We can't ignore the deaths at Rikers

The legacy of slavery bleeds in the heart of the country's bluest city.

In February 2020, I drove up to Portsmouth, NH, to knock doors for then-presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, and had the good fortune of staying with a fellow volunteer and retired teacher named Nancy. A frequent attendee of events at the local library, Nancy was something of a local history buff, and while she generously opened my eyes to New England’s past, one story will always stick with me.

It goes something like this: In the early 18th century, Portsmouth served as a major point of entry for ships transporting enslaved Africans. They were forced to live and work there, and helped build the very foundation of the prosperous seaside city. And they were buried there in their own segregated cemetery when they died. Once slavery in NH was on the decline in the late 1700’s, “without daily reminders of their culpability in American slavery, Portsmouth's city leaders and residents worked to consciously forget it,” the Portsmouth African Burying Ground Trust writes on its website. Soon the cemetery was paved over, new homes built atop the buried. But they wouldn’t stay forgotten. Per the Trust:

In 2003, contractors on a City improvement project revealed thirteen deteriorating wooden coffins during routine infrastructure upgrades. Further excavations and recovery of skeletal remains confirmed the street to be part of the site of the long forgotten "Negro Burying Ground". The city brought in a team of experts--archaeologists, geneticists and forensic scientists who estimated, based on available census records, that the site could hold as many as two hundred people of African descent.   

A memorial—the African Burying Ground—was built upon the land that once served as the final resting spot of local Black people, enslaved and free. And while an important recognition of history, in a city that’s less than two percent Black, the people of Portsmouth remain mostly free of daily reminders of their ancestors’ role in racial oppression. 

But in other parts of the northeast, the appalling history of slavery can’t be covered over with dirt and concrete because it’s legacy continues to actively unfurl. Here in New York City, Rikers Island jail complex is a burning example of how, even in a deep blue city in a deep blue state, the wicked past is present. Since the start of 2021, 32 people have died while in custody at Rikers—14 so far this year. 

About 85% of detainees are pre-trial, meaning they haven’t even been convicted of the crime for which they’re being caged. A report from October 2021 found that the average time spent detained on Rikers only increased with the pandemic—the average person was imprisoned for nine months. And most of them are trapped there because they’re too poor to afford bail. 

Last wednesday, a 35-year-old man named Kevin Bryan hanged himself while in custody at Rikers while being held on $5,000 bail. After less than a week, he was violently jumped by other inmates when the chronically understaffed and corrupt jail lost sight of him, and he locked himself in a staff bathroom. After less than a week on the island, it seems he concluded life on Rikers was unlivable.

There has been a years-long effort to close Rikers. In 2019, the New York City Council voted to shut down the infamous jail by 2026, but in the interim, it remains a death trap perpetuated by a cruel system built to perpetuate the racism on which this country was built. The population of Rikers is about 56% Black, 33% Hispanic and 7.5 % White, according to the PBS project Rikers: An American Jail. Every day, Black and Brown people—many of them not old enough to rent a car—are sent to this hell hole without a judge thinking twice.

Yesterday, as part of volunteering with local legal aid organizations, I posted bail for a man being held at Rikers. The amount? One dollar. It’s not my business why he was jailed, and why he didn’t have anyone to post bail for him. But it is my business that the city in which I live is jailing predominantly people of color in 

“When society’s underinvestment leads to entanglement with the legal system, they are packed into jails and prisons despite the ugly legacy of people as chattel,” New York public defenders Katherine LeGeros Bajuk and Jeffrey Berman correctly wrote in a recent op-ed.

We cannot afford to discover our society’s indiscretions when they’re accidentally dug up hundreds of years from now: We need to deal with the here and now. Mayor Adams needs to ensure the safety of current detainees, and work to close Rikers as soon as humanly possible. Lives depend on it.

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