clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How the NYPD is using social media to put Harlem teens behind bars

The untold story of Jelani Henry, who says Facebook likes landed him in Rikers

The Henry brothers, Asheem and Jelani, were born exactly one year apart to the day, in the warm Junes of 1991 and ‘92. “I always felt there was something special about that,” says their mother Alethia. “A little bit of magic.” The two grew up together in their mother’s small apartment on the corner of 129th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard in New York’s Harlem neighborhood.

As young children, the brothers were good friends with kids from all over Harlem. But as they matured into adolescent young men, a set of once-invisible rivalries began to surface. The True Money Gang from the Johnson Houses was at war with the Air It Out crew from the Taft Houses. Crews from Grant and Manhattanville projects exchanged gunfire in the streets. As he grew up, Jelani looked forward to leaving the neighborhood for school, “So I didn’t have to look behind my back every two seconds to see if someone about to bash me in the head,” he says.

When Asheem was 13 and Jelani was 12, the Henry boys began running with a crew based on 129th Street between Fifth Avenue and Lenox. The Goodfellas was a clique that offered the boys camaraderie, cache, and protection from other crews. “If you in another crew’s area, without your boys, those niggas will jump you,” explains Asheem.

the mountains of digital media posted online are a tangled web of connections

In November of 2011, the crew life caught up with them. Asheem was arrested on conspiracy charges as part of gang raid that targeted the Goodfellas. Five months later, Jelani was arrested and charged with a double attempted murder charge following a shooting in the neighborhood. Social media evidence was at the center of the older brother’s case, and the the family says online activity figured into the arrest of the younger brother as well.

The story of the Henry brothers highlights a new reality for teenagers growing up at the intersection of social media, street gangs, and mounting law enforcement surveillance. For those coming of age in gang-saturated areas, the mountains of digital media posted online are a tangled web of connections that can be used to lock up violent perpetrators—but can also ensnare the innocent along with them.

Harlem crews updated

Alethia Henry raised her boys as a single mother, maintaining a steady job as a case manager for an organization supporting people with developmental disabilities. She made sure her two sons had a good education and wore the latest clothes. Her home was a welcoming place, and Asheem and Jelani’s friends would gather at the Henry house to play video games and get a full meal. "My mom, she always opened the door to other kids," says Asheem. "She kind of made our place a safe space to hang."

As kids, the brothers felt comfortable walking the streets of their neighborhood—Asheem played pick-up basketball games at courts all around Harlem. But as the brothers turned 12 and 13, they became increasingly aware of a violent map of territories and rivalries. Jelani says that sometimes he was afraid to go to the grocery store. Certain friends the boys had known for years suddenly became enemies because of where they were from.

New York City’s murder rate has been falling for two decades, recently hitting lows not seen since the 1960s. But that trend isn’t true in Harlem, where gun violence began climbing during the boys’ teenage years. At the heart of this violence was a back and forth cycle of vengeance between youth crews that exploded in number during the Henry boys teenage years.

Harlem, like many poor urban areas, had experienced its shares of notorious gangs like the Bloods and Crips. But the crews that the Henry boys grew up with were mostly small and local in nature, with no connection to a larger, national organization. Like an increasing number of such groups across the country, these crews consisted of a loose group of a dozen or so teens from the neighborhood. Sometimes they controlled nothing more than a single corner. "You could live on the east side of a project, and have problems with them dudes on the west side, one block away," says Asheem.

"You roll up to a spot with your boys, you wanna feel safe, you wanna impress the girls," he explains. Goodfellas was never meant to be a criminal organization — more of a neighborhood clique. But over time, the crew found itself in violent rivalries with other crews in the area. "The first time someone robbed me for my jacket, I let it happen," Asheem says. "The second time, I fought back and got my ass whooped. The third time, I got a weapon to defend myself."

More so than his younger brother, Asheem fell deeply into the Goodfellas crew and its conflicts. Jelani, meanwhile, managed to stay removed from these local struggles. As a young teen, he began attending Leake & Watts, a special needs school based in Yonkers, outside the city. But as Asheem’s younger brother, Jelani remained a background member of the crew by default.

"I knew them all my life, and we always had each other’s back. Somebody mess with you, they mess with all, that was my perspective. Just friends hanging out, chasing after girls," says Jelani. "I didn’t think of it as a gang, I thought of it as family." He was aware of the violence that the crew was involved in, but says he never participated, save a few scuffles in the street. For the most part, Jelani says, "what they was doing, I wasn’t doing."

Like many teens, the Henry boys were avid users of social media, posting content about themselves and their crew. They appeared in Goodfellas rap videos on YouTube, and had accounts on MySpace and Facebook where they appeared in Goodfellas jackets or in images tagged with "Goodfellas" and "GF." It was clear to both of them that the reputation they projected online was not just fun, but as critical to their safety as not walking alone at night.

"The streets be watching, you know that saying?" says Asheem, echoing the words of Jeff Lane, an assistant professor at Rutgers University in the School of Communication and Information who came to know the Henry boys well. Lane spent several years living in Harlem, working on violence prevention and writing about street life. Even good kids who prefer to spend time with family and in the classroom often find it necessary to act "hard," says Lane. In tough neighborhoods, displays of violence and bravado are not a choice, but a survival tactic. "Teenagers these days need to worry not just about how they act in real life, but also how they are perceived on the digital street."

For those not deeply involved in crews but who, like Jelani, were connected by family and proximity, the same kind of scrutiny applied. "People are looking to see how you respond," Jelani explains. There might be a fistfight, for example, and a video would be posted online to Facebook or YouTube. "If you don’t ‘like’ that post," he says, "people are gonna ask you why."

As crime in New York City has fallen, law enforcement has focused on the pockets of violence that remain. Over the last five years, the New York City police department and Manhattan prosecutors office have ramped up their efforts to understand, oversee, and infiltrate the digital lives of teenagers from crime-prone neighborhoods like Harlem. They track the activity of kids through services like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram, going so far as to create fake accounts and spark online friendships to sidestep privacy settings. A recent indictment discusses activity of crew members as young as 10, and arrested several 15-year-olds following a four and half year investigation.

"We are coming to find you and monitor every step you take," Joanne Jaffe, the department’s Housing Bureau chief, told The New York Times in 2013. "And we are going to learn about every bad friend you have."

A music video by The Goodfellas

In Harlem, the social media busts emerged around 2011 with a crack down on a group of 14 crew members. Asheem’s case followed shortly thereafter, with 19 defendants. In April of 2013, another Harlem raid took down 63 crew members. Many of these operations have been organized under the rubric of Operation Crew Cut, a police strategy combining a focus on crews and social media in an effort to curb gun violence.

The most recent Crew Cut raid took place this past June, just after dawn. Helicopters circled low over the Grant and Manhattanville housing projects in West Harlem. Hundreds of officers swarmed into the buildings as members of the press, tipped off beforehand, watched from the wings. In all, 103 defendants, many between the ages of 15 and 20, were indicted. (The word "Facebook" appears more than three hundred times in these indictments.) It was the largest gang raid in the history of New York City, part of an escalating pattern of mass arrests that used social media evidence and conspiracy statutes to arrest larger and larger numbers of defendants.

The district attorney leading the case accused rival crews who lived in the housing projects of two homicides and 19 non-lethal shootings, pointing to a wealth of evidence gathered from reviews of over 1 million social media pages where feuds played out. "IM GOOD BRO THEY SHOT ND MISS WE SHOOT TO KILL" read one Facebook message. "NOW IMAA REALII KILL SOMEONE" read another.

"The mix of social media and conspiracy statutes creates a dragnet that can bring almost anybody in"

Though the New York City Police has declined to comment for this piece, in the past the department has touted Operation Crew Cut as a success. "Strategic enforcement and proactive policing combined with strong prosecutorial partnerships, including attention to the new battleground of social media, have resulted in lives being saved in New York City, mostly young minority men," former police commissioner Raymond Kelly said in a 2013 press release. The NYPD says statistics show that during the first year of Operation Crew Cut, homicides among young people ages 13 to 21 fell 50.6 percent in the areas targeted by the operation.

But critics say that while violence may have fallen, the number of arrests during each raid has not. "The mix of social media and conspiracy statutes creates a dragnet that can bring almost anybody in," says Andrew Laufer, a New York City attorney who has worked on numerous cases involving teenagers wrongly arrested by police. "It’s a complete violation of the Fourth Amendment and the worst kind of big brother law enforcement." To build the case for the Harlem raid, police had begun social media surveillance of children well before they had built up a serious criminal record.

Affiliation with a crew, even a tangential one, can be a deciding factor in getting locked up. "I find it disturbing and scary," says Christian Bolden, a professor of criminology at Loyola University. "In many states, if police see you together with someone three times — and this can be in real life or in a picture they find online — that is enough to prove conspiracy. That puts the onus on young people to be smart and careful about who they are with and what they post. And if we know one thing about teenagers, it’s that they are rabidly social and often quite reckless." It was this exact mix of neighborhood affiliations and social media that entangled the fates of the Henry brothers.

Harlem crews updated

In 2008, Asheem was arrested for weapons possession. He had never fired the gun in question—the indictment showed that it didn’t even work—but he admits to obtaining the weapon illegally. When I visited him at Elmira Correctional Facility, a maximum security facility four hours northwest of New York City where he was serving his sentence, he wore a dark green prison uniform and clean white sneakers. His hair was still in the stylish waves he was known for in Harlem. "I was running around with a gun because—not because I was a gangbanger," he says. "You get caught out your neighborhood, you get jumped."

"You need to come home," his mother told him. "The police are looking for you."

Asheem pleaded guilty to the charge and got five years probation. Determined to fly straight, he kept a clean record after that, graduating high school and heading off to college at William Paterson University in New Jersey. As a freshman, Asheem had finally put some distance between himself and his troubled neighborhood. But in the week of his first midterm exams, his mother called him. "You need to come home," she told him. "The police are looking for you."

The 129th street indictment was one of the earliest in a string of cases that the Manhattan DA has brought against 16 crews in the last four years. These operations have leveraged the potent combination of social media evidence and conspiracy statutes. Asheem was charged with conspiracy in the third degree. The evidence was the gun charge to which he had already pled guilty, and photos, which he says dated back to the time when he was 14 and 15, showing him and other boys under the banner of Goodfellas.

Harlem 3 Good Fellas

The Goodfellas. Jelani can be seen top right

One image showed Asheem and friends at an older girl’s Sweet Sixteen party — their arms draped over one another’s shoulders. Alethia says the picture was used as evidence to show participation in a criminal conspiracy. His mother had been at the party as a chaperone. "I didn’t see gangsters," she says, "I just saw some kids."

But even though these photos were posted online when Asheem was still a minor, they were fair game for the prosecutor when bringing charges against him as an adult. Along with his previous confession to the gun charge, it was enough to prove he belonged to a violent crew. "So I asked them, ‘Yo, is that no form of double jeopardy?’ And they said, ‘No, because you pled guilty to the weapon, it opens up [the conspiracy charge]," recalls Asheem. "And because you got pictures with these other guys, they’re saying you guys all knew what was going on."

"We were just young dumb kids running around, and we just happened to run under the one name," he tells me. "There wasn’t no hierarchy, there wasn’t order." But the nature of some conspiracy statutes, especially when defendants are identified as gang members, doesn’t require that teens be aware of a specific plan or crime in order to be found guilty.

According to Chris Lawson, a prosecutor in San Diego, three ingredients must be present to bring a conspiracy charge against gang members in his state: knowledge of a gang’s criminality, active participation in the gang, and intent to further the gang’s overall goals. Prosecutors can glean evidence for all of this off social media. "If you go out and represent yourself as a members of the Crip killers, and if shortly after you make threats online, a Crip is killed—even though we don’t know who pulled the trigger—we can hold you legally responsible for conspiracy to commit those murders."

Alethia says that in Asheem’s case, the judge told him he was looking at a possible sentence of 15 to 30 years. It was a frightening length of time that convinced Asheem to take a plea deal that could range from 16 months to 4 years instead. While he was incarcerated, the police matched his DNA to another gun recovered near the scene of a gang altercation. Though this gun was operable and loaded, it had not been used in a murder or violent conflict. But Asheem, knowing his record would look bad before a judge, decided to take another plea, adding six more years onto his current sentence. He is now scheduled for release in 2017.

Harlem Sweet 16

Photo taken by local event company at a Sweet Sixteen party. Asheem is farthest left

Had it not been for the social media evidence, it’s likely Asheem would not have been pulled into the conspiracy indictment. California has introduced a new law that would allow teenagers to wipe clean their online presence when they turn 18, erasing youthful indiscretions. And in Europe, major governments have forced Google to remove links that users feel keep them unfairly associated with their past. But for now, in most US states, social media creates a time capsule that can come back to haunt you. Asheem was a minor during the period when the pictures were taken. But when the conspiracy indictment came down, he was old enough to be charged as an adult.

In most US states, social media creates a time capsule that can come back to haunt you

Individuals who work closely with at-risk youth in Harlem and strive to keep them out of the prison system admit that the surveillance of social media and operations like Crew Cut are a necessary response to gun violence among youth. "Nobody wants to see 14- and 15-year-old kids getting locked up," says Chris Watler, Project Director at the Harlem Community Justice Center. "But if a kid is picking up a gun, or shooting other kids, we need to stop them from doing that. If you have a kids posing online with a gun, what is the obligation of law enforcement? There is a legitimate public safety concern."

To his family and friends, Asheem’s case is tragic. They saw a a high school graduate and aspiring college freshman, a young man who had pled guilty to his crime and then tried to leave that life behind. But belonging to the Goodfellas was also a crime—and Asheem was admittedly guilty of it. He would become among the earliest of more than 300 crew members who have been convicted over the past four years by the Manhattan DA on conspiracy charges.

But what happened next came as a shock: the police came for Jelani as well.

Line Up Cropped

A line up of suspects in Jelani's case. Jelani is at bottom right.

Five months after Asheem’s indictment, in April of 2012, the police arrested Jelani at his girlfriend’s home in the Bronx. At first he thought it was for something minor: he had jumped a subway turnstile earlier that year and failed to show up in court for his summons. But he quickly learned that he was under arrest for two counts of attempted murder and other charges.

A few weeks prior, a girl had been spit on by members of a local Harlem crew. The next day, someone shot the spitter and his friend in retaliation. The gunfire broke out in front of Kings Deli on 129th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, two blocks west of the Henry household. Jelani, the police said, matched an eyewitness description of an individual fleeing the scene: a tall, light-skinned black male.

In the interrogation room, two detectives grilled Jelani about Goodfellas gang rivalries in the area. "All my friends are in jail," he told them. "I don’t hang out with nobody."

Jelani had never been convicted of a crime, but at the arraignment, the District Attorney’s office described him as a known member of a violent gang. As evidence, Jelani and Alethia say, she pointed to posts about Goodfellas that he had "liked" on Facebook. The judge denied Jelani bail, instead sending him to Rikers Island, one of the nation’s most notorious jails. The district attorney offered him 20 years if he pled guilty, but Jelani refused. He was certain that a trial would prove his innocence. Days went by, then weeks, months, a year. The trial never came.

During the time he was imprisoned, the DA refused to share almost all the evidence with Jelani or his lawyer. He had no access to the testimony or physical evidence against him and therefore no way to argue that his indictment and detention should be overturned. What little his lawyer did know showed the case to be a shaky one. Two men were seen running from the scene of the shooting. One eyewitness said the dark skinned man held the gun. Another said it was the light-skinned man. An eye witness picked Jelani out of a lineup, but another failed to do so.

Harlem Trial Times

"Because of them pictures, the DA said I was affiliated, that I know what’s going on in the hood," Jelani remembers. On Facebook, Jelani had appeared in pictures with the crewmembers, and he had liked images linked to Goodfellas on Facebook. Again and again, Jelani says, the district attorney pressed him to take a plea bargain, pointing to the evidence on social media. But he refused. "Those are people I would call my friends, but what they was doing, I wasn’t doing. To her, I’m part of them. I’m a monster."

Every so often Henry would be shuttled to the courthouse in Manhattan, and every time, the district attorney delayed the start of the trial. In New York, a defendant is entitled to a trial, and a felony suspect is supposed to be freed on bail after six months without one.

But the district attorney convinced a judge that most of the time Jelani spent in jail shouldn’t count towards that release. She argued that days spent gathering more evidence, delays in testimony by a police officer who was on vacation, or instances where she was unprepared to make her case did not figure into the six-month period. The judge agreed. In a bit of Kafka-esque arithmetic, 19 months became 83 days. Instead of finishing trade school, Jelani celebrated his 20th and 21st birthdays in a cell.

Because of the serious charges and the assertion that the crime was gang-related, Jelani was kept in the George R. Vierno Center, among the most violent housing facilities at Rikers Island. There he was forced into close proximity with inmates from rival areas of Harlem, leading to several fights. The violence changed him. "My experience on Rikers Island, that’s when I had to show, like not just be myself," he says. "I had to turn into a beast."

Harlem crews updated

Jelani fought with other inmates and was was punished with solitary confinement. "I did nine months straight in the box," he remembers. That meant 23 hours a day in a 6 x 8 foot cinder block room, his meals pushed through a slot in the door. "For a while, I kind of lost my mind in there."

Henry said he struggled at times to avoid taking the guilty plea. "I’m like, God’s not listening to my prayers." Thinking of his brother’s plea helped him to stay strong. "I knew sooner or later, [God’s] gonna be like, aight, you suffered enough."

Meanwhile, the district attorney kept dragging her feet. "She definitely thought we would crack if she kept him up in Rikers long enough," says Alethia. But Jelani and his mother refused to cut a deal. "They took one of my boys, but you can’t have them both," she says.

Alethia finally convinced her lawyer to file a speedy trial motion and in November of 2013 Jelani was given bail. Four months later, with no move by the DA to proceed, his case was finally dismissed, almost two years to the day it began. The DA has refused to share the document that outlines the reason for dismissing Jelani’s case with him or his lawyer. To date, there has been no explanation and no apology for Jelani’s detention.

"They took one of my boys, but you can’t have them both."

After leaving Rikers, Henry moved in with his grandmother in West Harlem. He has tried to steer clear of old neighborhood conflicts. "My head is all over the place these days," he says, walking along Harlem River Drive.

Gone is the skinny kid who appears in Goodfellas group photos on MySpace. He is a young man now, with a mustache goatee and a layer of muscle he put on in prison. "I want to be a DJ, a bartender, maybe write a book. I just feel like I’m making up for the lost time, and there is a million things I could do." He hopes to return to school, this time for a degree in automotive repair.

Harlem crews updated

As for social media, and socializing in general, he says he mostly avoids it. "I prefer to just be in the house, not do nothing, be bored out my mind, instead of being outside and being a part of something, which I’m not really." He is hypervigilant about what he posts and what pictures he appears in, but says he doesn’t think the big takedowns of crews have changed the behavior of the average Harlem teenager. "People post things just to get likes to be popular," he says.

Because Jelani’s case was dismissed, the Manhattan District Attorney legally cannot discuss it in any way. But the office stands by the work it has done on social media and the cases it prosecuted based on Operation Crew Cut raids.

"When we first start, a crew might have hundreds of people in it. We then start to narrow, and we focus, like a laser, the worst of the worst," says Chief Assistant District Attorney Karen Friedman Agnifilo. "We are very careful to make sure that we have evidence that we can prove at trial, that these weren’t just kids who like to hang out with the gang [but] members who are really a part of the violence."

Harlem crews updated

Jelani’s case wasn’t caught up in one of the big conspiracy indictments — his was one ripple farther out from those takedowns. While she wouldn’t discuss Jelani directly, Agnifilo spoke in broad terms about the risk-and-reward dynamic of this new style of policing. "With big gang raids, there is collateral damage that spills over and affects the families," she says. "The criminal justice system is not the answer. This is a social and economic issue. But when there is violence, we are prosecutors, and there are only so many options."

Unfortunately, Henry’s troubles from the arrest aren’t over. He is now facing assault charges stemming from a fight in prison. "He was innocent when he went in there, and now he might come out with a charge for defending himself," says Alethia. His family plans to sue the city over his arrest and to have the charges stemming from his time in Rikers dropped.

Alethia is committed to getting his story out there because she believes the policies of police and prosecutors have to change. "Jelani was brought in over nothing. Because he was Asheem’s brother. Because he was friends with people from the hood on Facebook." Well before the arrest of either boy, she had gone to the local police, begging them to intervene in the deadly neighborhood conflicts. "We asked for help, and we got an indictment instead," she says sitting in her kitchen, tears wetting her eyes. "People don’t understand why it’s so dangerous to put yourself out there on social media. You know what my son is guilty of? Being born on 129th Street."

Photography by Bryan Derballa

Map by Ryan Mark and Josh Laincz

Additional reporting by Chaim Gartenberg