A police line armed with tazers in New York. Photo: Kena Betancur/Getty Images
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The NYPD blues: From Eric Garner to broken windows, activist Josmar Trujillo says enough

Meet the co-founder of New Yorkers Against Bratton, who wants New York cops to clean up their act.

On a recent Thursday evening in downtown Brooklyn, as late-night shoppers shivered outside Macy’s department store, a small group of campaigners snacked on pizza as they folded paper pamphlets. The activists – black, white, Latino, mostly in their twenties or thirties – were discussing the best way to bring change to the New York City Police Department, an organisation continually accused of brutality and racism.

Standing at the front, Josmar Trujillo, 32, wears his hair shaved close to his head and his beard neatly sculpted along his jaw. His biceps pulled up the sleeves of his T-shirt, giving a glimpse of a Wu-Tang Clan tattoo as he scribbled the group’s suggestions on to a piece of paper on the wall.

“I’m not a career organiser,” he told me later over a coffee at a nearby diner. “I don’t work for a non-profit. I’m a personal trainer, a single dad with kids.”

Trujillo is a co-founder of New Yorkers Against Bratton, part of a new generation of activists shaking up the civil rights movement in the US. The group’s target is Bill Bratton, the city’s police commissioner, who launched a policy of zero-tolerance policing in the mid-1990s when first in the job. Yet this group meeting in the offices of a legal NGO is new: the Coalition Against Broken Windows.

Eight years ago while travelling home on the subway, Trujillo stretched out his feet. As the train pulled in to the next station, he heard a tap at the window. Two police officers beckoned him out, explaining that he looked like a suspect they were hunting. Lacking ID or a phone, he was forced to spend a night in the cells. “This is how it works,” he says. “It was a foot in the door to fish for something else.”

Trujillo was a victim of the New York police’s “broken windows” policy. Officers arrest anyone loitering in a park after dusk, smoking in a no-smoking zone or with their feet on a subway seat, hoping to find useful evidence in their pockets. Trujillo soon realised he wasn’t the only Latino who’d been singled out.

Supporters say that broken windows cleaned up New York City. In the 1980s and 1990s the murder rate could be as high as six per day; in February 2015, there were 12 consecutive days with no murders. But Trujillo points to the catalogue of unarmed black men killed by police to show how the policy brutalises officers.

Last year, protests coalesced around two deaths in New York. In July, Eric Garner died in a chokehold as police tried to arrest him on suspicion of selling “loosies” – slang for individual cigarettes. Video footage showed him shouting, “I can’t breathe!” while officers forced him to the ground. And Akai Gurley died in November, shot in a dimly lit stairwell by an officer opening a door with a firearm in one hand. Bratton later described the incident as an “accidental discharge”.

But the biggest change, according to Trujillo, came from Ferguson, Missouri, where an officer shot and killed Michael Brown last August. The response was rapid and at times violent. Thousands of people protested night after night in a largely spontaneous outpouring. “It’s not leaderless, it’s leaderful,” Trujillo said – a democratic form of protest. Campaigners participate in “die-ins”, simulating dead bodies, or in guerrilla media campaigns to spread the word.

Above all, there has been a rejection of the old ways of doing things and the previous generation of leaders. When the veteran civil rights campaigner Al Sharpton announced that he wanted to deliver the eulogy at the funeral of Akai Gurley, he was told he was not welcome.

“For them, it’s about lawsuits, settlements, prestige and camera time,” Trujillo says. “This has to be about more than that. This has to be about more than a law, a case, a candidate. The get-out-the-vote stuff is pathetic.”

Sharpton being Sharpton, he didn’t mince his words. He has accused his critics of trying to divide the civil rights movement and has dismissed their obsession with youth as the language of pimps.

“It’s the disconnect that is the strategy to break the movement,” he said in one of his regular Saturday-morning addresses to supporters. “And they play on your ego. ‘Oh, [you’re] young and hip, you’re full of fire. You’re the new face.’ All the stuff that they know will titillate your ears. That’s what a pimp says to a ho.”

But none of it washes. The upstarts talk about the old guard as a “non-profit industrial complex”, staffed by campaigners on comfortable salaries, out of touch with life on the street.

“We need regular people involved, whether it’s a single dad, a grandmother in Harlem, a street performer, a person who can’t speak English,” Trujillo says. “That’s what we learned in Ferguson.”

Rob Crilly is a foreign correspondent and writes about US politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Russia vs the west

A protest in 2016. Getty
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Fewer teachers, more pupils and no more money. Schools are struggling

With grammars and universal school meals, both main parties have decided to answer policy questions no one is asking.

If you ask people in Britain what the ­biggest political issues are, schools don’t make the top five. Yet last week Labour set its first party political broadcast in a fictional classroom where a teacher described Jeremy Corbyn’s plans for schools’ future. Without a Labour government, the teacher opines, there will be no more libraries, or teachers, or school trips. Though the scenario is a flagrant breach of the law – teachers must remain politically impartial – education isn’t a bad place for Labour to start its campaign. Schools really are quite screwed.

Three things are hitting hard. Schools have less money, fewer people want to be teachers, and an avalanche of under-sevens is hitting the playgrounds and won’t stop for several more years.

How did we get here? In 2015 the Conservatives pledged to keep school funding at the same rate per pupil over the lifetime of the parliament. Yet while the money coming in has remained flat, schools have faced huge hikes in costs, particularly staffing. Big increases in mandatory pension contributions and National Insurance have taken their toll; so has the apprenticeship levy. The
Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that all told, schools will have lost about 8 per cent of their budget by 2020. That’s £3bn of savings that must be found. Or, more bluntly, the starting salaries of 100,000 teachers.

It is worth remembering at this point how huge the schools sector is and how many people are affected. About half a million teachers work in the 20,000-plus state schools. A further 300,000 people work in allied professions. There are eight million children and an estimated 12 million parents. Lump in their grandparents, and it’s fair to say that about 20 million voters are affected by schools in one way or another.

The budget squeeze is leading many of these schools to drastic measures: firing teachers, increasing class sizes, cutting music from the curriculum, charging parents for their child’s place on a sports team, dropping transport provision, and so on. Begging letters to parents for donations have become commonplace; some have asked for contributions of up to £60 a month.

On top of money worries, teachers are abandoning the profession. In 2015, an additional 18,000 went to work in international schools – more than were trained at universities over the same year. They joined the 80,000 teachers already working in British schools abroad, attracted by higher pay and better working conditions.

Graduates are also snubbing teaching. With starting salaries increasing at less than 1 per cent a year since 2010, new teachers are now paid about 20 per cent less than the average graduate trainee. Changes to higher education are also such that trainees must now pay £9,000 in order to gain their teaching qualification through a university. The government has missed its target for teacher trainees for five years now, and there is no coherent plan for hitting it.

No money and no teachers is less of a problem if you are in a demographic dip. We had a bizarrely low birth rate at the turn of the century, so we currently have a historically small proportion of teens. Unfortunately, the generation just behind them, of seven-year-olds and under, is enormous. Why? Because the “baby echoers”, born in the 1970s to the baby boomers, had children a bit later than their parents. Add to that the children recently born to immigrants who arrived in their twenties when the European Union expanded in the early 2000s, and Britain is facing an El Niño of toddlers. By 2025 a million extra children will be in the school system than in 2010.

To keep on top of the boom the government has been creating schools like a Tasmanian devil playing Minecraft. But 175,000 more places will be needed in the next three years. That’s the equivalent of one new secondary school per week from now until 2020.

In fairness, the government and councils have put aside money for additional buildings, and roughly the same number of parents are getting their first-choice school as before. The free schools policy, which delivers new schools, has not always been well managed, but it is now more efficient and targeted. However, many more children combined with squeezed budgets and fewer teachers typically leads to bigger class sizes. Most classrooms were built to house 30 pupils. Exam results may not get worse, but no parent wants their child working on a makeshift desk improvised out of a windowsill.

Instead of addressing these challenges, both main parties have decided to answer policy questions no one is asking. Theresa May wants more grammar schools, ostensibly because they will give more choice to parents – though these are the only schools that pick pupils, as opposed to the other way around. And she says they will aid social mobility, though all the evidence (and I really do mean all) suggests the opposite.

Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, is offering free lunches to all seven-to-11-year-olds, which sounds worthy until you realise that children from low-income families already get free lunch, and that feeding every child a hot sit-down meal is virtually impossible, given the limited space and kitchen facilities in most schools. Plus, the evidence this £1bn policy would make any significant difference
to health or attainment is pretty sketchy. Labour has also sensibly talked about cash and promised to “fully fund” schools, but it isn’t clear what that means.

What’s missing so far from the Conservatives and Labour alike is a set of policies about teacher recruitment or place planning. The sector needs to know how schools will be built, and where the teachers will come from for the extra kids. In other words, the message to both sides is – must try harder.

Laura McInerney is the editor of Schools Week and a former teacher

Laura McInerney taught in East London for six years and is now studying on a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Missouri. She also works as Policy Partner at LKMCo.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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