On a Far Rockaway thoroughfare dominated by dollar vans and discount clothiers and a handful of dingy yet architecturally impressive brick buildings, a group of young people convene in a luminous, orange office that buzzes with discussion of food justice and tropical fish tanks.
They are part of the Rockaway Youth Task Force (RYTF), an organization that aims to empower young community members with “volunteer opportunities and civic engagement.”
During a recent visit to the area, in the Queens borough of New York City, some 10 task force participants had circled a conference table to discuss an unusual plan for police reform: RYTF membership coordinator Jazmine Outlaw’s run for 101th Precinct Community Council president.
“Young people of color, in general, haven’t been involved even as members” of precinct community councils, says Josmar Trujillo, an organizer with New Yorkers Against Bratton, a police reform organization. “It’s usually older folks, or in communities of color, it’s older folks with a broad support of the police department—people connected to the political class.”
Trujillo supports Outlaw, 20, of whom he says, “There may have been a point in precinct councils where someone may have been in their late 20s, someone who may have been relatively young, but no one who is specifically organizing around youth work or identifying as a youth activist.”
Outlaw’s bid thus marks a dramatic shift in the dialogue over strained relations between the police and youth of color in New York City. While there have been many ideas about how to lessen these tensions, there has also been a stalemate: For trust-building initiatives such as community policing to work, many have told Newsweek, there already has to be some trust in place. As of now, that baseline confidence is lacking.
“A lot of times, they don’t feel comfortable going to the community officers that we have,” explains Outlaw, who believes that if elected, she would be the youngest community council president in the institution’s history. “Just having someone young up there that can relate with what they’re going through would be helpful...to make sure those issues are addressed and that their concerns are heard and that there’s a conversation.”
RYTF also supports Black Lives Matter (according to its website, “#BlackLivesMatter is a call to action and a response to the virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society”), so Outlaw would likely be the first Precinct Community Council member with ties to the movement, Trujillo says.
Outlaw moved to Far Rockaway from North Carolina several weeks before Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and has been involved with community council meetings virtually since her arrival. There were no such meetings in her hometown, and having this outlet now is “really rewarding to me,” she says.
All RYTF members are required to attend at least one Precinct Community Council meeting during their time in the organization. Members whose organizing efforts focus on police reform attend the meetings more frequently. On average, some four RYTF members attend the 101st Precinct Community Council and nearby 100th Precinct Community Council meetings every month. (The 100th Precinct covers another part of the Rockaways.)
The stakes for youth-police engagement in Far Rockaway extend beyond Outlaw. Her only opponent is Victor Boamah, a 24-year-old immigrant from Ghana who works for the Queens Library and the Rockaway YMCA.
Recently, the gap between police and communities of color has grown “bigger and bigger,” Boamah says. The only time police and the Far Rockaway community interact is if there’s trouble, he says—if there’s an arrest, a ticket written or someone in need of help.
“The police relations with the people of Rockaway is not positive,” he says. “It shouldn’t be that way. For the police and the people to communicate, it should always be a friendly relationship.”
Boamah, who moved to the U.S. at age 7 and holds a bachelor’s in English from John Jay College, says Precinct Community Council meetings are a “very useful resource” to fix this relationship.
“As a community as a whole, it’s better for us to work together to fix the problem,” he says.
Boamah was nominated by the outgoing 101 Precinct Community Council vice president, Denean Ferguson, who believes that if he were to win, the impact would have a broad reach.
“Honestly, a lot of crime problems or issues are male, young African-American males, so I feel that in order to make some of the necessary changes and positive inroads in the young male community, they need to see role models, they need to see young males doing positive things, being in a position in their communities,” Ferguson said, speaking of Far Rockaway. “What’s lacking to me in our society as a whole, not just Rockaway, is positive male leadership in the minority community.”
“Originally established in the 1940s,” the New York Police Department explains, “Precinct Community Councils are forums that provide ongoing, direct communication between the police and community. Community members meet regularly with the precinct Commanding Officer and Community Affairs Officers to discuss and find solutions to public-safety problems in their neighborhood.” Across the city, there are 86 councils, one for each precinct and public-housing Police Service Area. These public forums are held monthly.
Campaigns for precinct community council positions often go unnoticed. Both attendees and the leadership, as with other community bodies, often consist of an older demographic. In Far Rockaway, youths face other serious concerns that might prevent their participation in discussions of policing. According to a 2013 study by a Southeast Queens community organization called Safe Space, one-third of Far Rockaway households have an annual income of less than $25,000. Thirty-four percent of Far Rockaway children live under the poverty level, the organization reported.
Unemployment in Far Rockaway was a staggering 14 percent when the study was released, approximately twice the national average at that time. Safe Space also reported that more than 35 percent of residents require government financial aid such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Medicaid.
What the Outlaw-Boamah match ultimately means is that no matter who wins, a young person of color will be president of the 101st Precinct Community Council. And no matter who wins, a neighborhood youth advocate will be president of the 101st Precinct Community Council and could possibly tackle other social justice initiatives beyond policing.
The vote takes place on Wednesday.