Public Housing Residents: Trespassing in Their Own Home

By Michelle Chen Feb 06, 2010

Last year, the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. after he tried to enter his own home jolted some Americans out of the post-election post-racial euphoria. The idea that a prominent elderly Harvard scholar could be nabbed for "disorderly conduct," stemming from suspicions that he was trespassing in his own home, seemed an absurd reminder of the prevalence of racial profiling. But really, the only thing that made Gates’s ordeal unusual, as he later acknowledged, was his position of relative privilege. A group of public housing residents in New York City wish their grievances got a fraction of the public attention Gates attracted in the wake of the Cambridge affair. The residents are suing the city, accusing the Police Department of systematically treating them as criminals in their own home. Public housing projects have historically had a reputation for harboring high concentrations of poverty and crime. And though crime has dropped across the city, New York City’s huge public housing system is still a target for aggressive, zero-tolerance policing. Today, the police patrolling the city’s housing projects have taken a preemptive strike strategy on crime, according to a complaint filed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund:

The complaint asserts that NYPD officers indiscriminately stop and arrest people living in or visiting NYCHA residences. As a result, people who have a legitimate and lawful reason for being on NYCHA property are routinely detained and/or arrested for criminal trespass. Sometimes they even arrest residents in their own buildings. The consequences of these unfounded trespass arrests extend beyond the initial stop or arrest. They include loss of employment, income, missed medical appointments and separation of families.

The incidents of police stopping and arresting people in housing projects appear to be even harder to justify on a law enforcement basis than Gates’s brouhaha. It doesn’t take a suspicious-looking entry or a 911 call from a nervous neighbor; you could say the NYPD is in a way less discriminating in its crackdowns. The trigger for police activity, the NAACP says, is often just being a poor black person who happens to get in the way of an officer trained to overreact. According to the NAACP’s analysis of NYPD data, "city-wide, African Americans are arrested for trespass almost ten times more often than whites. Furthermore, when the predominantly minority NYCHA residence is located in a mostly white or gentrifying neighborhood, the disparity in arrest rates between the building and the surrounding area increases." That is, being black is already a risk factor, and your odds of arrest are even worse when your mostly Black community happens to be surrounded by an onslaught of rich white people seeking hot real estate. Back in the day, New Yorkers in rough neighborhoods were afraid to go outside because the streets were awash in danger. Now that the sidewalks have been "cleaned up," public housing residents get to enjoy their safety under the watchful eye of a new threat. Protection always comes at a cost, after all–some just have to pay a little more than others. Image: Richard Alexander Caraballo via flickr