Chinatown Jail Protesters Arrested as Fencing for Massive Demolition Begins

Susan Lee is the first to be handcuffed after sitting down on Baxter Street with nine other protesters Wednesday morning, April 13. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib  

Apr. 13, 2022

Ten protesters were arrested Wednesday morning as they sat arm-in-arm on Baxter Street in a symbolic effort to block fencing for the coming demolition of the two-building Manhattan Detention Complex in Chinatown. 

With heavy moving equipment on the street at a standstill and dozens of police waiting nearby, the protesters chanted their familiar call for “no new jails” and demanded that Mayor Eric Adams stop the pending destruction of the hulking two structures, making way for what likely will be the tallest jail in the world. 

In April of last year, candidate Adams declared his opposition to the 295-foot high jail, but last week gave his go-ahead to the project, part of the de Blasio administration’s $8.3 billion plan to close Rikers Island and build four borough-based jails.

“We want [Adams] to see that we will stand in defiance of his jail that he said he doesn’t want to go up,” protest leader Jan Lee, from Neighbors United Below Canal, shouted through a megaphone before his arrest.

Following police warnings through a loudspeaker, cops cuffed the protesters one by one and led them to a waiting NYPD van. At the 7th Precinct, they were held in cells for an hour-and-half before given a summons for disorderly conduct and released.

Video by The Tribeca Trib

“We as an Asian American community need to be fighting back and we need to make sure our votes are heard by the government,” Grace Lee, a Lower Manhattan activist and state Assembly candidate, said in a phone interview after her release. “I think this is the beginning of more actions that we will be taking in this fight. We’re not backing down. We’re not giving up.

A demonstration outside City Hall was planned for noon the next day.

Opponents say that years of demolition and construction will be an economic and environmental disaster for the neighborhood and an act of discrimination against Asian Americans.

The work on Wednesday, which began closing off the site in preparation for the year-and-a-half, $125 million demolition, had been set to begin on March 4. But the Adams administration paused it as a result of local opposition, according to City Councilman Christopher Marte, a co-founder of Neighbors United Below Canal, a group formed to stop the project.

“In Chinatown, because of our voices, there are no fences,” Marte said last month. “Because of our voices, the city doesn’t know what it’s going to do yet.” 

(City officials told the Trib in an email that the construction was “paused over a month at the community’s request to review alternative proposals” to retrofit the existing buildings. They called that renovation “unfeasible” because “the building [presumably referring to the landmarks-eligible “Tombs” at 124 White Street] is not structurally sound enough to withstand the extent of the renovation required.” No mention was made of the 1990s tower at 125 White Street.) 

On Friday, April 8, the city announced it would go ahead with the work on the following Monday, April 11.

Protesters made a strong showing that morning as a video truck replayed Adams’s recorded opposition to the project, in an endless loop, from its 12-foot screens. But work did not begin until Wednesday morning, when Gramercy Group, the contractor in charge of the demolition, started installing jersey barriers along Baxter Street.

“Shame on Gramercy for destroying Chinatown,” Jan Lee shouted. “We are here to defend Chinatown.”

“Shame! Shame!” the protestors chanted.

“Look at these buildings,” Jonathan Hollander, a nearby resident, said, gesturing to the jail complex. “There’s no way [they are] coming down and then something twice as big will not destroy this community.”

In an email statement responding to the protest, an Adams spokesman told the Trib, “This administration will always follow the law, and the law says the jails on Rikers Island must close on time. To follow the law and protect the safety of the community and all involved in this project, this work is proceeding. We have engaged deeply with the community every step of the way, and we are committed to continuing to work with them to limit the disruption of this project.”