Those words – “We work with the garbage of New York” – are attributed to retired corrections officer Sikkim Assing in a New York Time story by J. David Goodman on a fatal shooting that happened on the 4 train a couple of days ago. According to his report, two younger men, co-workers returning from a job site, were standing together near the door inside a crowded subway car when an older man, who turns out to be a retired corrections officer, pushed his way into the car. This is not terribly unusual rush hour behavior in NYC, and rarely do shootings erupt as a result, but apparently there was some pushing and shoving and the scuffle spilled out onto the platform at Borough Hall when the doors opened there, and ultimately the older retired corrections officer (identified as William Groomes, 69) shot and killed one of the two men (identified as Gilbert Drogheo, 32). the other younger man (Joscelyn Evering, 28) was arrested and charged with assault and menacing. As of the filing of Mr. Goodman’s NYT story, prosecutors had not decided to file any charges against William Groomes, the shooter.
William Groomes was, according to the report, licensed to carry the concealed weapon with which he shot Gilbert Drogheo. New York is not a “stand your ground” state, so a civilian may legally use deadly force in self defense only when retreat is not possible. (Law enforcement officers do not have a duty to retreat. William Groomes was a retired corrections officer. I don’t know if there is some emeritus status for retired officers that enables them to retain their freedom to shoot without attempting to retreat.)
Here’s the thing: In New York City right now, there is an ongoing scandal regarding the treatment of people incarcerated at Rikers Island by the corrections officers whose job it is to keep them safe. When Sikkim Assing says, in defense of her friend William Groomes, that it is understandable that he’d be carrying – and presumably then, prepared to use – a concealed weapon, because “We work with the garbage of New York,” she is revealing the dehumanizing attitude that is no doubt a key component of the scaffolding that continues to buttress the systematic racism, brutality and even murder of civilians by what is inaccurately labeled the criminal justice system.
It can’t be the case that only a few corrections officers think this way. For one thing, the documentation of brutality at Rikers Island clearly demonstrates an institution-wide pattern. But beyond that, the widespread incarceration of young black and brown-skinned people in the United States – more black men in prison in 2008 than were enslaved in 1850 – can only really be maintained if we dehumanize the populations which we segregate into jails and prisons in what Michelle Alexander has so aptly called The New Jim Crow.
One of the reasons I love Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance so much is that, at its core, it upholds the dignity of all human beings, and works to expand the freedom with which all human beings can fully express themselves. Dehumanization is one of the most important tactics used to justify the denial of rights, of freedoms, and of life itself. We dehumanize people to rationalize killing them in warfare, exploiting them in sweatshops, stealing their land and their natural resources. We dehumanize people to rationalize, withholding services or assistance, discriminating and segregating and limiting freedoms. We dehumanize to rationalize the denial of justice.
Garbage doesn’t deserve protection. People, though, people do. And people, no matter how troubled or unpleasant they are, are not garbage. They are human beings. I don’t know what happened in the fight between William Groomes, Gilbert Drogheo and Joscelyn Evering, but I know that it wasn’t a fight between an upstanding retired corrections officer and two piece of garbage. It was a fight between three human beings, one of whom is dead, one of whom is charged with felony crimes, and another of whom is retired from an organization that treats humans like garbage, and, if recent history is any guide, will likely go free.