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Chinatown Residents Protest Construction of New Manhattan Jail

On Sunday, February 6th, protesters rallied to stop the construction of a new jail in Manhattan Chinatown, CBSNewYork reports.

According to The Villager, over a hundred community members, led by grassroots organization Neighbors United Below Canal (NUBC) and Council Member Christopher Marte, gathered outside the Manhattan Detention Complex on White Street. The protesters, which included numerous AAPI residents, hope to pressure New York City mayor Eric Adams to block the building of a jail in their neighborhood, which has already been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The city’s jail-building plan has long been controversial. According to The Lo-Down, the jail is part of former NYC mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to shut down Riker’s Island by 2027, which requires a new detention center to be built in every borough except for Staten Island.

In Manhattan, this will be achieved by demolishing the preexisting Manhattan Detention Center in Chinatown and replacing it with a 29-story tower. The rebuild will also provide support for the Chung Pak senior housing development, relocation help for small businesses impacted by construction, Columbus Park renovations, and other community investments.

De Blasio’s proposal was passed by the City Council in 2019. Supporters, such as City Council representative Margaret Chin, claimed that the legislation was an important step towards ending mass incarceration and increasing support of marginalized communities.

Members of the affected Chinatown community, however, were appalled by the plan to build a new prison in a neighborhood already made vulnerable by gentrification.

“By building new multi-billion-dollar jails, without any binding legal guarantee to close Rikers Island, the city is squandering the opportunity to decarcerate,” State Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou said, per The Lo-Down. “We should be, with our resources, helping to break this failed model systematically designed to hurt not help our communities.”

De Blasio’s plan sparked numerous protests since it was announced in 2019, especially as it was revealed that, per Hyperallergic, the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) had received $35 million of funds tied to the prison building program. As the New York Times reports, community members were frustrated that money was being redirected from the small businesses and working-class residents who needed it the most.

City and MOCA leaders, however, have been dismissive of these concerns. Chin, a supporter of MOCA alongside De Blasio’s prison legislation, rhetorically asked the New York Times “like, who are these people?” referring to the protesters.

Meanwhile, MOCA President Nancy Yao Maasbach drew criticism after accusing protesters of being paid by Marte during an interview with The Gothamist. She was later echoed by Jeff Reynolds, a white facilities manager at MOCA, during a July 2021 protest. As Hyperallergic reported, Reynolds accused protesters of being paid, and left a speaker in tears after shoving her.

Community leaders fired back, describing Maasbach’s comments as ageist and racist, as many protesters were elderly, working-class AAPI Chinatown residents who were particularly impacted by the displacement caused by the new jail. For demonstrating residents such as Zu Chen, an elderly home care worker, MOCA’s sentiments reflected how little community members like him were consulted and prioritized during city decision-making processes.

 “We are here to fight against wrongdoing,” said Chen, according to Hyperallergic. “We are being discriminated [against].”

This Sunday’s protests are the most recent in the Chinatown community’s mobilization against the prison building legislation. However, as only two weeks remain until jail construction begins, they have been fueled by increasing urgency.

According to The Villager, protesters chanted “no new jails!” and held signs reading “Fund Communities NOT more jails,” “Stop Jails Save Chinatown,” and “Anti-Asian violence is destroying then re-building a jail in Chinatown.” Numerous speakers detailed the negative effects that the jails would have on the surrounding community, which had already been battered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When we are talking about Asian hate crime, we never talk about the systemic nature of racism. This mega jail represents systemic racism where we invest to have people on Rikers Island, but we don’t invest to make sure that they can thrive in the communities that need them there,” Marte said, according to The Villager. “We have two weeks to do the right things and make sure that we try to end this cycle of incarceration, this cycle of neglect, this cycle of lack of representation.”

For others, such as Welcome to Chinatown co-founder and District Leader Victoria Lee, the city’s determination to continue jail construction, despite the years of opposition voiced by local residents, reflected the lack of value the city placed on its most marginalized population.

“I am a proud New Yorker, and it breaks my heart to say this, but I cannot imagine raising my future children in a society where we would rather invest in jail than people,” Lee said, per The Villager. “Moving forward with this jail signals that we as a community are not worth investing in. You are telling the current generation and future generations of New Yorkers that they are not worth investing in.”

She added: “Mayor Adams, it is not too late to stop this jail and reconsider what criminal justice and criminal reform looks like.”

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