Image via Dey Hernández, Jorge Díaz Ortiz and Sylvia Hernández

'Abolition Means Living Without Fear'

In 2006, weeks before my high school graduation, three plain-clothes detectives approached me as I was waiting for the E train in Forest Hills, Queens.  As a 17-year-old, I was terrified and confused as they frisked me, searched my phone, and arrested me. When they took me to the precinct, I was thrown into a closet and asked to confess to something I didn’t do. While waiting in the holding cell, two white officers called me “coolie,” a slur generally used against people of Indo-Caribbean ancestry. Those two white officers knew the significance of using the word coolie — it was to degrade me. I knew my experience with the New York Police Department was not an isolated incident — Indo-Caribbean communities (like the one I belong to) have a long history of heavily being policed, especially in New York City.

New York’s Indo-Caribbean origins

Indo-Caribbeans come from nations that are in the top 10 of foreign-born populations in New York City. Indo-Caribbeans mass immigrated to the U.S., especially to New York City, beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Most were fleeing political, economic, and racial turmoil that was spurred by the British when the colonized fought for independence from colonialism. Most that immigrated came from the villages and either worked on the sugar plantations, rice fields, or farms. They typically did not have the “skilled” labor their counterparts from South Asia came with and resided in majority Black and Latinx communities such as Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights in Brooklyn and the South Bronx and South Jamaica in Queens.  These neighborhoods are heavily under-resourced and over-policed communities;  their residents are the majority of the population in the criminal punishment system.

Residents like Prakash Churaman, a Guyanese youth from Queens, was only 15-years-old when he was arrested from his home by the NYPD in 2014. The officers claimed that he was one of three masked gunmen who killed one person and injured another in Jamaica, Queens. The officers drove him around for three hours and handcuffed in an unmarked car, despite the precinct being only 10 minutes away from his home.  At the precinct, the officers harassed and threatened Churaman to confess to being one of the gunmen - something he fervently denies.

“The system is not fair at all,” Churaman told me through the phone. “You know the saying that ‘you're innocent till proven guilty’, that doesn’t really exist. Once you’re placed in cuffs, you’re guilty till proven innocent.”

The officers manipulated his mom to get him to confess. Because of this coerced false confession, Churaman spent six years imprisoned. Throughout the whole time, Churaman has defended his innocence. His perseverance and community of support is the reason he was able to be released on bond.

Clashes with law enforcement and immigration

There are multiple other stories of Indo-Caribbean people in NYC who share these same frustrations. Interaction with law enforcement gets trickier when immigration status comes into play.

Sherry, a mother of three and a Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient, told me she felt fear because of her immigration status.

“I’ve experienced firsthand  the NYPD has worked with ICE agents, ” she said.

In May 2017, Sherry’s brother, Hardat Sampat, was picked up by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in front of his family’s home in Richmond Hill, Queens. As his family and neighbors protested the arrest, the ICE agents called the NYPD who helped the agents secure the arrest.

“I was scared and confused when they picked him up. Why were they doing this to our family?” Sherry said.

A few weeks before this, Sampat was wrongfully arrested by the NYPD for a robbery charge. Many believe that ICE knew his location after this arrest because they were able to track him though his fingerprints when he was arrested. This tactic was allowed through Secure Communities. Sampat’s case shows the interconnectedness of the criminal punishment system and deportation system.

Sherry also has direct experience with the corruption and misogyny of law enforcement systems.  Her first arrest happened when she was a 16-year-old. She vividly remembers the officer saying, “If you continue acting like a bitch, you’re going to be treated like a bitch,” while being handcuffed to a chair.

Following this incident, a few years ago, the police were called to her workplace party for a  domestic dispute between her and her husband. Sherry says she was arrested, even though she was defending herself against abuse. That arrest impacted her employment, and her DACA.  Sherry worries her arrests and records will impact her eligibility.

“They [USCIS] might look at it differently in terms of approving it [ DACA].” she said.  “That was scary to me; the thought of losing everything, my job, my survival because of something that happened a while ago. They wouldn’t look at it as I was the one who was abused for so long and it was time for me to defend myself; they are plainly going to look at it as I was arrested. It does impact every aspect of your life after the fact.”

Savita, also a mother of three, spoke to me about her experiences with the criminal punishment system and the stress it has caused her and her family.

“The police came to me without even hearing what I had to say,” she said. “They pushed me onto the car [ and]  my two-year-old son watched as I was hand-cuffed. I felt I was being tortured. I was crying. They took my son away from me.”

When Savita arrived at the precinct, an assistant district attorney was forcing her to plead guilty.

“The judge told me if I was to get convicted, I would do 3-5 [years], then get deported. It really stressed me out when they said that, ” Savita said.

The deeper impact of criminal justice

The criminal punishment system has a major impact on working class people in the Indo-Caribbean community. The system is inhumane and leaves lasting effects on those directly impacted and their families’ lives. Churaman, Sherry, and Savita’s experiences are not an anomaly. Working class Black and brown people are continuously targeted, arrested, caged, and killed by the criminal punishment system. But our Indo-Caribbean communities hardly talk about this issue of policing.

“If you are arrested, [the Indo-Caribbean community believes] that the police did their job; you’re a criminal, and you’re where you need to be, ” Sherry said about the mindset of her community.

Sherry brings up a larger societal issue that focuses on punishment rather than reducing harm. This issue says criminalized people are not deserving of basic humanity, rights, and dignity.  All three agree that a change in this narrative is necessary. “Impacted people got to speak up,” Churaman said. “Our voices should be heard in the community.”

Churaman also mentioned that people need to understand how the criminal punishment system works and how it harms people.  “I was locked up four years before I got to trial — that’s cruel and unusual,” he said.  “And because I had violent felony charges, I was remanded [could not get bail].”

So what do we do? In the last year, there have been national calls to defund the police. With the police murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, more are realizing something isn’t right. However, when abolition is mentioned, , it is thought of as too radical or not achievable.

Making abolition the prime focus

“Abolition is building a world where we can survive and thrive,” said Soniya Munshi, a transformative justice practitioner and a member of INCITE!, a network of feminists of color organizing to end state violence and violence in homes and communities. “It’s putting resources into communities to live with safety and health; having economic security, housing security.”

According to Munshi, abolition is about creating a society where people’s needs are met, where every student has quality education, everyone has a home, where people don’t go hungry, and there are  community-led interventions to address harm. It's about shifting our thinking from punishment to transformation.

For example, in New York City, the NYPD budget is around $6 billion, which is the largest police budget in the nation. For every dollar that goes to the NYPD, 29 cents goes to homeless services, 25 cents goes to the department of health, and 1 cent goes to the workforce investment. During this pandemic, Mayor Bill DeBlasio cut funding for the basement legalization program, which many working class Black, brown, Indigenous, and immigrant folks live in. He also initially cut funding for the summer youth employment program. Organizers, advocates, and abolitionists say that if the funds were used instead to  help communities to support themselves,  keep themselves safe, and to grow, we can see the beginning of a society that doesn’t rely on police.

Churaman said abolition to him means we keep each other safe.

For Sherry,  abolition is living without fear.

“In so many different ways, the police represent fear for many. For Black lives, we see brutality and death. For undocumented folks, it’s a way for deportation. If you look at it for minority neighborhoods, it’s how you’re treated in different ways. Abolition for me is living without those fears.”

Sherry and Churaman added that there needs to be more resources in communities to  engage each other — have recreation centers, support networks for folks struggling with substance and alcohol abuse, and resources for jobs and job training programs.

Practically working towards abolition for many organizers and advocates means working to free incarcerated people while working to build better resourced communities.

"We should join fights for collective wellness,” said Munshi.

This means joining campaigns for housing relief/cancel rent, and others to  create an economic structure for workers that are excluded from government benefits such as undocumented workers, sex workers, gig workers, and formerly incarcerated. Working for the material needs for our communities reduces the reliance on the police and the criminal punishment system.

The stories of Churaman, Sherry, and Savita connect to the millions who have been impacted by this inhumane system. It is possible to reduce our reliance on it, and eventually dismantle it. But it takes commitment. As Soniya says, “it’s a commitment to racial and economic justice.” Let’s commit to creating the society we want, where all of us can thrive.