Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Public School Police State

Few public school parents had a reason to attend last Sunday's PSAL City Championship basketball games, but those like myself who did saw a virtual replay of the near state of martial law imposed by the NYPD for demonstrations during 2004's Republican National Convention. The event was effectively closed to the public, ticket prices jacked up to $15 (in an apparent attempt to keep out the "riffraff"), attendance limited to 5,000 or less. Not that anyone would have a clue about most of this from the happy-go-lucky reporting in our local newspapers.

My son and I emerge from the 34th Street subway station at 10:30 Sunday morning into a scene that makes me think, "This must be what the Baghdad Green Zone looks like." Barricades blocking 33rd Street west of Seventh Avenue, with 33rd Street itself lined with dozens of School Safety vans. Police everywhere along Seventh Avenue in front of the Garden, with more barricades set up to create a narrow sidewalk path into the Garden itself. Multiple requests to show our tickets from NYPD officers spaced every few feet along this artificial corridor. In the open spaces outside the barricades and inside the MSG plaza, dozens more uniformed NYPD and School Safety officers. At the entrance, more police and the inevitable metal detectors staffed by completely humorless guards. "Remove your metal objects. Hand over your cell phone. Take off your belt. Move over there, out of the way. Sir, don't go over there! But he just told me to put my stuff back on over here!"

Inside the Garden hallways, still more of the same, enough man and woman power to defeat the Belgian army. "Keep your ticket on you at all times or we might not let you back in," we're advised in no uncertain terms. Finally, we're at courtside and see, despite an otherwise empty arena, that we're being forced to sit behind the basket at one end, the other school similarly positioned at the opposite end. We've come to cheer on our Girls' team and we can hardly see them at the other end of the court, nor can they hear us. The good seats, on either side of the court, are nearly empty but hardly without security -- School Safety and NYPD personnel are stationed every 15 or 20 feet even where no students are present!

Just as the game begins, a fully decked out police officer positions himself squarely in the middle of the aisle, almost directly in front of me, feet spread apart in a classic power pose. I can't see a single thing happening on the court. "You're not going to stand there the whole game, are you?" I ask in disbelief. "I'm sorry, but your mother didn't make glass," I add, only half under my breath. He gives me the look, then decides to move up the aisle a bit. As a group, our school's supporters -- students, parents, teachers -- watch the entire game from behind the Visitor's basket. Half the time, we can see more by watching the TV version being broadcast live on MSG. At least they give the home audience a mid-court view.

Of course, I am entirely sympathetic to the concern over the violent events that took place at last year's PSAL Championships. Of course, I concede an NYPD and School Safety presence as the prudent response. But as this Mayor and Police Commissioner have done in every similar instance, the official response, doubtless with Chancellor Klein's consent, was an over-the-top demonstration of force meant not just to intimidate but to convey power and inspire fear. The message was clear, especially for the kids: "You're all thugs -- as you proved only too well last year -- and the only thing that will keep you from behaving like animals is brute force intimidation."

The good news was that our Girls' team shone by their determined play and great sportsmanship, and the students who attended in support acquitted themselves beautifully. Still, what are our high school-aged children to make of the "official attitude" projected toward them? How will the inescapable resentment from these condescending slights, blatant intimidations, and less-than-subliminal signals ultimately manifest themselves? When will we ever contemplate putting our children's well-being ahead of political image management through incident avoidance at any cost? What must a tourist passing by the Garden on Sunday morning have thought upon being told that the purpose of such a massive lock-down police presence was two high school basketball games, one for girls and one for boys? When did these games become the Prison System Athletic League (PSAL) Championships?

This was NOT a response to the post-9/11 era. Rather, this has sadly become the norm in the Bloomberg/Kelly/Klein era. Our silence is taken as tacit agreement that this is how it should be, that what would be beyond the pale in Westchester or Long Island is just "keepin' it real" in NYC.

Shame on us.


Anonymous said...

"You're all thugs -- as you proved only too well last year -- and the only thing that will keep you from behaving like animals is brute force intimidation." <---Well, sorry but yeah.

Anonymous said...

remember who plays and attends these games before you complain about the security....

Steve Koss said...

Anyone who even remotely thinks racism is dead in America needs only look at these two preceding comments. I'm white, my stepson is Chinese, and the "who" who attended and played in those two games are young people (and parents) whom I am proud to know. There's a difference between reasonable security and quasi-militarization, but in NYC, the NYPD has decided that all high school kids, especially those of color, are now "criminals in waiting" and that every behavior short of total submission can be criminalized. Well, sorry, but this is just wrong, and the message it sends is doing no one any favors.

Anonymous said...

FACT: Last year's tourney was a shameful display of miscreant behavior. FACT: Innocent fans, players, and bystanders are entitled to an expectation of safety and civility when visiting MSG or PStation. FACT: Last year's display necessitated this show of force, anything less would have been irresponsible on the part of the cops.

Are you right to be sad/frustrated that you and your child were made to feel like barbarians? Sure, but that's not the fault of the cops, that's the fault of those who misbehaved. Maybe next time you could direct your time and energy towards addressing the cause of that behavior and then maybe you'd garner more sympathy here.

If nothing else, remember this: The people who organize these tournaments don't want to have to budget tons of extra money for security. They don't want to spend the extra time developing contingency plans in the event that violence breaks out. They don't want to sit around brainstorming creative ideas ($15 tickets, names on tickets, limited seats) because they enjoy the mental exercise. They do these things because the actions of players and fans in the past forced them to do these things. They would love not to have to do these things just as much as you'd love not to have to feel intimidated by stormtroopers, but sometimes reality doesn't work out like you want it to. Sorry.

Meanwhile, for you to play the race card when someone criticizes your little diatribe is a simpleton's ploy. This argument has nothing to do with race and everything to do with protecting the innocent from thugs. I promise you that all those supporters who "acquitted themselves beautifully" (curious phrasing on your part, I must say)are thinking something along the lines of the following: "I hate those thuggish idiots who continuously ruin what should be a good time for the rest of us." To inject race into the conversation is an insult to those non-white folks who long to be rid of the threat of this idiocy every time they try to go out enjoy themselves...and it's a distraction from the true root of the problem. Shame on you indeed.

Patrick Sullivan said...

Our seconded commenter was quite clear. He/she thought the crackdown was needed not because of anyone's behavior but for who they are.

Unfortunately, the type of treatment dealt to public school students and families at the game was not an isolated or unusual case. I've been to many events where police herd peaceful parents and children into cattle pens. Last week at the Keep the Promises Rally, thousands of people were penned into a narrow strip near city hall. When I arrived near the event's end and tried to enter an area with few people, a police officer told me to walk to the end. I walked right past him and he said nothing. Why? Because we both knew that Bloomberg and Kelly's measures are excessive and ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

"He/she thought the crackdown was needed not because of anyone's behavior but for who they are." <--Unless of course he meant "thugs" in which case you and Steve are the ones injecting the racist undertones.

School said...

Interesting article, you make some interesting points.

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avoicein said...

When I first began teaching in New York City over a decade ago, I found out that our basketball team was playing at The Garden. One of my students was a star player, and I had to go.
I called my father, who is a big basketball fan, and we decided to attend together.
By the time I got to the game, I was horrified and humiliated by the security checks and scanning that we had to go through.
I was furious. I couldn’t even concentrate on the game.
I was raised on Long Island and attended public school there. There is absolutely no way that such a violation of human rights would be tolerated where I grew up-and don’t think for a second that there is no violence on Long Island. Believe me, it is quite the opposite.
The big difference there, however, is that the “Powers That Be” listen to parents there. If a parent calls to complain, everyone shakes in their boots. This may be a reflection of the fact that school boards on Long Island are small, elected groups that are often at the mercy of the community.
Whatever the reason, concerned parents in the city are too often overlooked and ignored-much like their children and teachers. How disgraceful