Opinion

A world of crack, urine and catatonia: Welcome to Washington Square Park

#DefundPolice is on the back foot. With a former NYPD officer poised to capture Gotham’s City Hall and Team Biden preposterously claiming that defund was ack-shually a GOP scheme all along, it’s clear mainstream Dems have resolved to ditch the slogan, if not the entire agenda. So what now for true believers of a movement that last year swept up much of the liberal gentry?

You could witness the defunders’ plea for attention in the wee hours of the morning Thursday at Washington Square Park. For more than a month now, the park has been the site of a battle of wills between the NYPD enforcing an on-again-off-again midnight curfew and revelers determined to “reclaim public space,” as an ACLU volunteer monitoring the action told me.  

Yet with their ranks diminished, the gathering of mostly white, heavily female and extremely young anti-police militants looked not a little like high-school goths protesting the principal’s strict new bathroom-pass policy.

The effect was to foreground the misery of the numerous addicts who call the park and nearby streets home: a world bathed in crack smoke, drenched in urine, murmuring with the fragmentary, delusional self-talk of lost souls.

My guide to this other Washington Square world — the world of the addicts — was Damon (not his real name). “Excuse me! Ex-cuse me!” He stopped my aimless wandering in the park, asked for a cigarette (my last) and guessed that I was a reporter; that last was quite a remarkable bit of intuition, as I wasn’t doing anything particularly journalistic.

Damon promised to introduce me to everyone who really mattered, on condition that we first head to a 7-Eleven to buy some beers and a pack of Newports. He would also hit me up for a total of $40 — a tenner every 30 minutes or so — on pain of “not letting you leave.” I felt like less of a sap when I thought of it as the equivalent of a fixer’s fee.

“Welcome to Hell’s Kitchen!” he began.

“This isn’t Hell’s Kitchen.”

“Well, it’s a metaphor anyway.”

Most of Damon’s introductions proved fruitless. “Nando” told us the confrontation between the park people and the surrounding community trace back to rumors of mass “d–k-sucking,” though before he could finish his report, Damon chimed in to insist that “there’s been no d–k-sucking, motherf–ka!”

Washington Square Park curfew
People defiantly occupying Washington Square Park after its 12 midnight curfew in New York, NY on July 8, 2021.
Christopher Sadowski

Not long after, Damon accosted a trio of white teenagers for wearing Jordans (“cultural misappropriation”). After brief pleasantries, a Q-tip-thin young woman in platform Doc Martens was asked to kiss Damon’s hand; she obliged instantly, affectionately smooching his fingers (“You’re welcome!”). And so on.

After we grabbed the beers and cigarettes — this involved a minor altercation, entirely instigated by Damon, with the South-Asian 7-Eleven clerks — my guide was on the hunt for crack and a pipe. By this point, we had passed dozens of crackheads either in various states of catatonia or otherwise disinclined to share the magic crystals with Damon. Eventually, however, we reached a larger group of men and women smoking crack around a squalid table on a well-lit stretch of Sixth Avenue. They were prepared to sell.

Among the group was a woman ministering with such care to one of the catatonics that I figured she was a social worker — before noticing she was hitting the pipe furiously herself. Then she used a broom to sweep her corner of the sidewalk and lay down a blanket for sleep. After Damon smoked his second little crystal, we started back for the park.

“What’s it like when it first hits?” I asked Damon.

“It’s like one is too many, and a thousand is never enough.”

The whole scene was made all the more repulsive by the practiced indifference of the affluent neighbors in their salmon shorts and boat shoes. I suppose it’s understandable. But a part of me wanted to grab some by the Polo collars and shout: How can you take this abjection? Can’t you see there are people dying in slow-motion at your doorsteps?

In the most generous telling, I think, that’s the moral fire that animates the militant kids in the park. Something is profoundly wrong with urban America. It’s sick. No one cares. This should prick the young conscience, any conscience.

Yet the defunders’ obsession with police violence, and the warmed-over critical theory that warps their thinking, serve to further obscure the source of the problem, a much deeper crisis of solidarity. Cops deal with the tail-end of the social crisis, and that means more police interactions with people like Damon and, therefore, a higher likelihood of police-civilian violence.

As former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton has written in these pages, scenes like the one in the Village take place because at some point, the United States lost the will or desire to care for the most vulnerable. The Reaganite right abdicated the poorest in the name of budget-cutting, the progressive left to vindicate the “autonomy” of the addicted and unwell.

In this sense, the defunders aren’t radical enough (in the sense of going to the root of something). The long-term solution is a recovery of a sane and genuine politics of solidarity, a recognition that some of our fellow citizens need more help, help they may not always accept or appreciate without a degree of humane coercion and, yes, sufficient and smart funding. But in the meanwhile, Bratton rightly asks, who but the cops are there to pick up the pieces?

Not that there is any reasoning with the militants. The night ended, predictably, with their accusations that I was racist for working for this newspaper and for supporting “the terrorists” (the men and women of the NYPD). I was also chided for “drinking on the job” (the woke can suddenly become the most prudish Victorians when the friend-enemy dynamic calls for it).

Damon grabbed the last of my $10 bills. I took a cab home.

Sohrab Ahmari is The Post’s op-ed editor.

Twitter: @SohrabAhmari


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