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.”