When the plantation doors closed…


Joseph « Jazz » Hayden is about 70 years old and lives in Harlem. He has over 40 years of activism. In his life he worked in several fields, in particular that of trumpeter from which comes his nickname. He also spend many years in prison. He is the founder and editor of the website All Things Harlem, which addresses current political issues in Harlem, in New York and in the rest of the country. All Things Harlem mostly focus on police brutality and police killings as well as « Stop and Frisk » daily harassement ; cop-watching is also a large part of ATH’s activity, gathering videos shot by anonymous people or by ATH video team. International issues such as the Palestinian struggle are also raised on the website.

My name is Joseph Hayden, commonly known as “Jazz”, the black man’s gift to the world music. What I do is essentially organizing. I’ve been an organizer since, you know, for decades. It’s been a slow process getting where I’m at now. But in 2008, i’ve formed a company called Still Here Harlem Productions and the idea behind putting together this corporations was to provide Harlem with a voice. A voice that told the story from the bottom as opposed to the way the mainstream media covers Harlem and it was my intention to develop a company of militant CNN or militant BBC and it would cover every aspect of community life in Harlem; from the south, to the north, to the east to the west you know. And this is what we set out to do. And we set out to develop a template that could be replicated around the country. So, we got our cameras and I had an equipment.

We hit the streets and begin to cover every aspect of Harlem life; politics, education, housing, health care, youth, sport and police community relationships.

As time went by, we begin to gain acceptance by the community and our work improved. And we had a television show, a weekly television show on Manhattan neighbourhood network Time Warner cable. And we had a website and other social networks media; but as time went on our focus shifted more and more to police community relationships because everywhere we looked we saw a flashing light. Everywhere we looked we see youth pulled over, stood up against the wall, being frisked and searched. And the more we looked the more we begin to realize that the community of Harlem was being turning in to an open air prison.

They had mobile towers that go 5 stores planted around the community. These towers were brought into existence and used in the war in Iraq, you know. And then after the war in Iraq was technically over they brought all this stuff home. They begin to plant them in communities full of People Of Colour. Because they’re not in other communities they’re not in the white communities they’re not in jewish communities you know. They had a policy called Stop and Frisk that essentially was no different from post-slavery America during the Jim Crow era with the segregation and the ruling class did everything they could to control the former slaves.

When the plantation doors closed the prison doors opened wide.

Then they begin to use the convict leasing, chain gangs every means of social controls that they could use. And what I was witnessing in 2008 was that the same practice existed today and it was no different than it was right there after slavery.
Under the old Jim Crow, black people were locked up if they didn’t have a job, accused of vagrancy, you know if they didn’t have identification, then they were put into jails, then they were leased back out. Their labour was sold to the highest bidder and it was a way of criminalizing them and taking away their votes.

America has 5% of the world population and 25% of the world prisoners.

This country, this nation, has been in existence a little more than 200 years has more prisoners, more human beings in cages than any other civilization, nation or entity in the history of humankind. This so called “land of the free, home of the braves” you know, exceptional nation, humanitarian you know, this bread of good will and justice everywhere has the largest percentage of human beings in cages. And the vast majority is people of colour.

This became apparent because when we look at Harlem we began to look at the rest of the city, and then we began to look at the rest of the country and the same thing was going on, all around the country. And the police which is the arm of the state, enforcement arm of the state, were engaged as an institution, had expanded their powers to a point they weren’t different than the military : they had occupy Iraq, they had occupy Afghanistan, they are occupying places all over the planet you know. They got 8000 and something military bases all around the world this exceptional country. So anyhow we begin to cover this and as we begin to cover and to post our videos upon You Tube then they begin to circulate. Suddenly people became aware of this practice of “Stop, Questioning and Frisk”. Last year the statistics show that they had over they had stopped over 7 hundred thousand people in NY city. And less than 6, 7% of them resulted in any kind of criminal charges. And less than 1% resulted in any weapons being found ; which is the pretext for the whole project, practice or policy of “stop and frisk”.

The policy was a total failure in terms of what it was designed to do. And the communities where this practice was put in play, communities of colour, were devastated you know by this practice you know.

On the police cars it says, you know, their logo is, their motto is “Courtesy, Professionalism and Respect”.
That’s what they claim to be providing to the community and they were locking up people for simple things, small quantities of marijuana. Marijuana is legal in New-York. You can have up to 25 grams of marijuana and it’s perfectly legal. But like all laws there is loophole. It is legal as long as it wasn’t exposed in public. You can have it in your house you can have it any where but you couldn’t smoke it or have it in public view.
So the police in New-York used that loophole to a mass fifty thousand arrests for small quantities of marijuana in a year and the pretext was, looking for weapons. That only resulted in less than 1% infraction or 1% of this seven one hundred thousand stopped and frisked resulting any kind of weapon whether it be a knife or a gun.

What it was in effect was a practice of social control. It was a practice design to control communities of poor people of colour. And it was devastating the community because all these resources that was being ported to the prison, courts, the police. Had they been imported to the communities that were impacted by this criminal justice system injustice system the people in these communities would have what all human beings need ; food, shelter, clothing, education, opportunity for jobs and the chance to be a full human being. But because of this punishment mentality of this country, this old testament mentality “eye for eye, a tooth for a tooth” we had thousand of people locked up in prison Human beings like dogs, like animals. And so over a period of 4 years we begin to, we accumulated a large body of videos footage on the usual “Stop and Frisk” and mainstream media began to use it and the community begin to wake up and suddenly…everybody began to push back and oppose this policy and practice.

And for every action there is a reaction, you know?

As a result of that one day I was driving down the street and some police men that I have videotaped a month earlier decided that they were going to retaliate against me. So they arrested me and they pulled me over and gave me the pretext that one of my light was out in the back you know and against my will against, against my expressed refusal to allowed them permission to search me or my vehicle. They would search my vehicle and they found a pocket knife in there and…. Pocket knife that you can buy in any store in the country you know. Probably they sell it in candy stores you know. And they found a miniature commemorative baseball bat that they sell in every stadium in the country you know. Yankees won the world series so they put out this miniature bat and they charged me with two felonies, which had me facing 14 years in prison, for this two weapons of mass destruction.

And after 8 months my lawyers and the district attorneys would view the evidences together. And when they took the evidences out, open up the package… They took out the knife. They couldn’t open it and then finally after 5 minutes they got it open and the screw that held it together fell on the floor. The knife was totally inoperable. The base ball bat was ridiculous so they withdrew that charge. After ten months ultimately they admitted in open court that they couldn’t get a conviction beyond reasonable doubt and so they agreed to release me in contemplation of dismissal, with 5 days community service. So that turn out to be a victory for us because people organize around me and they filled up the court rooms. They rallied on front of the courts. They rallied in front of the district attorney office bombarding in phone with phone calls demanding that the charges be dropped. Petitions with over 2 thousand signatures on’em were although put in the play. And people from all around the country and all around the world went in in my support and so we had a victory. But this practice is blatantly racist. And it’s inexcusable that Americans should sit around and watch this happens simply because it’s not happening in their communities and the media in this country has lot to do with it too because it reinforces the stereotypes about blacks. Crime is everywhere. Without law there is no crime without crime there is no punishment. If you want get rid of crime all you gotta do is get rid of laws…

So what I did after forming All Things Harlem, and our video branch that we began to cover the community I saw there was enough, that was necessary for people to organize people into an effective force to push back against this laws and this practices. So what we did next was form or what I did next was initiate this campaign to end the new Jim Crow. It was based on a book by Michelle Alexander. I imagine they have it translated in French. It’s a book absolute necessity that you read this book if you’re concerned about human rights and justice and fair play. And if you oppose oppression you need to know how it got to be that way. And this book is The New Jim Crow – Mass incarceration in the age of Colorblindness. I started a study group with that book. And then the members of that study group, we organized this campaign to build a national movement to end mass incarceration and our vision says “No to prison – Yes to caring communities”.

We want to tear down the prisons and build up the communities.

We’ve been at work with this for two years now and it’s a growing phenomenon all over this country. People are tired. They’re not going to take it anymore. So people have been organizing around the country. The next step is connecting the dots and building a national movement, a national united front to end this whole system of punishment.

So that’s essentially what i’ve been doing. That’s essentially what’s need to be done in this country. In this country all you hear is you know President Obama on thanksgiving he pardon two turkeys. You got 2.5 millions human beings in cages and you pardon turkeys. You give turkeys a second chance but what about the prisoners, what about human beings in those cages? What about the fathers, the brothers and uncles and other family members and increasingly women? Mothers to children, what about them you’re not pardoning none of them?
This guy has not even mention prisons or the criminal justice since he’s been in office. And he hasn’t been concerned about poverty, all the things that drive people to crime, to put food on the table. It’s just about the middle class and the rich. The working class, the working poor, the unemployed, the unemployable, the underclass, they don’t exist and that’s why we created All Things Harlem to give a voice to that population, at the bottom of the pyramid.

Interview by Cases Rebelles, December 2012.