Dominion of New York

Best of DoNY

April 30, 2012

22,000 Were Arrested for It, And It Was Perfectly Legal

More articles by »
Written by: Dax-Devlon Ross

NYPD make an arrest. The charges are unknown. Photo courtesy of Flick/Diacritical

that quotas don’t exist. Rosenfeld doubts that. “No one will ever say they exist,” she says “but there are certainly reports generated each month and that has to be for a reason.”


In as much as Judge Scheindlin’s scathing rebuke of the NYPD paved the way for the multi-million dollar settlement agreement, it also gave an already embattled police department a window through which to gracefully slip away from what would have been another racially charged public proceeding. If the case had gone to trial, Rosenfeld would have argued that the NYPD’s enforcement was racially discriminatory and the city would have had to respond to that. Another thing the NYPD may be able to avoid is paying very much to its victims. Because so many of them were poor and transient or plain homeless, it’ll be difficult for the attorneys to find them and direct them to their payouts. By now, their mailing addresses might have changed. Their phones may have gone out of service. Some never had phones to begin with. Others may be easy to contact, but they may have warrants out for their arrest and fear getting involved with the police.

To ensure the maximum number of recipients is reached, the city is helping locate updated addresses and posting notices in all government offices serving poor and homeless people. Additionally, the plaintiffs have hired Rust Consulting, a firm that specializes in managing class-action settlements. The firm has launched a campaign to contact thousands of city service providers that work with these populations. What happens to the money that is not claimed will be up to the judge, but Rosenfeld senses that, in keeping with similar situations she has encountered, the funds will be distributed to a non-profit that serves the population representative of the class.

The trouble I had finding Wise illustrates the difficulty the attorneys will have finding the plaintiffs in the class. On an early March afternoon I drove to the Fordham section of the Bronx, looking for him. His name had come up in nearly all of my interviews. An October 2009 news story I found said Wise had returned to Fordham Road with a new hustle — holding the door at a check-cashing store. And everyone I spoke to assured me he was still around. Katie Rosenfeld told me that since he was arrested again under the void begging law after his 2007 settlement, he was scheduled to receive a pay out as part of the 2012 class-action settlement. I’d also found an estranged friend of Wise’s named Ross Biernick. Last he’d heard, Wise had bought his uncle a mobile home. The money was gone. Wise was back on the streets.

I parked my car on 189th between Webster and Park, the stretch where Wise and his crew once operated a car-parking hustle. Jennifer Gonnerman, the journalist who wrote the New York magazine story on Wise, had indicated in an e-mail to me that since business slowed in the area, his parking crew might’ve dispersed.  I looked around. Nothing. I got out and walked up and down the block. It was a crisp and sunny day—as good a day as any for hustling. Nothing. I asked a few people who work in businesses on the street if they’ve seen or heard of Wise. I’m sure I looked suspicious. Again, nothing.

Standing in the middle of the street without a single lead to follow, it occured to me that I was only looking for Wise so I could finish this story. It seemed fitting to end with him. In light of the vagrancy law’s sordid early history, Wise’s score symbolized poetic justice eight centuries in the making — a law originally intended to forcibly compel able-bodied serfs to work for next to nothing had furnished Wise with a six-figure apology courtesy of the city.

Wise couldn’t provide the closure I was searching for, though. No matter what happens with the lawsuit he started, the criminalization of poor black men continues to be treated like a legitimate, even necessary policing protocol. Until that practice ends, there is no closure.

I drove back home.

DoNY is the digital magazine for creative and forward-thinking black people who love New York and want to make the most of their lives here. We host events and provide information that helps you connect socially, politically, culturally and economically to their community and to the rest of the city. Fan us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.


About the Author

Dax-Devlon Ross
Dax-Devlon Ross
The author of six books, Dax has been featured on WNYC, WBAI,, Democracy Now, and Pacific Radio. His work on race, youth culture and criminal justice has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. He has lectured on literature and hip-hop culture at Fordham, Pace, City College and NYU. His book, Beat of a Different Drum (Hyperion, 2006), explored the lives of 30 African-American creatives and iconolasts.