Jazz Hayden’s Struggle


A local campaign to end the controversial practice of stop and frisk and to end mass incarceration is gathering steam in New York as one of its most vocal members, 71-year old Joseph “Jazz” Hayden, awaits an important decision from Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance. After more than eight months of court continuances in this case, the DA has to decide whether to drop the charges against Mr. Hayden or convene a Grand Jury hearing. Hayden, a longtime Harlem activist, is facing two felony weapons charges that could result in a lengthy sentence of up to 14 years in prison. His supporters argue that these charges represent nothing less than police reprisal against Hayden’s video documentation of stop and frisk, a modern day version of civilian monitoring of the police, which was popularized by the Black Panther Party in the 1960s. In a press release announcing an action at Cyrus Vance’s office on September 6, 2012, activists denounce the city’s case against Jazz Hayden as “a baseless prosecution.” A review of the public record suggests that their claims suitably describe the charges against the Harlem activist.

Hayden’s most recent odyssey in the courts began on the night of December 2, 2011 when he was stopped by police in Harlem while driving home after a meeting at The Riverside Church, where he is a member of its Prison Ministry. What followed was an unlawful stop and search during which the police retrieved a penknife and a commemorative, miniature baseball bat replica from Hayden’s vehicle. For this, the former prisoner and founder of The Riverside Church’s Campaign to End the New Jim Crow, was arrested and charged with two counts of dangerous weapons possession.

Hayden is just one of dozens of New York City activists facing criminal charges believed to have been leveled against them by the courts and the police in retaliation for their civilian challenges to lawless police authority.  In Harlem, Hayden has become known for the copwatch video clips he posts on his website, allthingsharlem.com, which amidst the growing grassroots opposition to stop and frisk have shown up on New York’s popular local news channel, NY1. As a feature length article on the case in the Village Voice notes, Hayden’s age and profile as former-prisoner-turned-model-citizen and civil rights advocate, make him “an unlikely character in the long-running controversy over the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk campaign.” It is for these reasons that Hayden’s case is becoming a touchstone among city activists. His case, as well as that of others, puts a human face on the civil rights crisis that is stop and frisk at a moment of growing opposition to the practice. While their ultimate goal is to force the city to end the unconstitutional practice, activists are circulating an online petition calling on DA Cyrus Vance to drop the charges against Hayden, which has already gathered over 2,000 signatures. The DA has also received dozens of letters attesting to Hayden’s character from local, national, and international citizens, among them NYS Assemblyman Keith L.T. Wright – also chair of the Manhattan Democratic Party –and Michelle Alexander, civil rights advocate and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

Since his arrest in December, Hayden has had three continuance proceedings, all of which have drawn large numbers of supporters both inside the courtroom and in concurrent press conferences and rallies outside of 100 Centre Street. The last court appearance on July 31, 2012 was covered by NY1 and drew over 100 activists from different organizations including representatives from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Most recently, On August 31, Hayden’s supporters held a rally at the 32nd Precinct in Harlem, which according to the New York Times is one of four precincts in New York that ranked highest for use of force during stop and frisk. The 32nd Precinct was also where Hayden was processed and held for 48 hours for the discovery in the bowels of his car of the previously mentioned penknife and miniature baseball bat. It was also there that after a clash with his arresting officer, Aaron Thorn, Hayden’s blood pressure shot up so high that he had to be taken to Harlem Hospital, where he was observed and billed for the ambulance that took him there.

Hayden’s current case and life’s journey are a primer for understanding the bankruptcy of the prison industrial complex that emerged in the US in the 1970s, against the backdrop of the black power and civil rights movements.

Hayden reports that when he was pulled over last December, on 132nd Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, the arresting Officer Thorn new exactly who he was. Officer Thorn recognized him from an encounter four months earlier when Hayden, armed with his flipcam, recorded a plain clothed Officer Thorn stopping two motorists in Harlem. In that contentious exchange between Hayden and the officer, Officer Thorn is on camera saying to Hayden,  “You done selling drugs yet or what? I know your rap sheet.” Later in the same tape, the same officer is heard saying: “Go sell some more drugs, sir. We know your background. I know who you are.”

That chilling, Orwellian statement by Officer Thorn offers a window into the to limits of American democracy. Those limits have historically been demarcated in the United States by race, class, and political orientation.

While prisons have historically been used by the state as a tool of social control, beginning in the 20th century the state began increasingly to abandon the pretense of imprisonment as a form of rehabilitation. Perhaps the most unambiguous example of this fact is the mass disenfranchisement suffered today by the formerly incarcerated. The permanent loss of the complex rights of citizenship is a casualty of imprisonment. This logic is echoed in Officer Thorn’s words to Hayden, “I know who you are.”

These words speak to the capricious, vindictive, and inhumane character of the American prison system. In the world of the formerly and/or currently incarcerated there is no room for regeneration; and redemption is out of the question. Despite having spent approximately 20 years in prison on various charges (including three years at Attica in 1968 for a wrongful conviction) Hayden is an impressive autodidact with a M.A. in Theology. He lectures eloquently around the country in defense of civil rights and on the moral and political bankruptcy of mass incarceration. Like Malcolm X, Hayden’s life has evolved profoundly from hustler to incisive social critic and social justice advocate. But as he notes, “People tend to see you for one chapter in your life,” and as Officer Thorn reminds us the State won’t pardon his rap sheet, even if he’s done his time. But in the case of a dissident voice, like Hayden’s, a pre-existing rap sheet will justify unlawful surveillance and unforgiving reprisal on the part of the courts and police.

Hayden’s story is also compelling because the years of his incarceration span the period during which the prison system in the United States was transformed from a system that incarcerated approximately 300,000 people in 1970 to one that now incarcerates 25% of the world’s prisoners.

Even though Hayden was not overtly political in 1968 when he was sent to Attica following a wrongful conviction that was overturned three years later, his political understanding of the world changed quickly as he joined the prisoner-run study groups that culminated in the Attica uprising of 1971.

It was in the Attica that he began to understand “that mass incarceration was a push back to the successes of the civil rights movement.” In fact, the ballooning of our prisons began in the late 1960s with the surveillance of black dissidents by the FBI’s COINTELPRO and with their criminalization by conservative politicians like Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon who launched the aggressive ideological campaign that we now know as  “Law and Order.” The campaign was meant to defeat the spirit of black rebellion embodied by the activism of the Black Panther Party and to decapitate the powerful social justice movements of the 1960s—primarily the Black Liberation movement, the movement for Puerto Rican Independence, and the Native American, Chicano, and Anti-War movements.

It was out of this campaign of state repression of the late 1960s and 1970s that the largest carceral boom in American history emerged – this was a new and very different kind of Jim Crow. In the 1980s and 1990s, in the context of deepening de-industrialization in urban centers and increasing white, middle-class flight to the suburbs, the state extended these lock-down policies to poor, African American and Latino communities now deemed economically dispensable and likely to resist. As Michelle Alexander explains so clearly,  the infamous War on Drugs was the centerpiece and driving force behind the massive warehousing of poor urban dwellers in the U.S. These policies, which imprisoned an unprecedented number of Americans for non-violent crimes, mainly African American and Latinos, destroyed the fabric of communities of color and undercut the possibility for the re-emergence of massive, democratic movements within historically oppressed communities.

Jazz Hayden has been monitored by the NYPD and is being framed by the courts because, if unchecked, his unrelenting opposition to the degradation that working class black and Latino people suffer daily in this city at the hands of the police and courts, can set off a firestorm with greater consequences for the status quo.

For information about the Campaign To Keep Jazz Hayden Free and to sign the petition go to http://www.facebook.com/events/264443250337092/ 

Johanna Fernandez, Assistant Professor of History at Baruch College of the City University of New York and writer and producer of “Justice on Trial: The Case of Mumia Abu Jamal.”

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Johanna Fernández is assistant professor of 20th Century US history at Baruch College of the City University of New York. She is a leading member of the Campaign to Bring Mumia Home and the broader movement to free Mumia.

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