A Program to Reduce Hate Violence in NYC Was Showing Promise, Then the City Defunded It

NYC Against Hate trained thousands of people in "upstander" interventions and pushed for more community-based alternatives to policing when hate violence occurs.

JFREJ staff organizer Leo Ferguson and JFREJ member Irene Siegal (not pictured) facilitate a Day Against Hate upstander training at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. (Photo by Zachary Schulman, courtesy Jews for Racial Justice)

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In February 2019, the NYPD’s Hate Crimes Task Force announced its arrest of two twelve-year-old boys who allegedly chalked swastikas on a playground in Rego Park, Queens. The twitter account for NYC’s Chief of Detectives, then held by current NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea,, tweeted that “No matter the face of hate, the NYPD, partnered with the community, has ZERO tolerance.” The two children were Black and Asian. Several community leaders in Rego Park told the NY Times that March that they didn’t want to see the children arrested.

The nonprofit Jews for Racial and Economic Justic intervened, contacting the child’s family and providing a workshop on anti-Semitism to community after the arrest. Audrey Sasson, the group’s executive director, says she believes the incident showcases the failure of policing to provide meaningful help when hate crimes occur.

“If all that happened was he was arrested and went back to school, what would we have gained?” she says.

That incident and others like it inspired Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and eight other nonprofits to create NYC Against Hate, a coalition pushing for community-based alternatives to policing when hate violence occurs. The initiative was funded at over $1 million in the city’s 2020 budget, but was removed completely from the budget for 2021.

The groups approached NYC’s City Council to request funding in 2019, with the idea that each of the nine groups would be funded individually for education and workshops for people who want to perform interventions when they witness hate violence. A month after the 12-year-olds were arrested, NYC Against Hate announced that the city had committed to funding the Hate Violence Prevention Initiative in the 2020 budget. Citing the playground incident, the coalition wrote, “We believe that hate violence and bias incidents must be prevented in community, not by the police or by prosecutors.” It laid out a set of strategies including reporting hate incidents to non-profit and community-based organizations rather than police, training bystanders to intervene in hate violence, transformative justice, and rapid response meetings when incidents occur. Bystander intervention trainings for bullying and sexual harassment are used by colleges and some high schools, and bystander interventions to prevent hate violence are taught by organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

But there were early tensions indicating not everyone in the City Council was on board with the strategy pitched by NYC Against Hate. Originally, the nine organizations were to split the funding, which would be used to help them work in partnership on non-police solutions.

But when the funds were added to the 2020 budget, two of the original groups in the nine-member coalition, Jews For Racial and Economic Justice as well as Make The Road New York, were left out by the City Council. Instead, their portion of funds went to two more organizations who were not part of the initiative and whose missions seemed to contradict NYC Against Hate’s non-carceral approach.

“Some council-members wanted to get their groups funded,” Councilmember Brad Lander, who advocated for the initiative, recalls, but there were concerns that the groups added were not appropriate for the initiative. “I wasn’t sure they had the non-policing approach,” Lander says. One of the new groups added was the Anti-Defamation League, for instance, which trains law enforcement.

Sasson says JREJ decided not to protest their exclusion from funding in order to continue facilitating a collaboration. “They actively chose to not fund one of the conveners of the coalition that put this in motion, and the only Jewish group,” she says. “It’s a bad look.” (While other Jewish organizations were added to the initiative by the Council, none had been part of the original 9 conveners.)

“They added groups that very proactively work with the police,” Audacia Ray, Director of Community Organizing and Public Advocacy at the Anti-Violence Project (AVP), says more bluntly.

“We had a strategic, clear plan,” says Loren Miller, Executive Director of Center for Anti-Violence Education (CAE), a member of NYC Against Hate. “We spent so much time wrangling to get this money.”

The funding arrived at a time of spiking hate violence across NYC, including a wave of anti-Semitic attacks in the past few years. Since the coronavirus pandemic began, there has also been an increase in attacks against Asian Americans. But many more hate incidents are never reported; a 2018 report from NYC’s Commission on Human Rights found 71 percent of “bias incidents” against Muslim, Arab, South Asian, Jewish and Sikh New Yorkers went unreported.

The non-profits that were funded in the 2020 fiscal year were able to increase training and in some cases hire staff. Loren Miller, with CAE, says that they used the funding to train close to 2,000 people in a bystander intervention model called “upstander” training. The model provides ways for people witnessing hate speech or violence to proactively intervene. Miller says CAE was also able to launch a new workshop on responding to anti-Blackness and a workshop on the rise of xenophobic violence.

But the entire project was scrapped from the city’s 2021 budget, which was finalized during what is likely the largest uprising against anti-black police violence in American history and city-wide demands to defund the NYPD.

“It makes me sad and disappointed and angry that this program which was at the cutting edge of trying to take a non-policing approach to hate crimes is now cut entirely,” says Lander. “At a time that we say we want to find alternatives, we barely cut the NYPD and we eliminated this.”

“It seems pretty short-sighted, it’s clearly out of touch with what the majority of people in New York want and are asking for across the board,” says Sasson. “They gutted a program that showed a lot of promise.”

CAE spent some of its funding on hiring a new full-time staff member, and Miller says they do not plan on laying this person off. The organization gave up its office space rather than let go of employees.

But requests for their services tripled in March, in response to COVID-19-related racist incidents, and Miller is troubled that they have less funding for upstander trainings. “I don’t know what we’re going to do this coming year,” she says. “We’re still trying to figure out how we’re going to do this work.”

Sasson says it was all the more disappointing that the funding was cut amid pressure to defund the police and invest in communities.

“The demand couldn’t have been clearer. They failed miserably to rise to the moment,” she says. “It shows it’s time for new leadership.”

Advocates say there’s no plan to push for the program to be re-funded, as fighting for the funding to remain intact was too time-consuming. And other than a few supporters, there’s not much interest from the City Council.

“This is dead,” Council member Lander tells Next City. “I don’t have optimism for what will happen in the coming months, I don’t really don’t think next year’s budget will be the locus for this kind of creativity and advocacy,” he added.

The organizations will still be collaborating, but their capacity will be diminished.

“Now you have a bunch of non-profits trying to do their own work, without support to do partnerships,” Miller, of CAE, says.

Ray, with AVP, says the organization may do fewer trainings, and a planned Day Against Hate in 2021 will likely not happen. The collective is taking stock of other grants and resources outside of the city. “The experience of fighting for that funding is very time-consuming,” Ray says.

The city has invested in fighting hate violence through other channels. In 2019, the Mayor established the Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes within the existing Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. The agency says that it is developing curricula on hate crimes for middle and high school students for the 2020-2021 school year and will fund “neighborhood safety coalitions,” consisting of community boards, schools, and religious institutions in three Brooklyn neighborhoods with orthodox Jewish communities.

A spokesperson for the Office, which also managed contracts for HVPI, said they would continue to work with the 9 organizations in NYC Against Hate. “Our office looks forward to finding new ways to work with these and other vital organizations that serve the populations most vulnerable to hate crimes,” they said.

But Sasson expressed frustration with the city’s perpetual reliance on the NYPD as a bulwark against hate violence and says the organizations will continue to focus on the big picture of creating alternatives. “We have the biggest police force in the country and the most powerful, it cannot be the answer to all of our problems,” she says. “It can’t be the answer to everything with respect to hate violence, it can’t be the answer to social distancing, it can’t be the answer to a pandemic, when we’re hitting a recession it can’t be the thing that keeps our families fed and safe and well.”

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Roshan Abraham is Next City's housing correspondent and a former Equitable Cities fellow. He is based in Queens. Follow him on Twitter at @roshantone.

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