Activists Allege Police Brutality in Greenville Melee

Local activists staged an impromptu rally Sunday to mobilize Jersey City residents in response to alleged police brutality in quelling a fight in Jersey City’s Greenville neighborhood on May 5. The incident, which occurred on Bostwick Avenue,  resulted in three arrests and injuries to both civilians and police officers.

Footage of the episode captured by several videos showed officers using pepper spray and batons to subdue two residents, actions city police officials later forcefully defended as justified.

Nevin Perkins, a student at New Jersey City University and founder of the Jersey City coalition of Black Men United, organized the rally at Berry Lane Park on Garfield Avenue. About 15 people came out to the event, which ended with a peaceful march to the city’s Greenville police precinct.

“We’re here to set the fuse on the keg,” Perkins told a reporter. He said he hoped to encourage members of the community to take political action to protest the events that occurred in the aftermath of the brawl.

Based on what he saw from tapes of the incident, Perkins concluded “there was no proper de-escalation action by the officers” who responded to the scene. He said the community needs to work with the city “in creating a de-escalation tactic and in creating a better relationship with the police department.”

Additionally, Perkins said, “We need to see the police force as representative of the community not just in skin color [the Bostwick Avenue neighborhood is largely African-American] but also actual residency. I believe at least 50 percent of police force should live here.”

Perkins said he and his supporters want the city to release footage taken by the responding officers’ bodycams; to provide financial compensation to the victims of the alleged police brutality; and to release the names of the officers involved in the spraying and striking of the civilians “to see if there is a pattern of this particular type of behavior” by those officers.

Greenville resident Kenyaetta Williams, a board member of the nonprofit York Street Project, who helped prepare signs for the rally, said she came because she felt dissatisfied with the city’s response to the police action.

“I’m tired of the mayor putting his foot in his mouth,” she said. “I feel disrespected, and I feel he’s disrespected the community. As my grandmother would say, ‘Shine your light on the world to see.’”

Claro Sumague came to the rally with fellow members of the Philippine Youth and Student Organization “to show solidarity with the black community.” He said Filipinos were “also no strangers to police brutality,” particularly in the Philippines where, he said, “There are a lot of human rights violations — and it’s the same here in particular with black and brown communities.”

Sumague said the city should be focused more on aiding “essential workers” like nurses and health care aides who are putting themselves at risk during the Covid-19 crisis. “These workers need help like PPEs and food but, instead, they come home to see violence from law enforcement.”

In a taped press conference last week, city Police Chief Michael Kelly defended the officers called out to defuse the street brawl who, he said, were properly defending themselves against civilians’ efforts to touch or rip weapons from officers.

Kelly said the officers “acted with great restraint and used exactly the force necessary to bring the situation to a close.” Six officers responded to the initial call about the fight and more came as backup to aid their fellow officers, he added.

His position was echoed by city Police Director James Shea who said he saw nothing in the various tapes he viewed —including footage from police bodycams — to indicate the officers were deviating from their training “or doing anything contrary to their legal right to defend themselves from attack.”

Shea said officers deployed retractable batons to strike “legs, arms and the hip/buttocks area” only after the pepper spray “didn’t work to subdue” civilians.

Shea added, “I condemn the actions [by civilians] causing the officers to be called there in the middle of a pandemic.”

Asked by a reporter to explain what happened between the time the fight had appeared to end and the time officers arrived and took punitive action, Shea said he wasn’t able to answer. “I leave that question for later,” he said.

Shea said the footage from police bodycams has been turned over to the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office for review, a protocol he said the department follows in similar cases when excessive police force may have been used. He said the incident remains under investigation. Meanwhile, all officers involved in the incident remain on duty.

City Council President Joyce Waterman and Shea encouraged anyone with tapes of the incident or other information about it to contact the police department at 201-547-5477 or the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office at 201-795-6400.

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What Quality of Life

Artist’s Diorama Begs the Question: ‘What Quality of Life?’ in Greenville

In an art show that Project Greenville put on this past fall, artist Pat Olsen, a lifelong Jersey City resident (and full disclosure, an acquaintance of this writer), displayed a striking diorama symbolizing the quality of life in south Greenville.

The theme of the group’s fall show was “Neighborhood Portraits: A Collection of Familiar Faces and Places.” At the writer’s request, Olsen brought her diorama back out for the last day of Project Greenville’s “Winter Wonderland” show on Dec. 7.

Olsen’s diorama is divided in half. On one side is a graveyard in which skeletons lie beside tombstones marking services and businesses. Tucked into the cemetery is a sign that says, “WE BUY HOUSES/Cash! CALL: 1800-VAMOOSE.” The scene is enclosed by a picket fence that is ablaze. A buzzard on a sickly tree overlooks it all.

Diorama “Quality of Life” by Pat Olsen

“The buzzard up there is the real estate developers,” Olsen explains. “And the skeletons, they died from neglect and the quality (of life). The cemetery is full of all the things we’ve lost, like the buses, the supermarket. We’re in a desert, and the flames are … the neighborhood is burning.”

The surface of the other half of the diorama is green. On it sits tall gold-colored blocks that represent the city’s “gold coast.”

“It’s a tale of two cities,” Olsen said about the project. “It’s all the things we’ve lost in Greenville, and it’s the neglect and the quality of life issues and how the signs are on every block. ‘We’ll buy your house for cash. Get out.’”

It’s just a feeling that we have that we’re not wanted in our own neighborhood. And if the city has four million dollars to put [pavers] on Newark Avenue to raise the street, how come we can’t have a library, or how come the parks weren’t fixed?”

Last year Jersey City established a “quality-of-life task force” that handles code enforcement of “problematic properties and businesses that frequently violate quality of life,” according to the city’s website. This rotted streetscape is exactly the moribund life that Olsen’s piece depicts. Problematic properties, in the artist’s view, are simply par for the course.

“The bike lanes in some sections of the city, they’re painted green; and in other sections of the city there are none. Or there’s [sic] potholes. We don’t even have supermarkets anymore. The bank is closed,” the artist said.

One thing Olsen is particularly irked by is the lack of reliable public transportation to and from the many senior housing residences along Ocean Avenue.

“So, you have all the senior citizens, and you don’t have a bus line for them. And they want you to use your app to get a ride to come to you. How many old people can use a cell phone and an app and get a car ride? It’s not going to happen. And those are the mobile ones.”

Olsen did express hope about the purple vans slated to begin their rollout next month, public vehicles that for a subsidized price will shuttle residents in Greenville and the Heights to other locations in those neighborhoods and to and from the transit hubs and business districts in Journal Square and Downtown. To Olsen’s satisfaction, users will be able to summon the vans via a good old-fashioned phone call (among other ways).

Olsen also expressed hope about the $200,000 the city pledged for upgrades to Martyniak-Enright Memorial Park at Pamrapo Ave. and Old Bergen Road due to begin in the spring.

“My earliest memories of the park in the 1950s were cutting through it, drinking from the water fountain, and seeing boys playing ball,” Olsen said. “I think I remember swings there.”

The artist believes the park is important for two reasons: to get people out of the house and to spur interaction amongst a cross section of people. She plans to attend every meeting related to the park’s improvement.


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Greenville Gets Public Safety Support

Once an area of disinterest and neglect, Jersey City’s Greenville ward is getting more attention from the city’s current administration in the area of public safety.

On Nov. 7, the city rolled out its latest addition to the municipal fire department arsenal with a blessing by the city fire chaplain, Rev. James Pagnotta, of the newly-acquired 100-foot E-One Metro aerial ladder truck.

Jersey City Fire Chief Steven McGill said the brand -new rig is being assigned to the 2nd Battalion firehouse at Bergen and Van Nostrand Avenues and will replace a 2004 aerial ladder truck that now will be used as a spare. Fifteen years is considered the typical life expectancy of a fire rig in an urban environment, he added.

Photo by Jennifer Brown/City of Jersey City

“This is the first vehicle we’ve replaced since 2015,” McGill said, when the city shelved Tower Ladder 6 from the firehouse at Newark Avenue and Merseles Street. In 2013, Ladder 12, also from the Newark Avenue facility, gave way to what the chief called a “demo” model; and, in 2008, a new ladder truck originally destined for the Chicago Fire Department arrived in Jersey City as a new Ladder 11 at the Kearny Avenue firehouse in West Side.

Mayor Steven Fulop said his administration “has tried to invest in public safety resources in the last few years,” – and the new apparatus represents “another step in that direction to get the fire department needed resources.” Two more rigs on order are now being built, and their arrival is anticipated by summer 2020.

Acquired from a Florida manufacturer under a lease-purchase arrangement through the Houston/Galveston Cooperative, the new ladder truck took eight months to build. The city has 10 years to complete the payments.

McGill said the new 38-foot-long rig’s front-end suspension and low center of gravity will allow for better maneuverability through the ward’s narrow streets and tight intersections while responding to emergencies. A larger cabin, improved emission controls, and carcinogen-free interior make the apparatus safer for firefighters, he added.

The new vehicle is being placed in Greenville, according to a city announcement, because that ward “has been identified as an area of the city in need of updated fire response tools.”

According to the JCFD’s Fire Analysis Report for 2018, of the 27,172 fire incidents citywide reported, 9,579 occurred in Greenville — by far the most among the city’s four battalion areas. (The others are listed as Downtown, the Heights and Bergen/West Side.)

Those stats showed Greenville fared slightly better than the year prior when the JCFD logged 9,684 fire incidents for the ward — again the highest among the 27,628 citywide.

Figures for 2019 are not yet available.

Greenville can benefit from the new aerial ladder rig, said Councilman Jermaine Robinson, because “there are a lot of new buildings in the ward that are 50 to 200 feet high,” including a 10-story Public Safety headquarters the city has planned for Martin Luther King Drive and Kearny Avenue and a 16-story mixed-income residential tower with close to 300 units that is “in the works,” he said.

Another JCFD infrastructure shot in the arm upcoming for Greenville, according to McGill, is the renovation of the century-old firehouse at Ocean Avenue and Dwight Street housing Engine 22 and Ladder 4. “The front façade is falling apart, and brickwork needs fixing,” McGill said. The city has advertised for bids, and once a contract is awarded, the work should take “a few months” to complete, he said.

A new firehouse is on the drawing board for the Bayside community, north of Society Hill, “on the fringes of the 2nd Battalion, to keep our response time to three to four minutes,” the chief said. “Our goal is to have a developer [pay for] that.” But that facility could be “three to five years” from completion, he acknowledged.

JCFD personnel got a morale booster with the recent promotion of Firefighter Enrique Vasquez to the rank of fire captain. He replaces Capt. Brian Lowery, who retired Nov. 1. McGill said the move ensures that the department maintains its ordinance strength of 140 captains “to maintain 26 fire companies.”

A fire captain’s annual base pay is $109,815 in Jersey City, but since he has 15 years of service with the JCFD, Vasquez will earn $116,404 with longevity added on, according to city finance records.

Vasquez, who grew up on Danforth Avenue, went to Public School 20 and then Marist High School before enrolling at New Jersey City University where he graduated with a fire science degree in 2003.

The 42-year-old, who has served as a lifeguard for the city’s recreation department, credits his mother with putting the idea of a career in firefighting in his head. “After I finished high school, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, and my mom said, ‘Why don’t you take the [Civil Service] test for firefighter?’ She said it would be a good fit for me.”

Vasquez followed her advice and was hired by the department in January 2005.

He’s actually the second member of his family to be a uniformed employee as his dad served in the army for a decade.

Vasquez and his wife, Jennifer O’Neill Vasquez, have two sons, Gavin, 8, and Declen, almost 3.

His fellow firefighters from Ladder 12 on Newark Avenue were on hand at the city hall promotion ceremony to celebrate his good fortune.

Header: Photo by Jennifer Brown/City of Jersey City

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