In the winning photomontage of the Resilience Advocacy Project’s (RAP) “Youth Experiences of Stop-and-Frisk Told Through Art” contest, a young man is shown at the edge of the frame: he is seated facing its bottom left corner, shoulders hunched forward, hands folded in his lap. His head is lowered sideways, away from the camera lens and the spectator. Behind him, a dark-toned streetscape that includes a peeling wall of graffiti, and fading in along the bottom, the words “Boricua power” spelled out in red and white on a brick background.
“I thought it was important to characterize myself as someone who was being victimized, as opposed to someone who was preying upon other people,” explained 16-year-old Cory Smith, the creator of the self-portrait.
Smith’s work was featured at the May 29 opening of RAP’s youth stop-and-frisk art showcase, being hosted by the Brecht Forum through June. Defining resilience as the ability to bounce back from diversity, RAP staff work on both individual and system-level advocacy to build resilience among low-income children and youth in New York City.
The contest and showcase is one of the projects of RAP’s Youth Voice NYC initiative, which was launched last January and which engages youth to become advocates in their own communities and beyond. Other speakers at the event included a pair of RAP’s youth ambassadors, youth delegates of Urban Word NYC and representatives of organizations working to reform the stop-and-frisk policy, including the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), Bronx Defenders and the Police Reform Organizing Project.
“I feel like the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy is based solely upon the impression that all children around my age that dress the way I do, or are my color — unfortunately, or have tattoos, are automatically up to something bad, or automatically trying to hurt other people, automatically the villain,” said Smith. “So I thought it was really important to shy away from the camera and look like someone who could be hurt too.”
Smith recalled having once been pushed up against a wooden construction site fence by a police officer and patted down after refusing to tell the cop how old he was. The incident happened just a stone’s throw from his house, in the Hunts Point/Foxhurst section of the Bronx, while he was walking his girlfriend home. He was 15 years old at the time and the encounter, though ultimately defused, left him with a bruise on his face.
Targeting Black and Latino Youth
The most recent report of the NYCLU on stop-and-frisk indicates that of the 685,724 stops made in New York City in 2011, 42 percent comprised black or Latino youth ages 14 to 24. These numbers also include Smith, who cites having been stopped five or six times in the last several months. For a teenager that has only recently begun actively socializing, the frequency of being stopped has risen dramatically in that time. “The more I go out, the more I get stopped, frankly,” he said.
“It’s really wearing to have to feel like the police aren’t on your side,” Smith continued. “I thought the model was ‘to serve and protect.’ For whatever reason, it’s simply not like that. In certain areas of New York, I guess you would say the slum areas, it’s more harassment than it is protection.”
Ashley ‘Ajay’ Johnson and Kristina Gramlich, both members of the Youth Board at Urban Word NYC, expressed similar feelings. At ages 20 and 17, respectively, they have both had their bags searched and the legitimacy of their Ids challenged by police officers.
The poetry they presented at the event addressed stop-and-frisk issues in the broader context of youth, fear, crime and identity. The first poem Johnson performed — with the repeating utterance, “I am black and afraid” — was written in response to a town hall meeting about Trayvon Martin’s death. Gramlich’s first poem posed the question, “what color does crime bleed?” to suggest that perpetrators of crime are of all colors and ages, while perceived perpetrators — the victims of stop-and-frisk — are overwhelmingly youth of color.
Speaking to the audience, Johnson said, “For some odd reason, young people don’t get to speak about things that affect us directly. Voice is one of the most powerful things in terms of having some change.”
RAP’s Youth Voice NYC initiative grapples with precisely this problem by engaging youth on– and offline to express their take on issues through art and subsequently connecting them to actions they can get involved with. The Youth Voice NYC online forum provides news on stop-and-frisk and other issues impacting young people, explains advocacy strategies and details actions happening around these issues.
“We’re hoping that this event is an opening line of an ongoing conversation about stop-and-frisk that’s really directed by young people,” said Brooke Richie, founder and executive director of RAP.
“What we really want to do is say to young people, you can be an advocate without having to be an organizer or a lawyer or a social worker. You can be an advocate every day, in your everyday life by getting involved, and here’s how you do it.”