On April 27th, federal prosecutors indicted 120 alleged gang members in the north Bronx. Officials called it the largest gang takedown in New York City history. The arrests were made in connection to six fatal shootings. Across four different locations, police confiscated seven guns and rounds of ammunition. The bust was portrayed as a great law enforcement triumph. But it looked different to the people who live there.
At dawn that day, police arrested 87 people from the Eastchester Gardens housing development alone. The housing complex is home to around 1,200 residents, and to one of two warring gangs in the area, known as the 2Fly. Members of 2Fly allegedly hid guns in the playground in the middle of the housing development and in apartments nearby, according to police reports. According to Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for Southern New York, the extent of the violence reached “thousands of residents of Eastchester Gardens and its surrounding neighborhoods terrorized for years by the gangs’ open-air drug dealing and senseless violence.”
Marcus Wray does not see it that way. Wray stood on Burke Avenue in front of the entrance to Eastchester Gardens on a sunny Monday afternoon, five days after the arrests. He has lived here for 26 of his 28 years. Wray held his young son’s shoes in his hand. His son often plays in the playground described in the reporting of the raid as the gang’s base.
Some bad apples live in his neighborhood, he said, and he sympathized with any victims of violence. A stray bullet from the gun of an alleged gang member killed a 92-year-old woman in 2009. “Now God bless this lady’s soul, God bless anybody else who’s been affected by this so-called gang violence,” said Wray.
But Wray—tall, thickset, and with short, braided hair—was adamant that many of the men and boys who had been arrested in the big bust had no gang ties. And Wray aimed part of his anger at the media: “The way the media is portraying these young black men, they’re portraying them as they’re terrorists, they’re portraying them as they’re terrorizing the neighborhood,” said Wray. “Major drug dealers, killers. Which is not at all true. These kids are fathers. These kids are sons. These kids are loved.”
To assess how the media portrays events like this is complex. For starters, the biggest gang roundup in New York City’s history is, clearly, big news. On the morning of April 27, hundreds of police officers and agents from federal law enforcement units descended on Eastchester Gardens. Helicopters circled in the sky. The magnitude of the investigation, conducted for more than a year, was unprecedented.
The reporting on gang raids, however, makes it difficult to capture the ramifications on an individual level. For example, the people arrested were all cast as members of a gang before going through a court process. Individual cases are washed up and forgotten about during these types of raids, said David Brotherton, a professor of sociology at John Jay College. “The accounting of it gets completely lost.”
Meanwhile, an entire neighborhood gets tainted. The big bust was featured prominently in local and national news. The Daily News, for example, was at Eastchester Gardens and photographed the moments when people were handcuffed and put inside police vans. The News wrote that the indictments “identified 120 violent hoodlums.” The New York Times led with “Sweep in Bronx Tackles Decade of Gang Chaos.”
The reports painted a grim picture of an area where gun violence has plagued the population for years. According to statements given to the press at the time, gang members were allegedly responsible for more than 1,800 shots fired and eight homicides since 2007, said Angel Melendez, a senior member of the investigation and part of Homeland Security Investigation, a branch of Immigration and Customs Enforcement that combats criminal organizations.
Gun violence in the Eastchester Gardens area—in comparison to other parts of New York City—has persisted in some form over the years. Yet residents like Wray say the media doesn’t accurately or fairly report on where they live—focusing on the violent habits of the minority and misrepresenting local people. Crime is in fact down for the 47th precinct, which covers Eastchester Gardens, and there have been 60 percent fewer shooting incidents compared to two years ago, according to NYPD Compstat data.
Alex Vitale, an associate professor in Sociology at Brooklyn College and an expert on policing in New York City, says that this kind of reporting bolsters a cycle in which teams of police and federal agents descend on a housing development and are brought to life by dramatic imagery and, more important, are depicted as the solution to problems that don’t always exist. The NYPD targets public housing complexes where street crime still exists, and an invitation to the media is essentially a way of showing that such tactics are sweeping violent gangs off the street, said Vitale. However, in his view this heavy-handed approach produces “mass incarceration and negative consequences for these young people.” And does more harm than good.
It is true, too, that for years, the media has painted a definitive view of the area. In the last five years, the three most common subjects for newspaper and online news stories that referenced the “Eastchester Gardens” or the nearby “Edenwald Houses” were, in order of the most popular: Murder/Manslaughter, Politics/General News, and Crime/Legal Action, according to Factiva, an online news database.
“There’s an unfair sharing of information for what goes on in a neighborhood,” said Jorges Lopez, who stood next to Wray, his friend and fellow Eastchester Gardens resident. “Some neighborhoods you know every good thing that goes on. There’s a fundraiser, a charity event. Here you hear about the majority of the negative things that go on.”
When she first learned of arrests in the place she had called home, Katrina Asante said in an email that she was disheartened “that people were being stabbed, robbed and even shot to death in their own home.” Asante is running for State Senate to represent the area where she was raised. In her opinion the media can uplift a place like Eastchester Gardens, but too often focus on negative aspects. While the situation is terrible for any relatives of the victims, reporting “doesn’t give light to the many women and men who are hardworking people dedicated to raising their families and contributing to the community they live in,” she said.
Along the wide, quiet streets beyond Eastchester Gardens and towards Burke Avenue subway station, detached family houses abound. “I don’t watch news,” said Luce Rodriguez, who was sweeping a rug spread out on her concrete driveway. “You don’t read nothing good. Everything is bad.” For the last 45 years, Rodriguez has lived in the same Bronx house near the Eastchester Gardens. She has never experienced any trouble, she says, largely because she spends most of her time at work.
Nine days after the roundup, Andy King, who represents the area that includes Eastchester on the New York City Council, called an emergency meeting at the Eastchester Gardens Community Center. The residents who spoke out were upset about how the raid itself was conducted, and some people disputed individual charges. Residents questioned a panel made up of senior figures from the NYPD and the District Attorney for Bronx County. The investigation was “significant and intense,” and aimed at finding justice for relatives of murder victims and keeping local people safe, said Deputy Chief Jason Wilcox, head of Bronx detectives. “We don’t just lock people up on a hunch,” Ruel Stephenson, the commanding officer of the 47th Precinct, told the group.
Some at the meeting questioned why the raid had to be so large and heavy-handed. Where was the respect, asked Alana Burrell, who stood up at the back of the sports hall. “I live here, I walk these streets. I feel what goes on here,” she said. “Yes, we live in the projects but we are not dumb people,” she added later.
Burrell has lived in Eastchester for 17 years. Only last week she said she was forced to duck for cover at the sound of gunshots near her home. But acts like this, she said should not tarnish the reputation of the many hardworking people that make up the majority of the housing development. People like her, she said, with a college degree. Burrell said the media can be counterproductive and that negative reporting can destroy a person and an area’s character. “We’ve been holed as gangs, ghetto, the hood,” said Burrell.
The closeness between the police and the media sometimes results in an echo chamber, said Josmar Trujillo, writer and criminal justice activist with New Yorkers Against Bratton. The Eastchester Gardens roundup, he said, prompted the worst kind of reporting because labels like gangs and gun violence stick in the minds of the audience who aren’t familiar with a neighborhood. “It’s like a cheap movie. There’s absolutely no thought, no big picture, no deeper thinking other than just gang bangers and cops and violence,” said Trujillo. “Life is not so simple.”
Just over one mile north on Laconia Avenue from Eastchester Gardens, is the largest housing development in the Bronx, the Edenwald Houses. A minority of the arrests during the gang raid were made at Edenwald. Out of the more than 5,000 Edenwald residents, the numbers of people involved in gang activity inside the development is pretty minimal, said Walter McNeill, Tenant Association President and A 42-year resident.
The media turns up to cover shootings and other crimes, he said. He has gotten used to taking the right precautions against getting any violence that occurs largely after dark by not going out at night. But the depiction of his housing development falls victim to stereotyping. “They tend to give us a bad rap,” said McNeill. The “projects,” a term he avoids, provide a backdrop that reporters use to “spice” up their coverage, he added later.
McNeill said he is proud of where he lives. “I wear it as a badge of honor.”