For the free exchange of ideas
By Sarah Stuart-Sikowitz
It was a cool night in Ithaca, New York, a few hours before Thanksgiving break. Students enjoyed the pause in academic stress by flooding Cornell’s streets and bars with crowds and music that could be heard blocks away from where it was being played. Far past midnight, delirious from an evening of drinking, Anna, a junior business administration major at Cornell University, walked from a frat party to a Collegetown bar with her group of friends.
She often went out with the same people, having met most of them during Cornell’s orientation. The group had befriended two men and a woman at the party who wanted to join them in their walk to the bar. The group staggered along, herded by the designated drivers. As they continued forward, weaving in and out of swarms of rowdy students, Anna found herself falling behind with one of the men who had tagged along. She tried to catch up to the group, but soon found herself being steered toward a parking lot by the man, claiming he wanted to drive her. She complained, wanting to stay with her friends, but he insisted and would not let her go. Before she knew it, she was struggling inside the man’s car, fighting to get out. After a 20-minute grapple, which left her bruised and bleeding, she managed to escape without molestation — but never reported it to the police.
When Anna told me this story last year, I wondered what any average Ithacan might: how could that sort of attack happen here? Here, in the streets I’ve roamed for years at every level of sobriety imaginable and never felt unsafe — aside from the occasional catcall or close encounter with a TCAT.
Ask an Ithaca resident to describe the town, and they might respond with adjectives such as welcoming, kind-hearted, eccentric, if not a bit weird, but by all means harmless. Ask the cynics and they might call it orthodox-left, quietly racist, a place so saturated with drugs it has become a running joke. I might call it quirky, a hippie paradise, a mini Portland or Bernie Sanders’ wet dream, but never dangerous.
Anthony Nazaire’s murder brought Ithaca’s capacity for violence to the forefront of our community’s mind, if only for a short time. More than not, it has been considered an independent event, and that belief can be supported by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Service’s statistics for the greater Ithaca region. However, high numbers of fatal violence is not the only indicator of a community capable of viciousness. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 90 percent of sexual assaults on college campuses go unreported, meaning the 14 rapes reported by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Service in 2015 are likely only 10 percent of the total rapes committed on Cornell and Ithaca College’s campuses. The New York State Division of Criminal Justice Service’s statistics also do not reflect the community described by its residents as substance-driven, one of which has, according to Business Insider, a “penchant for alternative currencies.”
“When [Nazaire] was killed, everyone around me was shocked, and so was I,” senior Ithaca College student Scott said. “But all I could think was, ‘how the hell did no one know this kind of thing happened?’”
Earlier this year, Scott and I had a heated debate on appropriate reactions to fatal crime in response to Nazaire’s death. I argued that community building and the offer of supportive therapy is all we should give while maintaining a laissez-faire approach to law and justice. At the time, I held the belief that Ithaca was not necessarily dangerous, and very little had to change. Scott argued for stricter patrols and a widespread cultural shift toward a more serious outlook on various common misdemeanors. He considered Ithaca to be as malicious a place as any, which diverged from my prior beliefs of the town. This conversation spurred my thoughts that perhaps Ithaca’s laugh-it-off view on petty crime might contribute to the potential for more impactful and violent criminal activity in the region. I asked him to elaborate on record later this year, and he invited me to his off-campus home for an interview.
Scott sat across from me in his living room, relaxed on the couch, boots on the coffee table and smoking a Pall Mall. Scott has a boyish face, one that looked perplexed as he brought to mind a story he had never before tried to remember in detail, let alone share with another person.
“It was my sophomore year,” Scott said. “I was parked on a back road at night, waiting for my friend to get out of his house. This wasn’t too far from the school. There was a car across the street from mine that I could see from my rear view window. A truck pulled up, parked in front of him, and both drivers got out and met one another. It looked like some kind of drug deal. I was laughing to myself at the time, ‘ha-ha, typical Ithaca, right?’ And it was just about then when the man with the truck got angry. I could hear him yelling from my car. Then they were fighting, then the other guy was on the ground, and the truck was pulling away. It was that quick.”
Scott’s story shocked me, and I refused to believe this was an everyday occurrence in my happy little lake town. I continued to ask around for similar experiences, and in doing so, found recurring patterns of violence from a multitude of people from both the town and its colleges who have witnessed or taken part in crime. People had seen stabbings everywhere from Pennsylvania Ave. to the Commons, picked up used needles at Stewart Park and various playgrounds, watched pounds of marijuana be sold and bought, and more.
Once you begin to look, it is easy to see that the more shocking aspect of the crime in Ithaca is not that it exists, but that it has become normalized. The attitude of Ithaca residents, especially those not regularly exposed to crime, is far from disgusted by these acts. Instead, they are prone to laughing it off as a quirky aspect of Ithaca life. After all, as the famous phrase goes, Ithaca is 10 square miles surrounded by reality.
These acts are not always committed by the wealthy, liberal population, which were interested in Ithaca for the quirks of kavas bars and zany restaurants. They are committed by people coming from surrounding cities or native Ithaca residents, though they can be college students involved in a world poles apart from their classrooms. The people who are most likely to commit violent acts or steal are those who are pushed to the margins of gentrification — those left to their own devices when property taxes skyrocket due to the rich moving in, or those who live in remote apartment complexes like West Village and other impoverished and altogether ignored neighborhoods.
In response to a growing number of physical assaults and domestic disturbances on Ithaca’s West Hill, Mayor Svante Myrick made the statement to the Ithaca Journal:
"What's true all over the country is drugs,” Myrick said. “Drugs drive crime. … They drive property crimes, violent crimes because you have addicts who are driven to steal to feed their addiction, you have dealers who use violence to protect their trade."
Annual property crime numbers were estimated at 913 in 2015, with violent crime at 55. Some of these are recorded in the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Service’s statistics for annual crime, but many remain unreported due to the victim’s engagement in activity related to illicit substances. When people are involved in drug trade, most of their livelihood is based in shady deals and problems that they cannot get help from law enforcement for, lest they expose themselves as criminals. Issues are then taken into their own hands, leaving them vulnerable to underground methods of justice.
“What was I going to do, call the cops [and] say, ‘I just got robbed of $1,600 trying to buy pot in Dewitt Park?” a source explained, their name remaining anonymous for their security. “It’s embarrassing actually. I was naïve at the time. A friend of mine, who I should mention convinced me to take a very high-strung amount of a drug I'd never done before and overdosed on it, set me up. They stole my cash and left me a plastic bag filled with grass.”
The source explained how after this had happened, they had recounted the story to room full of people who had been short-changed by the same man. A week later, he was “beaten badly, pistol-whipped and kicked to the ground” for crimes he had committed to the others. A different kind of justice, and all entirely under the table.
“If the question is whether there is violence in Ithaca, the answer is yes,” the source said. “People bring their guns to Mooney’s and get drunk. They take all kinds of drugs — crack, heroin and meth. They get in fights. The people of Ithaca aren’t special, they’re not immune to what the rest of the world does.”
Drug use in Ithaca is rampant. No one can deny this fact. Ithaca is not called a hippie paradise because of its liberal agenda, but because of the notoriously easy access to pot in Ithaca and the greater Tompkins County area. Marijuana is not the only widespread drug used in Ithaca, however. Every kind of drug you have ever dreamed of trying, studying or staying far away from is within its boundaries. Heroin users have hit record numbers, prompting Ithaca’s mayor to create a safe space for users to shoot up. Crack cocaine is also a popular choice for residents, as is cocaine for college students. Meth is made and bought as locally as produce.
The drugs you can find in Ithaca can be obtained in any town in upstate New York, but the chief difference is the attitude toward them. In other towns, drug use is seen as a deadly habit that takes and ruins lives. Here it is seen as an integral part of what makes Ithaca so uniquely unusual.
There is certainly an argument that can be made for the positive aspects of drug use. I am a fervent defender of it. I will argue until my last dying breath for the medicinal uses of marijuana and that the legalization and regulation of most addictive substances would help keep people from overdosing and joining in on criminal activity. But this logic is the exact problem ailing Ithaca. We can enjoy the hilarity of a town that prides itself on its drug use, but it is still not legal. Therefore, the makers, sellers and buyers of all illegal substances in Ithaca will continue to be subject to the same consequences as anyone else: addiction, overdosing, systematic crime, physical assault and jail time.
Crime is nothing new to the rumor mill of Ithaca. Ask the same people who call Ithaca welcoming, and I can promise a story about drugs or sexual assault, the recent murder at Walmart or a reference to Ithaca’s “jungle.” It is a case of privileged blindness: we know it is happening, yet we do not see it, and so Ithaca must be safe. We can buy modest amounts of pot and laugh at the freedom of the place, unknowingly contributing to a dangerous undercurrent of this society.
Ithaca is not an inherently threatening place for the average person. Of course, most cities and towns in America could claim the same thing but continue to have reputations of violence and danger that outlive their happy citizens. This is not necessarily a problem for many of us, but it is the people who find themselves captured in systems that are less regulated than everyday society who are most frequently subject to suffering in silence. Still, there are everyday people like Anna who will live their lives righteously and will nevertheless see the true face of a town otherwise thought of as safe for women. There are many more who have bore witness to violent crime like Scott whose experiences are silenced by Ithaca’s sound reputation. I did not have to go far to find these stories, and there are dozens more whose stories will continue to go unheard. No help can be offered to the people who are susceptible to the injustices of an unregulated, underground society if we cannot even admit these people exists.
Names in this piece have been changed in order to protect the security of the subjects.