This week, news about ICE raids and arrests in several U.S. cities rippled throughout immigrant communities in Brooklyn, after a leaked Department of Homeland Security document linked 40 arrests to NYC.
But several unverified rumors on Facebook have been tearing through Ditmas Park and Flatbush, causing fear and confusion for community members, activists, and NYPD officers alike.
At an activist training event in Ditmas Park last night, neighbors prodded cops to verify several alleged checkpoints including Bobby’s Department Store on Utica Avenue. Worried neighbors heard whispers about raids on Flatbush Avenue, arrests near the Church Avenue subway station, and officers waiting to pounce outside restaurants and even at Kings County Hospital.
Earlier this week, we spotted a post on a closed Facebook page warning neighbors about an ICE checkpoint on Utica Avenue. The source was unverified, and the writer hadn’t seen the checkpoint, but it gained enough traction to feature in this Vice article on social media-induced paranoia.
— skeevy. delicious. (@blowticious) February 15, 2017
But for many vulnerable communities in Flatbush, even false rumors can incite real fear.
“We need to dispel these rumors,” said an NYPD officer last night in front of an audience of immigrants and activists. “ICE isn’t in the area — there have been no deportations and no checkpoints.”
At that, a woman in the third-row let out a sigh of relief. “I didn’t know what to think, she said. “I heard that people were being arrested at at Kings County hospital.”
“If you’re arrested and taken to the precinct, can you get deported?” asked another audience member through an interpreter.
“I heard that ICE officers grabbed some people from Church Avenue and McDonald,” said another, standing up from the creaky wooden auditorium seats. This corner in Kensington is home to several restaurants and shops owned by South Asian immigrants and serves as a late-night hangout spot.
While refuting every ICE citing, the officer did warn about the dangers of immigration scams, or officials posing as ICE officers in efforts to scam people for money. “It’s a problem. All someone has to do is write ICE on a jacket in marker,” he said, warning neighbors to stay vigilant and alert the police if they see suspicious, non-NYPD officers.
“If you’re stopped, ask for a badge, look for official vehicles. If you have any doubt, call 911,” he said.
But as more and more people raised concerns, the officers’ tone firmed.
“Listen. Don’t panic,” he said. “It’s safe to come out of your homes. Everyone take a breath. This isn’t 1940s Germany.”
Hysteria and misinformation causes chaos for NYPD officers, too. “The fear puts people on edge,” the officer told BKLYNER. “And when we show up at someone’s door for something routine like a noise complaint, we don’t want to get shot.”
But one audience member chafed at what she called the officer’s lack of empathy.
“I appreciate community officers,” said teaching artist Melissa Shaw. “But if you’re here to keep us safe, then reflect that. Don’t come in here (a space that is predominantly Bangladeshi, Nepali, black, and Mexican) and tell us to calm down, or tell us that we’re being stupid,” she said.
“All of these people have different levels of documentation, they stand to lose things. Your security is a privilege, you can relax. But no one in this room can relax. And as an ally, I can’t relax,” said Shaw.
It’s easy for misinformation to spread, especially because the term ‘sanctuary city’ doesn’t actually have a clear, legal definition, said Laurie Davidson of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. But its substance in New York City translates to confidential and accessible services for immigrants regardless of status, and a clear separation between ICE and NYPD.
“New York City doesn’t co-operate with federal immigration enforcement,” said Davidson, citing the efforts that expelled ICE from Rikers.
But for some communities, the presence of NYPD officers comes with its own baggage and fear. Shaw spoke to a deeper issue of discord between police and some communities of color.
“Police don’t understand what they represent when they walk into a room,” she said. “In uniform, you symbolize violence to a lot of communities. How do you help undo that?”
For some local elected officials, even if the rumors are false, the widespread panic they incite is evidence of a top-down problem emanating from Washington.
“Concerns about immigration checkpoints and raids, whether rumors or not, is evidence of the mass hysteria that has taken hold of communities across the country because of Trump,” said City Council Member Jumaane Williams. “The President’s erratic behavior only makes it more difficult for our communities.”
Williams’ office has personally reached out to owners of the commuter van lines and Bobby’s Department Store management to confirm that there have been no general indiscriminate stops made by ICE agents over the past few days.