit founded to raise living and working standards for New York’s Chinese community, has never spoken with canners, according to its executive director Mae Lee.
Neither labor professors, shadow economy experts, nor sociologists who specialize in Chinese Americans, have conducted studies on the phenomenon of canning.
According to employees at Sure We Can, a large number of canners are elderly Chinese immigrants. Half of the regular canners at Sure We Can are Chinese, the other half are mostly Hispanic. “Since more redemption centers have opened, the Chinese have dispersed. But we still have about 30 Chinese regulars now,” de Luco says.
Employees of the redemption center say Luo is one of the hardest working canners they have seen.
“All the Chinese people work very hard here, but she’s the hardest worker, she’s always here,” de Luco says. Luo wakes up at six a.m to collect cans, seven days a week.
De Luco would like Sure We Can to be closed on Sunday’s. But since Luo pestered de Luco so ardently to keep it open, she was given her own storage space that she could access on Sunday’s. “That’s why we have a storage room for her,” de Luco says.“So she can still keep working even when we’re not open.”
In a receding section of the redemption center, there are 15 stalls for the center’s most frequent canners.
Luo has five bulging bags of cans and bottles in her storage for rainy days that are not good for collecting but good for sorting. At this redemption center on the border of East Williamsburg and Bushwick, Rou finds the closest thing she can to a sense of community and a solution to a missing social safety net for the rural Chinese elderly.
White rice and vegetables wrapped in aluminum foil are placed on a side table for those who need it; free English and computer classes are offered on Saturday’s. There are five canners who attend the English class regularly, Luo is not one of them.
Luo feels it is pointless to learn English; no one hires seniors. It is enough to know how to say numbers and beverage brands.
“One hundred eight, Heineken!” she yelled, “Poland Spring, two hundred sixteen!” An employee glances at her bags and jots down her numbers for the day. They take her word. She is precise and does not round up. Luo tracks her progress by scribbling numbers on her hands and over the walls of the storage corridor in a blue permanent marker.
When Luo forages through the garbage in the streets of Brooklyn, she does not take every bottle and can she sees.
She must know which distributor the brand falls under, otherwise it could be useless. It’s a game of experience and memorization. Minute Maid, Fanta, Evian, fall under the brand of Coca-Cola. Most beer brands belong to Manhattan Beer –Corona-, Union Beer –Budweiser and Phoenix Beverages –Heineken-. Water bottles are often problematic for redemption centers. There are so many brands, it is hard to tell which distributor is responsible for picking them up.
As Luo sorts her bag of cans back at the redemption center, she comes across an unrecognized brand that snuck into the pile. Tsingtao Beer. “Loo-yi!” she yells.
A man by the name of Louis rushes over.
“What this? Heineken?”
Mammoth compilations of bags of cans and bottles are piled throughout the center. Cases and cases of beer bottles are stacked atop one another. And everything, everything is meticulously sorted by brand.
Sometimes, distributors do not come to pick up and recycle its redeemed cans and bottles.
In March, 600 bags of sorted and redeemed beer cans and 60 pallets of glass bottles at in Sure We Can waiting for the Manhattan Beer Distributors. Distributors are legally obliged to pick up their empties from redemption centers. Many come twice a month, and some come every week due to the large volume of recyclables the center receives.
But the Manhattan Beer Distributors recently closed a branch in Brooklyn and did not come in February or March, which meant that the staff at SWC have to wait longer for their salary and pay canners out of their own pocket.
De Luco has been frantically calling the company, and received no response for the first two months. If they didn’t come, those cans and bottles would cost the center roughly$16,000.
“They have been on time each month for six years, I know it must be because they are struggling,” she says.
The Manhattan Beer Distributors finally came at the end of April, with three trailers. Yet within a week, the center finds itself with 300 bags waiting for the Manhattan Beer Distributors again.
The door shuts and subdues the clamor of cans and bottles. Luo walks up to the accountant and sighs. She hands over her ticket and speaks loudly in Chinese to Evelyn Ruez, 40, an El Salvadorian refugee who does not understand Chinese.
“I really don’t know how we make it through each day,” says Ruez, Sure We Can’s accountant. “It’s all in the hand gesturing.”
A case of sorted glass means $1.50, but if a canner uses the redemption center’s case, they receive $1.40. A bag of 40, 2 liter plastic bottles, translates to $2.50. A bag of 240, 12 oz cans equates to $14.50.
The center exchanges $1,000 to $2,000 a day for cans and bottles —depending on the weather and if it is nearing a recycling day.
Luo takes her cash and goes back outside to sweep her spot by the storage rooms. No one asked her to clean up after herself but she does it anyway.
Luo returns to the accounting room 10 minutes later. As usual, she cries “shen jing bing”(mentally ill) at a Hispanic man resting in the corner. It’s a strange way to make friends, but it works.
He does not understand her, he laughs. And then Luo, who only speaks a handful of English words, translates for herself. “Loco!” she yells, poking his head with her finger. Laughter erupts throughout the room. Luo goes on speaking in Chinese.
“She’s a funny, lovable lady,” de Luco says. “The way she expresses herself is through shouting.”
“Some people don’t understand and think she’s angry, but really she just has a lot of love,” de Luco says. Her shouting seems to be the result of an unusual excess of energy. When sorting, she flings useless bottle caps with a terrifying strength.
Luo made $60 that day. Normally she makes $80, Ruez says. She makes the most money out of all the canners there.
But Luo is working slower because she recently pulled a muscle on her back, which causes a cutting sensation each time she bends over to pick cans.
Luo’s rival, Wang, thinks she’s crazy.
Wang has a storage room, too, because she paid for it. Luo thinks one shouldn’t can if one doesn’t have to. Wang did not go to the center for the last few weeks because she was on vacation in China. Upon her return, Luo greets her with a verbal fight.
Wang calmly remarks that Luo is mentally ill and smiles a benign smile infused with an air of superiority. “You don’t speak clearly, I don’t understand what you’re saying,” Wang says.
Luo retaliates by calling Wang an illegal immigrant, a claim that is ungrounded. She only knows that Wang is from Fujian, a province in southeast China that has a reputation for illegal emigration.
“She is from Fujian, I am from Shanghai, how dare she say I can’t speak properly,” Luo mumbles after Wang walks away.
The truth is Luo would like to go back to China, too. But rural Chinese workers like Luo do not receive a retirement pension from the Chinese government.
Long-term urban Chinese workers receive substantial retirement pensions. But elderly rural citizens generally receive no assistance from the Chinese government, according to a National Research Council of the National Academies report called “Aging In Asia.” The majority of China’s rural seniors must rely on financial support from their children. In an extreme case, the Associated Press reported an incident where a mother sued her children in China for neglecting her in her old age.
The reason why Luo works so hard everyday at the redemption center is so that she could perhaps one day save enough to retire in China.
“Mother, mother come back,” her two sons in China would say when she sporadically calls them on her landlord’s cell phone.
They tell her that they would help support her. But Luo knows better than to listen to them; they should be saving for their own retirements and school for their children.
“Life is hard no matter where you are, China or America,” she says. “But at least I can buy more in China with one U.S dollar.”
She has saved a minimal amount enough for her retirement. But she gets up each day to collect cans anyway, knowing not when the last day will be. Perhaps it will be the day when her back finally gives out; perhaps it will be the day when another part of her body disintegrates from old age. Whichever day it is, the more she saves, the better.
Plus, it’s not so bad to live in New York.
“Do I feel lonely?” she says. “No, I wouldn’t say that I am, these westerners have been very kind.”
NEW YORK—The chill of the handcuffs gripped Ainsley Brundage’s wrists as the police pushed him out of the subway. A sea of strangers’ eyes stared and judged. Hooligan. Rascal. Imp. Most would not guess that Brundage’s dearest dream is to attend a school like Harvard Law, or that it is likely that he will.
Brundage, 19, dances illegally inside subway cars to feed a small but steady flame inside him. He grew up in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and is saving each dollar toward his dream of going to college upstate, far away from negative influences.
His mother and stepfather worry about tuition and test scores and would prefer that he register at Borough of Manhattan Community College. But Brundage is determined to break away from New York City and the confines of his sad past.
The signs of genius are there: Brundage skipped third grade, scored at a 12th grade reading level in the fourth grade, skipped the fifth grade. Then, a series of troubled periods eventually led to him to drop out of high school.
He began dancing on the subway five years ago, when he was too young to get a job but old enough to have self-determination. He needed to feed himself and his two hungry siblings.
“My mom had to work and we’d have no food to eat after school,” Brundage said.
One of his close friends in high school sold crack for $3,000 a week. He had nice clothes and pretty girlfriends. He asked Brundage to join the business, but Brundage chose to dance instead.
As the NYPD cracks down on subway performers with the return of its broken windows policing strategy, criminal law experts are divided on the merits of the tactic. More than 240 people have been arrested on misdemeanors related to acrobatics from the beginning of the year to July.
For performers like Brundage, dancing in the subway is a gleam of hope, an opportunity in lieu of gangs and drugs. The recent increase in arrests of subway dancers sheds light on the complex nuances of broken windows policing, and its effect on the community.
After watching some YouTube videos, Brundage picked up the act. In the late hours of the night, he’d ride an empty J train to the end of the line in Queens, often not returning until 4 a.m.
Brundage’s asthma threatened to act up as the wintry air gushed through doors that remained open, for it was ungodly hours at the last stop of the train.
But he’d continue to spin and swing between poles and railings anyway, to the rhythm of Lite Feet, the subgenre of hip hop that subway dancers move to.
He mastered the trick that required him to hang from train ceilings, despite his fear of heights.
When Brundage was 13, he used to make himself sit on a Bushwick projects’ rooftop, where he hung out after school, so that he could overcome his fear of heights. In front of a panorama of the city, he learned to control his anxiety.
“I believe the purpose to life is self-improvement,” he said. “I measure my value by how much better I can become.”
Once, Brundage said a police officer told him that he wouldn’t arrest him if he gave him all his money. The offer was cheaper than the fine he would have to pay, along with the money he wouldn’t make with a day behind bars. But Brundage refused. Many of his friends did not understand why.
From a young age Brundage has always had confidence in his intelligence and a strong sense of his value.
He has had chances to run away when a police officer approaches him in the subway, but he never does.
“I just feel like I shouldn’t have to do that,” he said. “I shouldn’t have to run from the police.” Instead, Brundage uses his court cases as a learning experience for his future career in law.
His nickname at home is “professor.”
He grew up reading books on constitutional law, and watched the television series Law and Order religiously.
To his mother’s dismay and wonder, as a child he’d have logical arguments with her. When she told him to turn the lights off to conserve energy, he’d respond that the most wasteful part was not keeping the lights on, but turning them back on frequently.
His dance name is Top Star. Brundage has a tattoo of a gust of wind blowing around four stars, three stars surrounding a larger one. His nature, not his nurturing, will carry him to unthinkable heights.
The three small stars represent those closest to him; but at this time, they are only symbolic emblems of the people he will meet.
“Sometimes I feel alone, I get a little sad,” Brundage said. “It’s hard for me to be around certain people I don’t relate to. I will be judged by some of my peers, because of the way I am and the way I think.”
Subway dancers can act bold, and sometimes reckless. They strut with their amplifiers in front of police; they say the police cannot arrest them if they’re not actually dancing.
“But all they need is probable cause,” Brundage said. “I have pride, too. But there’s a time and place for that.”
The rise in arrests of subway dancers is the result of Police Commissioner William Bratton bringing back broken window policing to New York City.
The broken windows theory is based on the idea that urban disorder—such as broken windows and graffiti—suggests that the area is uncared for; hence, the place is more susceptible to higher crime because criminals are less likely to be stopped there, according to the Community Oriented Policing Services of the U.S. Department of Justice.
“It would be a stretch to subsume acrobatic dancers under the broken windows concept,” David Greenberg, a sociology professor at New York University, wrote in an email. “In fact, it would be ridiculous.”
Experts who both support and oppose the tactic agree that there is no empirical evidence that performing on the subway will lead to higher crime.
However, it can be dangerous to perform acrobatic movements inside moving subway cars. A subway dancer who did not wish to be named said he accidentally kicked a rider during his first performance.
And some experts feel that any support for dangerous behavior can have negative consequences.
“If you allow that behavior, what other behavior will you allow?” said George Kelling, one of the social scientists who introduced the concept of broken windows in 1982. He is currently a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
“The first step, in terms of dealing with acrobats, is to persuade them to stop. Educate them about the dangers. Warn them of the consequences,” Kelling said. “If they can’t be persuaded, then they need to be arrested.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio has defended the NYPD’s broken windows policing as a practice that makes the city a safer place.
“Bill Bratton is one of the greatest police reformers and architects of effective policing in the history of this country,” de Blasio said.
Bratton served as commissioner of the NYPD from 1994 to 1996, a period of crime decline. His policing policies are influenced by the broken windows theory.
Since 1990, New York City has experienced the “largest and longest sustained drop in street crime ever experienced by a big city in the developed world,” Berkeley law professor Frank Zimring wrote in his book “The City that Became Safe: New York and the Future of Crime Control.” Data from the NYPD also shows an 80 percent drop in crime over the last two decades.
But the broken windows theory was not truly implemented in the ’90s either.
“Broken windows policing as originally designed would have avoided pouring resources in the highest crime rate areas that became a central priority … the New York strategy did not fit the ‘broken windows’ prescription either,” Zimring wrote in his book.
Whether the original broken windows was fully implemented or not, the key to successful policing is open dialogue.
“Broken windows, to me—I think I can say this also for Commissioner Bratton—is about addressing small things before they turn into big things,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “Arrest is not the only option. And we want to create a dialogue where we solve a lot of problems up front … that’s broken windows to me.”
But many subway performers said there has been no dialogue.
Legally, subway performers are allowed to perform on the platform as long as they are not interfering with construction work, according toMTA guidelines.
Performers can also use amplification on the mezzanine without a permit.
But many buskers feel that will stop them regardless, and that an open area like the platform is not a safe place to perform.
“We don’t want to do it because they’re going to find some type of excuse to lock us up,” said Andrew Saunders, 20, a dancer who stopped performing in the subway after his first arrest in 2013. “We don’t want to take that risk.”
Matthew Christian, an English teacher, said arrests often occur because the police mistakenly believe a permit is required to perform. That was the basis of Christian’s arrest in 2013, when he was playing Bach on his violin on the subway platform.
“If we’re going to get arrested anyway, it’s easier to evade police inside cars,” Brundage said.
Saunders said he believes most subway dancers would perform in a safe spot designated by the MTA if one existed.
“I would love to communicate with the MTA. … A lot would do it that way,” Saunders said. He said the problem could be solved if dance were included as a category in MTA’s “Music Under New York” program, which allows for performances at 30 locations throughout the transit system.
“There are over 200 dancers that perform on the train now … they perform on the train to get away from their problems,” Saunders said. “If we can’t dance anywhere else, a lot of people are going to go back to … other negative things.”
Some say that using the broken window tactic on subway performers is an extension of the police tactic stop, question, and frisk that has been curbed significantly under Bratton after new rules ordered by a judge, and new laws passed by City Council addressed community concerns about racial profiling.
“It’s a similar practice that requires discretionary stops and arrests,” said Bernard Harcourt, a professor at Columbia University who teaches criminal law.
“What is most problematic of the broken window theory is that the police commissioner gets to decide what is order and what is disorder, what is socially desirable,” Harcourt said. “And it has similar negative effects as stop and frisk.”
The MTA and NYPD did not respond to requests for comment.
Brundage said he was arrested 14 times in the last five years for dancing inside subway cars. NYPD verified seven of the arrests, plus additional sealed arrests. He spends one night, sometimes two, behind bars as he waits to see a judge. He has never been charged with a crime.
During one of his first arrests at age 14, at the 83rd precinct in Bushwick, it was winter. He said the police took away his jacket because there was a string on the hood that he could potentially use to commit suicide. But they did not close the window. As the bitter cold air seeped into the cell, Brundage had an asthma attack. He did not have his inhaler with him. He called out to the police but they did not respond.
After that his mother started keeping her phone on high volume when she slept, just in case the police called again and she needed to bring his pump.
“When he gets arrested I need to tell the precinct that he has a medical condition,” said Rashell-Lady Brundage-Johnson, his mother. “I’ve cried, I’ve prayed. It hasn’t been easy.”
But the most concerning part is not his physical treatment in jail.
“It’s a critical age,” said Gabrielle Horowitz-Prisco, director of the New York-based Juvenile Justice Project. “These labels affect their sense of self, which is still developing.”
Brundage strives to reason rather than feel angry.
“I’m disappointed more than angry when I get arrested,” he said. “The police are just doing their job. The person I should be angry at is de Blasio or Bratton.”
Since he doesn’t get charged, the arrest doesn’t go on his record. The judge usually gives him community service or a small fine.
Still, each arrest and court date is a financial setback for the family.
It’s very difficult for Brundage’s mother or stepfather to miss a day of work. They have children in college, and a 3-year-old toddler.
His mother is a clerk at a law firm; his stepfather has a graphic design degree, but currently works in maintenance.
Once, at a barbecue at Brooklyn’s Highland Park, Brundage saw a man get shot in front of him.
As Brundage and his sister ran, the shooter came toward the wounded man and shot him again. Brundage never forgot the yellow spark of the bullet as it left the gun.
At a party in East New York, at a popular spot under a barbershop, a man smashed speakers into another man’s face. A gang fight broke out.
As he and his sister were briskly leaving the party, a man approached him with anger in his eyes.
“Are you Weez Gang?” he asked.
Brundage said no, he was not in a gang. But his friends were.
After that incident, he decided not to hang out with that crowd anymore and turn his life around. He decided to get his GED and go to college.
But he knew he wouldn’t fare well at a school in New York City. He wanted to go somewhere where he’d be able to focus. He knows too many people here, too many bad crowds to drag him down.
His friends tell him, “If you need money you can always sell [drugs] with me.” He has thought about it. “I can’t lie,” he said.
But Brundage believes that a person’s true nature will triumph, and that it is in his nature to be good. So he stuck to dancing on the subway, and has inspired others through his performances.
Brundage and his best friend were paid to dance in an Intel commercial. Brundage even made an appearance on MTV.
Brundage and his best friend Malcolm Fraser perform in an Intel commercial.
Kids in his neighborhood look up to him. He has inspired other young people not to join gangs and dance instead, to keep working on their routines even if they are not good at it yet.
“At least he’s making an honest living,” Rashell-Lady Brundage said. “We don’t want them going out there doing anything illegal. But who will give them a chance?”
As a prequel to law school, Brundage dreams of attending Mohawk Valley, a community college six hours away from the city in Utica, N.Y.
It has a better environment. The campus has open, green spaces, and nice facilities; but most importantly, he has no bad connections there.
It’s a more expensive college experience, though. The tuition is $3,810, and it costs around $3,000 more to live on campus.
The school also requires a student to have a minimum GED score of 2400 in order to stay in the dormitory.
For some time, it seemed that Brundage would not get past these two hurdles.
Federal FAFSA rules deemed that his household income was too large to get full financial aid, but his family did not have the money to pay for his dorm.
Brundage asked his mother to take out a loan for him, but she did not think it was wise to do so.
From the money he made from dancing, Brundage could pay $1,000 out of his own pocket.
Since he didn’t have a credit history, he was only able to take a small $2,000 loan to pay for the first semester.
But he still needed around $4,000 more to cover his tuition and the school’s additional fees—a $130 student activity fee, a $140 technology fee, studio lab fees, etc. Not to mention he needed books, a laptop, and a hamper.
“I’m not going to be able to go, am I,” he thought.
His parents thought he should prepare to attend the local college. It was a safer bet. But Brundage did not want a plan B.
A month before school began, Brundage began starving himself to save money.
He ate one meal a day, and performed seven hours a day. He lived on $10 a day, spending it on some drinks and one deli sandwich at the end of his day at 3 a.m.
“It’s about how far you’re willing to go to get what you deserve,” Brundage said.
He once danced two days without eating, but he began to feel lightheaded.
Meanwhile, words from his stepfather rang in his head, “Mark my words, be prepared for disappointment. I don’t know why you’re putting all your eggs in one basket.”
Brundage makes more money than other subway dancers because he dances by himself.
“No matter how hard I try, I can’t do it by myself,” said Kayvon Wright, another dancer. “He’s brave.”
When he receives negative responses, there are no fellow dancers to lean on for solidarity.
“Hello ladies and gentlemen,” Brundage calls out by himself.
“Damn it, I had such a good streak,” a rider complains.
But Brundage doesn’t mind. He is goal-oriented. If his goal is to make $120 that day, he will not leave the station until he makes $120, no matter how long it takes.
“You can spin around the pole a hundred times, you can do the best flips,” he said. “But if you don’t have drive, you will never surpass your limits.”
A large factor of whether or not Brundage can go to Utica is how much studying he can get done while performing on the subway.
He takes breaks in the library to read GED preparation books when he is not dancing. He took a week off to prepare for the GED, but that was all. His parents worried.
He took the GED test last November. Three long weeks went by and there was no word on his results.
His parents reminded him that he should apply for nearby community colleges.
Then the scores came, in December. It showed that although he dropped out of high school in the ninth grade, in a short amount of time, he was essentially able to skip three grades, again.
He received a 2720 on his GED, more than 300 points higher than the entrance requirement. In the end, his aunt agreed to sign a loan for him to go to school.
Brundage went to Utica this summer and scored in the 90th percentile for his college placement tests.
Each year, 60 percent of first-year college students in the United States have to take remedial courses before they take college-level classes, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. Brundage is not one of them.
“I’m very emotional about it … I’m like wow,” his mother said. “I would tell him it’s not too late to apply for other schools. But he made it happen. I am so happy and proud.”
His first week of school has been a surreal experience. New friends. A new life. His new nickname at school is Wiz Khalifa; kids say he looks like the rapper. “I’ve made a lot of friends,” he said proudly. “I’m popular already.”
Naturally, most of the parties are off-campus. Since Brundage does not have a license, he worries that whoever drives him may end up driving back drunk. Plus, he doesn’t drink or smoke and that might seem strange at a college party.
So Brundage has said no to many parties the first week, and has been reading about Supreme Court cases and American business law in his room instead.
There was a faint whistling sound; then, a deafening blast. The ground in Homs, Syria, quivered. Hussam Al Roustom saw his friend screeching to a halt in a vegetable truck. His friend yelled that he was heading to Jordan and could take his family. Without pause or preamble, Al Roustom decided that he and his family were leaving Syria in that vegetable truck.
Since the phone lines were down in Homs, Al Roustom’s friend could not alert him of the plan beforehand.
There was no time to pack or say goodbye to elderly mothers. In a moment’s notice, Al Roustom, his wife, and their two small children left their home for good in April 2013. Tears streamed down his wife’s face as it sunk in that she might never see her family or friends again.
As the vegetable truck trundled along, Al Roustom did not wonder if he had made the right decision that moment. For two years, they had listened to the unending fusillade of bullets and roar of bombs. All they could afford to feed their children was hummus.
“Either I watch my children die in front of me,” Al Roustom said through a translator. “Or we flee and hope for a chance for a better life.”
Al Roustom left with only a vague hope that they might be able to stay in Jordan. Little did he know, his family would be a part of a select few Syrians invited to resettle in the United States.
After one month of suffering in a refugee camp without water or electricity, Al Roustom secretly got a job as a steel worker and they moved into an apartment in Irbid, Jordan.
Due to the high unemployment rate in Jordan, it was illegal for refugees to obtain work. Al Roustom tried his best to avoid authorities and hoped that their journey was over.
A year later, the police caught Al Roustom working. He and his family were sent to another refugee camp in the middle of a desert near Saudi Arabia.
Like the first camp, it had no water, electricity, or medicine. But this camp experienced severe sandstorms and drastic temperature shifts. His children caught stomach viruses.
Al Roustom considered returning to war-torn Syria. But the fact that the U.N. Refugee Agency had interviewed his family a few months ago gave him a sliver of hope.
The agency estimates there are currently 4.3 million Syrian refugees displaced outside of Syria while an additional 6.5 million people remain displaced inside the country.
Al Roustom and his family stayed in the desert camp for six months before they got some very surprising news. They were given the green light to resettle in a New Jersey city in June.
Al Roustom and his family are among 2,153 Syrian refugees that have arrived in the United States since 2012, and the 20 who resettled in Jersey City (4 have settled in New York City).
Refugees, especially refugees from the Middle East, face thorough security and medical screenings by agencies such as the NSA and Homeland Security.
“It usually takes about a minimum of four years for a Syrian refugee to get approved to come,” said Mahmoud Mahmoud, a regional director ofChurch World Service.
Church World Service is one of nine resettlement agencies that works with the State Department to help refugees begin their new lives.
Within three weeks, Mahmoud found Al Roustom’s family an apartment and furnished it with donated furniture.
President Obama said he will accept at least 10,000 more displaced Syrians over the next year. But the resettlement agencies including the Church World Service said they have the resources lined up to resettle 100,000 Syrian refugees and ask that the government increase the cap.
For now, they are helping refugees one small batch at a time.
Church World Service currently has 22 Syrian refugees booked on flights to arrive throughout the next few weeks. An additional 71 refugees were just cleared and assigned to another U.S. resettlement agency.
These incoming refugees are likely a part of a small number of displaced Syrians who received expedited security clearance like Al Roustom’s family.
Al Roustom’s family didn’t have to wait four years for a security clearance because they were fleeing with sick children and escaping entirely ruined cities such as Homs. (Al Roustom’s son is autistic and his behavior turns violent if he isn’t properly medicated.)
Since August, six Syrian families have resettled in New Haven, Connecticut. All six families had children traveling with them, and all were from Homs.
A Syrian refugee family of six that resettled in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in June had children with them as well.
But most displaced Syrians will have to wait several more years before finding homes.
Farris Albasir, a 51-year-old travel concierge on Staten Island, thought about sponsoring his family to come to the United States but feared the process would take too long.
His brother’s wife and three children are currently stuck in a refugee camp in Latakia, Syria. His brother managed to get smuggled into Germany, but it will take two to three years for his wife and children to get approved to join him there. That’s faster than trying to bring them to the States, but it’s still seems a long time to languish in a camp.
Albasir is growing desperate and is looking for ways to cut corners in the system.
He said he heard a rumor that it only takes two months to get approved to stay in India. He contemplated buying his family plane tickets to India.
“I feel bad. The situation in Syria is getting worse and worse,” Albasir said. “Since Russia got involved, there are more bullets in the sky.”
Earlier this year, a German website called Refugees Welcome began pairing refugees with citizens who were willing to share their homes. Although the website focused on housing refugees in Europe, more than 50 U.S. residents have signed up to offer their homes.
Gibran Malik, a music engineer, had been thinking of the issue of housing refugees long before the Syrian civil war. Malik purchased an apartment building in New Haven in 2007 to house refugees from Nepal, Thailand, and Pakistan.
“My parents are immigrants from Pakistan. My father came to this country with $50 in his pocket,” Malik said. “It gives me solace to be able to help these refugees get on their feet.”
He charges a family $800 a month to rent a three-bedroom apartment that would ordinarily cost $1,100. Although he has been struggling to pay his loans on the apartment building, he is trying to keep the building long enough to house Syrian refugees too.
In June, Al Roustom and his family moved into a 3-bedroom railroad apartment in Jersey City.
They felt overjoyed but also nervous. When Al Roustom made the split-second decision to leave Syria, his family never expected to leave the Middle East.
“I was very afraid at first, especially because of the language barrier and the inability to connect with the outside world,” Al Roustom’s wife, Suha, said in Arabic. “But things are working out well now.”
They started new lives in a neighborhood filled with fried chicken restaurants and Islamic centers. It’s a diverse community with a large Arab population.
Five months on, the children are in school and Al Roustom works overnight baking pita bread at a bakery in Ridgefield, N.J.
Since all their photographs were left behind in Syria, a lone tennis racket hangs on their apartment wall in place of pictures. They have been too busy to take and print new ones.
Al Roustom tries to make use of every moment. Although he leaves for work at 8 p.m. and doesn’t come home until 9 a.m., he refuses to be an absent father.
He curtails his sleep in order to check his children’s homework and play Super Mario video games with them.
Al Roustom also squeezed in time to attend a recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on security and the U.S. refugee program. He met with lawmakers and advocated for more resources for Syrian refugees. He said it felt surreal, to go from a refugee camp with no water or electricity to the floor of Congress.
Al Roustom was invited to go to Washington to speak with lawmakers again on Nov. 13.
“I’m a star,” he joked in English.
So accustomed to glowering, laughing or joking still feels foreign to Al Roustom. But he is slowly getting used to it. He smiles whenever he watches his 3-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son play in a park.
“They didn’t play in a park for five years,” he said. “It’s very difficult to laugh or smile. But I always do when I see my children playing.”
Nadia Ghattas contributed to this report.
NEW YORK—It was possible that A’amash, a Pakistani-American man in New Jersey with two master’s degrees, would have left the United States to fight for an Islamic militant group if the wrong person had talked to him at the right time.
“I could have and it’s true,” said A’amash, a 30-year-old business analyst for a major telecommunications company. (A’amash is a pseudonym given to protect his identity).
“I could have gone to Iraq, or Syria, or the Taliban,” A’amash told the Epoch Times. “I would have been like these people who are idiots.”
A’amash, who holds masters’ degrees in transportation and information systems, is fully bearded and wears ittar, a natural perfume oil derived from flowers, herbs, and spices.
Dressed in sandals and the loose white trousers of traditional Middle Eastern attire, he sat down to tell his story on a vernal Sunday afternoon.
He would no longer consider extremist ideas today; A’amash’s transition from an extreme to moderate understanding of his religion provides a rare perspective on what attracts people to radicalize, and how to prevent it.
The vast majority of American Muslims find a violent interpretation of the Quran repulsive. And among those who do fully radicalize, most cannot return if they were to regret their decision because they are seen as terrorists.
The National Counterterrorism Center estimated in February that more than 150 American citizens and residents have either traveled or attempted to travel to Syria to become foreign fighters. Since then several more have been arrested by authorities before they could succeed in aiding the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS), including four men in Brooklyn, and two women in Queens who plotted to detonate homemade bombs.
“These two women were U.S. citizens, I’m upset to hear that,” said Nusrat Qadir, a representative for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA. “Why would you take your freedom away to do harm? There is something inside of these women that has caused them to leave behind something most of us would never dream of giving up.”
A’amash, however, believes he knows what caused them to do it, and how to prevent it from happening.
A’amash grew up in Lahore, Pakistan, a city filled with poets and regal, Mughal-era architecture. His father owned a hotel, and he received his education in the British international school system.
He has the ingredients for a prosperous future: money, a good education, and a naturalized U.S. citizenship. But he felt that there was something missing.
Upon asking which extremist group he would have joined, A’amash’s large, hazel eyes stared off into the distance and he gave the question some careful thought.
Upon asking which extremist group he would have joined, A’amash’s large, hazel eyes stared off into the distance and he gave the question some careful thought.
“Definitely not this al-Baghdadi guy,” he said, referring to the leader of ISIS. “Maybe the Taliban. They are defending, as in they’re fighting for their land. I would have helped them fight for their land.”
But he said he would have regretted his decision upon arriving. “Innocent people think they’re joining a spiritual army,” he said. “Then they see they’re just vicious animals.”
It is critical to understand how A’amash got to that point where he could have considered it, though, for it seemed that he assimilated quickly in the United States.
After arriving in New York at age 19, he got copious piercings, and joined a band, where he played an electric semi-hollow guitar.
He left Islam to explore other religions, and even leaned toward atheism for a period of time. But he could never find anything to fill an internal emptiness that he felt.
He eventually returned to Islam, where he said he found serenity in the peaceful passages of the Quran.
He especially identified with the concept of renunciation, the sacrificing of one’s physical comfort and wealth for spiritual ascendence. Twice, he made spiritual treks through Bear Mountain State Park in New York at night.
But there were certain verses in the text that were violent, and he did not know what to make of those passages initially.
Most Muslims do not have literal interpretations of those passages. They read them as parables, or simply parts no longer relevant to their lives in modern day.
Those verses should be read in their full, historical context, A’amash explained. If such passages are read out of context, radicals can twist the words to justify violence.
There are passages in the Quran that speaks about a call to fight. And if an extremist had quoted parts of the text out of context, it could have put A’amash at risk of radicalizing.
“If the right narrative was not there, I don’t know what I would have done,” he said. “I was going to fight if there was a call to fight.”
Fortunately, A’amash did not encounter any extremists to convince him to do so.
By thoroughly reading the Quran in its entirety, and discussing his questions with moderate Muslims, he came to understand that it is incorrect to “call everything Jihad.”
In Islam, fighting is is only justifiable if it is defending an innocent, he said.
“It cannot be aggressive, like the way ISIS interprets it,” he said. “Also, people must have been persecuted for religion or faith in order to take it up. This country welcomes everyone, so there is no reason to pick up a sword.”
He decided he would no longer consider extremist thoughts.
And for the last five years, A’amash has been countering radicals in his own, well, radical way.
He has grown out his beard and wears his full Middle Eastern attire during religious events and holidays.
“I’m taking the look back from the Taliban and ISIS,” he said. “I’m bringing it back in style.”
People stare. And he is glad that they do. “It gives me a chance to shatter the stereotype,” he said.
A’amash’s experience highlights the importance of being part of a positive Muslim community, because the Quran can be difficult to read if the right guidance is not provided.
Muslim American communities throughout the United States are working on providing resources and support systems that counter radical interpretations.
“You can’t win this war by material means. You can only win by intellectual means,” A’amash said. “I’d love to have an intellectual debate with ISIS.”
Muslims are the ones who can best make arguments from their religious text. And many groups are working on precisely just that.
“American Muslims are critical on this front. In the Muslim world, we are that bridge of understanding,” said Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a national Muslim American organization.
The works of these American Muslim organizations are important because it is not necessarily difficult to convince a person to step away from extremism. Often the groups work independently, but sometimes they work with U.S. authorities tasked with the same goals.
“Group think is one of the most powerful catalysts for leading a group to actually committing a terrorist act,” Raymond Kelly, the former NYPD commissioner, wrote in a terrorism report that he drafted with academics and intelligence officials.
“All individuals who begin this process [of radicalization] do not necessarily pass through all the stages. Many stop or abandon this process at different points,” Kelly said.
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think thank, recommends that there should be federal grants for community outreach programs.
And one important place that the community targets is the Internet.
“Radicalization doesn’t happen in mosques. Radicalization happens on the Internet,” said Al-Marayati.
The Brookings Institution, a liberal-centrist think tank, found that from September to December 2014, at least 46,000 Twitter accounts were used by ISIS supporters, although not all of them were active at the same time.
That’s where social-media-savvy Muslims like Salaam Bhatti come in.
Bhatti, a 28-year-old attorney and regional president of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA’s youth association, is very active on Twitter.
Bhatti has sent out 11,700 tweets, including links to articles about “why ISIS is not Islamic.”
The youth association he leads has organized a number of initiatives to counter anti-Muslim sentiment and prevent radicalization in the United States.
One of the initiatives it run is the Stop the Crisis campaign, which gives talks at community centers and college campuses to clarify misconceptions of Islam and Muslims. So far, it has held 30 events across the country since its creation less than a year ago.
“We understand we face a radicalization problem in the U.S.,” Bhatti said. “We address youth radicalization, what Muslims are doing to combat radicalization, what non-Muslims can do to combat that.”
“If they know someone who is subject to radicalization, they can say I was at this event this is what I heard,” he said.
During these events, they promote proper teachings of Islam, and encourages Muslims to apply these teachings by participating in community service.
As an organization, The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA helps out in homeless shelters, volunteers to clean roads, and holds blood drives.
They hold an annual blood drive called “Muslims for Life,” which honors 9/11 victims.
They donated 10,000 pints of blood on the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attack.
A’amash ended up joining the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, a moderate sect of Islam.
He said if he had not become an Ahmadiyya Muslim, it does not necessarily mean he would have definitely turned toward extremism. It’s just that it was possible.
Apart from the Ahmadiyya sect, many Muslim organizations throughout the nation are doing similar initiatives.
The Muslim Students Association focuses on educating Muslims, as well as people of other faiths. They not only discourage radicalization, but also the unnecessary fear of Muslims.
The Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) is a national organization that also promotes proper identity development and nonviolent civil engagement in its community.
MPAC has a comprehensive intervention program called Safe Spaces, which equips communities with social services and religious counselling. There is a document of over 100 pages of advice and research that is free to download on their website.
“It deals with issues before it develops into radicalization,” said Al-Marayati, the president of MPAC, about the document.
It’s also provides a guide on what steps to take to confront individuals who may be at risk of extremism.
The responsibilities of post-Sept. 11 Muslim-Americans are heavier and more complex.
While protecting vulnerable members of their community from extremism, they face hate groups.
There are anti-Muslim posters in transportation systems in some major U.S. cities; and recently, a “Jihad Watch Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest” took place “in defense of free speech” in Garland, Texas, on May 3, where two extremists went and opened fire on a security guard before getting gunned down and killed by police.
It is important for the American public to not have anti-Muslim sentiment, for that only gives more power to ISIS.
“We have ISIS that is exploiting the wars in the Middle East, and then we have people in this country who want to hold a culture war,” said Al-Marayati.
It is important for the American public not to have anti-Muslim sentiment, for that only gives more power to ISIS.
Some, however, believe ISIS will inevitably fail regardless.
“I don’t think ISIS will last,” said Raghida Dergham, the founder of Beirut Institute, an independent nonpartisan Arab think tank. “I’d give them two to three years.”
“Most Muslims don’t want to be associated with them,” she said. “Countries are forming alliances to destroy it. Their resources can’t be replenished.”
More and more, there have been people like Shiraz Maher, a former Islamic radical who is now a senior research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization in London.
For four years, Maher was a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a terrorist Islamist group. Today, his research provides invaluable insight on ways to limit extremism.
One idea he has it to create a system that allows people to return once they become disillusioned by ISIS. “How to dissuade young men—and some women, too—from going out at all … who is better to do this than those who have returned? Let them tell potential recruits: ‘It’s terrible! Don’t go!’ If you want to send a message, you’ve got to choose who that messenger will be. If you want to get credible messengers, you’ve got to find people with credibility,” he told the New York Times.
Interestingly, some say ISIS is not a serious issue among Muslims in the United States.
“It’s important to distinguish between the U.S. and Europe,” said Mehdi Noorbaksh, Ph.D., a professor at Harrisburg University who specializes in international affairs and the interactions of Islam.
There is some level of public fear in America, but at least Muslims are not discriminated in employment.
“Germany and France do not try very hard to accommodate Muslims,” Noorbaksh said. “But in the U.S. we don’t have this problem. The windows of opportunities are open. You see Muslim engineers, Muslims in the medical profession.”
“The media has exaggerated the situation,” he said. “I’m very optimistic about the U.S. in this case.”
I am currently writing a family memoir about my grandfather, a Chinese man who spied for the Soviet Union during the Cold War. From Bolshevik memoirs to leaked Soviet intelligence documents, I piece together what is known about his life.
Below, is an excerpt.
The Chinese Communist Party said no, simply no. And that was the end of the conversation. A famed filmmaker wanted to produce a documentary on Zhang Yiwu, a Chinese man who spent a large part of his life as a spy for the Soviet Union. It would be nationalistic, the filmmaker argued, but his words were in vain. The Chinese Communist Party did not want people to know what they had done to Zhang and they did not want people to remember how he died. From a corner window, the rays of a late afternoon sun seeped into an otherwise dark room. In that moment, a man who was instrumental to the development of the Cold War began to vanish from history.
Zhang spied in seven Asian countries. He spied in Japan. He spied in Vietnam.It was said that Stalin knew Zhang by name. Zhang was my grandfather, and his story begins on a farm in Central China.
As the last dynasty of China was toiling in its final days, a wan infant with uneven eyelids was born on February 25, 1909. His parents named him Zhang Yiwu, which meant a just person with a strong sense of self. They raised him on a farm in Xiaogan, Hubei. Zhang went to the village school, where the male teachers still wore their hair in Qing Dynasty queues, a style that required the men to shave the front of their heads every ten days and wear the remaining locks in lavish, long braids. The last dynasty had fallen three years after Zhang’s birth. China had toppled into modernity. But the rural teachers remained loyal to their emperor.
The Xiaogan village rested on Hanjiang River’s southern bank. The name of the village meant filial piety in Chinese; legend has it that a man named Dong Yong once sold himself to pay for his father’s funeral. In Xiaogan, there is a mountain called Baizhao where the ancient poet Li Bai lived in solitude for ten years. He had a lot of liquor with him. The village was famous for its rice wine, a white drink made from the fermentation of glutinous rice and Fengwo yeast. It made one’s stomach warm after consumption.
The villagers of Xiaogan took pride in a Chinese scholar-tree that had grown quite large. Its thick, angular branches extended far to create ample shade beneath the searing summer sun. That was nice because life in Xiaogan was about work. Life was lived in bamboo hats; it passed by as one knelt in brown waters and planted rice by hand. Life was spent cutting wheat grass in a field that swayed softly to the cadence of the wind. One hoped it would not flood. Many people lived in mud huts. Much of the landscape was blanketed in loess, a fine kind of yellow dirt that got in the way as one cooked over open hearths in the ground. One grew millet. One irrigated. If one was rich one had oxen to plow and cultivate some crops.
Teenagers dropped out of school to work. So it was decided that schooling formally ended at age 14. By the time Zhang graduated, his family’s farm had lost a large sum of money. Zhang’s father was the landlord, but he was unfamiliar with the process of agricultural production. His wealthy parents had sent him to study at a college in Japan.
Zhang chopped and sold firewood in the winter to help pay for expenses. Zhang was told he must stay on the farm to help his family. He tried, but he could not imagine himself growing old and dying in a place that only had tools, mules, paddies, wetlands, and vast open lands that brimmed with fog. He felt there was more to know.
He pleaded with his parents to let him go to school in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province. It was close to home so he could visit often. Zhang’s father would not hear it. But his mother saw the secret sharpness in his eyes. He wasn’t like the other farm children, whose miserable surroundings had withered their consciousness. Out of her four sons and two daughters, Zhang was the youngest, her favorite. A year later, behind her husband’s back, she took the remainder of her dowry and gave Zhang three dragon dollars (around $90). Zhang left the next day before daybreak. He walked into the dark with his dragon dollars and a bedroll on his back. It was 1924, and the last time that he walked on that dirt path.
NEW YORK—”Is there anything you can do about it, you see, I am Eric Garner’s mother,” Gwen Carr said softly, after security officers told her they could not let her into Garner’s hearing.
The security guards at the Supreme Court on Staten Island were noticeably annoyed. Many protesters had flooded the courthouse to hear oral arguments Feb. 5 for the release of the grand jury records that resulted in no indictment for the officer who used a chokehold to arrest her unarmed son shortly before he died on the sidewalk.
“No ma’am,” a guard responded curtly. “Courtroom’s full.”
The courtroom, which seats roughly 65, had filled up long before the 10 a.m. start time. Disgruntled supporters slowly scattered down the stairs obeying instructions to clear a path.
Carr arrived 15 minutes late with Garner’s daughter, Erica Garner. At age 64, Carr’s body no longer moved as swiftly as it did during the days when she single-handedly raised six children.
Her droopy chestnut eyes looked around the courthouse and saw anger.
“What do you mean they can’t go in? Don’t they know who they are? Erica Garner’s picture is only in the papers like every other freaking day,” said a protester, fuming on the stairs.
Carr quickly told her entourage, a medley of loved ones and unknown faces, to remain calm.
Sure enough, within five minutes, word spread that Garner’s relatives could not enter the hearing and people began to give up their seats.
“That’s what I said, let’s not make a scene,” Carr recalled, chuckling to herself on her sepia couch a week later. “A lot of times I find that being calm, you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”
There is a gentleness about her, of manner, appearance, and approach, that relieves her of the weight of her agonizing responsibilities.
Her days are marked by an endless stream of meetings, interviews, talks, marches, press conferences, as well as errands for Eric Garner’s six children and two grandchildren.
Since Garner’s death her image—distant, sad eyes below a tuft of blond and black ringlets—has become a national icon. Overnight, Carr was thrust into the vertigo of a renewed civil rights movement.
Carr’s work to bring justice to her son has been compared to that of Fannie Lou Hamer, a civil rights leader from the ’70s who did not find her calling until later in life.
Carr’s cause and peaceful demeanor, in some ways, is carrying on the work of Martin Luther King Jr.
In King’s 1967 speech “Where Do We Go From Here?” he mentions the issue of African-Americans and police impunity.
It would have been King’s next movement had he not been assassinated, said R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, an associate professor of sociology and black studies at City College of New York. “Ms. Carr is making sure her son’s legacy is remembered, and it connects to a longer tradition,” he said.
Although her life has been largely apolitical up to this point, the adversities from her early life have strengthened her to lead through this final tragedy, and the movement that it has sparked.
Carr grew up in South Brooklyn in the ’50s and ’60s, before the neighborhood was divided into Prospect Park and Cobble Hill.
After high school she worked as a long distance operator for the New York Telephone Company, which had just upgraded from switchboards to “brand new, state-of-the-art buttons.”
She was a nice girl, who never got in trouble with the law. About the wildest thing she did was meet the boys she’d connect calls for when she was 18 years old.
“We used to tell the guys to meet us downstairs after work, but not tell them what we were wearing,” she said. “We see them and decide whether we want to talk to them or not.” (One of her friends met her husband this way.)
But fate did not plan for Carr to have a happily ever after.
When Carr was 26, her first husband died from high blood pressure.
His passing left her the sole caretaker of their three small children. Eric Garner, the oldest, was 6, while their youngest, Ellisha Flagg, was 4 months.
To provide for her children, Carr needed a better job. She went to college and graduated with an accounting degree from New York City College of Technology, and took classes at NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering.
Eight years after her husband’s death, just when things were beginning to stabilize, she had to take in her niece and two nephews because her brother and sister-in-law unexpectedly died from natural causes.
But she pulled through, providing for six children with the money she earned from processing data for the New York Stock Exchange.
“All my life I was the bread winner,” she said.
Today, even though she has been unable to return to work as an MTA train operator since Eric Garner’s death, she continues to help her family members pay bills. “Whatever they need, I make sure they have a place to stay and food to eat,” she said.
“She’s the matriarch of the family,” said Selina Atteberry, a close friend of Carr’s.
But the matriarch’s savings are running low. Carr pays the major bills for her household because her second husband suffered injuries from his construction job and is now relying on Social Security disability.
The funds raised for the Garner family have only gone to Eric Garner’s spouse and children.
Carr tried to go back to work two months after Eric Garner’s death, even though she still felt shaky.
One by one, co-workers gave their condolences. It was nice to hear, but quickly became overwhelming.
At the end of the day she clocked out 10 minutes late because the train she was operating was held up. She had also arrived late for work that day.
The dispatcher, who had not seen Carr since her son’s death, ran down the outdoor Coney Island platform to greet her.
“Oh Ms. Carr, you came in eight minutes late but I’ll give you your 10 minutes anyway,” Carr recalled her saying.
Carr snapped. “I don’t want your ten minutes,” she said.
It was an unusual emotional outburst for Carr, and she felt that it was a sign she was not ready to return to work.
It was dangerously easy to get fixated on memories—like when Eric Garner was an infant he spent nine months tied to an oxygen tank in the hospital, and how as an adult he loved fixing cars and dreamed of opening a chain of garages across the country, but his weak respiratory system could not handle the fumes—and miss a train signal.
Luckily, she didn’t miss any signals on her first day back.
“But I didn’t want to be out on the road when my head wasn’t completely clear,” Carr said. “I had thousands of people under my care every day.”
She decided to put in her papers and retire.
Carr will start receiving partial retirement checks in March. She won’t get her full retirement pension, as she did not finish the full 25 years. She only made it to 23.
In the meantime, she pushes forward with her home responsibilities.
Bags of raw carrots, onions, and cabbages piled near her front door for her family to take.
When there isn’t time to cook, she eats Corn Flakes for lunch at 2:30 in the afternoon.
Her apartment is often silent these days but sometimes, she can still hear the “Donkey Kong” theme song, one of Eric Garner’s favorite video games as a child.
She remembered how he would always say he was having “a few friends” over to play “Donkey Kong,” and she’d come home to find an apartment full of hyper boys.
“Everybody was his friend,” she said in a teasing tone. “Even when he got older, he never said that’s my associate, or that’s my coworker. Everyone was always his friend.”
There is a corner in her apartment dedicated to Eric Garner memorabilia: his last toothbrush, bottle of lotion, medicine, and respirators. A portrait of his son, Eric Garner Jr., who is currently in college, hangs to the left.
The corner in Gwen Carr’s apartment that is dedicated to Eric Garner memorabilia: his last toothbrush, bottle of lotion, medicine, and respirators. A portrait of his son, Eric Garner Jr., who is currently in college, hangs to the left. (Benjamin Chasteen/Epoch Times)
“He was very dedicated to his children,” Carr said. “He didn’t always do the right thing … sometimes he sold cigarettes, but the money went home and bought them clothes.”
Now is the waiting period, the calm after the storm. She waits for Judge William Garnett to decide whether or not he will release the grand jury records from Eric Garner’s case so that the family and the public can see exactly what evidence was heard. In New York the proceedings happen behind closed doors, but Garner’s case has a lot of people questioning this policy.
Expectations are high, especially after New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman proposed a plan to lessen the secrecy of grand jury proceedings during his State of the Judiciary address on Feb. 17.
But it remains to be seen if the proposal will pass in Albany.
Carr carries a set of business cards that say “ERIC GARNER’S MOM.” She is prepared to give them out when the weather is warmer and marches resume.
There is a deep, distant look in her eyes when Carr is left alone, or when people talk about his death.
Carr’s husband, Benjamin Carr, is doing all that he can to help her pass the time.
“We joke a lot to keep her mind strong, make her smile,” Benjamin Carr said. “That’s the main thing.”
He encourages her to leave the apartment to visit Cynthia Davis, a good friend who started an Indiegogo crowdsource fundraiser specifically for Carr.
Davis is president of the Staten Island chapter of the National Action Network, a civil rights organization founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton.
During the drive to see Davis, Benjamin Carr keeps the radio on despite a long string of commercials.
Perhaps it was to avoid a silence that segues to sad thoughts.
They say nothing to each other as they drive by Victory Blvd. and Bay St., where Eric Garner passed. The voice from the radio prattles on.
“Sometimes I wonder,” Carr said. “How am I still standing after all of this?”
“When I’m alone … it’s like he and I be talking,” she said. “I talk to him. I tell him everything is going to be all right.”
NEW YORK—The night was teeming with city noises: the intermittent blasts of hip-hop from passing cars, the jubilant howls of young drunkards. But it was dim and quiet inside Jaswinder Singh’s taxi save for the sound of his children talking to him through FaceTime. Although they live in the same house in Long Island, he hasn’t seen his children in three days.
Seven days a week, Singh drives his yellow taxi from 2:30 in the afternoon until past 11 at night. By the time he gets home from the city, it is 2 a.m. Sometimes he doesn’t make it home until 5 in the morning. His seamed face and gray beard makes him look older than his 45 years.
When Singh wakes up his three children are often already at school. His wife hands him his lunch bag, stuffed with painkillers and a vegan meal, and off he goes again.
To stave off loneliness, Singh steals family moments during bathroom breaks or as he waits for passengers at John F. Kennedy International Airport.
As fine needles of rain scattered from a black sky during one recent respite, he texted his wife. She responded with a photo of their 6-year-old son modeling new shoes.
“So nice. So cuteeeee,” Singh wrote back to her.
Singh used to not mind the long hours of solitude. For the last 12 years, his driving had served as a worthy means to a middle-class life: He went from being a bankrupt man in Punjab, India, to becoming someone who owns a house in Long Island. His children attend school in a good neighborhood.
But of late, his efforts feel fruitless.
Ever since his driver left him for Uber 13 months ago, Singh has been pushing the boundaries of his body to save his family’s future.
Despite working seven days a week and sleeping an average of four hours a night, he is three months behind on his medallion mortgage payments. The bank can repossess his medallion at any time.
“Losing the medallion is not so bad,” he said. “The problem is losing the house.” Singh, like many medallion owners, had borrowed against his medallion to help pay for his home.
There are roughly 3,500 individual medallion owners like Singh in New York City. According to Javaid Tariq, co-founder of the New York City Taxi Workers Alliance, these medallion owners are on the verge of losing their taxies and possibly their homes.
As the taxi industry staggers to compete with Uber and other app-based ride-hailing companies, much has been written about the setbacks of Medallion Financial Corp. (which provides medallion loans) and fleet owners (those who own several medallions and lease them out in taxi garages).
But few have examined the lives of individual medallion owners like Singh, and how Uber has made the American dream more accessible for some while putting it out of reach for others.
Before the mid-1930s, the New York City taxi industry was unregulated. There was no limit on the number of taxis and no standard on fares.
In 1937 the Haas Act created the medallion system, which required taxi drivers to get a special license and curbed the number of taxis in the city.
It required each taxi to have a medallion, a metal city permit affixed on the hood of a taxi. Without it, a driver is not legally allowed to pick up hailing customers from streets or airports.
(Uber is technically legal in NYC because its drivers can only pick up people who hail from apps.)
Yellow taxi drivers can rent taxi medallions from taxi garages or individual medallion owners like Singh.
Usually, taxi drivers save for many years before making a downpayment to purchase their own medallion taxis. They are considered an elite in the industry once they do. They no longer need to work for a garage and can even hire a driver to work for them. They can borrow money against the medallion and buy houses.
After five years of taxi driving, Singh saved up enough to make a downpayment for a medallion in 2008. The medallion was worth $450,000 at the time.
As the medallion’s worth went up, Singh borrowed against his medallion to pay for his house. With his mortgage, his debt grew to $840,000.
That was fine, and even typical, for some time. His driver paid him $2,000 a month to rent his medallion at night and Singh still drove full time during the day. He earned enough to make mortgage payments, save for his children’s college, and even take one day off a week.
Up until recently, investing in a medallion had been a safe road to the middle class. For decades, its value had grown exponentially.
In 1937, the medallion’s average worth was $2,500. By 2013, the medallion’s value reached its peak at $1.05 million.
Singh was overjoyed the day that he got his taxi license in New York. A switch flipped in his mind; for the first time since his childhood he felt that the world was his oyster.
Singh grew up in Punjab, a state in northern India with a large agriculture industry. He fancied becoming an attorney as a boy, but his family was not wealthy enough to pay for an overseas law education.
Instead, he went on to start a successful export business with his brother. They sold and traded goods of all kinds—from blankets and zippers, to saws and pliers, to rice.
But when China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, the Indian economy could not compete with China’s cheap manufactured goods.
Singh’s export business, along with many others, went bankrupt.
He remembered the long lines outside the embassy, where people would wait up to eight hours a day in 90-degree weather for a chance to apply for a visa. They couldn’t get out of line to eat or use the bathroom. If they did, they’d lose their spot.
Singh’s visa application was rejected four times. But he kept trying. He’d travel 300 miles each time from Punjab to the embassy in New Delhi.
In the end, he was arranged to marry a woman in Queens, New York. But he didn’t want to marry her for the sake of leaving India.
He spent more than he could afford on phone cards, having long conversations with his potential wife.
“I had to know if she was beautiful on the inside,” he said.
He realized that she was. In 2003 they married, and he joined his life with her’s in Richmond Hill, Queens, where he became a taxi driver like his father-in-law.
His brother-in-law purchased a medallion too, and borrowed against it to purchase a second medallion.
Singh’s nephew also bought a medallion in April 2014. He wasn’t in a position to do so, but the bank offered him a 95 percent loan. At the time, he didn’t suspect that the incredible offer might have been given because the medallion was about to drop in value.
None of them guessed that by February 2015, medallions would stop selling. The value of medallions would drop to as low as $700,000.
Singh’s driver left him for Uber last September. “At first I didn’t think it was a big deal,” he said. “I’ll just find another driver.”
But drivers left for Uber in droves. At McGuinness Management Corporation, a taxi garage in Brooklyn, 50 percent of its taxis were unused, the New York Post reported this August.
It didn’t help that Singh owned a wheel-chair accessible taxi—which required twice as much gas. When the sparse number of taxi drivers had a sea of cars to choose from, they avoided the wheelchair accessible cars.
Thirteen months later, Singh is still driverless and paying $4,300 a month for his medallion mortgage. His mortgage, gas, car repairs, and insurance come to $7,000 a month.
When asked about the current situation of many individual medallion owners, Tariq looked sorrowful.
“They cannot make it. They cannot make the mortgage payments driving by themselves,” Tariq said. “Many are at risk of filing bankruptcy.”
One can’t blame Singh’s driver for leaving. The pay and working conditions are much more attractive driving for Uber.
“I drove a yellow taxi for more than 10 years, and it was a constant struggle to make ends meet,” Samuel Nunez, a Uber driver, wrote in an op-ed in the New York post titled “Driving for Uber lets me live the American dream.”
As a yellow cab driver, Nunez earned around $30,000 a year and paid the medallion owner to use his car.
With Uber, he doesn’t need to pay a garage or medallion owner. He drives his own car.
“With Uber, I make about $60,000 a year—and right now, I’m only working three days a week,” he wrote. “We’re no longer stressed about paying the bills and are more focused on spending quality time with one another and doing what we love.”
Mamadou Bah, a Uber driver who emigrated from Guinea, told the Epoch Times a similar story.
“When driving the medallion, I had to drive 12 hours a day,” he said. “Now I can stay home two to three days, and I make more money.”
“This is my medallion right here, my $300 medallion,” he joked, patting his car.
A proposed Uber cap was put on hold in City Council in July, as the city moved forward with a traffic congestion study.
In the meantime, Uber has grown to 30,000 drivers in New York City, who compete with 50,000 yellow taxicab drivers.
Some speculate that Uber and other ride-hailing apps such as Lyft, Gett, Via, and so forth, might be the future of taxis.
But Graham Hodges, a professor of history at Colgate University who has written a book about the social history of taxis, doesn’t think so.
“I’m not troubled the medallion has fallen in value,” he said.
Hodges used to drive a yellow cab to support himself during his five years at the City College of New York, where he received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Hodges went on to become a distinguished Fulbright professor at Beijing University.
Since the medallion system had been an enduring gateway to the middle class throughout history, he believes it won’t lose value permanently.
“It could be a sign that the medallion is losing value,” Hodges said. “Or it could also be a sign that people are holding back and waiting to see what happens.”
But how long will it take for the medallion to rebound? Singh is running out of time.
Singh feels a twinge in the pit of his stomach whenever he remembers how his son doesn’t spend the dollars he receives from his grandparents.
“Someday when I save up a lot of money I will give it to you so that you can take a day off,” he recalled his son saying. But Singh felt that he had no choice but to work even harder.
In April, the bank seized his medallion.
In a fit of panic, he borrowed money from dozens of friends and family in India to come up with the $16,000 he needed to get his medallion back.
But in May 2015, the First Jersey Credit Union sent him a letter saying that since the medallion value has gone down, Singh owed the bank $177,173.
Singh needed to pay within 10 days. Otherwise, the bank would take him to court and he “was liable for legal court costs,” according to the document.
Singh managed to negotiate with the bank and put off the payments.
But by October, he was three months behind on medallion mortgage payments once again. Singh felt demoralized.
He went to the emergency room twice in September for an overwhelming bursting sensation in his stomach.
It turned out Singh has kidney stones. But his main reaction was frustration that he had to go to the hospital on a weekend, when driving was most profitable.
“I’m scared something will happen to him,” said Ruby Singh, his wife. “He’s sleeping only four to five hours. He’s losing his weight.”
NEW YORK—The wire that connected the Christmas lights that Luo Zizhao was assembling would slice against his fingers; it would slice through the wounds that were already leaking pus, causing a rivulet of dark blood to drip from his fingers.
For a whole month, Luo was only allowed to sleep between 2 and 5 in the morning. The rest of the time, he assembled plastic flowers, hairpins, and ominous Christmas lights. He was a prisoner of conscience working in a Chinese labor camp.
At that labor camp in Canton, 80 men with bleeding fingers slept on their sides in a 50 square foot space; if they wanted to turn over, they had to stand up first. Amid a mass of thieves, drug dealers, and murderers, Luo was the only one convicted for a spiritual belief.
More than a decade later, Luo, 46, shows no physical or emotional signs of the years of torture he endured in Chinese prisons. Although macabre memories return from time to time, he always holds himself with a genteel and reserved dignity.
He is currently the executive chef of Radiance, a high-end Cantonese restaurant in New York City. Luo is the master chef who invented Chinese culinary techniques that customized dishes to suit customers based on their age, gender, and hometown.
But he is a master chef who believes that without freedom of belief and freedom of speech, food is not worth eating. This is the story of a hunger strike of a chef.
Luo was executive chef at Kai Kong, one of the most illustrious hotels in Beijing.
Food suppliers sought after Luo like fish seeking water. People constantly offered him bribes, and he constantly accepted them.
He had money. He had women. He had a wife, but he didn’t care. Or at least that was what he told himself.
Deep in the recesses of his mind he felt a tinge of guilt, a guilt that he could never completely ignore.
He met and fell in love with Wang Jing in 1989, when she started off as a waitress at Kai Kong. Their first date was at a Kentucky Fried Chicken, which like all American fast-food restaurants was wildly popular in China at the time. Seven years later they married.
Wang was a beautiful-looking woman with a scourging temper. In 1998 she took up Falun Gong, a spiritual meditation practice, and became uncharacteristically thoughtful and gentle.
He did not know what to make of it, so in an attempt to understand, he began practicing the following January.
Falun Gong is centered on the traditional Chinese principles of truth, compassion, and tolerance—principles that shifted Luo’s outlook on life.
“My whole life, I have never felt that I was truly living for myself because I wasn’t living the life of the person I wanted to be,” he said. “Falun Gong had that empowering effect for me.”
He broke things off with his mistresses and began to reject bribes. It was his and Wang’s second chance for a happy marriage, to finally be with each other with integrity.
For years, they had fought with putrid bitterness. There were two occasions when they had seriously considered getting divorced.
But when she took up Falun Gong, she was willing to admit to wrong, and willing to change. And so did he.
Their relationship did not align in perfect harmony, as few things do in life, but the fact that they expressed a genuine interest in self-improvement was a wondrous rarity for them; it saved their marriage.
Soon Falun Gong became popular in China, with about 100 million people practicing it—too popular for the likings of the Chinese leadership. In July 1999, the Chinese Communist Party outlawed the practice, considering it a core threat to its power.
Luo can still hear that first knock on the door, the thud, and another one, before the police charged into their Beijing home at 2 a.m. in December 1999.
He and his wife, as well as 20 other Falun Gong practitioners in Beijing, were arrested that night. It was a warning for what was to come if they did not obey the government. He and his wife were let out the next day.
But Luo refused to give up. Inner peace is not something to be given up.
In October 2000, he and his sister decided to protest the ban at Tiananmen Square. He traveled by train from Canton, the southern edge of China, to Beijing. The train ride lasted two nights and a day. The long hours were spent with legs shaking from trepidation.
But the feeling he had when he opened his yellow banner reading “Falun Buddha Law” in the middle of Tiananmen Square was sublime. It was a moment that he would continue to treasure—a moment when he stood for something more than himself, for the rights of humanity.
Two minutes later he was hit by a hard blow.
Six plainclothes policemen pushed them into a van. No words were said. They took turns slapping his face.
“What is the reasoning behind my arrest? Why is Falun Gong banned? Where is justice in this country?” Luo cried.
The officers remained silent and continued beating him. He and his sister were taken to a detention center near Tiananmen, where the guards threw them into a dungeon-like prison cell in a basement.
Luo was eventually transferred to the Sheng De detention center in Canton, where he was officially charged with criminal activity.
It was there that they stopped beating him and started forcing him to make Christmas lights instead.
He awoke to shrieking alarms every day at 2 a.m., when it was time to work. For those who took a little longer to get up, they were pulled aside and hung in horrifying, obscure positions.
He recalled seeing a man who was hung from his left arm and right leg, with only his left toe touching the ground to hold the balance of his weight. When the guards released him eight hours later, his left leg had swollen to an unrecognizable size.
It was there that Luo made the decision to go on a hunger strike to protest against the system. He stopped eating, but he kept working. As the days went by his vision blurred and his movements slowed.
Luo was not supposed to die. He could be tortured, but he was not supposed to die. He had influential friends who paid the prison, but the officials’ response was: “We can release death row inmates with money, but not Falun Gong.”
On the fifth day, a young guard in his 20s pulled him aside. He said that he had children to feed, and that his job was on the line if Luo died. Out of a moment of compassion, Luo decided to end his strike.
His second arrest lasted 47 days.
In 2002, he was arrested for the third and final time.
He was taken to the Guang Dong San Sui labor camp. He was sentenced to two years, but they kept him there for 26 months.
The labor camp was in an unmarked, nameless building in the isolated district of San Sui. No one in the area knew what it was used for. Its walls were sound proofed. Screams went unheard.
The prisoners inside knew it was the last stop. It was known as the “center for people who refused to reform.”
Luo was forced to sit perfectly straight on a small stool from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. everyday. He had to sit so straight that his lower back ached as if it were splitting apart. He sat in a pool of sweat and could feel his buttocks rotting. The punishment lasted for six months.
For the next punishment, he was fed to the mosquitoes.
Naked, he was forced to enter a room full of mosquitoes. In the beginning, he would try to wave the mosquitoes away but after a while his arms grew heavy. All he could do was try not to look at the insects’ stomachs as they expanded with blood.
There, he lost track of time as he held tightly to his sanity. There was no light in the windowless room. He could not tell if it was night or day or how many days and nights had passed.
The walls of the mosquito room were stained with copious smears of blood. It was too much blood to belong to the bodies of smashed mosquitoes. It was most likely the blood of people who tried to commit suicide.
Luo said he recited Buddha Fa (law) scriptures to keep himself sane.
Perhaps due to his connections to important people, Luo was released in 2004.
He decided to stay below the radar. In 2011, the first chance he got, he left Beijing with his wife and they came to New York.
“It took some time getting used to an environment where you have the freedom to live,” Luo said.
For some months he still feared that each knock on the door, and each ring of the telephone, could mean death. For two months, he would panic whenever he noticed an unknown Asian person walking behind him.
But he found a purpose to his life again in a particular cooking competition.
He won first place in NTD Television’s International Chinese Culinary Competition in New York that year. The competition’s mission statement is to revive the art of traditional Chinese cuisine.
“I felt that there was something very meaningful about taking part in that,” he said. “It helped me take my mind off of me and my experiences in China, it made me feel that I can still contribute to a greater good for the world.”
He is currently working on writing a book about his three decades of culinary experiences in China, and he feels there is a healing process in that.
But for the most part, he said he is able to cook at peace because he is living in a place where eating is worthwhile.
NEW YORK—Sitting in front of a subway station column, his fingers dance across the strings of his umber violin. Nearby, construction workers unreel yellow caution tape, as sounds of rolling suitcases fill the hollow halls of Grand Central Terminal. But Jafari Sampson, a 19-year-old prodigy, hears silence amid the clamor.
“Silence gives me inspiration,” he said.
Sampson has always been good at finding silence. He spent most of his childhood in a quiet room with his violin, hearing different meanings of motifs as they repeat.
He grew up in the South Bronx, a place not renowned for its output of classical musicians. But when someone is born with a gift, it doesn’t matter where he is born.
Sampson not only has perfect pitch, but his ears can recognize which major a knock on a wall falls under.
He is currently studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, a school whose alumni have won a total of 231 Grammy Awards since it was founded in 1945.
For the past two years, whenever Sampson returns to New York during the holidays, he plays in the corridor between the shuttle and the No. 6 train platforms at Grand Central. He said it helps him with stage fright. But one can’t tell if he has any.
There is a richness in his sound that cannot be acquired from hard work alone.
In the station, he plays melodies that smoothly transition into a series of compelling movements. The piece is not composed by Beethoven, Sarasate, or John Williams. Sampson improvises, making the notes up as he goes along. He said perhaps he will call it the “Subway Song.”
Sampson is a musical genius who dreams of being a composer one day. He began learning the violin at age 12—a somewhat late age for a prodigy. Most have already been accepted into a conservatory by then.
It takes a lot to guide a late-discovered prodigy to a level that Sampson is at today. But he comes from a family with a history of endurance and a vision that sees beyond the veneer of physical realities.
A childhood in South Bronx did not yield many dulcet times.
“In the Bronx, you have to be strong and hold your own ground,” Sampson said. “Otherwise you could end up in the wrong hands.”
Sampson would arrive at school and find his classmates with new wounds, fresh from violent encounters from the night before. The school he attended allowed children to stay overnight if they felt it was too dangerous to walk home.
But during tough times, his grandfather was always a purveyor of wisdom.
His grandfather, Dr. Shellie Sampson Jr., is a reverend with a doctorate in Urban Education and Psychology, and has a number of other doctoral degrees as well.
Sampson said that although memories of segregation and church burnings probably remain in the recesses of his grandfather’s mind, he did not hear much about that part of his grandfather’s personal history. Instead, the focus has always been on the future and on the opportunities that Sampson has access to today.
For high school, Sampson went to the Putney School, an independent boarding high school in Vermont. It was there that he began to take group violin lessons.
Sampson said the first note he ever played sounded like a screaming cat. At the time, he thought he might not play again. But his teacher soon recognized he was developing at an unusual pace; he was a fecund player, a marvel.
“My teacher told me I needed to pursue this now, and follow it for the rest of my life,” he said.
Although his family is not musically inclined, his parents are elementary and middle school teachers in the Bronx who value hard work and the pursuit of one’s passion.
“They’re passionate about their work too, that’s probably where I get it from,” Sampson said. They have pushed him to practice several hours everyday.
“It turned out I enjoyed it, I enjoyed playing for hours and hours,” Sampson recalls.
Sampson remembers the first performance he attended at the New York Philharmonic, not long after learning the violin. They performed Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”; Sampson’s favorite is “Summer.”
After the show he got an autograph from the conductor, Lorin Maazel. He peered up at the ivory-haired conductor with soft eyes. At that moment, he realized that he wanted to be a professional violinist and that he could be one.
And so he goes on practicing and practicing, missing movies, games, and outings with friends. But what he gains is indelible.
His handwork has paid off at the Berklee School of Music where he met Alicia Keys, Victor Wooten, and even had a lengthy Skype call with Don Hahn, the producer of “The Lion King.”
“[Hahn] inspired me so much. … I felt that I could one day be where he was,” Sampson said. “There’s nothing to be afraid of because if it’s what you love, people will help you.” Sampson wants to compose for Disney films one day.
“Had I not worked so hard, I wouldn’t have met these people,” he said.
What Sampson learns from music lessons, he applies to more than his performance.
“Life makes sense if you think about it,” he said. “You can eat an elephant one bite at a time. Everything is simple if you take it at face value.”
“You’re not going to learn a piece all in one day, you break it up section by section, phrase by phrase, and note by note,” he said. “That’s how it is in life too.”
His teachers often tell him to play louder, which Sampson interprets as a lesson for his demeanor as well.
“I used to be always nervous that my ideas were never enough for people,” he said. “To really get respect from other people is something I had to overcome and learn. I had to learn how to speak up.”
But to speak or play pompously is not the way to be heard either in his view.
“The ego is what takes away the blessing and inspirations,” Sampson said. “Before you played out of love, but when people get worshiped they forget what it’s about.”
He recalls when he was discovered for his talent there were moments he thought it felt good to be better than other people.
“As soon as I had those thoughts, I stopped being able to express myself, to play the way that I did before,” he said. “It happened almost immediately.”
He says when he becomes a famous composer one day, he will make sure not to become egotistical; he will remain the same quiet boy who listens to the beauty of silences.
“My grandfather always told me that anything is possible if there is a purpose behind it,” Sampson said. “I think my purpose is to share what I love, my music, with the world.”
NEW YORK—For decades, Jacqueline van Maarsen told no one. She did not want people to know she was Anne Frank’s best friend. As much as Anne Frank’s diary was about a girl who was eager to live, to talk about Anne Frank was to remember that she was dead. And to remember that Anne Frank was dead, was to remember that van Maarsen’s aunts, uncles, cousins, and most of her classmates were dead.
After the second world war, van Maarsen salvaged what she could of her life and tried to move on. She married a childhood friend, had three children, and worked as a successful bookbinder in Amsterdam.
“I told my children not to tell their friends at school that their mother was Anne Frank’s friend,” she said. “If people knew they would always ask me questions.”
The mention of Anne Frank would unleash a deluge of disturbing images in her mind: A shivering, bald Anne dying of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp; van Maarsen’s favorite young cousins slowly writhing to death in a gas chamber in the Sobibór extermination camp.
“I did not want to think about these things all the time,” she said.
She knew she would not be able to handle the public’s questions about Anne Frank because she could barely handle the inquiries from Otto Frank, Anne Frank’s father.
To the grief-stricken father, van Maarsen was a conduit for Anne Frank’s psyche.
Around two months after the second world war ended, a rail-thin Otto Frank showed up at van Maarsen’s house in Amsterdam.
“It was so strange to see him after all that time, to see him without Anne,” she recalled.
Otto Frank would visit the 16-year-old van Maarsen frequently to talk about his dead daughter. He cried often and unabashedly during their talks.
It was a friendship between two little girls. An accident, almost.
“I did not want to talk to him. It was painful. But my mother told me to keep talking to him because he wanted to talk to me so much,” van Maarsen said. “I think to him, Anne Frank was still alive in my mind.”
For the rest of his life, Otto Frank would continue to ask van Maarsen questions about Anne.
What would Anne Frank be doing today if she were alive?
“Otto Frank always asked that,” van Maarsen said. “He always asked that. But the truth is, I don’t know.”
Van Maarsen didn’t believe that she was anyone special. It was a friendship between two little girls. An accident, almost.
Ever since her childhood friend’s diary gained international fame, van Maarsen has been struggling with her own identity.
Should she only be known as Anne Frank’s best friend for the rest of her life, or should she be her own individual? Having been Anne Frank’s last best friend, what responsibilities did that entail?
These were questions she struggled with for nearly a lifetime. She thought of their initial meeting often.
Van Maarsen, 86, can still remember the first time when she heard Anne Frank’s voice.
“Jacqueline!” a voice called from behind as van Maarsen was riding her bike along the Amstel dyke in Amsterdam.
Van Maarsen had just finished her first day at the segregated Jewish school and was biking home.
It was September 1941. Anti-Semitism had yet to reach its peak in the Netherlands.
At age 12, van Maarsen had not yet realized that everyone at her new school was Jewish. A new school only meant new friends.
Van Maarsen turned around. A skinny girl with voluminous black hair was pedaling wildly to catch up to her.
“Are you going that way also? the girl asked, pointing to the Berlage Bridge.
Van Maarsen nodded.
“Then the two of us will ride home together from now on. I live on Merwedeplein square,” the girl said assertively.
“My name is Anne,” the girl added. “Anne Frank.”
During that first ride home, Anne Frank told van Maarsen everything about herself. Who her friends were. Which girls she liked and which girls she didn’t.
Van Maarsen was painfully shy. She liked Anne Frank’s chutzpah.
Within the first week of their friendship, Anne Frank declared van Maarsen as her best friend.
“I don’t know what she saw in me,” van Maarsen said. “She was talking all the time and told me everything.”
Van Maarsen spent most of her afternoons and evenings at Anne Frank’s house. It helped her to avoid the tension at home between her Christian mother and Jewish father. Her mother wanted to remove their children from the Jewish registry in Amsterdam. Her father disapproved.
Her mother would later indeed do just that—which saved van Maarsen during the Holocaust.
To avoid the fighting at home, van Maarsen went to Anne Frank’s house for movie nights. Since Jews were banned from movie theaters, they’d create pretend movie tickets from Otto Frank’s typewriter.
“We had very similar ideas,” van Maarsen said. They both loved reading “Joop ter Heul,” a fiction series about a peppy teenage girl.
They had told each other everything.
When van Maarsen later read Anne Frank’s diary manuscripts, she realized that it had been written in the style of Joop ter Heul. And that Jopie, the heroine in the series, was van Maarsen’s pseudonym in Anne Frank’s diary.
The girls were 12 and they were inseparable. They liked boys and they liked Shirley Temple. They’d act out a marriage proposal scene from their favorite book. They formed their identities around each other.
There are times when van Maarsen could not tell whether a memory was from her own recollection or from Anne Frank’s diary. They had told each other everything. There were things that she’d forgotten but remembered by reading the diary.
Anne Frank told her everything, except that she was going into hiding in 1942.
She simply asked van Maarsen for a photo of herself. But van Maarsen did not have one and did not think she was asking because they would never see each other again.
Anne Frank’s sudden disappearance created a void. “When she left I felt so lonely because we were so close,” van Maarsen said.
Anne Frank wrote her a goodbye letter, which never got delivered to van Maarsen because it was too dangerous to mail letters while in hiding.
“I hope that we will always be best friends, until we meet again,” the letter said. Anne Frank copied the letter in her diary.
Anne Frank pretended that van Maarsen responded and wrote a second letter in her diary, saying she was happy to hear from van Maarsen and asked her to pick up her books, notebooks, and games from her old house and keep it safe for her.
Van Maarsen didn’t know about these letters until after the war, when Otto Frank showed her the diary.
The diary was too painful to read more than once. But she memorized her best friend’s letters to her.
In the late ’80s, four decades after Anne Frank’s death, van Maarsen began to regret her reticence.
As much as van Maarsen did not want her identity to be as the best friend of a Holocaust victim, that was who she was.
If keeping Anne Frank’s memory alive could play some small role in preventing future genocides, then it was her duty to do so. She felt that Anne Frank, somewhere up in the ethers, would want her to talk.
In the 21st century, when ethnic cleansing and religious persecution continue to occur in places such as China, Syria, and the Central African Republic, van Maarsen feels it is even more relevant for people to care about Anne Frank’s story.
She felt that Anne Frank, somewhere up in the ethers, would want her to talk.
Although the Holocaust ended in 1945, the Cambodian genocide still occurred in 1975, and the Rwandan genocide in 1994, and the Sudanese genocide in 2003, and the ongoing persecution of Falun Gong in present-day China, just to name a few mass killings.
“I hear stories about what happens around the world and it depresses me,” she said.
Since 1987, van Maarsen has been traveling to give speeches about Anne Frank in different schools in Germany and the United States. She has written four books about their friendship, and appeared in a 2008 documentary about Anne Frank.
As sprightly tunes from the Roaring Twenties played in the clubroom of a boutique hotel in Manhattan, van Maarsen, 86, tried hard to stay awake in spite of the jet lag.
In late May, van Maarsen flew from Amsterdam to New York City to speak at the Champion of Jewish Values International Awards Gala.
Traveling is onerous these days. Van Maarsen had a stroke last year. It was difficult to walk.
She pushed both hands slowly against her walker and lifted herself, standing a little straighter.
Her husband, who survived the Holocaust by separating from his parents at age 12 to go into hiding with a Christian family in the eastern Netherlands, held her arm to support her as they made their way through their hotel.
Despite physical pains, van Maarsen was still traveling and giving as many interviews as she could to make up for lost time. She’s attended just about every public event she was invited to speak at.
“I’m amazed,” Sanders said. “I tell her all the time she is working too hard. She should rest more.”
She arrived 15 minutes late to the interview because she accidentally dozed off in her hotel room.
But sometimes she and her husband wondered if there was a purpose to their endeavors.
“People could learn from Anne Frank. About peace, how important it is,” Sanders said. “But I don’t know if they do.”
“That is something that strikes me a lot,” he said. “Mankind has done awful things for thousands of years. Every new generation hopes and strives to not have that happen. Unfortunately we see time and again, humankind does not change.”
Even though van Maarsen knew her efforts were not likely going to bring world peace, she kept going anyway.
Each time she was asked to speak at an event or do an interview, she’d ask herself if Anne Frank would want her to do this. The answer was always yes.
After all, Anne Frank had written in her diary: “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
NEW YORK—When John Cosentino was left alone, he ate. He ate cigarette butts. He ate the padding from chairs. He ate screws. He had once eaten so many inedible objects that he had to throw up a gory spew of screws, plastic, and feces. The plastic that he’d eaten from his chair cover had tangled his colon, which prevented him from excreting.
John Cosentino, 49, is a wan, tall man with chestnut hair and soft eyes. He has severe behavioral disorders such as aggression, autism, and pica, a disorder that causes him to eat inedible items.
John Cosentino is one of the many adults living in locked down residential units at the Brooklyn Developmental Center (BDC) in East New York who suffers from a severe developmental disorder. To ensure their safety, they need a structured life and 24-hour care by highly trained professionals. For the most part, they receive that at BDC. But BDC is slated to close in December 2015.
Propelled by a 1999 Supreme Court decision that favored integrated settings for people with mental disabilities, psychiatric hospitals and developmental centers have been closing or consolidating nationwide in order to transition patients into more humane, community-based homes that encourage independence. For many patients, it is a welcome change.
But John Cosentino belongs to a small subset of developmentally disabled people who cannot handle independent living. They make up 5 percent of developmentally disabled adults, and their needs are often overlooked. His parents, Mary Ann and Anthony Cosentino, had to win court approval before they could get the 24-hour, one-to-one direct care that his diagnosis requires.
Anthony Cosentino, 73, a veteran with hearing loss, is panic-stricken.
He is not against his son living in a group home if the necessary care is provided. He is on edge because although the closure is a year and a half away, there is little information about where the patients will go and what kind of services they will receive.
Recently, senior management at BDC suggested that Anthony Cosentino and his wife should take a tour of two of the best group homes nearby. If he liked it, his son could move in immediately.
They visited two in East New York. The homes looked lovely. One had a green lawn, a cozy lounge area, and a patio for barbecuing. Residents sat in peace watching television.
Residents there have learned to do their own laundry and push their own wheelchairs, which they need for longer, outdoor strolls.
But John Cosentino’s condition requires him to sleep in a single bedroom. The home has no single rooms available, a staff member told Epoch Times. Also, the environment is not suitable for a person with pica.
“We have to work overtime sometimes due to the shortage of staff. Our current residents have behavioral problems. Sometimes they hit staff. Sometimes they fall in the tub,” said an employee who did not wish to be named. “We cannot handle pica.”
“These are supposedly the two best ones near BDC, but neither are pica-free,” or environments without ingestible items, Anthony Cosentino said. “And there is no plan.”
According to Anthony Cosentino, BDC is not planning to relocate its employees to continue to work with John Cosentino after its closure. BDC declined to speak to the press.
The state has agreed to set up permanent services for residents and clients with severe disabilities before the mental health centers close, but it is still not clear what those services are.
“OPWDD will assess the need for additional state-operated services and take action to address those needs,” said Jennifer O’Sullivan, the communications director for the New York State Office for People With Developmental Disabilities.
There is another group home in East New York that is currently under renovation. It’s a quaint, three-story building that is across the street from a housing project and next door to the Brooklyn Scholars Charter School, which serves children from kindergarten to the eighth grade.
“I personally don’t think that is safe,” Anthony Cosentino said.
A bill called the Freeze Unsafe Closures Now Act, sponsored by state Sen. Tom Libous and Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo, called for a three-year moratorium on the closures of all mental health facilities. Its premise is that the state needs more time to understand and arrange the services necessary for the transition to group homes.
The bill was passed in the Senate on June 17. Libous and Gov. Andrew Cuomo reached an agreement before the Assembly voted on it. The agreement allots funding for community services and safeguards against potentially dangerous releases. A framework for long-term planning was also established to prevent a dangerous repeat of history where deinstitutionalization led to unintended consequences.
The closures will now go forth according to the original time line.
The movement to transition individuals with developmental disabilities or mental illness out of institutions and into the community, also known as deinstitutionalization, began as early as the 1950s.
“Deinstitutionalization endangers the greater community, but it also means that those individuals who have mental and developmental illnesses are not getting the proper care they need,” former City Council member Charles Barron, who protested the closures, said in a statement.
Mental Health America confirms that there is a small group of mentally ill adults who cannot handle living in a group home.
According to think tank Mental Illness Policy, the unnecessary release of patients from psychiatric hospitals has led to an increase in homelessness and violence. Those for whom deinstitutionalization has failed are increasingly readmitted to hospitals.
While those with developmental disorders—such as autism, Down syndrome, or cerebral palsy—are not mentally ill, similar worries exist about the possibly dangerous effects of institutional closures.
There is concern that the closures may lead to an increase in imprisonment, according to a memo attached to the bill.
There is currently a building in BDC that is surrounded by barbed wire. It houses sex offenders with developmental disorders, Epoch Times confirmed with a visit. Many were previously imprisoned on Rikers Island.
In 1999, a Supreme Court case changed the course for history for Americans with mental disabilities.
In the Olmstead case, the Supreme Court ruled that the unnecessary institutionalization of the developmentally disabled violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The ruling stated that those with disabilities, including mental disabilities, should receive support in the most integrated setting possible.
The suit was filed on behalf of two patients in Georgia who remained confined in a state psychiatric hospital although their doctors had said they could live in a community setting.
But New York state began transitioning people out of developmental centers as early as the 1970s, when there were 27,000 people housed in developmental institutions, according to OPWDD.
There are 126,000 New Yorkers with developmental disabilities, including cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and autism spectrum disorders.
Since the 1970s, 14 developmental institutions have closed. Roughly 1,000 people remain in institutions today.
Cuomo plans to close the four remaining developmental centers by 2017, including BDC in Brooklyn and the Bernard Fineson in Queens.
The impending closure keeps Anthony Cosentino up at night, for he remembers when John Cosentino first began to hurt himself. At age 9, he smacked himself over 600 times in one sitting. His face swelled to the point where his doting parents could not recognize him at the hospital.
“He looked like Mike Tyson after a bad fight,” Anthony Cosentino said. “That’s when our world turned upside down.”
John Cosentino was born in 1964 at Fort Bragg, N.C. He began to walk at 14 months. There was no sign that he had a developmental disorder until age 2, when he had yet to talk.
Anthony Cosentino never forgot the sound of the soft patter of falling drops, when a representative from a behavioral modification school suggested that his 4-year-old son should be sent to Willowbrook State School on Staten Island so that Anthony Cosentino could move on with his life.
Anthony Cosentino cupped his hands to his face and grew quiet. “It’s still hard for me to talk about that day,” he said.
Willowbrook, an institution for children with intellectual disabilities, closed down in 1987 due to a public outcry over inhumane conditions. It was the first mental institution to close in New York, and it led to federal civil rights legislation protecting people with disabilities.
Anthony Cosentino could not bear to send his son there, so he contacted group homes from Maine to Florida to search for an appropriate mental health facility that would care for his son. But none would accept or keep a boy with such severe developmental disorders. The group homes did not have the capacity to keep his son safe as his condition worsened.
It wasn’t until age 14 that John was accepted into the newly opened BDC, which his parents call a miracle. For people like their son, BDC is their last resort.
On the BDC campus, there are open green spaces, picnic tables, and genial staff. Inside, photos of a Special Olympics, summer jam outdoor concerts, and annual Halloween and New Year’s parties decorate the walls.
There is a gym for recreational activities, a rehabilitation room, and a “pals room” where patients sit and socialize. There is a room for vocational evaluation and training.
Employees and family members said BDC is no Willowbrook. In fact, it’s most necessary for the severely developmentally disabled.
“My daughter is 40. I’ve been through it all and I know what’s best for her,” said Barbara Harris, whose daughter has been at BDC for the past 11 years. “There’s no one-care-for-all system.”
Harris’s daughter had attempted to live in a group home, but the appropriate care was not provided. “She has multiple diagnoses and needs a structured environment,” Harris said. “At the group home she was in and out of psychiatric hospitals for a whole year.”
For the past 35 years, John Cosentino had come to think of BDC as home.
John Cosentino walks about 50 yards from his room to his program. “John’s wing is like a group home,” Anthony Cosentino said.
He visits his parents’ house once a month. His mother cooks him a lovely, big meal. But once, when John Cosentino did not see the BDC van pulling up on the driveway at the designated time, he began to bang his head violently at the doorway.
“Some with developmental disorders need structure more than they need freedom,” said Dr. William Lybarger, who specializes in behavioral disorders. “Freedom is not freedom for everyone.”
Renee Fulton, who has a son at BDC, is beginning to have mixed feelings. “BDC is now short of staff because they are closing,” she said. “But my biggest concern is that group homes won’t provide 24-hour supervision. My son’s diagnosis requires that.”
A week ago, John Cosentino experienced a violent episode at BDC.
Three safety officers intervened, along with Anthony Cosentino and five staff from the crisis team. John Cosentino was sedated. The following week, he had another episode.
Emergency 911 was called and he was hospitalized at Kings County Psych Emergency.
“If BDC can’t handle John at times, and they are staffed, how can an undermanned staff at a group home do it?” Anthony Cosentino said.
Anthony Cosentino, sleeping four hours a night, spends the bulk of his time petitioning on Change.org, contacting politicians, and researching homes.
At this point, he may try sending his son to Bernard Fineson in Queens, albeit that facility is slated to close in 2017. He said he is willing to try anything to buy more time, to make sure the right care will be provided for his son in a group home.
As he drove home on the Belt Parkway, reflecting on the day’s events, he switched a lane and forgot to turn off his left turn signal for some time.
“This hasn’t been an easy period,” he said. “We fear for John’s safety when BDC closes. I’m afraid someone is going to die.”
NEW YORK—There were only a few hours before Christmas was over. Nicole Hamilton sped along the familiar barren highway to get home in time to open presents with her sons before midnight. She had spent the day visiting her husband in prison—a husband whom most of her family and friends did not know she had.
They had fallen in love under inauspicious circumstances.
Every weekend—for 18 years—Nicole Hamilton sacrificed her time and money to visit a man whom she had only known for a year before he went to prison. She drove around 100,000 miles a year to go back and forth between Brooklyn and his various correctional facilities upstate.
Out of the few close friends she told, some were supportive, while others strongly opposed. But she married him anyway on a nondescript weekday in 2005.
Nicole Hamilton, 34 at the time, pushed aside her old girlish dreams of splashy boutonnières and ivory gowns, as she and Derrick Hamilton signed their papers in a lackluster room inside the Attica Correctional Facility. It was the same room where inmates took their ID photos when they first entered prison.
She began visiting Derrick Hamilton as a friend when he was arrested in 1991 for a murder he did not commit. By 1993, most of his other friends and family stopped checking up on him, she said.
A thought seized her conscience: How can one leave an innocent man in prison for the rest of his life?
“There were just so many things about his case that did not add up,” Nicole Hamilton said. “It did not make sense for him to have a 25-to-life sentence. Maybe it was my curiosity, wanting to see this one through.”
She took it as her responsibility to see him every weekend, just to make sure he was doing all right; over the next two decades they became each other’s worlds.
Little did she know, her emotional support throughout the years would make all the difference for Hamilton, who was wrongfully convicted of murder at age 24 and exonerated at age 50.
Although he was released early on parole three years ago, he continued to fight for his innocence. Her support allowed him to become a self-taught paralegal in prison, secure a retrial, and obtain exoneration on Jan. 9. Lawyers call his case an anomaly that may change how U.S. courts perceive exonerations.
Nicole Hamilton learned just how easy it was to wrongfully convict someone and how hard it was to reverse a verdict. For years, she’d often go to work early and skip lunch in order to file her husband’s motions with the court. But one after another, the motions were denied.
In the last 26 years U.S. courts have exonerated just 1,536 prisoners, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
Yet at least 20,000 innocent people are currently imprisoned across the nation, according to the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal clinic affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, the law school of Yeshiva University in New York.
False convictions are not as uncommon as one would think. An eyewitness misidentifies a suspect. A detective twists forensic science. A lawyer tells an innocent defendant to plead guilty to save them both time and money. Any of the above reasons, or a combination of them, has resulted in wrongful life sentences for at least 2 percent of prisoners across the nation, according to the Innocence Project.
Yet courts are often hesitant to give wrongful conviction cases a retrial.
“Looking at old cases is time consuming and expensive,” said Ekow Yankah, a professor at Cardozo School of Law who specializes in criminal law. “While lawyers understand that at some point cases need a finality, I think most people are taken aback when they hear that real evidence of actual innocence is not enough for [lawyers] to invest in cases.”
Most people who are wrongfully convicted do not have money to hire good lawyers in the first place. Lawyers rarely provide pro bono legal representation, as the chances of securing a retrial are so low.
“Some lawyers asked for $75,000, and half up front,” Nicole Hamilton said.
One reason old cases are not retried more often is the Double Jeopardy Clause in the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which does not allow retrials after a conviction. The law was designed to protect an individual from being tried multiple times for an alleged offense.
The Catch-22 is that it prevents retrials as well when the conviction is wrong.
Retrials are also believed to hurt the public’s confidence in the justice system.
Yet what is most troubling about Derrick Hamilton’s case is not the unlikelihood of an innocent exoneration, but how easily one can be wrongfully convicted.
The following account of the events that led to Hamilton’s wrongful conviction is taken from papers written by Derrick and Nicole Hamilton based on police and court records.
On the dead-cold morning of Jan. 4, 1991, when a red Pontiac pulled up beside 15-year-old Tasheen Douglas, she saw familiar faces in the car: Amir “YaYa” Johnson, Willie “MoneyWill” Dawson, and a man she knew as Dequan.
They told Douglas they were on their way to see Nathaniel Cash, whom Johnson had a conflict with.
They drove to Cash’s apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Dawson called Cash to come downstairs for a talk inside the building’s vestibule. The conversation grew tense: emotions heightened and then snapped.
Cash slapped Johnson across the face and Johnson pulled out a pistol and fired the gun one, two, three, four, five, six times.
Cash slapped Johnson across the face and Johnson pulled out a pistol and fired the gun one, two, three, four, five, six times.
Three bullets hit Cash but he remained standing. He limped outside and was going down the steps toward the street when Dawson, still in the building, shot Cash in the back and killed him.
Someone called 911 at 11:01 a.m. A male was shot at 215 Monroe St., and three black males were fleeing in a red Pontiac. The police arrived at the crime scene at 11:04 a.m. and found a trembling woman kneeling over Cash’s warm body, crying.
Detective Frank Delouisa questioned the woman. She was Cash’s girlfriend. She said her name was Karen Smith. She had gone to the corner store at 10:25 a.m. When she returned, she found Cash dead outside.
But the woman’s name was not Karen Smith. She was Jewel Smith. Jewel Smith was on parole and did not want to get involved with another crime.
Dawson, the killer who had stayed behind, came out of his hiding place and began telling onlookers and police that Derrick Hamilton shot Cash.
Dawson, the killer who had stayed behind, came out of his hiding place and began telling onlookers and police that Derrick Hamilton shot Cash.
Smith, frantic, began repeating the same name to Detective Delouisa.
Dawson was murdered two months later. His death remains a cold case.
“He didn’t have a grudge against me. I believe he just wanted to throw the police in the wrong direction,” Hamilton said. “He most likely did not think I would actually get convicted.”
Most likely not since Derrick Hamilton was 78 miles away from the crime scene on that morning, at a Quality Inn Hotel in New Haven, Conn. He had gone to a friend’s goodbye party the night before, where he laughed and danced to the thump-thump, thump-thump of Hip Hop and Reggae played by an eccentric DJ who occasionally threw in rock songs.
The good vibes were still with Derrick Hamilton when his friend Kim Freeman, who was in New Haven with him, received a phone call. She was told the father of her child—Cash—was dead.
They did not believe the news at first. Derrick Hamilton and Cash grew up together in the Lafayette housing projects. He remembered Cash as a kindred soul who was always the first to buy the boys’ drinks after a basketball game. Who would kill Cash?
Who would kill Cash?
Then Freeman received a call from her mother. The police were at their house. And they said the killer was Derrick Hamilton.
Freeman told her mother that it was impossible because he was with her in New Haven during the time of the murder.
Derrick Hamilton was positive that the ordeal would be resolved soon. He had witnesses. He had hotel records.
By the time Hamilton went on trial in the Kings County Supreme Court in 1992, Detective Delouisa had retired and Detective Louis Scarcella, a star detective famous for getting copious convictions in Brooklyn in the ’80s and ’90s, had taken over the case.
There was a reason why Scarcella got so many convictions. Many said he threatened and bribed his witnesses.
According to court papers, Scarcella told Smith that if she did not accuse Hamilton she would be convicted for the crime herself and lose custody of her children.
Smith identified Hamilton as the gunman during trial. Smith went on to describe the murder, saying Cash was shot by one person as he was running up the stairs. But the ballistics evidence showed that Cash was running down the stairs and shot by two guns.
The defense had listed two alibi witnesses, but neither were called. Alibi evidence was not revealed to the jury either.
The defense had listed two alibi witnesses, but neither were called. Alibi evidence was not revealed to the jury either.
According to court papers, the jury believed Karen and Jewel Smith were two different witnesses. While Jewel Smith recanted her testimony a few days before Hamilton was sentenced to 25 years to life—Karen Smith did not.
As a response to Hamilton’s exoneration, Scarcella’s lawyers released a statement stating, “To date there has been no finding by any judge, nor has there been a statement by any prosecutor, to sustain the sensational claims that have appeared in the press that Detective Scarcella contributed to any person’s wrongful conviction.”
Not all innocence cases are equal. It depends on whether it’s a DNA case or a non-DNA case.
DNA analyses of particles such as skin tissue, hair, and semen are used to link criminals to crimes. But it only has been widely accepted in courts in the last 10 years.
Out of the lawyers who do take on innocence cases, most would only take on DNA cases. The Innocence Project, for example, only accepts DNA cases. It’s much easier to prove than a non-DNA case because it brings in new evidence.
Hamilton’s exoneration was rare because it was a non-DNA case, and it only used old evidence in court.
Another exceptional aspect of his case was that it was able to prove false testimony. Recantations are generally considered unreliable, especially without DNA evidence.
“His case erases all the procedural bars that courts used to use to decide difficult cases,” said Scott Brettschneider, one of Hamilton’s lawyers. “Hamilton’s case opens doors for cases that don’t involve DNA, cases surrounding police misconduct, evidence of people who have recanted.”
“You can point to Hamilton’s case and say this is what people are looking at now,” said Oscar Michelen, an attorney who exonerated three men in separate cases over the last 12 years. “We need a larger system. And the more you can point to cases like Hamilton’s and my clients’ cases, the more hope there is.”
Hamilton did not lose hope. For 21 years, he read law books for at least six hours a day. He constantly reached out to lawyers and filed motions.
Although his concentration on learning law kept him occupied, he could not ignore the loneliness he felt in prison.
Derrick Hamilton’s mother and brother died while he was behind bars. He did not get to attend their funerals.
His first wife left him after he was sentenced because she stopped believing in his innocence, he recalled more than two decades later at a restaurant in Queens. He lifted up his large hands to cover his eyes and remained silent for some time. “To have your wife, after all those years, ask you why you killed that man …” he trailed off.
It was all the more important that Nicole Hamilton persevered during those years, driving 16 hours every weekend to see him. “She was the one person I could depend on,” he said.
But it was difficult for Nicole Hamilton to maintain morale, as she watched her husband’s psychological condition deteriorated over time. She recalled the day he began repeating things to himself. He would say every sentence four times before he let her speak.
He was no longer conscious of his repetitions, even when he spoke to her in a silent room. He developed that habit because it was too loud in prison. Inmates endlessly banged their trays, bowls, spoons, sometimes their own fists and heads, on walls out of boredom and rage. One had to repeat oneself many times to be heard in prison.
Nicole Hamilton’s love kept him sane, he said, so that he could do the unthinkable. He and a group of intelligent inmates formed a paralegal team to fight for their exonerations.
In a humid, hue-less library about the size of three standard bedrooms, Derrick Hamilton and seven other inmates at Auburn Correctional Facility poured over law journals, researched legal databases, and printed copies of transcripts from trials.
It was an exclusive group of wrongfully convicted prisoners who met once a week in the prison’s library. They didn’t help fellow inmates unless there was sufficient evidence of innocence.
“Time was everything to me because I was working on my own case,” Hamilton said.
He wrote to many lawyers about his case, and some gave him feedback on his motions.
He corresponded with Brettschneider through handwritten letters for 18 years. He did not have email in prison.
Over the years, around a hundred inmates have tried to work on their cases in the library, coming in for a day or two, getting excited over an inconsistency in their case, and then giving up all together. The chance of exoneration was bleak.
“But every time you did hear about a case of exoneration it was like drinking an energy drink,” said Daniel Rincon, the founder of the self-taught paralegals group, over the phone when he called from Five Points Correctional Facility.
In 1995, Rincon was sentenced to 158 years to life for a quadruple murder committed by members of Bronx’s Red Top gang. But Rincon said he was not a part of the Red Top gang. In fact, he was a part of its rival crew, and he was not there when the murders occurred.
Rincon submitted statements from members who participated in the quadruple murder stating that Rincon was not involved. He is currently waiting for a hearing.
Lawyers say prosecutors often don’t take innocence cases seriously when the person has been previously convicted or associated with other crimes.
Lawyers say prosecutors often don’t take innocence cases seriously when the person has been previously convicted or associated with other crimes.
It was the case with Hamilton, for he had previously gone to prison for seven years for manslaughter.
“It is regrettable to hear [prosecutors] say if someone is a bad guy it doesn’t make a difference whether we got him on the right crime,” Brettschneider said. “That’s not the right way to ensure justice.”
A major reason why Hamilton was able to get exonerated was because of Kenneth Thompson, the Brooklyn district attorney (DA).
Thompson is Brooklyn’s first African-American DA. He defeated incumbent Charles Hynes in the Democratic primary in 2013, making him the first challenger to defeat a sitting DA in Brooklyn since 1911.
Since taking office, he has made at least one significant change to how the Brooklyn DA office operates.
He set up a Conviction Review Unit, which is currently examining 100 wrongful-conviction claims, many of which occurred while Hynes was in office.
Thompson’s office has reversed seven wrongful convictions so far, marking a notable shift from his predecessor’s attitude toward exonerations.
“Ninety-nine percent of the evidence we presented to Hynes’ office were unmoved unless we found the killer,” said Michelen. “Thompson’s office has taken a different tactic.”
In light of Hamilton’s appeal, the Conviction Review Unit began investigating around 70 of Scarcella’s cases. Scarcella was the detective for four of the seven overturned cases.
That was able to happen because Thompson’s office is a new administration, and it was willing to look at the past administration’s mistakes.
“There should always be someone from the outside looking at cases,” said Michelen.
“Most of these cases are headed by prosecutors still working in the DA’s office,” he said. “There should at least be a voice from someone unconnected to the office, someone who is not afraid to hurt the office’s appearance.”
There has been a gradual change across the country. In 2007, a North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission was created to examine wrongful convictions. It is the first of its kind in the country because the commission is separate from the appeals process, according to its website.
The game changer, however, was the Troy Davis case in 2011. Davis was the first innocence case that got approved for an evidentiary hearing, mainly because it drew support from figures such as former President Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Pope Benedict XVI.
Davis was executed before he could get a retrial. But the fact that he was granted an evidentiary hearing made Hamilton’s retrial and conviction reversal possible.
Hamilton’s case, a successful non-DNA exoneration with no new evidence, will open more doors as long as more DA offices create integrity units.
“It would be shameful if other DA offices don’t follow suit,” Michelen said. “I’m hopeful.”
Today, Hamilton feels that time cannot be wasted on finding parking in New York City when the wrongfully convicted are depending on him. He walked over to his red Ford Flex and found yet another ticket. “I already got a ticket so I can stay as long as I want,” he said, returning to his office.
When Hamilton got out on parole, former inmates advised him to get a construction job. When Hamilton said he wanted to be a paralegal, they laughed.
Yet Brettschneider helped Hamilton get a job as a paralegal at NOVO Law Firm, which has taken on 20 innocence cases.
“My knowledge will never be as strong as Derrick’s,” Brettschneider said, noting that inmates make confessions to one another in prison. “A lot of these cases are 30 years old, and he has lived through them. He knows who the real killers are.”
Four days a week, Derrick Hamilton commutes three hours from his home in Bensalem, Pa.—where he lives with his wife and their 2-year-old daughter—to New York City to work on innocence cases.
Derrick Hamilton spends his time writing drafts for motions, knocking on doors, interviewing old witnesses, and getting at the truth.
Strangers who believe they are wrongfully convicted call Hamilton for advice. His cellphone rings every few minutes and his voicemail is perpetually full.
Hamilton always says this is going to be the last case, and then he gets a call and he can’t refuse. “It’s really hard to say no,” he said. “What if he really is innocent? I don’t want to do to him what they did to me.”
He does what he can to save time, making new calls on his cellphone before he finishes a conversation on his landline. Sometimes one can catch the end of his last conversation when he calls.
But he does not appear stressed. He has a friendly disposition: warm, alert eyes, and a resounding laugh that ends in a staccato chuckle when something is really funny.
Since his exoneration, he hasn’t taken a vacation. He has to make sure the cases are all moving forward before he can take time off.
Derrick and Nicole Hamilton plan on going on their first vacation to Florida in March.
“I’m going to see Micky Mouse Club House!” their 2-year-old daughter Maia Hamilton shouted and giggled.