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The Cops

They Had Been Distributing Warm Meals in Harlem for Months. Last Weekend, the NYPD Tried to Stop Them

A mutual aid group had nine members arrested, after cops said they lacked a permit.

(We The People NYC Instagram)

For over two years, the mutual aid group We The People NYC has been giving out free meals, clothing, and other needed items to communities across the city, with regular weekly distributions in Brooklyn, and, beginning earlier this year, in Harlem. At these distributions, organizers set up a line of tables on the sidewalk, and put out hot food, PPE, and clothing for people to pick up. While their relationship with the NYPD has never been warm, the police have always kept their distance—watching the food distribution from across the street, or leaving the group alone altogether. 

That changed this past Saturday. When members of the group arrived at Lexington Avenue between 124th and 125th Streets in Harlem, where they've been doing a weekly hot meal distribution since January, they found a group of cops standing right where they usually set up. Officers told them, for the first time, that they needed a permit to distribute food, and that anyone attempting to continue the distribution would be arrested. Police officers then arrested two organizers at the food distribution site, and then another seven people who had gone to provide jail support at the nearby precinct. 

The cops weren't an unusual sight at the distribution, said Relly Rebel, a Brooklyn-based community activist and organizer who was a prominent leader of the 2020 uprising against police killings. Recently, Rebel has been participating in pro-Palestine marches, focusing on police violence against protesters. 

"There's usually cops at the distribution, but they never mess with me. Since I started protesting again, they've been on us," Rebel told Hell Gate. "On Saturday, there were cops standing right where we set up. And we know the cops are there for us, because when we leave, they leave."

Instead of heading across the street like they normally do, Rebel told Hell Gate that the officers then told the group they needed a permit. When the group continued to set up food distribution, the police arrested two of the mutual aid organizers who questioned why the officers were blocking the food distribution. (The two arrested organizers were never charged with a crime and were released hours later.)

The arrests were just the latest in the heightening of police presence around the group's food distribution in Harlem, explained organizer Dimez Cartier. They told Hell Gate that for the past several weeks, more and more police officers have watched over the distribution, mostly from across Lexington Avenue. On Saturday, the police were stationed exactly where the distribution took place—as if the police were waiting for them to show up. 

Cartier suspects the order to make arrests came from higher up in the department. "Obviously they've been given direct orders to disrupt mutual aid," they said. "The police are trying to criminalize people giving out free food."

The NYPD did not respond to a question from Hell Gate about what permits the group needed to obtain.  

The legality of food distribution by organizations like mutual aid groups or church organizations is murky—and it's unclear exactly what permit these groups would need to obtain, explained Matthew Shapiro, the legal director of the Street Vendor Project. While food vendors need licenses from the City's Department of Health, a permit for a larger event, which the food distribution could count as, would separately have to get approved by the NYPD (something the NYPD has often been reluctant to do, even for things like block cleanups). At the same time, Shapiro said, it's possible that all mutual aid and charity groups are allowed to distribute free food under their First Amendment rights. Right now, there's no obvious permitting system for activities like food distribution, a problem that mutual aid groups, who typically aren't inclined to work with the police, have been running into across the city

"I don't think the City even has a permit available for these types of events," Shapiro added. 

Ultimately, Shapiro said, the NYPD is often the de facto arbiter of whether a food distribution will be allowed to occur. If they've received complaints, he said, that's when the NYPD decides to move in, often under the banner of public safety. 

"When they see something they don't have control over or when someone complains, when it's a large group of Black and brown people gathering, and it gets busy, then they feel like they have to respond," Shapiro said. 

After the arrests on Saturday, We The People still continued with the food distribution on Lexington Avenue. Once it was over, the group's members went to the 25th Precinct in Harlem, where the two organizers were being held. The NYPD kicked them out of the lobby of the precinct, and when the group resisted being pushed out of the public lobby, the NYPD arrested seven more members of the group, throwing multiple people to the ground, including Rebel. 

All nine were then taken to Central Booking. Prosecutors declined to pursue charges against three members, including the two arrested at the distribution, and the other six who were arrested were given court dates for obstruction of government administration, resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, and other misdemeanor charges. One person was additionally charged with making a terroristic threat, a felony. Their court date is set for June 25. 

Despite the arrests, We The People plans to be out there again on Saturday. 

"The show goes on, it never stops us. We complete the day, we complete the mission. We continue to feed people," said Cartier. "The community of Harlem sees us turn up, and we're going to keep doing what we're doing."

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