Western Queens lawmakers say they regret ‘loot-out’ emergency statement

boarded up storefront
Photo courtesy of Penelope Eleni

A week ago, State Senator Jessica Ramos, Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz, and Councilman Francisco Moya released an emergency statement in response to what they believed was a tip about an alleged “loot-out” in the community. After the tip proved to be false, the three electeds are expressing their regret over their handling of the situation.

The statement, made in English and Spanish, warned of the possibility of looting and emphasized that the majority of businesses in their district — which includes Corona, Jackson Heights and Elmhurst — are small businesses owned by minority and immigrant communities.

While they stated the alleged “loot-out” was scheduled for 5 p.m. on Friday, June 5, the statement did not give any specific location.

The statement sparked fear among many community members and prompted many businesses to board up their storefronts or close even earlier on Friday (the city’s 8 p.m. curfew was still in place at the time).

Some shops put up signs describing themselves as minority-owned businesses and included messages of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and the fight against police brutality.

Jackson Fabrics on 84-30 37th Ave. in Jackson Heights closed their store and added a sign that read “Don’t destroy our home! Minority built.” (Photo courtesy of Nat Mora)

Both Cruz and Ramos shared the photo of the alleged “loot-out” tip, blurring out the location — which we now know was set for Junction Boulevard — so as to not encourage others who’d want to engage in it. The photo appeared to be a Snapchat post similar to another one posted last week before an attempt to loot the Queens Center Mall.

That Friday afternoon, Ramos took to her social media accounts to let community members know that she was on Junction Boulevard to help monitor the situation and provide updates.

While no looting took place on June 5, the lawmakers’ approach was criticized by some members of the community. Some people were concerned about the increase in police presence, and worried that ICE agents, who have been working with the NYPD during the recent protests, would target undocumented community members.

Others were upset that the lawmakers worked with the police in the first place, given that the protests are largely calling for less policing and more community outreach.

Afzal Hossain, who previously boarded up his Jackson Heights cafe, Espresso 77, after someone attempted to break in, said he was there that afternoon just in case anything happened after seeing the posts on social media and hearing from friends.

“I was just there protecting our business and to let anyone know I’m part of you guys,” Hossain said. “I like the protests, I think it’s beautiful, but the looting is scary.”

Hossain sympathized with the elected officials decision, and thanked them for the warning so they could prepare in case something happened.

Downtown Natural Market on 35-98, 35-0 84th St. in Jackson Heights boarded up their storefront on June 5. (Photo courtesy of Nat Mora)

In an op-ed on the Queens Eagle this week, Cruz explained a small business owner told her about the post, which prompted her office to call the local precinct in order to confirm its credibility. Cruz wrote that reaching out to the police precinct wasn’t meant to be “alarmist” nor did she intend to bring an increased police presence to the neighborhood.

Cruz wrote that she contacted other organizations within the community to alert small businesses and street vendors, and toured the areas of Corona and Jackson Heights herself on Friday to make sure everyone was safe.

“Ultimately, we should have responded differently,” Cruz wrote in the op-ed. “We were concerned about the impact of more police presence in response to this threat to both our undocumented neighbors and to everyone’s right to protest. In hindsight, this wasn’t communicated properly and for that I regret any confusion, fear, and pain this may have caused folks.”

Ramos and Moya weren’t happy with the way everything took place, either.

On June 9, Ramos posted a press release on Twitter stating her office was alerted about the alleged threat and was asked to sign on to a statement in conjunction with her fellow lawmakers.

“Our primary concern was with the safety of our small business owners and our undocumented population, who have already been through so much prior to and during the COVID-19 pandemic and the crisis it has created,” Ramos stated. “Unlike large, corporate stores, these small businesses owners don’t have the financial means or sufficient insurance to suffer yet another blow to their livelihoods.”

“I apologize wholeheartedly for causing any confusion or unrest in an already difficult time,” Ramos said. “It was never my intention to invite more police into our neighborhood.”

Moya told QNS his office was also alerted within minutes of the scheduled emergency statement.

“I didn’t have all the details of the rumors but I was reassured by one of my colleagues that the rumors were legitimate,” Moya said. “Ultimately, I signed on for two reasons: First, a duty to inform my constituents of a potential threat, and second, in solidarity with my colleagues representing our area. I had hoped that by discouraging destruction to mostly minority- and immigrant-owned businesses, that we could prevent police from flooding the area.”

“I regret signing on to this statement, the results that came from it — both the panic among residents and the police response — and for taking my colleague at face value,” the councilman concluded. “It won’t happen again.”

All three lawmakers voted to repeal 50-A to ensure more police accountability, and support a number of other police reform policies.