From Uncovered Politics:
On September 24, Christina González, a Green Party candidate for the open District 7 New York City Council seat in upper Manhattan, was arrested in a Harlem subway station on her way to protest the hiring of former CIA Director and U.S. General David Petraeus by the previously tuition-free City University of New York (CUNY).
Gonzalez is determined not to let the arrest detract from her campaign. She explained recently that the incident was prompted by the fact the city’s public transportation has become prohibitively expensive
for many New Yorkers. More than 1.6 billion people use the subway yearly in New York City, and while some view public transit for being “just for poor people,”the average New York straphanger
makes $55,000 a year, hardly a working-class wage.
Gonzalez says she believes public transportation should be free for the public, as it is in many other countries, and she typically asks the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) attendant or police officers in the station if they can let her on. Although this method has worked in the past, on that particular day she ran into some officers from her local Harlem precinct, who told the subway booth attendant not to cut her any slack.
Gonzalez, who has become well-known to the NYPD through her community organizing and activism against illegal police practices such as Stop & Frisk
, was eventually arrested after refusing to stop recording the interaction on her cellphone or to leave the station. The 145th Street Transit Precinct did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the case.
Gonzalez was charged with criminal trespassing, OGA, resisting arrest, and three counts of “discon”: using prohibited language, blocking traffic, excessive noise. The officers erased her video from the exchange and vandalized her phone so that it no longer charges.
There were many ways that the interaction could have played out, she said, clarifying that it was the officers, not herself, who instigated the confrontation and escalated it to an arrest. Gonzalez is quick to point out that the arrest was never about the $2.50 fare. Street crime is down in New York, and, in an effort to remain “productive,” officers are forced to go after smaller arrests in order to justify their employment, she says.
“We’re living in a time where our food system is collapsing, our air is unbreathable, our elected officials lie to our faces, and our schools are prisons. So, the police department is there to crush our spirits, deter us from speaking out, scare us into submission, have us constantly looking over our shoulders. It is the law enforcement as a tool of social control that I am against, not individual cops,” she said. As a member of City Council, Gonzalez said, she would advocate for community mediators as an alternative to the police.
As for the officers involved in the incident, Gonzalez said she had seen at least one of them in the neighborhood before, and suggested that they seem to take issue with her because she is brave enough to assert her rights and to stand up to them when she sees what they are doing is wrong.
“I like to remind them, they are not heroes,” she said. “Hanging out in the subway station arresting people under false pretenses doesn’t make you a hero. You’re just a troublemaker.” Gonzalez has been arrested eleven times during the past two years and not a single case has held up in court; six of her cases have been dismissed and the others remain pending.
Her candidacy for public office did not deter the court from setting $1,000 bail, labeling her a “flight risk.” The candidate says she thinks it’s entirely possible that the police, the judge, and even her public defender, could not imagine that she was running for city council. Gonzalez hopes her campaign will create a model for young activists that want to reclaim local politics.
In addition to seeking an end to Stop and Frisk, which remains a standard of the NYPD despite a recent federal ruling
declaring the practice unconstitutional, Gonzalez’s campaign
is focused on public safety, public health, education and inequality — issues she sees as related.
“I’m tired of hearing all these people in suits who have already made promises to corporations saying that they are going to help our communities,” she said. “We don’t have healthy, affordable food in this neighborhood. We have some of the worse asthma rates in this country right in this very neighborhood; it’s big business that’s destroying our community. We have to talk about what the real quality of life crimes are.”
In City Council races, name recognition is typically the first priority of a winning campaign, and Gonzalez is running against a candidate, Mark Levine, who has been heavily fortified by outside interest groups. Gonzalez herself has received 10 of Levine’s brochures in the mail. Jobs for New York, a corporate real estate front
that has come under fire for its heavy-handed role in the 2013 City Council elections, spent more than $400,000 on advertising for Levine
, which Gonzalez thinks is paving the way for a real estate giveaway in Harlem.
Although Levine, like other beneficiaries, has denounced the Jobs for New York funding
, he did so only after he used the PAC’s endorsement to sew up the primary election. If he really was against the funding, he might have stepped aside and ceded the nomination to one of the other candidates, to whom he might have lost without the real estate lobby’s support, Gonzalez said.
“If he really was about creating jobs for the people of Harlem, he would have said, ‘You know what, I’m a white man of privilege, I don’t actually need this position, I should give it to the person that really deserves it.’ Maybe that’s the person that came in second place on the Democratic ticket, maybe that’s me, maybe it’s somebody else from this neighborhood, but I don’t think it’s him,” she said. Levine denied requests for an interview for this article.
Gonzalez, despite her enthusiasm for the council seat, has reservations about the potential for change through the electoral process.
“I don’t think radical social change is going to happen by being a city council person, but I think that it’s a way to bring light to what’s going on…Maybe I can gum up the works someway, and put my foot down and not let them continue on with this plan of gentrification on steroids that they have for Harlem,” she said.
Running a campaign out of her bedroom has been more hectic than she anticipated, but she has drawn energy from the support she has received in the community and the willingness of her friends and neighbors to help out with the race. She said that people have responded to her message and appreciate that she backs up her platform with activism.
“These other politicians say that they are for this and against that, but really what have you been doing all this time that you’ve been running, that you’ve been setting up your campaign,” she said. “Mark Levine, you say that you are against stop and frisk, where have you been man? For two years we’ve been marching against stop and frisk, we’ve been getting arrested, we’ve been getting harassed, I never saw you at any of these events, ever.”
As for her recent arrest, Gonzalez said that it has motivated her to take on the MTA as part of her campaign and to educate people on their rights to seek assistance with fares that they may no longer be able to afford. The cost of a ride has risen by nearly 40 percent since 2008 and the quasi-public MTA is boasting a$1.9 billion surplus yet intends to increase fares
again in 2015 and 2017.
Gonzalez has taken some cues from No Fare Hikes, a grassroots organization that promoted a “Swipe Back” campaign earlier this year to protest MTA fare hikes. According to “Swipe Back” organizers there is nothing illegal
about offering free swipes from your unlimited ride card, or asking to be swiped on by other riders. The MTA is in no position to moralize as it routinely cries broke, raises fares, then “finds” billions in surplus, then reports billions missing.
At the end of Bloomberg-era, with the city systematically pushing out
all but the financial elite perhaps we could all use a swipe back now and again. With nearly half of the city living in poverty, perhaps Gonzalez is right in suggesting that it is time to reimagine the institutions we rely on for governance and to rebuild New York from the bottom up. Whether we like it or not, one thing is clear, somewhere in Harlem’s District 7, Christina Gonzalez is working to increase opportunities for those typically left out of election-year pandering.
There will be a televised debate on MNN between the two candidates – time and date to be announced.
Nick Malinowski is a social worker and journalist living in New York City. A regular contributor to The Huffington Post, he is a former staff writer for Current Biography, Montgomery Newspapers and Law360.com. His works have also appeared in the Amsterdam News and Forbes.com.