A Politician’s Brush with NYPD Abuse

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S1: In Brooklyn, the protests that have filled the streets over the last few weeks have often coalesced in front of a sports arena, Barclays Center, especially in the first few days of protest.

S2: The plaza out front would fill up usually in the afternoon with people carrying signs and chanting slogans. All kinds of people, white, black kids, adults.

S1: Elected officials ended up here to New York State Senator Zelma Amiry, wound up at Barclays back in May. He said he was there because he’s a black man, but he was also hoping to keep the crowd calm.

S3: I remember trying to pick the attire that I was going to wear and very intentionally choosing my neon yellow green shirt with my name and title on the back in case things escalated and hoping to be a force of de-escalation if things were to take that course. So it was it was all good until about 8:00 p.m. when the cops started to move people away from the protest and they started to do it forcefully.

S2: This was before there was any kind of curfew in New York.

S4: And I remember obeying the orders. In fact, I was talking to some of the other protesters saying let’s let’s move back. Let’s not have a confrontation here. And whilst doing that, I started getting hit in my back with the bicycle’s that some of the officers had in their hands. And so I turn around and I’m like, look, we’re doing exactly what you have asked us to do.

S3: And it was at that moment that I got pepper sprayed directly into my eyes. I’m crying out and as I’m crying out, I hear a number of officers say, cuff him, cuff him, cuff him.

S1: There’s a photo of the second. This happened of Zellner crying out in anguish. His eyes clamped shut. In that moment.

S3: Any wrong move that I made and this was going through my mind could have had disastrous consequences. Anything that could have been interpreted as me being resistant or me being threatening could have resulted in serious injury for me or even worse, the loss of my life. And all of this is going through my head.

S1: How did you get out of that situation?

S3: One of the higher ups recognized who I was when they took me over to the area to be processed and then pulled me off the line, cut my my zip ties, gave me medical attention. You know, it was a it was an extraordinary moment of despair, but also privilege because I was only pulled off that line because of who I was. There were people getting processed who were right with me, right next to me, peacefully protesting, who did not have that same privilege.

S1: And the very next day, he was on the phone with his colleagues in the state Senate saying, we’ve got to do something about this. So he went up to Albany, helped passed 10 separate police reform bills that includes legislation banning chokeholds and a long sought repeal of a law called 50 A, which opens up police personnel records to scrutiny. You’ve been talking about police reform since you were running for office. Does it kind of shock you that all of the sudden you were able to do so much inside of a couple of weeks?

S3: It was it was not only shocking. It was sobering to experience how years of advocacy could hinge on one particular moment in time to get things across the line. To have me become a victim. And then twelve days later, be able to stand on the Senate floor and talk about my experience and vote for the passage of many of these police reforms. You know, this is not what we see on PBS on how a bill is made. This is this is that what you imagined the legislative process to be? But I think it speaks to how unprecedented this time in our history is, where people require more than lip service and more than just being at a rally. They expect you to do something if you’re in a position to do it.

S5: Today on the show, what it took to get some big police reform laws passed in New York. Zell Miller and his fellow lawmakers, they’ve been trying to do this for years. But protesters handed them a mandate. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

S1: Zelnorm Irey will be the first person to admit he was kind of stunned to have such a frightening encounter with the police. Just blocks from his district, he’d never had that kind of experience before. He’s a cautious guy. He plays by the rules and he knows a lot of police in his part of Brooklyn.

S6: Those individuals are folks that I trust to do the right thing. Ultimately. The problem is there are many, many, many, many, many, many more officers that I don’t know. And I will never know, including the officer that pepper spray to me, including the officers that yoked me up, including the officers that pushed me in the back, including the officers that weaponized their bikes. So I can’t have that level of trust that I have with the officers that I know for the entire department.

S7: To be frank, it is it is an uneasy feeling for me to be around that large presence and to only be afforded protection because of my title.

S1: You’re a Brooklyn native. Right? That’s right. Can you recall, like, your first experience with knowing about police violence because you grew up in a city that was in the middle of a lot of change?

S3: Yes. So, you know, I went to school in Crown Heights when I was very young. A lot of people know what happened during the Crown Heights riots. And a lot of the focus, I think, historically is about the relationship between the black and the Jewish community. And that’s certainly part of that history. But there was also a response to what was going on in Crown Heights that flooded our neighborhoods with police officers. What did that look like? I was very, very, very accustomed to heavy police presence all over. And I would walk home from school and it was part of the scene for me. You know, we also had a lot of gang activity and there were some really tough times in this city. And I remember my mom being the victim of of of getting mugged. And I remember sometimes walking home from school. And I would tuck my, like, blue winter coat and my bag because I didn’t want some of the Crips to, like, think anything. And so there was so there were some some some rough times.

S1: You’re drawing a really complicated picture. I’m wondering if as a kid, you had a sense of who the good guys were.

S8: Yeah, I mean, it’s complicated. There’s a level of safety that you would feel certainly as a child, if you saw that there were cops around, then you had to square that. I had to square that with what I was seeing in the news about police brutality. And so, you know, when I’m ten, eleven, twelve, that’s when we’re seeing the Anthony Baez’s and the Amadou Diablos and the Abner Louima as this is happening as as I’m growing into a teenager in adulthood.

S7: And it was very hard for me to to to reconcile those two things because I just kind of understand how the folks that were supposed to protect us were also some of the same folks that were brutalizing us. And that was complicated even further because generationally, certainly now. But when I was growing up, a lot of the adults, you know, they encouraged the police presence and wanted to feel wanted to feel that safety then. Do you have a generation like mine that grows up with these stories of brutality without consequence? And then we have we kind of have a different take on how things should look.

S1: Yeah. I mean, I know you still live with your mom now. Do you have those generational conversations in this moment?

S3: We do. We do. And, you know, my mom was, of course, mortified to see what happened to me. But even my mom has looked at the protests with a nuanced view. She agrees that we should be protesting brutality, but said that the rioting and the looting took away from the message. And my mom doesn’t think that we should defund the police and has some complicated views around stop and frisk as well. And my mom is very representative of my district. She’s an older black woman. And that’s the majority of my district. So, so so it is complicated when I try to communicate, certainly with folks of my generation. But but what the community writ large that there are those of us who feel very strongly and I count myself in that, that there needs to be fundamental overhaul of how we do policing here in New York and certainly around the country. But there are those folks who don’t feel strongly about that and who lived through a different era here in New York City and equate public safety with the type of policing that we’ve seen. And so I think we have to have a real serious conversation and not a dismissive one. It’s not dissimilar than the conversation we have around the wings of our party, the Democratic Party, and some of the generational divides that we see there as well.

S1: Yeah. I mean, you you ran for state Senate in 2018. You’re young, you’re you’re 33. That’s right. And you ran to unseat a Democratic incumbent who had this complicated history. He’d been voting with Republicans. Can you explain your decision to do that because you came with a much more progressive approach to the job?

S3: Yeah. You know, you mentioned, you know, I’m still with my mom. We have a rent stabilized apartment that I was born and raised in. And my entire story, my ability to go to public schools and eventually know, go to law school, be a productive member of this community. All of that would not have been possible without the stability and housing that we had. And I remember, you know, after after Trump is elected, I think we all experienced this moment of introspection and what are you doing to serve? And there was no greater need in my community than housing I and particularly our rent stabilized units. And I remember leading my tenants association here in the building and we were going through what we could do to help stabilize what has become and is a very volatile market. A lot of folks being pushed out. And someone asked, well, why are the laws for rent stabilized housing the way that they are? And I said that’s because that that is it is the state legislature that controls these laws. And every time that they’ve been up for renewal, they’ve been subject to manipulation by the real estate industry and to elected officials that were beholden to those interests. And, you know, I remember walking away from that and being like, well, we should try to do something about that. And of course, the representative that was before me was someone who had taken a lot of money from real estate and who had not stood up for tenants. And, of course, had this affiliation with the Republicans that I couldn’t stomach. And I spoke to so many other folks before I decided to step up and say, hey, you would be great for this. This is an opportunity to stand up for the community, MRD, while he has a lot of money. You know, it’s been around for a while. No one wanted to take the risk. And so I said, I’m gonna do this and I’m going to do it, frankly, in the name of getting our housing loans fixed, because that is the most important thing in this community. And, you know, we were successful in 2019, almost a year to the date today we passed we passed the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act, which, of course, was some of the most progressive housing legislation we’ve had in generations.

S1: Yeah, I mean, you were also from the very beginning talking about this law called 50 A as part of your platform. It shielded police from accountability in New York. And it meant that it was really hard to get a hold of disciplinary records for individual officers. Right.

S3: That’s exactly right. I remember writing an op ed as a candidate back in early 2018 calling for the repeal of 58. And I remember even before that I had two pro bono cases that dealt with 58 directly. One in which gentleman was abused was basically had his head stomped out by officers. And we were trying to get the disciplinary records of those officers to determine whether or not they had a propensity for this type of violence. And the city utilized the FTA law to say you cannot get access to these records. And so the repeal, if if there wasn’t something that was new to me, it is why I talked about it during my campaign and why was just an incredible moment to see it passed last week. Night is, of course, not a panacea, but certainly a first step for transparency. And I’m hoping now that the law is repealed and that the governor signed it into law last week, that that people will utilize it and it will start to increase measures of accountability for police departments.

S1: Well, I want to go back a little bit to before the repeal was passed because repealing 50 a this shield law, it was recommended by a court appointed facilitator in the wake of New York City grappling with stop and frisk. So it just seems to me like this was something that was on a checklist. Why was it so hard to do?

S7: Not only had the facilitator made that recommendation, the Civilian Complaint Review Board had recommended the repeal of 50. They were in strong support of the full repeal. The New York Police Department has an inspector general that has made several recommendations to the disciplinary process, including making them more publicly available. But all of that was met with staunch opposition by the police union. And that has proven to be the main obstacle to police reform forever, not just with 50 yay, but historically every step of the way, the police union has fought accountability measures and to see in the state. Senate, at least all 40 Democrats from all over the state vote in support of repeal is something that you would not have seen even a few years ago because people would have been afraid of the backlash from the police union.

S1: I was going to say, like, the police union is very powerful, but they don’t get a vote in Albany. So how did this work?

S3: They don’t, of course, have a vote, but they give money and endorsements and have the ability to command the media’s attention. And that has been a powerful tool in the past. In fact, it was utilized pretty successfully this past session when it came to bear reforms. We had passed bill reforms last year. They went into effect the January of this year and the police union, working with a number of other law enforcement unions and entities, were able to drum up so much opposition to the kind of sensationalize folks who were released that it put people in a pretty tough political position where they had to make amendments to what we had just passed and what had just gone into effect.

S1: Yet you’re raising a really good point, because before the Corona virus and these protests, if you were living in New York City in January and February, the conversation really was about bail reform, the fact that people could, you know, all of a sudden they’re not being sent to jail for long periods of time. And there were just a ton of stories about how violent offenders were being released. And it was putting the community at risk.

S3: That’s exactly right. And so they were able to do this successfully. And that and that is the same playbook that they’ve used in the past. And here you have entities that talk about public safety but are willing to release information that is not public if it is to their advantage. And so I think people are I should say elected officials can sometimes be afraid of that backlash, particularly if you’re in a district that has a lot of police officers or that a district that is especially sensitive to those needs. But I think what has helped is that there have now been a counter balance of millions of people taking the streets saying we’re tired of this. And so if you are someone who is in a position of power, you now, I think if you were afraid, you now have some cover to say no, the people actually want something different. And you are no longer the police union. You are no longer the pre-eminent voice on public safety. Now, that voice is what we’re seeing in the streets.

S1: So after the protests where you were pepper sprayed and lots of other people found themselves in clashes with the police in New York City, this law FTA was so quickly repealed. Like, do you know how many days it took to from that protest to getting it to Governor Cuomo, his desk?

S6: So approximately 13 days. Which is remarkable.

S1: You made a speech when the legislation was passed. You talked about what happened to you when you were in this confrontation with police.

S9: And to this day, I don’t know if the officer that sprayed me and my colleague in the assembly has a history of excessive use of force. That is what this bill is about. It is about the history we have seen brutality go on. Answer. This isn’t an attack. This is accountability.

S7: You know, I thought it was important for us to get on the record that police brutality is not the chatter of the day. This isn’t just a movement of a bunch of restless people trying to get out of their house and make noise. Police brutality has been happening since the beginning of policing. And I thought it was important for us to go through some of that chronology and then to talk about my own experience so that people don’t sit back and separate the two. You know, I thought it was important to go through all of that on the floor and to have that on the record so that the legislator, you know, the 10 year old in my district who will ultimately occupy this seat, that I mean, when they are dealing with the police brutality issues of their day, I wanted them to see on the record that this is something that we’ve all had to grapple with and that they can now have the ability to move forward and use their pain for progress.

S10: It’s I get emotional just going back to that time and saying, wow, we did it and not we just the senators, we the families of the victims, we the people that were on the streets, we the people that have have have given to the movement. We actually did it. And you couldn’t have told me this 14 days ago, 15 days ago, that we would be at this moment.

S1: I’m glad you talked about the hard road to get here, because I’ve been thinking about how you replaced a politician with this complicated history, a black politician. And that politician wasn’t able to do this work for whatever reason, the politicians who came before you made a lot of compromises. I wonder if you think back on that in terms of how politics has worked and how you reached this moment.

S3: You know, it is a really interesting discussion because I think we have entered into a new era, certainly of politics, but especially of black politics. I remember during my race where there were accusations from my opponents that I wasn’t black enough for the district, really, and that I didn’t have that. Yes. And that I didn’t have the accusation was that I had gone away for school and that I had worked at this fancy law firm and that I you know, I wasn’t really in touch and I couldn’t relate. And this is sort of the same the same tropes that are thrown at people who who who are successful and want to come back and serve. And so I remember during the campaign this rhetoric and my response would be. Then what have you done? What are the results of your leadership? You have taken money from real estate. You’ve taken money from the police unions. You caucus with the Republicans. You have impeded progress on all of these fronts. But because you are occupying this seat, you somehow are more black than I am and more in tune with black issues just by way, by virtue of you being in the seat. And I think that entitlement is something that many of us have seen in our politics across the country, people who were just excited to be there. And not that representation doesn’t matter. Of course it matters. It’s important that we have people that look like us in office. But it is much more important what you do for our people once you are there and people are starting to get hip to that. And for those folks who are complacent and who were just happy to be there, then it must be mortifying because people aren’t going to accept the status quo anymore.

S1: Yeah, I was reading this article this weekend about the evolution of the Congressional Black Caucus, which, of course, you know, amazing Brooklyn history there, Shirley Chisholm, and how it evolved over the years and how just how it changed and how it’s it what it did changed. And I wonder if you think about how you guard against complacency in yourself as someone who now does have reins of power.

S3: You know, it’s tough. There’s there’s there’s no easy answer for that. I think what I try to do is sort of what we’ve seen in a very public way over the past two weeks. I try to be on the front lines. And it’s why I decided to go to the protest. I wanted to be there. I wanted to feel the energy of the people. I wanted to hear what folks were saying. I wanted to be in tune. And it’s what I did. Pre covered 19. I did a lot of senator on your block. I would be at train stations because I wanted to stay grounded. And, you know, I find I have found that that has helped me to not be complacent because it’s easy to be in a legislative hearing, you know, in the elected official seat. And you’re questioning the person across and they have to answer your questions. You know, that’s a that’s a very heady experience. But when you’re on Flatbush Avenue and a senior comes up to you and says you ain’t doing your job. And here’s why. That, to me, is the heart of being an elected. That’s the only way you get the real talk. You know, everyone you go to other places and everyone is a ho. Hi, Senator. Yes, Senator. Of course, Senator. But, you know, I want I want to hear the real stuff, because that’s those are the things that won’t bubble to the top.

S1: You know, this weekend, Governor Cuomo held a press conference and said to protesters, you’ve won. You don’t need to protest. You won. You want you accomplished your goal. Sort of implied. It’s time to get out of the streets and come to the table, help us decide what we do with police. Now, I wonder what you thought about that sentiment.

S6: I think not a single person is in a position to tell the protesters what to do. The reason that we have taken to the streets and the reason why people continue to take to the streets is because government has not been responsive enough. Government has not given them the accountability that they need. Government has not instituted the trust that it needs to do. And so it’s not going to be government that decides when it is time for them to stop protesting or not. I agree with the sentiment in that you protest in order to get some changes. And we saw some changes really good starts. But they’re just that the beginning. And, you know, the Freedom Riders in the 60s, they protest us for seven months before bus rides were were desegregated. You know, this is not a short term thing.

S8: This is not something that you can put a time limit on. I think people should continue to protest until they see the changes that they want to see. And, you know, after taking some time to process, I’m probably gonna be right back out there protesting alongside with them.

S11: Senator Murray, thank you so much for joining me. Really a pleasure to be on. Thank you. And please stay safe, everyone, and fill out your census. I love that you’re like fill out the census. Like Twitter is like a half census. It’s great. Got to do it. Got to do it. Zelnorm Murray is in York State senator serving in Brooklyn. And that’s the show. What Next is produced by Mary Wilson, Jason de Leon and Daniel Hewett. We’ve got help everyday from Alicia Montgomery and Allison Benedikt. Thanks for listening. I’m Mary Harris. We’ll be back here tomorrow.