On every city block, there are rules. Some are unspoken, some require friendly reminders, some are enforced by the law. There are people who take it upon themselves to make sure neighborhood rules are being followed. Are there ever circumstances where it’s OK to break rules in order to prevent others from breaking the rules?
Henry Rivera (not his real name) grew up with his mom in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
“I wasn’t supposed to be born,” Rivera says. His mother was in love with a doctor who was married.
“Whatever happened happened, and I came along. They beat her up trying to kill me. She was seven months pregnant, so they induced an early birth. I came out with no damage whatsoever. At the age of 14, I was almost 200 pounds of solid muscle.”
Rivera’s neighborhood, like many in New York in the 80s and 90s, was a little rough around the edges. He explains that back in the day there were certain lines in the neighborhood you couldn’t cross if you didn’t want to get beat up. It was a matter of survival. For better or for worse, he loved it. He loved his community. He says it was always a family neighborhood.
Rivera got older and started a family of his own there. He came to take on an important role. He became that guy that people would rely on to take care of things. Pablo Airaldi met Rivera when he opened a bike shop on the main stretch of Greenpoint. Airaldi introduced Rivera to me.
“Henry came into the shop and went right up to the counter to introduce himself…..just to introduce himself,” Airaldi recalls. “We were the new kids on the block and it’s his block. He knows everybody on that block because he makes sure that people know him. It wasn’t obvious from the beginning what Henry did. You just knew that there was a reason to respect him. I don’t usually question those kinds of gut instincts. I just went ahead and respected the man wholeheartedly.”
Airaldi came to think of Rivera as a block boss figure. Others call Rivera the mayor of the block. One thing is certain: You do not want to get on his bad side.
“If you need a hug I’ll give you a hug, if you need a smack I’ll give you a smack, that’s the community that I lived in,” Rivera says.
There a lot of communities like Riveras around the United States—people who take the law into their own hands.
Laura Beth Neilsen, a research professor at the American Bar Foundation, says this kind of thing arises most often when people’s desire for order is not addressed by whatever legal authority is in charge.
“Sometimes other systems are working just as well, you don’t need the police. There’s research about tight knit but very crime ridden areas where a lot of the policing is actually done through networks of mothers and grandmothers,” she says. Or by people like Henry Rivera.
Neighbors say in the worst of times, he tried to keep the block safe when no one else would. Laura Hoffman was one of those neighbors. She’s lived in Greenpoint all of her life. In the 90s, Hoffman was bringing up six kids in a low-income housing apartment right around the corner from Rivera.
“I used to have to get up maybe a half hour, 45 minutes early in the morning, just so I could sweep up the crack vials and needles and stuff that was hanging out in our hallway,” she says. ‘My kids knew what I meant when I said, ‘Hit the dirt!’”
Hoffman says she turned to the police for help. As soon as something started going wrong, she’d call her local precinct, but she rarely got a response. Over the years, Hoffman has filed over 20 official complaints and showed up at the precinct in person but to no avail. In her mind, the 94th precinct was an R&R precinct.
“A rest and relaxation precinct.”
I spoke with Johnny Barela, the former sergeant at the 94th precinct. He says in the precinct’s defense, “Sometimes the police can’t do everything. We did a lot with a little.”
Barlea worked in Greenpoint at the time Hoffman was bringing up her kids, when crime rates and drugs were really a problem in the neighborhood. Barela grew up there too.
“The department politicians, they handcuff you,” he says. “They don’t allow you to do the job the way you should do it or really want to do it. They’re always crunching numbers and looking for this and that. You don’t really care about the paperwork. Your job is to get the bad guy. But then you have to understand the paperwork’s important because you gotta prosecute ‘em. That’s part of the job. Checks and balances.”
Barela admits that things had gotten pretty bad in Greenpoint.
“There were murders, everyone knew about, unfortunately everyone was either a victim or knew someone close or relatively close to them that was a victim of some sort of crime either by a larceny break in, car theft, burglary or worse. So people did not feel safe.”
This is where a guy like Henry Rivera comes in. He says he understands what the police are up against.
“Cops have to run by all these laws, gathering evidence and all that I mean. I don’t have to. That’s it. I don’t have to. Nor am I going to waste my time,” says Rivera.
Hoffman says that if you had a problem, Rivera was there. He was able to do what the 94th precinct wasn’t able to do. That could be any variety of things.
One example involved a group of crack addicts. There was one particular corner where they liked to hang out, and Rivera says children lived nearby. One night there were a couple of drug users on the corner, and this is how Rivera handled it.
“I walked downstairs, like a normal Puerto Rican would do, in his boxers. Enchancletas.
As I walk out the door, there are two garbage cans there. One metal and one plastic. I pick the plastic one up. I swing. I do a full 360. I clobber the guy. Right? I mean he is done. One shot done. There was garbage in this plastic one. The silver one was empty. I picked the silver one up. I’ve never….whatever I enjoyed it. Fuck it. I clobbered her over the head with it. She fell and shut the fuck up.”
This is only one of many stories Rivera has about keeping the neighborhood in shape. Once he caught a kid stealing an older woman’s purse:
“I didn’t stop kicking him. It would have been self defense if I gave him three kicks instead of 35 of them. And you know? I’m sorry, but he was mugging someone. It was an older lady.”
Rivera’s methods are a little extreme. Despite Barela’s issues with police effectiveness in the neighborhood, the retired sergeant is adamant that vigilantism is wrong.
“This man’s justice or penalty is a beating—one time he might make a mistake. Wrong person’s going to be victimized! Then I get involved because he just committed an assault. Either way he’s committed an assault,” Barela says.
Laura Hoffman is not of the same opinion. “I’m not going to say I like it when somebody has to use that kind of force, but sometimes people have to do what they have to do to keep their corners livable. He’s the kind of person if he felt that it was needed, I would trust him. If he had to resort to something like that, then he had his reasons.”
In the eyes of the law, Rivera is a criminal. In the eyes of the community, he’s a keeper of the peace. Laura Beth Neilsen explains that if Rivera has the backing of his community, there is a way in which it is legitimate.
She says, “When taken to the extreme, say he takes out a baseball bat or a gun, no that’s not legitimate. As long as he’s not doing serious violence and it’s a shared norm in the neighborhood, that’s …community. That’s what we call community.”
But Rivera’s methods are crossing the line that Neilsen is talking about, the serious violence line. However, if we’re talking about community norms, especially at this particular time in Greenpoint, this type of behavior was pretty common. Even Laura Hoffman swung a baseball bat from time to time.
Rivera asserts, “If I’m a product of my surroundings, I’m a happy product of my surroundings, I would never let anyone get away with bullshit.”
Even if his methods are in harmony with the norms of the community, they are in conflict with the norms of the general public. His use of violence is what pushes his role in the neighborhood from neighborly to potentially criminal. I asked why he feels the need to take things so far.
Rivera answered with a question.
“When you see tough guys beating people up for no reason? What do you feel like doing? I’ll ask you that question. Running?”
Cowering a little, I say, “….kind of.”
“I’m sorry to say it like this,” Rivera responds, “but the gangster in me is coming out. It’s pussies like you, OK, that piss me off. Because when you stand around watching someone get hurt and don’t do shit about it? That’s a big fucking problem. And a lot of people do that.”
Former police sergeant Barela says he too had the same emotional reaction to crime, “but you can’t do that. It’s not going to work. There’s always somebody tougher. So it just comes into war and battle and it’ll never stop. He’s just a thug.”
Still, Rivera is more than just a thug. He shows up at city council meetings. He lobbies for things he thinks are important. He coaches little league baseball. He’s all for what he calls “good cops.” But only to a certain point.
“We have laws on the books for a reason. They fit in when the cops are taking care of things. When they’re not taking care of things, they don’t fit in at all.”
Rivera’s been arrested, but has never done time. “Once they found out what really happened,” he says, “They let him go. ”
Nowadays, Greenpoint is mostly gentrified. There seems to be less of a drug problem—at least out in the open. Rivera spends less time beating up crack heads and more time building movie sets and doing standup comedy. Though you’d better know for sure he’ll still give you a smack if he thinks you deserve one.