Early Tuesday morning, tragedy struck the Brooklyn neighborhood of Sunset Park when a gunman exploded a smoke bomb at 36th Street Station and opened fire on passengers, shooting ten and injuring 16 others. As a former resident of Sunset Park who commuted daily from the station where the shooting took place, I’m acutely aware of how violence of this nature can inflict lasting, intimate, and communal harm. As Qian Julie Wang noted, the subway is the artery of NYC and every attack like this “drains the lifeblood of our home.”
Sunset Park is a remarkable neighborhood: it is a hub for working class immigrants (nearly half of its residents are foreign-born Asian, Latinx, etc.), home to the largest non-citizen community in Brooklyn, and a place with a deep commitment to movement organizing and mutual aid. During the Trump administration, Sunset Park regularly made news when—including during peak months of the pandemic—it was a highly visible target of ICE raids. At the height of the raids, community-based efforts by organizations like Sunset Park ICE Watch published to-the-minute updates to help undocumented community members avoid entrapment and deportation. In the summer of 2020, amidst the racial reckoning around the country, Sunset Park was once again in the spotlight when local organizers demanded the immediate shutdown of the Metropolitan Detention Center, the federal prison mere blocks from Industry City, after Jamel Floyd was found pepper sprayed to death in his cell. Over the years, local organizers have employed a host of tactics to bring attention to the prison’s abuse of solitary confinement, freezing conditions in the winter of 2019, and mismanaged COVID response. Jamel Floyd’s death came just one week after the police killing of George Floyd, to whom he held no relation.
In many ways, Sunset Park demonstrates what an unshakable force a community united under a shared vision can be. Sadly, it is also a neighborhood where nearly 20 percent of the residents live below the poverty line (5 percent higher than the overall poverty rate of NYC). Like many neighborhoods, it is currently engaged in struggle against gentrification, displacement, and overreaching real estate development. Sunset Park is a quintessential New York City story: a vibrant, politically engaged, and, in many ways, thriving community that is fighting to retain its culture and identity against the interests of developers and politicians who would see it go the way of many a Brooklyn neighborhood before it.
While the nightmare of this mass shooting—the latest manifestation of this country’s gun violence epidemic—has come to a close, only time will tell how long we'll feel its reverberations. I can't help but be frightened by the eagerness of the Adams administration (and corporate media) to spin this tragedy to push for more police funding and to further ramp up NYPD presence in the MTA, especially as the timing aligns with the city’s budgetary negotiations.
In the wake of this shooting, mayor Adams is promising to double police presence on the MTA. Since its election, his administration has already put an additional 1,000 cops on the subway, resulting in a 64% increase in transit arrests—350 of which were for fare evasion (which we know costs $1,750 per arrest and, according to the NYPD's own reporting, have almost exclusively impacted Black and Latinx New Yorkers). Summons have skyrocketed, with a whopping 17,000 for fare evasion, 400 for smoking, and 600 for seat obstructing.
By the city’s own acknowledgment, units are mainly focusing on "minor crimes" – smoking, seat obstruction, urination, etc. Transit Chief Jason Wilcox has, in as many words, advocated a broken windows policing model on the MTA: “So are we giving greater attention, greater detail, to lower-level offenses? Yes we are. And we’re doing that to make people feel safe and improve safety in the transit system.”
The NYPD is a rogue agency with an effective $11 billion budget (one of the only agencies to not see a cut under the mayor's proposed budget), a figure which, if the city were a country, would make it 24th largest military spender in the world. The agency operates a sprawling network of surveillance technology and boasts of its police "omnipresence" on the city’s subway. And yet it was reportedly not the NYPD’s counter terrorism unit, which may have been tied up displacing our homeless neighbors, nor was it the city’s web of racially biased facial recognition technology, constitutionally questionable gang database, trigger-happy anti-crime unit, or any one of its army of 36,000 uniformed officers, that led to the shooter's capture. Rather, it was the attention of at least one concerned community member.
Despite the record-high police presence and funding, Adams himself admits the city has seen an increase in incidents of violence. In New York City, gun violence is up one third from last year—a number consistent with a countrywide uptick—and while this is often used as a red herring to justify a return to stop-and-frisk policing, one thing is true: we're right to be alarmed, but not for reasons Adams would lead us to believe. Gun violence is and always has been a direct result of easy access to guns, poverty, the gutting of social programs, and this country’s long legacy of anti-Blackness and systemic white supremacy. National and local responses to the pandemic have led to increased poverty, unemployment, xenophobia, and desperation, which in turn result in more gun violence.
But more cops is not the answer. As abolitionists, we know that gun violence (or any intra-communal violence) will not be solved with more police. In fact, the opposite is often true. Abolitionists like Ruth Wilson Gilmore have shown us as much. The good news is, the cycle of violence and policing is not inevitable; other possibilities exist. In December 2021, the residents of Brownsville piloted a program to remove cops from a determined area of the neighborhood and, instead, led community efforts at anti-violence and crisis management. During the five-day trial, there was only one reported 911 call. Brownsville demonstrated that another future is possible, if we are willing to imagine—and fund—it.
I hope we can continue to follow leaders like these, implement the guidance of abolitionists doing the work of envisioning a future without police and police brutality, and trust the wisdom of our own community members (who best know their needs) to find alternatives to the snowballing harm that is policing. The only equitable path forward is to defund this institution that is beyond reform and—finally—put that money toward real material support for our communities. In this moment, I’m thankful to brilliant abolitionist thinkers like Critical Resistance, Interrupting Criminalization, In Our Names Network, Project NIA, the authors of #8toAbolition, and many others who have already given us a taste of what a police-free future holds and how we might get there.
To learn how best to support Sunset Park while it heals from this act of violence, we should center and uplift the voices of people on the ground. Listen to the needs of community-based organizations like Academy of Medical & Public Health Services, Center for Family Life, Chinese-American Planning Council, UPROSE, Mixteca, Voces Ciudadanas, Workers Justice Project, Visión Futuro Youth Team, and South Brooklyn Mutual Aid who are in the streets doing the work – and will be there long after the camera crews pack up and leave.
My thoughts go out to the ten gunshot victims, 16 injured, and the countless harmed – by bullets or the psychic trauma of living through the latest iteration of this country's senseless gun violence. I hope we all heal from this incident and take the necessary steps to see it never befalls any of our communities again.
Lexi Webster is the Communications Assistant for the Center for Constitutional Rights