Opinion: The Larger Meaning of the Chinatown Jail Controversy

The Dec. 18 meeting on the Chinatown jail. (Photo via Sing Tao Daily)

Four months after the city’s plan to build a jail in Chinatown was first announced, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio finally came to Chinatown to talk about it. At a closed door meeting on Dec. 18, City Council member Margaret Chin, who invited the mayor, emphasized the importance of including community engagement in the process, and the mayor promised the community adequate opportunity to chime in via the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) process.

This may quell the anger of the community, just for now.

In the past four months, the city announced the original Manhattan jail plan, which proposed a new jail at 80 Center Street, then proposed a revised plan, which will expand the current detention center at 125 White Street. In neither case were the plans discussed with the community in advance.

While it may be bad to have a new jail on your doorstep, it is still worse to be caught off guard. In a democratic country, this is, at least theoretically, unacceptable. That was what ignited the surge of furor in the Chinese community. Elected officials representing Chinatown called in a unified voice for the city to restart the process to allow more community input.

That was the easy part. The hard part is, then what?

More community input, in this case, can lead to three possible scenarios. First, the city changes its idea and places the jail somewhere else. That is not very likely. The mayor noted at the meeting that to build on the existing jail is the most logical option. Logic aside, most Democrats in this liberal city, including all the elected officials representing Chinatown, agree with the city’s vision of shutting down Rikers Island and building a more humane and community-based incarceration system. What they don’t agree on is the location of the new jails. But how do you make a convincing argument that one neighborhood deserves a jail more than another?

In the second scenario, the anger of the community dissipates during the consulting process and it decides to accept the jail. Not likely either. The current detention center in Chinatown, which was built in the 1980s, triggered huge opposition from the community back then. Tens of thousands of people protested on the streets. The jail was built anyway. Then New York Mayor Ed Koch made an infamous comment: “You don’t vote. You don’t count.” That hurt the Chinese community so much that even today that phrase is still invoked, along with the image of the ugly windowless jail building in the center of Chinatown, as a way to shame Chinese voters into casting their ballots. Given this backdrop, it’s hard to imagine the Chinese would accept a bigger jail in their neighborhood.

The third possibility is that the city launches a better plan with the community’s interests fully considered. But the plan that was announced in August already came with some quite generous perks, including offering some additional space for public use. Chinatown rebuffed the plan.

It is quite clear by now that what Chinatown and the mayor want are completely different. That’s why some community members who attended the meeting were disappointed. “We don’t want a larger jail, period. But the mayor has already made up his mind. This meeting was just a formality,” Antonio Chuy, commander of the American Legion Lt. B. R. Kimlau Chinese Memorial Post, where the meeting was hosted, told me afterwards.

This should prompt local elected officials to rethink their strategy. Doing things by the book, and ensuring community engagement, is an indispensable part of the American system, and means its major institutions retain at least a measure of support. As council member Chin told me after the meeting: “Democracy is about allowing people expressing their opinions.”

But in a deadlock like this where there is little common ground for a compromise, putting all the weight on community engagement without being fully prepared for the outcome may backfire.

That is especially true given that the Chinese community is in a critical time of transformation – there is a rising awareness of citizens’ rights and an increasing passion for political participation. But also rising is an unprecedented wave of political conservatism.

The last time procedural correctness ran amok in the Chinese community was when Chinese-American cop Peter Liang, while on patrol, in 2014 accidentally shot dead an unarmed black man in a stairwell of a public housing project. The liberals in the community called for the indictment of Liang, trusting the court system to give the rookie cop fair treatment. The call was met with waves of bashing in the community, especially when people saw that several white cops in similar situations were not indicted.

Liang’s case was a catalyst for the creation of a rights movement among Chinese immigrants. In particular, relatively new immigrants from China have raised their voices and played a leading role in many protests to fight what they view as naked discrimination, from the Mayor’s specialized high schools reform plan to the proposed homeless shelter in College Point.

The jail controversy in Chinatown, although it takes place in a neighborhood dominated by older generation Chinese, has immediately become a hot topic in many rights groups on WeChat, a social media platform popular among new immigrants from China.

Chinese voters have voted predominantly for Democrats in elections in past decades. Older generations of Chinese immigrants and American-born Chinese, often in the past a minority on the edges of society, are more likely to agree with Democratic views that are sympathetic to the downtrodden and struggling, and believe the interests of all minorities are unified.

But the new immigrants came from a country where people’s sharp competitive sense has contributed in a major way to its rapid economic development over the past few decades. They are often well educated and better off. They came to the U.S. for the quality of life rather than survival. Through these protests, they have clearly shown that their priorities are not procedural correctness or a systematic reform to improve the wellbeing of all who are at the bottom of society. They fight to protect their own interests, and they care about the results, not the process.

This is an accurate indicator of their political leaning. The emergence of Chinese Trump supporters in the 2016 Presidential election may have been a few voters just testing the waters. But the hundreds of Chinese who in the local election for the New York State Senate 11th district seat abandoned the “true blue” candidate John Liu, who had until then enjoyed unanimous support from Chinese voters for almost two decades, to support Tony Avella, a Democrat who voted along the Republican lines, sent an unmistakable message.

I once asked a veteran liberal activist who happens to be an American-born Chinese what she thinks about the right-wing views of many new Chinese immigrants. She responded: “They need to be educated.” The answer sounds to me as disappointing as what Council member Chin told me after the meeting when I asked her what she plans to do if more community input is not able to change anything. She simply said: “But it is still what the process should be.”

Procedural correctness is an important concept. But simply dumping it on the audience without the right interpretation can do more harm than good.  When the right procedure leads to the wrong result, as often happens, it can only deepen distrust of the procedure, as well as those who have been advocating its use.

It’s like the beautiful liberal concepts of equality, fairness and justice – without finding an effective way to convey these ideas to people who may not completely understand them but would all but certainly benefit from them, their champions could end up pushing people away.

Wasn’t this how Hillary Clinton lost the election to Donald J. Trump?

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