NEW YORK. When Yesha Seku began distributing surgical masks and disposable gloves in Harlem at the beginning of the pandemic, some people laughed and said that she went too far. It was an unfamiliar role for Sekou, the founder of a nonprofit organization that usually works to prevent gang violence.
But as the deaths from the virus occurred in predominantly black quarters, similar to where the Sekou group works, people began to chase her and her workers down the street to get supplies, she said.
Even young skeptics who “had their own little theories” about the virus lost their resistance after Seku and her volunteers warned them that the police could stop them for not having a mask, or, even worse, they could get infected and involuntarily transmit disease to your grandmothers.
“This is a weak point that we were able to hit and make them understand that if you don’t want to do it for you, you don’t like how it looks, do it for the one you live with, whose sofa you sleep on,” said Sekou.
People like Sekou are known as “trustworthy messengers” or “violators of violence” in their area of activity, and city officials say they can be crucial in overcoming resistance to the rules of social distance in some black and Spanish-speaking neighborhoods where distrust exists to the authorities.
Violence prevention groups such as Sekou Street Corner Resources are part of the City Hall’s broader efforts to use civilians to encourage people to follow social exclusion rules rather than relying solely on police officers.
Mayor Bill de Blasio made these efforts a priority after viral videos of violent arrests in the black and Latin American neighborhoods provoked public outrage and enforcement data showed sharp racial inequality in the arrests, leading to calls for change by elected leaders.
Reliable messengers are mostly young, black and Hispanic, from the same demographic groups who were given the calls and arrested most for crimes related to the pandemic. Many of them have been involved in gangs or crimes in the past, the experience they use to defuse street conflicts before they turn into violence and refer peers to services such as vocational training.
Working in 50 mayoralty coordinated violence prevention groups, some of the envoys were already handing out masks and other supplies and were responding to 311 complaints of social distance when they were asked by local police commanders.
But Eric Cumberbatch, deputy director of the City Hall of the Criminal Justice Department, said the city would like them to play a greater role in helping to convince young people who don’t trust the police to take action to curb the epidemic.
“They look at them as leaders,” he said. “And they invaded and targeted a very vulnerable population, which is usually young people with whom government and city agencies are trying to communicate productively.”
In addition to attracting anti-violence workers, the city plans to appoint 2,300 clergy and city workers, as well as others, as “ambassadors of social distance.” The police department also plans to send auxiliary officers to the parks.
Chief Terence A. Monahan, a senior department official, said the police welcomed the opportunity to step back from applying the rules and focus on fighting crime. According to him, the shooting increased slightly in the framework of citywide orders at home, and thefts aimed at closed enterprises increased sharply.
“We do not want the police to distance themselves from society,” he said. “But there were many times when other people went out there and they called us:“ They don’t listen to us, they send the police. ” “I don’t think that we can get out of this, but any help, any help that we can get from anyone will be greatly appreciated.”
Dr. Gary Slyutkin, an infectious disease specialist who created Cure Violence Global, an organization whose prevention model is used in cities like Chicago and New York, said that unlike officers who rely on their compliance authority, couriers learn to persuade people willingly change their behavior. “Behavior is not very effectively changed by force,” he said.
On May 7, when public outcry intensified over pandemic-related arrest videos, police and city officials met with leaders of reliable messenger programs throughout the city to discuss their expanding roles.
Participants at the Zoom meeting forced the police to reconsider their approach to social distance in the black and Latin American neighborhoods, pointing to recent meetings that compared the unconstitutional “stop and frolic” methods.
The police, for their part, have denied that employees who comply with the rules had racial prejudice. The monk told people on call that in almost all cases, staff members took action to address public complaints that they would have to deal with even if there weren’t a pandemic. These complaints included people smoking marijuana, drinking alcohol and playing dice on the street.
“Listen, the police do not do this because it is a tyrant,” Monahan recalls, telling the group. “They do it because it is what we need to do to get out of this pandemic.”
The effectiveness of envoys against violence in bridging the gap between the police and the public became apparent after Giovanni Oto was killed.
Police believe that Oto, a 30-year-old janitor and father of three children, was either an outside observer or a participant in a dispute that erupted while playing dice a few minutes before 1am on April 25th. Investigators are still looking for an action movie, police said he was wearing a surgical mask and escaped on foot after firing at Oton and a 26-year-old man who survived.
The coronavirus pandemic forced Oton’s family to abandon plans for a horse-drawn hearse to move Oton’s body through Harlem streets on May 2. Instead, the family planned a small tribute on the block of West 143rd Street, where Othon grew up. But hundreds of people appeared, obviously not suspecting that the procession was canceled.
The police were required to interrupt the meeting. But local state assistant Al Taylor called Seku to help defuse the situation.
Seku, who, with her staff in New Jersey, was happy to buy supplies, returned to Harlem, where she handed out bags with masks and gloves and encouraged people to keep their distance from each other.
The police gave Taylor a microphone from a police car, which he handed to Oto’s stepmother to pray. She urged people not to avenge the killing of Othon. Then the family released a cluster of balloons. The crowd was rapidly declining.
The police were “very respectful,” said the widow of Oto, Britney Williams-Oto, 30. “Once we released the balloons, they looked like:“ Ok guys, we still need you to practice remote communication ”
For sister Oto Raquel, the moment was cathartic. “For me, this meant peace, because I felt that I had to do something for him,” she said.
This article originally appeared in New York Times,
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