We Killed Raynette Turner
The Role of White Jews In the Black Lives Matter Movement
-Owen Silverman Andrews (Alsberg)
I studied and played four years in the College Park, Maryland university bubble, investigating structural genocide in Brasil and feminist resistance in Chile without connecting to related movements happening around me until my final semester. Four years later, while protesting US foreign policy — and getting arrested — in front of the White House, my identity, spending patterns, and social network contributed to the massive gentrification of the Petworth neighborhood in NW Washington, DC. After a year living and organizing and teaching in Baltimore, my partner and I decided to buy a home a block east of Patterson Park in a census tract with one of the most dramatic demographic shifts over the last 15 years anywhere in the City. I consider myself a new Baltimorean, but my roots are in Rockland, NY, wedged between New Jersey and the Hudson River, the most Jewish county in the United States.
In light of the death of Raynette Turner on July 27 — who died while in police custody just a few miles from Rockland in Mount Vernon — a critical examination of the politics of Jewishness in the Lower Hudson Valley compels us to distill a basic awareness of our relationship to the Black Lives Matter Movement. Awareness and knowledge, however sacred, without forceful action are equivalent to continued complicity in the systematic oppression of people of color. While concurrent self- and collective education is imperative, the time to act, in ways people in directly affected communities have been outlining for years, was yesterday. We must move swiftly and surely to make up for lost time.
With about 92,000 self-identifying Jews, nearly a third of the County’s population, Rockland is arguably the most Jewish place in America. Overshadowed by neighboring Westchester County, where Ms. Turner was killed, and isolated from New York City despite being only a dozen miles north of Upper Manhattan, Rockland was a rural backwater until the completion of the Tappan Zee Bridge in 1955. Using construction techniques developed in World War Two, the route of the Tappan Zee and connecting New York State Thruway destroyed scores of houses in the black hillside neighborhood known as Up Top in Nyack, my hometown. This neighborhood had its genesis as a stop on the Underground Railroad, and I still remember discovering secret closets within closets while playing in a friend’s house along Broadway as a child. The displacement of blacks from private housing caused by the Thruway resulted in the construction of two public housing projects, whose tenants to this day are almost 100% black, while the Village of Upper Nyack two miles north, where my family and I moved after leaving the Upper West Side in the early 90s, is more than 92% white.
It is no coincidence that the same bridge that destroyed Nyack’s historic black community literally paved the way for an influx of “ethnic,” newly white people from the five boroughs — our privilege is predicated on their suffering. The exodus to the suburbs was subsidized by a host of post-War policies on the federal and state level. These newcomers, Greeks, Russians, and especially Italians, Irish, and Jews, found themselves strangers in a strange land, inhabited and controlled by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who traced their lineage back to early English colonization, or even earlier, to the days of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. While existing and new Rocklanders negotiated the boundaries of whiteness, finally determining that this identity could be safely expanded without threatening existing power structures, the assimilation was never complete. Jews could join the Nyack Field Club and other elite institutions, dominate politics on the federal level through Representatives Lowey and Engel (but never fully on the level of County government for reasons unpacked below), and feel welcome in the affluent neighborhoods of New City and Upper Nyack. But old-time Rocklanders still maintained a dotted line, if not a barbed wire fence, around inclusion in true Rockland, and white, identity. Similar to others in the Northeast, Rocklanders are quick to ask, “What’s their last name?” and one can literally see a mental sorting process occurring behind their eyes when the answer is given.
This ethnic sorting manifests itself in Rockland, perhaps more thoroughly than elsewhere, in the delineation between those whites who came before the Bridge and those who came after. I can still recall a friend my mother had made at her swim club telling her blithely, “No offense, M-, but if I had my way we’d send everyone who came after the Bridge back across and dynamite it after them.” (Indeed the Bridge’s pilings, built using the same engineering techniques used to throw up bridges across the Rhine in front of Patton’s Army, sit not on bedrock but on alluvial muck — smote by 1.3 million pounds of PCBs, a legacy of GE’s two capacitor manufacturing plants upriver — requiring the construction of a new Bridge, which has the supposed capacity but not the mechanical hardware for public transportation, currently rising alongside the old.) Conservative splinter parties like Preserve Rockland, which exist to double the ballot lines occupied by Republicans favored by the old-timers, echo my mother’s friend’s sentiment on the level of County electoral politics.
Conventional political commentary on Jewish Rockland, when NPR or the Times deign to look a few miles upriver, can be boiled down to the Hudson vs. Hasidim dynamic. In the interior of the County, hamlets like Monsey, where nearly half of residents speak Yiddish at home, abut those like Sloatsburg, which maintains pre-Bridge demographics, Pearl River and Tappan, altered by waves of Irish and Korean migration, respectively. Ultra-Orthodox Jews have for several decades been increasing their power within local town councils and school boards in order to keep taxes low, a boon to the Ultra-Orthodox community because their children do not attend public schools. To this end, they cut deals with anti-tax Republicans. In the 2013 Democratic primary, two Jews ran for the Party’s nomination for County Executive, weakening the eventual winner, David Freid, and opening the way for Ed Day — a former NYPD Commanding Officer of Detective Squads and Baltimore PD Chief of Detectives — to succeed C. Scott Vanderhoef, who reigned from 1995 to 2013. Despite these backroom deals, Rockland’s Orthodox are publicly maligned by conservative old-timers as well as by more mainstream Jews concentrated a couple miles east on Route 59, which becomes Main Street when it enters Nyack on its way to the River.
The Hudson Jews, mostly Conservative and Reform, who live in towns like Nyack, Haverstraw, and Stony Point, meanwhile, style themselves as liberals. They decry the behavior of their inland cousins. They drive Priuses and donate to the Southern Poverty Law Center and the NAACP. Unlike most Hasidim and like my father, they tend to work in Manhattan, and this bedroom suburb dynamic diminishes their attention to Rockland County affairs, which they deem parochial from behind the pages of the New Yorker. Consequently, they are less influential in local politics, do not vote in blocs, and prefer to ready themselves for Hillary than to address problems arising from racism and ethnocentrism in their own backyard.
This traditional narrative misses the complexity of Rockland’s racial, ethnic, and religious politics in two significant ways, leading to misinterpretations of our role in American politics applicable far beyond the Hudson Valley. When liberal Jews chastise the deft maneuvering of Hasidim with gummy condemnations and pat themselves on the back for the diversity of student bodies at better-funded schools like my alma mater Nyack High School, they fall into two dangerous tropes.
First, they fail to see how the Hasidim’s budget slashing on the school board is motivated by the same mentality that keeps the cost of housing down in communities west of the Palisades Parkway, which serves as a pull factor for African Americans and Haitian and Latin American immigrants priced out of the river towns. After college, I worked at an organic grocery store in Nyack. When I occasionally drove my Guatemalan co-workers home instead of letting them wait to transfer from one low-frequency bus line to another, it was to a relatively affordable apartment complex where large immigrant families live side by side with Hasidim in an uneasy truce. There is little affordable housing to be had in the liberal bastions along the shore of the Hudson. This hypocritically relative, self-styled liberal, faux-cosmopolitan perspective of the Hudson Jews allows us to bring home local Dr. Davies apples in reusable bags without a second thought about the immigrant greengrocer who unpacked the crate. Confronting a deep seated cognitive dissonance that permits this duplicity makes up the first half of the conversation our community must wrestle with if we are to confront our complicity in racist structural violence being committed all around us.
The second truth hidden within the trite Hudson vs. Hasidim trope is our blindness to the urgent need for the type of local activism practiced tirelessly by people like my neighbor P- and others, whose environmental organizing defeated an unneeded desalination plant proposed by United Water that would have increased climate change-inducing suburban sprawl. Rather than the work of self-serving white activists, we must understand this victory as one for all people, since poor people of color are those being most directly imperiled by global climate change.
Liberal Jews, and whites more generally who celebrate racial diversity at arm’s length, don’t deserve a pat on the back. Nor does our national and international charity exonerate us for the racialized individual decisions and municipal policies that create hyper-segregated bedroom communities like Upper Nyack. We must face ourselves and ask why we have failed to grapple with the injustice of a system that has allowed us to ascend into privileged whiteness at the expense of devalued black lives. It is exactly this combination of racial misanthropy masked by a liberal façade and a self-serving celebration of our morality relative to conservative Orthodox Jews that created the conditions which lead to deaths like that of Raynette Turner — and hundreds like her every year — in Mt. Vernon, a few miles from where I grew up.
Westchester County residents, richer by reputation and more prestigious by association, have long looked down on neighboring Rocklanders across the Hudson who must drive through Jersey, or worse, take the bus, in order to reach Manhattan. Upper East Side Jews settled there; Upper West Side Jews wound up in Rockland. A large cut of Rockland and North Jersey forest along the Hudson’s west bank was bought up and preserved by Rockefellers to ensure their imperial view would never be sullied. To avoid lashon hara, I won’t name the Rockefellers’ Jewish equivalents, equally complicit in creating hyper-segregated communities with the greatest wealth disparities anywhere in the country, with the exception of Manhattan itself. In this comparison, Westchester, like an older sibling, outranks Rockland, and while only 14.6% Jewish, it boasts 45,000 more Jewish souls.
When my cousins from Westchester visited us the day after Thanksgiving last year, we walked along Nyack Beach State Park’s river trail. The place where Hook Mountain, the last gasp of the Palisades Cliffs, descends into the River is truly one of the most spectacular natural environments in the world. They gazed across a body of water so wide that Henry Hudson, sailing for the Dutch in 1609, mistook it for an inland sea and named it, Tappan Zee, accordingly. What they saw sent ripples across the surface of the self-portrait they had grown up in: a view of Sing Sing Federal Penitentiary and Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant. The ripples quickly faded, as E- remarked of the splendor around us with a well-measured pinch of disdain, “I never even knew this was over here,” and the unsullied reflection Rockefeller had purchased a century before remained undisturbed.
Raynette Turner’s death demands we peel back the surface and see Westchester, and Rockland, and all of Jewish (and white) America for what it is — a happy mirage for some and a wakeless nightmare for most. Mount Vernon, just over the municipal line between the Bronx and Westchester, has the highest rate of HIV/AIDS infection of any small city in the country (African Americans make up 14% of Westchester’s population and 52% of AIDS cases). Next door, liberal arts school Sarah Lawrence College, where my mother worked for years, maintains a P.O. box in Bronxville rather than accept mail at a Yonkers address associated with blacks and poor whites, a distinction so colloquial — surely an address any outsider would relate to the Bronx should be less desirable than even Yonkaz! — that it defies any logic except the hard-nosed logic, at once localized and universal, of racism and classism.
Though poorer enclaves pock Westchester further north — like parts of the Mexican community in Ossining whose growth caused my best friend’s dad to sell his home and move up to Putnam County — elite actors have done everything within their power to hold the line after the Bronx burst in the 50s and sent fleeing working class people in all directions. Public housing projects are largely clustered along this southwestern fringe. As a direct result, a 2012 lawsuit forced Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino to decide between losing millions of dollars annually in federal Department of Housing and Urban Affairs funds or integrate. He chose the former, of course, and rode the NIMBY wave all the way to the Republican gubernatorial nomination. This dynamic, which plays out in suburbs around the country, is not diminished in Westchester or Rockland by some of the largest Jewish populations anywhere in the U.S. Arguably, the structural and episodic violence visited daily on people of color is exacerbated by the unvarnished truth at the core of the Hudson vs. Hassidim dynamic. We must burnish this inconvenient truth if we are to wrestle, like Jacob with the angel, and come to terms with our complicity in the system that perpetuates this violence.
I left Nyack for the University of Maryland in 2005. When I graduated College Park in 2009, I didn’t have to worry about the rent going up on my apartment because I moved back in with my parents. When I left Nyack again in 2010, this time for Oakland, California, I arrived on the anniversary of Oscar Grant’s murder by Officer Johannes Mehserle and saw people take to the streets to demand justice. Mehserle was convicted of manslaughter even though a cellphone video showed him shooting a handcuffed Grant in the back. While this result was tragically insufficient, it would never have occurred without the riotous outpouring of righteous indignation. Two years later, when I moved back east, the rent doubled behind me. The rent went up again when I left DC in 2014. It is going up again on the home we rent in Baltimore, months after an all-out Uprising in the wake of Freddie Gray’s murder roiled the city, leading to the historic indictment of six police officers. It is clear that the connection between gentrification, causing forced displacement of black people from coast to coast, is one symptom of a larger systematic failing of a diseased society in need of radical restructuring. It is equally clear that the words of Frederick Douglass, himself once a new Baltimorean, though under conditions incomparable to my own, are as true now as they were more than a century and a half ago:
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men [and women] who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both a moral and a physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without demand. It never has and it never will.”
One hundred and fifty-eight years later, some of us nod in agreement when we read those words, but scratch our heads in confusion when considering how to join the same struggle for liberation described then by Douglass today. This confusion stems not from a failure of imagination or clarity, but from a failure to listen to the voices of oppressed people who have consistently detailed our potential role in defeating white supremacy. Case, Kwame Toure and Fred Hamilton, writing a century after Douglass in 1966:
“It is our position that black organizations should be black led and essentially black staffed, with policy being made by black people. White people can and do play very important supportive roles in these organizations. Where they come with specific skills and techniques, they will be evaluated in those terms. All too frequently, however, many young middle class white Americans, like some sort of Pepsi generation, have wanted to come alive through the black community and black groups. They have wanted to be where the action is and the action has been in those places. They have sought refuge from a sterile, meaningless, irrelevant life in middle class America. They have been unable to deal with the stifling, parochial, split-level mentality of their parents, teachers, preachers, and friends. Many have come seeing no difference in color. They have become color blind. But at this time and in this land, color is a factor, and we should not overlook or deny this. The black organizations do not need this kind of idealism, which borders on paternalism. White people working in SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) have understood this. There are white lawyers who defend black civil rights workers, and white organizers who support indigenous black movements across the country. Their function is not to lead, or set policy, or attempt to define black people to black people, their role is supportive.”
In 2015, after a year of media attention on episodes of state violence against black people that has largely ignored structural inequity, that type of support is largely absent. We have failed. We failed either because we have deafened ourselves to black suffering or because we have been too timid to act. Where we have acted, it has been too little, too late. It is a shonda. But at the core of this shame, if we can face it, we will find an understanding of our Jewish role beside the Black Lives Matter Movement. Out of Jewish guilt, true solidarity?
Guilt, an especially Jewish expression (though one understood just as well by our Catholic friends), is not popular these days with most white anti-racist activists. Guilt, they say, is either incapacitating or a pre-symptom of the lethal white savior syndrome, which suffocates oppressed communities by denying them agency. While this is a legitimate concern, and should be taken seriously, it also belies the white anti-racist movement’s inability to understand the ying-yang of privilege and otherness — as well as the Hudson vs. Hassidim dynamic writ large and amalgamated into the collective consciousness of a diasporic people — that defines contemporary Jewish America, an identity so deeply ingrained in us that it softens the shame of standing idly by the blood of our neighbors, of being the people of “Never again for us” instead of the people of “Never again for anyone!”
Feel guilty. We should. European-descended Jews profit in innumerable ways from whiteness. Unlike my grandfather, whose race was listed by a 1930 census taker as “Jew” (an attribution later crossed out and replaced with “W” by a bureaucrat in Washington who’d gotten the memo), we inhabit a comfortable space close to the apex of the racial hierarchy. Because of that hierarchy, women like Sandra Bland and Raynette Turner are being routinely killed by police. Because of that hierarchy, tens of millions of poor people and people of color are oppressed systematically in ways no police body cam will ever record.
On Monday July 28th, Herman Turner, Raynette Turner’s husband of twenty-three years, waited for hours in a Westchester courtroom. Detectives came to his house the following day to inform him that while he waited, Raynette, mother of eight children ages 8 to 21, lay dead in a barren cell. “No one said anything to me about my wife was downstairs, dead. They just let me sit in the courtroom all day long, waiting for her to be seen by a judge. I’m angry. Very angry. Somebody needs to pay. Somebody needs to pay for this. I’m sorry, I’m not going to let this rest!”
Somebody does need to pay. We do. We need to pay with our privilege, by dismantling it, leaving the sidelines, and wrestling the violent racism in our communities until it is pinned and defeated.
We killed Raynette Turner. Say her name and know the reason why.
Do you feel guilty? Good. We should. Do you feel angry? Better. We must.
Now what are you going to do about it?