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Rikers after the storm

It’s been over a month since Hurricane Irene hit New York City. Most residents have all but forgotten the scrambling for drinking water and candles, the mandatory evacuation warnings, the shut down of all public transportation, and the boarded-up windows in the prelude to what some thought would be a catastrophic storm.

But two mothers in the Bronx have not forgotten Irene. For them, the storm revealed a heartbreaking truth: in the event of a serious natural disaster the city would not protect their sons, detainees on Rikers Island.

Hurricane Irene was expected to hit New York early in the morning on Sunday, Aug. 29. Mayor Michael Bloomberg called for the unprecedented mandatory evacuation of nearly 370,000 people living in low-lying areas of the city. A total of 91 evacuation centers with 70,000 cots were set up for evacuees. Of those evacuation centers, 65 made space for evacuated pets.  Airports were shut down, including La Guardia, whose runways are a mere 250 feet from Rikers Island. Airport employees were told to go home for their own safety.

But no one made plans to evacuate Rikers. When asked about an evacuation plan for Rikers — which lies in the middle of evacuation zones, is 75 percent landfill, and at some points sits just 20 feet above sea level — Bloomberg said, “There is no reason to evacuate Rikers Island.”

The families of inmates on Rikers listened to Bloomberg’s statement in shock. “I got a call from my sister-in-law on Saturday,” said Maria Mojica of Castle Hill, whose 19-year-old son Jason Mojica is awaiting trial on charges of theft. “She said turn on the news. The mayor just said they are leaving the kids on the island.”

As Mojica watched the press conference, she began to panic. “I had all these questions,” she said. “Is he safe? Can he call? Does he know there’s a hurricane coming?” She couldn’t sleep that night and, unlike every other day since her son has been at Rikers, he didn’t call.

Lisa Ortega of Hunts Point was also anxiously watching the news when she heard the mayor say Rikers Island would not be evacuated. Her son, Kendall “KD” Davis is awaiting trial on weapon possession charges. The then 16-year-old, who spent his 17th birthday on Rikers, suffers from anxiety and was also not allowed to use the phones.

“My stomach was in knots the entire night,” Ortega said. “I knew my baby was in there suffering and unable to call me. I just wanted to hear his voice and know he was okay.”

Ortega frantically called the jail throughout the day, trying to talk to anyone who could tell her what was going on. At one point, she said she finally reached a correctional officer who simply said, “We good here,” and hung up the phone.

A month later during an hour-long jail visit, Jason Mojica would talk about what happened at Rikers that night. Inside the jail on the Saturday before the storm, inmates began to hear news of Irene.

Mojica’s first concern was his mother and siblings. The hardened teenager’s face took on an expression of boyish concern when he remembered that night. “They wouldn’t let us use the phones,” Mojica said. “I was so worried about my mom. I didn’t know if she was being evacuated, or if my little brothers and sisters were safe.”

Mojica helped to raise his siblings while his mother and father worked. He took them to school and picked them up every day. Mojica’s father was visiting Puerto Rico when Irene hit New York, making Mojica even more concerned for the safety of his family.

Kendell (KD) Davis told his mother in a phone call that at 5 p.m., correctional officers entered the part of the jail where he was being held and told him that he wouldn’t be moved and couldn’t make any phone calls.

“It was complete chaos,” Davis told his mother. “No one knew what was happening and whether their families were safe.” He also claims that officers were telling the inmates that if the storm got really bad they would evacuate the island and leave the inmates to fend for themselves.

Davis was so anxious that he couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t until he heard his mother’s voice on Monday that he was able to relax.

Mojica was out in the Sprungs, white canvas tents outside of the jail facilities, when he heard news of the storm. The Sprungs sit approximately 100 feet from the shore of the island. Mojica and the men in his tent were moved to indoor facilities where they would stay for the night. “They came Saturday afternoon and told us that we had to evacuate,” he said. “They said there was no room in the main facilities so we had to stay in condemned buildings on the other side of the island.”

He said that they were given buckets, brooms and mops to clean out the cells where they were to stay for the following 48 hours.

“The cells were awful,” Mojica said. “They were full of trash, feces and some black substance covering the floors. Some of the cells had no running water and toilets that would not flush.”

On Monday, they were allowed to go back out to the Sprungs. He was also allowed to call his mother and learned that his family was safe.

The New York State Department of Corrections denies claims that inmates were unable to use phones during the storm. According to the warden of the facility, who was on site at Rikers throughout the storm, staff members were told that all inmates be allowed to make their phone calls.

But one former inmate who was released two years ago also remembers being unable to use the phones to call his family during storms at Rikers. Richard Hairston, of Hunts Point, was in and out of Rikers from the age of 18 until the age of 27. He was being held in the Sprungs during a major rainstorm in December, 2002.

“It rained for four days,” he said. “Four days with no phones.” Hairston’s mother was frantic. He explained that it’s natural for mothers to worry about their sons on Rikers during the rain. “We are on a small island in the middle of a huge river,” he said. “The thought of heavy rainfall or storms on Rikers just gets my mom panicked. She thinks of me drowning.”

When Hairston was finally allowed to use the phone after the storm, he immediately called his mother. “I was so grateful to hear her voice,” he said. “During all my years at Rikers and prisons upstate, I missed my mom the most.”

He also said that being moved from the Sprungs during a storm is a luxury. “When it rains, we get wet inside the Sprungs,” he said. “Water drips on us during the night making us too cold to sleep.” Each day the inmates would sweep standing water from the floor of the Sprungs so that it would not flood.  But Sharman Stein, spokesperson for the Department of Corrections, maintains that the vast majority of Rikers Island is not located in a flood zone.

Prisoner rights groups such as Critical Resistance and Solitary Watch created a petition calling upon New York City to create an evacuation plan for Rikers Island in the event of a future storm. But no action has been taken. “Only one facility is located in a flood zone, but is not susceptible to loss of life.” Stein said in response to questioning about the progress of an evacuation plan for Rikers. “In that instance, the inmates and staff assigned to the first floor would be relocated to higher floors in the jail.”

New York City Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association spokesman Michael Stilly does not think an anticipatory evacuation plan for Rikers is necessary.

He says that it is extremely difficult to evacuate 13,000 inmates under maximum security, plus hundreds of officers, to another location and still maintain the peace.

“We have to prepare for incidents as they come and trust our officers,” he said. “They look after society’s most violent criminals 24 hours a day. I believe they can weather a storm.” He also added that union members are their top priority.

But Ortega demands a plan. “Our sons deserve a way off the island in the event of a major storm,” she said. “They are just kids who are still awaiting trial. In they eyes of the law they are innocent. Don’t they deserve better than this?”

 

 

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods, Crime, Featured0 Comments

Rebel Diaz: A musical legacy of activism

Rebel Diaz: A musical legacy of activism

Rodstarz of Rebel Diaz stands on the roof of the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective in the South Bronx (JANET UPADHYE/The Bronx Ink).

Rodrigo, aka Rodstarz and Gonzalo “G1” Venegas, members of the South Bronx hip-hop group Rebel Diaz, inherited a family history of struggle and survival. As children, they moved frequently because their parents, Chilean political refugees, never gave up hope of one day returning to Chile. “Half the time we didn’t even unpack,” said Rodstarz. “We were children growing up in exile.” But now, the Venegas brothers have found a home in the Bronx.

Their parents were supporters of Salvador Allende’s socialist government.  They became political prisoners when Augusto Pinochet launched a bloody coup on Sept. 11, 1973. After three years of torture in a Chilean prison, they were able to escape to England, where Rodstarz was born in 1979.

The Venegas family spent their first five years of exile in Chertsey, a small town in Surrey. Rodstarz has very little memory of that time. “We don’t think Chertsey really exists,” joked G1, who was born five years later in Chicago, the family’s next stop in exile. “Most British people have never even heard of it.”

Rodstarz, the older brother and unofficial spokesperson of the duo, has braids down to his waist and a welcoming presence. He gives hugs out like handshakes, likes expensive sneakers (despite their capitalist underpinnings) and wears a t-shirt that says “No Human Being is Illegal.”

G1, the younger, quieter brother, wears sunglasses inside the studio and has his hair up in a Samurai-style ponytail. “Only because it’s hot,” he said. G1 lays the beats and produces the music while Rodstarz grabs the audience with his stage presence and trenchant vocals.

Their parents had a love for revolutionary Chilean folk music from artists such as Violetta Parra, Silvio Rodriguez, and Victor Jarra, whose hands were broken by Pinochet’s military to stop him from playing “subversive” music. And though their parents don’t understand hip-hop, their music provided a tenet for Rebel Diaz’s own sound: it requires a social message.

“The drive we have is unstoppable,” Rodstarz said, “because we carry the weight of history on our shoulders.”

Their ability to build a movement in the streets started at an early age. A 12-year-old Rodstarz used graffiti, an urban artistic expression of rebellion, to bring his friends together. He would sneak out to do graffiti late at night in Chicago, dragging his sleepy seven-year-old brother with him. “One time we got caught when my mother found a pillow that was supposed to be me under the covers,” Rodstarz remembered. “But she wasn’t mad because when she was younger she also ran out of the house to do political graffiti promoting her socialist ideals.”

Rodstarz and G1 have always had a love for hip-hop. At the age of 10, Rodstarz became a B-boy, or a break-dancer. “Every single day after school in Chicago I was break dancing on the roofs or in the parking lot,” he said, “My friends and I would set up some cardboard and be out there for hours.“ Eventually that passion for hip-hop would lead to Rebel Diaz.

Rebel Diaz, the hip-hop group, was born in Hunts Point after G1 moved to New York City to study music engineering at New York University.  Rodstarz came a few years later to record music with his brother who got free studio time through the university. Hunts Point had affordable rent, so that’s where Rodstarz stayed. “I was blessed to end up on the best block in New York City,” he said. Hunts Point became home.

Invited by a local community organization called Mothers on the Move, Rebel Diaz played their first show at an immigrants rights march in Manhattan in April 2006.  Rebel Diaz spoke directly to the community with lyrics like these:

“This music is resistance it’s the voice of the poor,

I’m on the side of the workers, the teachers and lunch ladies,

On the streets with brown mammies raisin’ our brown babies,

I’m with youth organizers cleanin’ up the Bronx River.”

And from the start, they were a success, with several other New York City organizations asking them to perform for their events and music festivals.

Within the first year they were hosted by international organizations allowing them to eventually tour in Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Guatemala, and Chile. These tours solidified their appeal and allowed them to hook up with other Chilean political refugees doing similar work. The music was a vehicle to deliver their message but they also dreamed of a space for others in their community to be able to learn and create.

They created the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective in the South Bronx (RDAC-BX) in November 2008 with money from the North Star Fund and a Union Square award. RDAC-BX is a hip-hop community center where young people can drop in to get political education and learn practical skills. They can create their own music with software like Pro Tools and attend workshops on topics such as the history of hip-hop and social movements.

G1 of Rebel Diaz (JANET UPADHYE/The Bronx Ink).

Their collective space is housed in an abandoned warehouse near Hunts Point on a back street by the Bruckner Expressway. “It was once a candy factory,” said G1. “It stood empty for many years before we got a tip from a friend that we could rent it at a reasonable price.”

The front door is an extension of a skillfully graffitied wall. It leads into a spacious room with a red brick floor, comfortable couches, a stage, recording studio and roof access. Local music artists live in the apartment upstairs.

The space was created because their parents passed the torch of struggle to their children and Rodstarz still feels the responsibility.  “My feeling is that if my father withstood three and a half years of physical torture for a cause,” he said, “the least I can do is make music and encourage others to make music that uplifts.”

Rap artist YC the Cynic of Hunts Point credits the brothers with giving his music more of a social message.  “I grew up with injustice, so I know it well,” he said. “But Rebel Diaz helped me find the words to describe it. Without them, my lyrics would sound more like what you hear on the radio.”

But Rodstarz immediately dismissed the idea that he is a mentor. “Mentorship doesn’t exist in our community,” he said. “A lot of those terms come from an idea of power. I’m 10 years older than YC but I learn from him too.”

Rodstarz distinguishes the collective from non-profits. “A lot of times in the non-profit world there ends up being a sort of messiah complex,” he said. “They want to empower inner city folks. But we don’t need anyone to empower us. We got power.”

 

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods, Bronx Tales, Culture, Featured0 Comments

Occupy Wall Street protesters find a cause in protecting education jobs

Local education workers forged an unexpected alliance with the Occupy Wall Street protesters Tuesday, when hundreds from each group converged in front of City Hall to denounce the city’s plan to fire more than 700 school workers, many from the South Bronx, by the end of the week.

It seemed an odd alliance, at first. The multiracial group of mostly middle-aged school aides and kitchen workers, wearing bright blue District Council 37 hats and green t-shirts, were fighting for their jobs.

The mostly young, white Occupy Wall Street protesters, wearing just about anything, have been fighting for a broad spectrum of issues. The group that has been camped out in the financial district for 17 days is growing in numbers around wide-ranging targets such as  corporate greed, government cutbacks and Mayor Bloomberg’s policies.

When the two groups joined forces, a loud cheer erupted.  “Our children are behind us,” shouted Eddy Rodriguez, president of District Council 37, the city’s largest municipal public employee union that represents parent coordinators, kitchen workers, classroom aides and other school workers.

Other DC 37 leaders immediately acknowledged the potential for solidarity. “We’re gonna join them down there,” said Lillian Roberts, the union’s executive director, from the stage overlooking Broadway referring to the protesters in Zuccotti Park. “Their fight is our fight.”

Union officials predicted that the South Bronx would be one of the hardest areas hit by the cuts. Among the total layoffs, 46 are expected to come from Bronx schools.  Morrisania’s District 9 would lose 8 percent, and Hunts Point’s District 8 would lose 5 percent of its total school workers, a union spokesperson said.

One Highbridge resident who works as a direct support assistant at Public School 73 where his three children attend said he expects to keep his job, but he’s worried about others in his school.

“No teacher wants to leave a classroom dirty. They’re going to pick up a broom,” said Evans Quamina, who is also president of Local 443. He was referring to the janitors in danger of losing their jobs.  “If the focus is on keeping classes clean, the kids aren’t learning anything.”

Bronx resident Ella Arouz found out last week that she was being laid off from her job as a health aide worker at Brooklyn International High School, a position she’s held for the last 15 years.

“Those are my babies,” the Nicaraguan immigrant said about her students. “I watched them grow. I helped them get glasses. I taught them to care about their health. Who will help them now?”

An Occupy Wall Street protester said she understood firsthand the importance of school workers in children’s lives. “My school aides encouraged me to go to class,” said Alex Krales, 22, who attended New York City public schools. “They kept me out of fights and made me feel unique in an overcrowded school.”

A 26-year-old anti-Wall Street protester said he understood that the layoffs would be felt most by low-income women in the city. “I am here to stand with my fellow union workers,” said David Pugh, a security guard from Brooklyn. “We need to protect and defend the most vulnerable members of society.”

Other Bronx residents who joined the rally were dismayed by the potential job losses. “These adults, the counselors and health aides, are the first line of intervention for kids,” said Liana Maris, an outside program coordinator at Crotona International High School in the Bronx. “They end up providing emotional safety, especially if the youth can’t get it at home.”

Riverdale resident Shekema Brown, 37, is not a school worker, but came to the rally to show her support.  “I suggest not laying off the workers, said Brown “and finding the money somewhere else.”

Union officials claimed that DC37 had offered other cost saving solutions that the city rejected in June. “The Bloomberg administration’s plan to lay off school support staff shows a reckless disregard for the well-being of New York’s 1.1 million school children and their families,” said DC 37 Executive Director Lillian Roberts in a press release. “Principals were mandated to make these cuts by the city apparently to close a budget gap. Yet when the union offered a proposal generating real savings to bridge the budget gap and save the jobs of these valuable workers, the city cut off discussions.”

At Tuesday’s protest, one fired school worker wept quietly on the edge of the crowd. “I served those kids breakfast and lunch everyday,” said Catherin Rozell, who said she recently lost her nine-year job as a school aide at P.S. 270 in Brooklyn. “And now I have nothing.”

City council spokesperson Justin Goodman said the council will be holding hearings on the layoffs soon.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Education, Featured0 Comments

Jews and Palestinians find a separate peace in Hunts Point

Israeli and Palestinian shop owners along Southern Boulevard have no problem getting along. (Photo by Ted Regencia)

On one corner of Southern Boulevard and 163rd Street, a 25-year-old Palestinian refugee stirred chicken kebabs over a hot fryer in his halal cart, contemplating the tensions between his country and Israel being reignited this week in the United Nations General Assembly.

Down the block in Hunts Point where Musab Abusbeih peddled his $5 kebab and shawarma specials, Jewish and Palestinian-owned businesses operate peacefully side by side.  Abusbeih believes that if only the warring parties learned to talk like the merchants of Hunts Point peace might be attainable.

“We don’t even fight about parking on this block,” said Ron Levy, a former Israeli soldier.  “And everybody fights about parking in New York City.”

Downtown in United Nations headquarters last week, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas sought official statehood recognition from the General Assembly. Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu opposed Palestine’s unilateral declaration of statehood, saying a two-state solution can only be achieved through a negotiated settlement, which would include Hamas dropping its call for the destruction of Israel.

On Thursday, President Barack Obama urged Abbas to drop his bid until peace talks resume. The Palestinian leader rejected his plea.

And the stalemate appeared impassable. “If Israel, Palestine, and the U.N. want to see how to live in harmony they should look at this block,” said Levy, who believes in the Palestinian Authority’s right to its own state. “Here, Palestinians and Jewish people get along very well.”

The 60-year-old, who now works at Pay-Less Electronics, said he came to the U.S. in the 1970s after becoming weary of all the fighting in Israel. The former Israeli soldier said he found some peace in the South Bronx.

John Zib, a Jewish manager of Sweet Girl clothing store in Hunts Point, said he was not aware of the impending vote in the U.N. “But I know that on this block most of the stores are owned by Jewish people,” said the 25-year-old businessman. “There are also Palestinian owners and we have no problems with each other.”

A Palestinian Christian who owns Seham Discount, northeast of Hunts Point, said his family was forced to abandon its home near Jerusalem when war broke out following Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948. “They took my father’s land,” said George Ishaq, 71. “Everything they took.”

Ishaq and his family were eventually exiled in Jordan, where he lived for a long time until he moved to New York City around 10 years ago.

Asked whether he is willing to go back, Ishaq said, “I can’t live there while it is occupied.” It is for that reason that he is supporting the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

Ishaq, however, said that his experience being a Palestinian refugee does not affect how he relates to Jewish people, whom he often interacts with regularly in business.

“It is normal,” Ishaq said. “We buy from them, they sell to us.” Besides, he said, the business setting “is not the place to talk about politics.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Featured, Southern Bronx, The Bronx Beat0 Comments

The Daily News reports hit-and-run in Soundview

Earlier this morning a man was fatally injured in a hit-and-run accident, The Daily News reported today. The unidentified man was walking on Story Avenue when a SUV hit him and never stopped to look back. The man died in the street. No arrests have been made but police are looking for a white Lincoln Navigator that may have front-end damage.

Posted in Newswire0 Comments

NBC New York reports car stolen, with child inside

Saturday morning a couple was loading groceries into their SUV in the parking lot of a Bronx supermarket when a carjacker jumped in the driver’s and drove off in their car. NBC New York reported this morning that it didn’t take long for the thief to realize that he also had a child in the backseat. He stopped a few blocks down, left the child out on the street and continued with his car theft. The young boy is safe with is parents.

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The Wall Street Journal reported Man arrested in the death of 3-year-old child

Late Friday night, Kenneth Williams, 27, was arrested for the murder of 3-year-old India Durant. Williams was the live-in boyfriend of the child’s mother and was watching her on the morning she died. Williams claims Durant was not feeling well so he placed her in a chair where she later fell off and began to have a seizure. He called 911 to reported Durant unresponsive.  She was pronounced dead at Barnabas Hospital later that morning. The Wall Street Journal reported today that Williams was charged with murder in the second-degree, manslaughter, assault and reckless endangerment late last night. Durant’s biological father is looking for answers and mourning the loss of his daughter. “I am deeply upset. I am hurt,” he said. “I lost my world. That was my only child.”

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16-year-old fatally shot in the Bronx, reported by the New York Post

Thursday night a young Bronx man was walking his girlfriend home when he was fatally shot. The New York Post, on September 16, reported that Jose Webster, age 16, was walking down Teller Avenue when two men approached him and picked a fight. The fight resulted in a shot to Webster’s chest. Webster’s girlfriend, Aniik Wallace, crouched over his body and begged him to stay with her, witnesses said.  Webster died at Lincoln hospital. His mother and Wallace are planning a candlelight vigil for Webster this Sunday at the basketball court on Webster Avenue at 169th Street in the Bronx.

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