Culture / Police

Grassroots group puts down roots in Longwood

Take Back the Bronx

Members of the grassroots community education and advocacy group Take Back the Bronx.

Take Back the Bronx moves from the streets to Prospect Ave. building

In September 2012, 20 year old Reynaldo Cuevas ran out of Aneurys Deli Grocery on Franklin Ave. in Morrisania where he worked, to escape a botched robbery attempt during which he’d been held hostage by the thieves. Once he got outside, a police officer from the 42nd Precinct shot and killed him, mistaking him for one of the criminals.

A group of local residents calling itself Take Back the Bronx joined Cuevas’ friends, family and neighbors in a march to support one another and to vent.

“It was a place for us to mourn, a place to be angry,” said Tanzeem Shaneela, one of Take Back the Bronx’s ten members.

But since the group refused to apply for NYPD permits for its events, a wall of police cars sprang up near the march to stop them. Take Back the Bronx, however, defied the show of force, and resumed the rally. Officers got back into their cruisers and drove away.

Shaneela remembers that watershed moment proudly.

“It really showed us what we could do,” she said.

Until now, Take Back the Bronx, which formed in 2011 as an outgrowth of the Occupy Wall Street movement, has concentrated on advocating on the streets of the South Bronx. But recently its members, tired of contending with the weather, began looking for an indoor space from which to center their efforts. After months of searching, they have landed on Prospect Avenue in Longwood.

“We get burnt out,” said Longwood resident Lisa Ortega, a longtime activist. “This will be a place where we can sit back.”

Through fundraising and cash contributions by the members themselves, Take Back the Bronx will open what they call “the first radical social center in the South Bronx” at 970 Prospect Avenue, on August 21. The space comes with a backyard with murals, picnic tables and raised garden beds. Members say they will establish yoga, martial arts and poetry workshops, women’s groups and a library for residents, as well as a dependable spot for young people to congregate. The want to offer an alternative to local recreational centers that charge fees and to the free Police Athletic League, because, they argue, kids are pressured into joining the police force.

Maria Torres, who co-founded The Point CDC in the 1990s and is now that community organization’s president and CEO, said that if the new space is to flourish, the organizers should keep programming consistent.

“If a class happens on a Wednesday, it should happen every Wednesday,” she said. Social media should be used to inform local residents of events, she added. Providing activities in an under-served community like Hunts Point and Longwood “can better people’s lives,” she added.

The group will continue to project its political and social ideals in the new space. The group’s ideals are not so much Martin Luther King Jr.’ as they are Malcolm X, said Shaneela.

“You can’t fight your oppressors with peace,” she said. “You can’t appeal to their consciences because they don’t have one.”

When the group recently organized a basketball tournament for more than 50 Bronx kids, they dubbed the event “Unite the Hood to Fight the Oppressors.”

Fundraising will remain a challenge, said Donna Davis, director of resources development at SoBRO in Mott Haven.

“They have to know who they’re targeting,” said Davis, adding the group will have to find individual donors, since few corporations are likely to contribute.
“With individuals, it’s best to use the emotional end of what you’re doing to raise funds,” Davis said.

To keep expenses down, activities and classes will be mostly run by volunteers, said Ortega.

Even as the group takes on a more standard approach to organizing by moving into a physical location, said Shaneela, Take Back the Bronx’s focus won’t waver.

“We’re not armchair revolutionaries,” said Ortega. “This will be a place for us to organize.”

Echoing the sentiments of her idol, Marxist theorist Rosa Luxemburg, Shaneela insisted one facet of the group’s approach will remain constant, whether in a center or on the streets.

“Everything will be free,” she said.

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