A Brief History of the 23rd Precinct

We walked off together up to Third Avenue and it was already starting to happen. Everywhere we looked were policemen. I saw a bottle thrown out of a window. It looked like a star and when it hit the street, it made a long path of bright yellow fire, a Molotov cocktail. Then I saw another, and another, and intermingling with its bright light were defined screams and crystal sounds of what seemed to be thousands of bottles being smashed in. I looked up at long Third Avenue toward 114th Street and saw a large group of youngsters marching toward us…. I saw the running of the crowds in and out of the blocks and blocks beyond, and each time they came back on Third Avenue, more were added. Just then, more Molotov cocktails were thrown out of windows and the sounds of smashing bottles were like weird sounds of a street symphony. It reminded me of when, as a young boy, I had read Dante’s description of the Inferno.

On the occasion of the 45th anniversary of the East Harlem riots, a new zine: A Brief History of the 23rd Precinct. View online here or download the PDF here.

An additional note on communities, precincts, and space:

The history of capitalism has been characterized by speed-up in the pace of life, while so overcoming spatial barriers that the world sometimes seems to collapse inwards upon us.

Here in New York, we hear much talk of “communities:” “Save our communities;” “Don’t let them destroy our community;” “We must protect our communities.” Yet defining what a “community” actually is in this city, or if it’s still even a useful category, would mean looking beyond both the empty rhetoric of politicians and the familiar line of professional activists claiming to represent this community or that. Whatever or whomever they presume to contain, one thing seems apparent: our communities are always already under attack.

If communities are traditionally seen as geographically bound, what of spatiality? Parsing the city by gerrymandered political districts has never really made sense, while the notion of distinct and unique “neighborhoods” has long been the province of real estate brokers and city boosters (to wit, just a few relatively recent creations: Clinton Hill, the East/Central/West/Far West Villages, SoHo, NoLita, East Williamsburg, South Slope, etc.). Not coincidentally, these forces are the same ones who have been fragmenting our blocks for decades, whether it be via foreclosures, gentrification, or rent hikes.

Capital gave up its loyalty to place long ago; such a politics of speed has shoved us into a world in which one’s sense of geographical being is limited to the traversed space between home, work, and the bar. While many stare at their smartphones and feel empowered, mapping and infographing, augmenting reality with a layered pastiche of unlimited data and citation, the NYPD and their IT specialists have been hard at work augmenting social reality proper—surveilling our blocks, scanning our faces, guiding our paths.

Communities are tenuous, but precincts are literally etched in stone. Wielding firearms and statistics, the NYPD treats each of their precincts as a distinct battleground. Perhaps we should accept their challenge.

—New York Year Zero