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City’s push to address anti-Semitism draws lessons from gun violence efforts

January 6, 2020 David Brand
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In the wake of anti-Semitic hate crimes across the region, the city has introduced a package of school- and community-based initiatives designed to educate New Yorkers about bias and hate crimes, and bring neighbors together to diffuse tensions.

Though the specifics of the new initiatives remain unclear, Mayor Bill de Blasio likened the multi-agency, neighborhood-targeted approach for reducing hate crimes to the city’s response to gun violence at NYCHA developments in 2014.

“I remember at the beginning of the administration, we had a real crisis with shootings in NYCHA developments and we had to put a series of new initiatives into place that first summer I was in office,” de Blasio told the Eagle.

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When quickly rolling out multiple initiatives, knowing what’s working and what to improve can be difficult. De Blasio said his team will learn from the rollout of the gun violence initiatives, and will shape the plan in real-time in response to on-the-ground conditions.

“We had to watch every week to see if they were working and make adjustments accordingly and finally got to a place where we saw sustained change,” de Blasio said of the measures to reduce gun violence.

The template is coming from the Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety, or MAP, which rolled out in 2014 at 15 developments across the city with relatively high rates of violent crime. At each complex, a team of public housing residents, known as NeighborhoodSTAT, began working with the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice to implement strategies for improving community safety. Various city agencies and the NYPD are also involved in the response.

Likewise, a core component of the city’s initiative to reduce anti-Semitism is fostering Neighborhood Safety Coalitions, which will meet “to strategize about ways to interrupt hate acts before they happen” in Williamsburg, Crown Heights and Borough Park, according to MOCJ.

The coalitions are based on the Cure Violence model, initiatives that rely on “credible messengers” who have participated in or experienced street violence, to address underlying issues and diffuse the tensions that lead to violence, particularly among young people of color. The programs are active in low-income neighborhoods and NYCHA developments across the city, and a 2013 study found it was effective at reducing gun violence in Crown Heights by 20 percent.

The model, though, has never been used for addressing bias-motivated crimes.

De Blasio said he is committed to funding and facilitating the community-based programs for combatting anti-Semitism over a long period of time, while adjusting the focus to meet needs.

“We have to be honest about the reality of trying to change hearts and minds,” de Blasio said. “That’s not an overnight situation. That’s going to take some painstaking work.”

The city, however, has not yet established any measures to see if the programs are working, aside from the NYPD weekly hate crime reports, de Blasio said.

If the city does see a decrease in anti-Semitic crimes, it will not be “possible to say what amount of that comes from police presence, what amount of that comes from community safety coalitions, what amount of that comes from working in the schools and other factors,”  de Blasio said.

“But the goal is quite straight-forward,” he added. “We want these instances to end and we’ll be able to watch the trajectory very closely and make adjustments based on what we see.”

Despite the city’s efforts, gun violence remains a major issue in and around public housing, especially in Brooklyn. At least 44 people were murdered on NYCHA property citywide between June 4, 2018, and June 3, 2019, according to data provided by the housing authority in response to a Freedom of Information Law request. Brooklyn accounted for 25 of those murders, or 57 percent.

Violence is a symptom of deeper issues affecting “vulnerable communities,” said K. Bain, who has long facilitated Cure Violence efforts at the Queensbridge Houses. Addressing conflict and undoing bias demands a holistic approach, he said.

“To affect change, you have to do three things at once — address the individuals, address the communities and you also have to actively and aggressively deal with systems that have been in place to deal with oppression, dysfunction and disconnection,” said Bain, the director of 696 Build Queensbridge.

“It’s putting human beings first to resolve situations,” he added. “The real work doesn’t fit in a soundbite. This works because it’s based on human needs.”

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