Volume 79, Number 29 | December 23 - 29, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

Abe Markman at home on the Lower East Side, with one of his informational manuals providing youth with legal information and advice when dealing with police.

Getting teens to use their heads to save their lives

By Bernard Connaughton

Abe Markman’s volunteer work with teenagers in schools and community centers throughout New York City is as timely now as when it began in 1992. 

A City Council report released this May revealed that New York City police officers stopped and questioned more than 170,000 people during the first three months of 2009 — an 18 percent increase over the previous record for the same period in 2008. During more than 17 years, Markman and the group he co-founded — the Lower East Side Call For Justice — have offered nearly 200 workshops to teach youth how to conduct themselves when they are stopped by the police.

Markman, a retired social worker who is 83, and his friend, Lillian Liflander, began meeting with youth in schools, community centers and residences following the police beating of Rodney King in 1991.  At each meeting young people are encouraged to tell their stories and express their concerns. But Markman begins each workshop with advice some teenagers do not want to hear.

“What we’re going to tell you may be as hard as anything anyone asks you to do,” he says. “When you get involved with the police — cooperate. Don’t provoke them.”

At every workshop, participants are given a manual with information on what to do if stopped by the police. The manual — originally printed with money from city grants procured with help from former School District 1 Chairperson Sister Elizabeth Kelliher and former City Councilmember Margarita Lopez — provides youth with legal information and crucial advice:

“Remember, if stopped, keep your cool. And keep your hands where the police can see them,” the manual reads. “Do not run, as there is danger of the police shooting at you.”

Nate Smart, a coordinator at Kaplan House — a residential facility for older adolescent males on St. Mark’s Place — said that the Lower East Side Call For Justice workshops allow young people to learn from each other while learning about rights and responsibilities.

“They come in with the idea there’s nothing they can get out of it. They leave feeling they’ve learned a lot,” Smart said.

Markman traces his activism to 1962 when a young man was shot in the back outside a bar while running away from the police. He began studying newspaper accounts of altercations between police and civilians — he has saved more than 40 years worth of clippings since then. He began to notice the high incidence of violence occurring outside bars and clubs. 

In conjunction with his youth work, Markman has met with police officials to make recommendations. He has campaigned to persuade the New York Police Department to provide more rigorous training to help officers respond appropriately in situations where they feel threatened, and to prohibit police from carrying guns in situations where they knew they were going to drink.

Markman’s activism can’t be separated from the concern he had for his own son and daughter, who were raised on the Lower East Side by him and his wife, Charlotte, an African-American artist he married in 1953. Charlotte, a graduate of Spelman College in Atlanta and a personal friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was active in the civil rights movement in the South before moving to New York. She died in 1995.

The Lower East Side Call for Justice also lobbies to end the death penalty in New York and to overturn the Rockefeller drug laws — state laws that mandate lengthy prison terms for nonviolent drug offenders. The organization also meets with parent groups and provides training to those interested in carrying its message to young people. But the youth workshops are the primary focus of the group, whose members include Reverend Afiya Dawson, former State Assemblymember Sylvia Friedman, Liflander and several others.

From East Harlem to the Lower East Side, Markman has done social work for decades in neighborhoods where youth have had to contend with violence, gangs and drugs. He is not fazed when youth are skeptical of him or his message.

“I tell the kids, ‘You see me as an old white character.’ I tell them who I am, who I got married to,” he said. “I just listen.”

He is dead serious about his message and the deadly consequences that can result when a police officer or a civilian makes a faulty judgment.

“I tell them, ‘We’re coming here to save your life,’” Markman said. “‘All you have to do is use your hands the wrong way. Always keep your hands where the police can see them.’”

Markman delights in his work and plans to remain active for as long as he can.

“If I go to a place and kids are listening, I get a tremendous satisfaction from it,” he said.

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