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Legal Aid Claims Police are Still Making Illegal Marijuana Arrests

Map compares arrests for criminal weapons possession, in red, to drug possession arrests, in green, that resulted from stop-and-frisk in the Bronx in 2011. Created from 2011 New York City Police Department stop-and-frisk data by Selase Kove-Seyram, Juanita Ceballos, and Annaliese Wiederspahn.

For 38-year-old Obediah Poteat, being stopped and frisked by the police is just a part of life in the East Tremont section of the Bronx where he lives with his wife and five children.

What’s worse, he said, is that officers end up arresting people for minor crimes, like disorderly conduct or having small amounts of marijuana in their pockets. “They are always trying to find a reason to put their hands on you,” said Poteat,  who has been stopped  multiple times, but never arrested. “To search you, to arrest you for whatever.”

Even though the New York City Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy is meant to only uncover guns, it has resulted in more and more arrests when officers inadvertently find marijuana in people’s pockets instead.

According to a July New York Times editorial, the number of arrests citywide for possession of small amounts of marijuana increased from less than 1,000 in 1990 to 50,000 in 2011. Almost 94 percent of the 16-to-19-year-olds arrested last year had no prior convictions and nearly half had no arrest record.

In September of last year, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly released a memo instructing officers not to arrest people who have small amounts of marijuana only if the drugs were in public view at the time of the initial stop. The memo cites a 1977 New York State law that changed the treatment of offenders caught with a small amount of marijuana from being grounds for arrest. Instead officers are to issue a summons ticket, similar to a speeding ticket.  The maximum penalty under New York State law for possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana that is not burning or in public view is a $100 fine.

Nine months later the Legal Aid Society filed suit against the police department in New York State Supreme Court charging officers with ignoring the commissioner’s directive, continuing their “illegal marijuana arrest practices.”

Plaintiffs in the case included residents of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island.

The Legal Aid Society drew early support for its case from an unlikely source, former New York City Mayor Ed Koch. The former mayor published an op-ed in the Huffington Post in June supporting Legal Aid’s efforts to stop misdemeanor possession arrests. Koch qualified his support for stop-and-frisk saying he would only continue his support for the policy so long as it is not used to falsely make criminals out of citizens.

According to analysis by the New York World, in August of last year, the New York City Police Department made 2,486 arrests after police stops. In the month following Commissioner Kelly’s order, the New York City Police Department arrested 2,661 people on misdemeanor marijuana charges. Unlike other boroughs that saw slight drops in misdemeanor marijuana arrests in November and December, arrests in the Bronx continued to rise through the end of 2011.

The first half of 2012 yielded encouraging news. The Wall Street Journal reported in June that police made 27,492 arrests for small possession of marijuana between October and May. That represented a 24.4 percent drop from the previous eight months.

The lead Legal Aid Society attorney on the marijuana arrest practices case said police need to be bound by court orders, “Our objective is to stop this business of improperly arresting people and taking them down to central booking,” said Thomas O’Brien. “It leaves a troubling stain on their record.” The case is still pending, awaiting a judge to be assigned.

Interview with Obediah Poteat by Wiederspahn

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Crime, Multimedia, Sizing up Stop and Frisk0 Comments

Will New WIC Rules Mean Healthier Bronx Kids?

At a grocery store at 183 Street on the Grand Concourse (left and upper right) and at a New York City GreenMarket (lower right) in the Fordham section of the Bronx, WIC moms can redeem vouchers for specific foods they need to raise healthy kids.

The waiting room on the first floor of St. Barnabas Hospital’s ambulatory care unit was a dizzying maze of strollers, wobbly toddlers and weary-eyed moms spread out along the theater-style rows of cracked vinyl chairs.

First-time mother Nancy Jilah and her 18-month old daughter waited in the clamor one October morning for their wellness check up in the state-subsidized clinic at Third Avenue and 183rd Street. Jilah’s toddler was having trouble keeping her milk down.

This WIC clinic has embraced the new transformation of the 38-year-old federal program from simply attacking hunger, to providing healthy eating choices for low-income Women, Infants and Children.  The policy change took place two years ago.

Above the rows of chairs, the clipboards, the Dora the Explorer dolls, the din of playing children, hung a cheerful plastic banner with an apple and a determined message: “New York State WIC. Together Growing Stronger Families.“

That’s the promise of this new WIC program. Nutrition experts and nurses are expected to work with pregnant moms until their children turn five-years-old, offering individualized dietary advice and vouchers for free food such as brown rice and fresh vegetables, and any specialty items they might need.

The question is now, how is it working? Politicians, nutritionists and public health advocates are all rushing to develop metrics to monitor progress and define success.  Early evidence points to some positive results.

“In comparison to before the roll out of the new program in January 2009, there is a reduction in total TV hours, an increase in low-fat milk consumption and an increase in the intake of fresh fruits and vegetables,” said Dr. Sally Findley, professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. Findley has been following the WIC program for over three years to see how recent program changes are affecting the mothers and their children.

For Jilah, the program was a godsend. A nurse took a blood sample and weighed the 28-year-old mother and her daughter. The nutritionist told Jilah her daughter may have inherited her lactose intolerance condition. That’s why the baby was throwing up her milk. The nurse gave Jilah a voucher to use at the grocery store specifically for lactose-free milk.

“It’s more expensive, you know. So it’s great that they can help with that,” said Jilah as she pushed her daughter along in the stroller on the way to the store. “But they say we’re healthy so that’s good news.”

A single mother, or mother-to-be, qualifies for WIC if she makes less than $22,340 a year. Two parent households qualify if they bring in less than $30,260 a year. In 2011, the average New York State WIC participant received $57.24 in monthly benefits from the program.

Much of value of the WIC program is in the nutritional advice and support it provides to mothers, but there are also sizable benefits in the form of foods and free vitamins that many low-income mothers could not afford without the program.

“They are very informative,” said Jilah. “Whatever I say, the nutritionists are ok with it.”

Raising healthy kids is the key for WIC. The program was started in 1974 after physicians reported that low-income mothers and their children complained of not having enough food during routine public health clinic visits. In response, the federal government began attaching food pantries to public health clinics. The goal of WIC when it began was to fight hunger and to improve birth outcomes among low-income mothers.

By the 2000’s, the needs of low-income mothers had changed. Now the main concern of WIC mothers was the type of food they could find–and afford–to feed their children.

One still unanswered question is whether the program may have an effect on early childhood obesity rates in New York.  “Healthy eating goes a long way to combating obesity,” said Marci Natale, spokeswoman for the New York State Department of Health. Still, she cautioned against defining the program’s success too narrowly. “The primary goal is health,” she said.

WIC’s newest offering, the Farmers’ Market Nutrition program, subtly strikes at the increasingly dangerous issue of obesity. The farmers’ market program focuses on providing mothers and young children with access to locally grown fruits and vegetables. The program also strives to educate mothers on the value of cooking with fresh produce.

Most mothers become involved with WIC when they are pregnant or nursing. The Farmers’ Market Nutrition program extends the options women have through consultation with a nutritionist and it helps mothers think about healthy eating options when they are shopping for themselves.

The fresh and local produce element of WIC services has received some marketing assistance from the work of First Lady Michelle Obama through her Let’s Move! campaign.  Food writers like Michael Pollan and New York Times columnist Mark Bittman, and chefs Alice Waters and Peter Hoffman, have also helped to raise public awareness of the importance of providing low-income families with easy access to healthy, affordable food.

Their advocacy is contributing to some results (although many other factors are involved). In 1997, New York City had 27 Greenmarket locations. Today, there are 54 Greenmarkets in New York City, with 11 locations across the Bronx.

All of these programs accept the $24 WIC vouchers issued the New York State WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition program. The vouchers can be used anytime during the farmers’ market season at approved markets. Purchases made with WIC Farmers’ Market vouchers are largely restricted to fresh fruits and vegetables.

Many nutritionists and public health advocates hope WIC’s new health and wellness focus will have a positive impact on some of the health concerns that plague low-income communities.

Dr. Findley and a team of researchers from the New York State Department of Health are conducting extended surveys around the state and completing a series of focus groups to try to determine what is, and what is not, working with the new WIC program. The results of Dr. Findley’s work will be completed and submitted for publication sometime early next year.

In the Bronx, the new WIC program results are in for at least one mom. Nancy Jilah depends on WIC to help her understand nutrition labels, address food allergies, and develop healthy eating habits.  “I’m happy it’s here,” said Jilah. “I don’t know all this stuff so the nutritionist helps a lot with putting us, you know, on the right track.”

Posted in Bronx Life, Featured, Food, Health0 Comments

Defense Attorney In DiTommaso Trial Calls For Mistrial After Mob Mention

The defense attorneys for Peter and Frank DiTommaso called for a mistrial on Wednesday after a witness referenced “organized crime” is his testimony, the New York Daily News reported.

Bronx Supreme Court Justice John Carter prohibited any mention of the mob during the perjury trial. The brothers are on trial for presenting contradictory statements during the investigation of disgraced New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik.

Find Bronx Ink’s coverage of the trial here.

Posted in Newswire0 Comments

No Pretty Songs, Gentlemen: Exploring Art and Politics in Hunts Point


A 16-year-old boy with a megaphone repeatedly shouted, “No pretty songs, gentlemen. No pretty songs,” as he stood on the corner of 163rd Street and Southern Boulevard in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx. Next to him, a  group of teens hoisted picket signs scrawled with variations of the slogan I heart pretty songs. Then the eight teenagers hopped on the  subway, collectively planting their noses in books titled “Wake Up America” while fellow passengers stared quizzically at the group reading intently from the identical volumes.

The student artists who staged these random performances around the city call them “interventions.” They are the basis for the multimedia installation entitled “No Pretty Songs, Gentlemen,” which showcases five such videotaped interventions in which students examine the phrases and actions of musician and civil rights activist Paul Robeson during the Peekskill Riots in 1949 in order to draw parallels to the human rights and freedom of speech struggles of artists today.

Student artist Bill Martinez, 16, who lives in Hunts Point, got involved with the project when a staff member at Casita Maria, a not-for-profit arts and education center in Hunts Point, noticed that Martinez had a knack for video editing. Martinez applied for an internship working on th einstallation in June and dedicated two weeks at the end of August to the project.

“It kind of expanded my interest in art,” Martinez said. “It got me to want to do more interventions and videotape them more. When I see something nowadays on the news that I think is wrong, or that I don’t like, or that I’m against, I’ll make a video about it.”

The diverse group of high school students who participated in the exhibition includes four students from the South Bronx, who became involved with the project through Casita Maria, and four students from Manhattan and Brooklyn, who were Scholastic art and writing award winners. The students worked alongside sound artist Seth Kim-Cohen to plan, perform, film, and edit the installation. On opening night, the students beamed as they described to their parents and friends how they came up with the idea for a performance, or how they hit a roadblock trying to edit a video.

Kim-Cohen worked with students to build the exhibition around Paul Robeson but also to help students unlock their own ideas about performance art and political speech. As a starting point, Kim-Cohen introduced students to the Peekskill Riots, which took place on Sept. 4, 1949, when Robeson held a concert 45 miles north of the city in Peekskill, N.Y.

Robeson publicly expressed Soviet sympathies and, in the era of McCarthyism, anti-Communists and Klu Klux Klan members banded together to protest Robeson’s concert. The anti-Communist fervor was so great at the time that Robeson’s concert was previously scheduled on Aug. 27, 1949, and was cancelled because of violent initial protests.

Robeson returned to Peekskill to perform five days later, protected by police and organized labor members from New York City’s trade unions. After the concert, protestors rioted, injuring 140 and causing extensive property damage. The Peekskill Riots came to be viewed as a symbol of the hysteria that surrounded the Red Scare in the United States after World War II.

Students explored the underlying meaning of the incident, its impact on freedom of speech and human rights, and the role of artists in political speech and found a contemporary parallel in the Russian punk band Pussy Riot.  On Aug. 17, the feminist girl group was sentenced to two years in jail on charges of hooliganism after trying last February to perform a song critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow’s historic Christ Savior Cathedral.

Kim-Cohen explained that his goal is to do more than just show the students how he works as an artist. “At the very least, if they get nothing out of the artistic process of watching how I make an exhibition happen, they would at least learn something about Paul Robeson and the history of civil rights in America and labor issues in America,” he said.

“No Pretty Songs, Gentlemen” opened Aug. 31 and runs through Sept. 29 at the Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education gallery space located at East 163rd Street and Simpson Street in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Culture, Slideshows, Southern Bronx0 Comments

Cooking Eggplant and Winning Health Bucks

Walking through Tremont Park in the East Tremont section of the Bronx on Tuesdays this fall feels a little like walking onto the set of a Food Network prep kitchen. Among the tents of fresh cut herbs, jalapenos, apples and peaches, New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is offering free cooking and nutrition classes to shoppers who are eligible for food stamps.

Classes are held every Tuesday at La Familia Farmers Market on the corner of East Tremont Avenue and LaFontaine Avenue from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m as part of New York City’s Stellar Farmers Markets Initiative. The city program provides a place for shoppers to learn how to prepare quick, inexpensive recipes using fresh ingredients that can be purchased at any of New York’s more than 120 Farmers Markets, 32 of which are in the Bronx.

In addition to cooking demonstrations, followed by yummy free samples, nutrition class attendees who fill out a quick survey receive a $2 New York City Health Bucks coupon that is redeemable at most New York City Farmers’ Markets for fresh fruits and vegetables. Food Stamp recipients also earn a $2 Health Bucks coupon for every $5 spent using federal Food Stamps at participating New York City Farmers’ Markets.

On August 28th, the subject of the Stellar Farmers’ Market nutrition class was how to interpret nutrition fact labels. The class covered how to determine the proper portion size of an ingredient and where to find the percent daily value of fats, vitamins and minerals on a nutrition label.

Class participants scanned sample nutrition labels for milk, cheese, brown rice, and corn tortillas to check on the percent daily value of sodium and fiber each food contained. After reviewing several nutrition labels aloud, the instructor and a demonstration cook prepared a simple carrot salad. The instructor pointed out the recipe costs only 57 cents per serving and packs a powerful punch of nutrients while containing relatively few calories.

Nora Johns, a 62-year-old, unemployed East Tremont resident, attended the class for the second time and brought a friend from her jobs training course. When Johns didn’t see enough people crowding around the New York City Health tent just prior to the class start time she went into the East Tremont McDonalds and started recruiting people away from their double cheeseburgers and fries to come out to the nutrition class.

Following class, Johns collected her $2 Health Bucks coupon and headed for the Farmers Market tents.

“It’s fantastic that somebody is taking time out to teach people who don’t get this stuff. Learn something new everyday,” Johns gushed as she walked toward the apple bin.

Shoppers can choose from, among other things, bright purple eggplant, tricolored heirloom tomatoes and aromatic basil along six tents stocked full of fresh items displayed in delicate woven wood bins. In addition to cash, La Familia Verde Farmers Market vendors accept New York City Health Bucks coupons, federal Food Stamps and New York State Women, Infant, and Children vouchers as payment for fresh, locally-grown produce. New York State’s Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program provides checks to Women, Infants and Children program participants in order to expand access to nutritious, locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables.

Griselda Pineda, a 19-year-old student who lives across the street from La Familia Verde Farmers’ Market with her mother, comes every week to learn how to cook new things and to get her Health Bucks coupon. ”I come every Tuesday because they teach you how to cook healthy things and stuff like that. I didn’t know any of that stuff before,” she says.

Pineda admits she still has some work to do before she can replicate the cooking demonstrator’s slicing and dicing tricks, “I try to cook the recipes but they don’t always come out the way they do here,” she says.

Like many of the workshop attendees, Pineda likes to use her Health Bucks coupons at the market the minute that class is over. Following class Pineda was on a mission for the freshest carrots. She also grabbed some basil, a key ingredient in last week’s salsa recipe.

The Stellar Farmers’ Market program is the only federal Food Stamp educational nutrition program at farmers’ markets in the nation. In 2011, nutrition classes were taught at 18 markets throughout New York City distributing Health Bucks to more than 15,000 nutrition workshop participants, according to a New York City report on the Stellar Farmers’ Market and Health Bucks initiatives.

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, Food, Health0 Comments

An Urban Cowboy in Pelham Bay Park

Every day, the 62-year-old Orville Davis corrals his horses into the Bronx Equestrian Center in Pelham Bay Park, shoveling tons of horse dung into their stables. Wearing a cowboy hat and a pair of cowboy boots, the Georgia native appears to be a modern-day urban cowboy. However, this is only one of his many faces. Yi Du and Annaliese Wiederspahn report.

Posted in Featured, Multimedia, Slideshows0 Comments