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How ‘Stop-and-Frisk’ (Not So) Quietly Became the Center of NYC Politics

Seth Freed Wessler Jun 18, 2012

Beneath the sounds of birds and children playing in Central Park, thousands marched quietly down Manhattan’s 5th avenue on Sunday afternoon carrying signs bearing the faces of a decade of victims of police violence and the words “Stop Racial Profiling: End Stop and Frisk.” Contingents from nearly 300 groups including labor unions, community groups, national civil rights organizations as well the unaffiliated gathered in Harlem and marched past khaki-clad upper east siders walking their poodles, to the home of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. They’re demand? An end to racial profiling and in particular to the cops’ use of stop-and-frisk, a practice marchers say has terrorized communities of color for more than a decade.

“You can’t do something like this that many times to that many people for that long and not have this kind of march,” said Carlos, a 39-year-old African American man who joined the march after hearing Reverend Al Sharpton talk about it on his radio show. He told that in the 12 years since he moved from Florida to Harlem for a job as an electrical engineer, “I’ve been stopped more than 50 times while walking down the street. It’s gotten so ridiculously out of control to the point where Bloomberg’s guys are stopping everyone.”

The Father’s Day march was the most public display of outrage against the stop-and-frisk policy to date. The cops conducted nearly 700,000 searches last year alone. March leaders included national civil rights figures including Sharpton and NAACP President Ben Jealous who marched with the family Ramarley Graham, a young man recently killed by New York City cops. Marchers included the field of Democratic mayoral hopefuls and a diverse cohort from across New York.

As the 2013 election inches closer and democratic mayoral hopefuls scramble to differentiate themselves from the pack, years of police reform organizing has succeeded in pushing police accountability issues to the center of the race. It’s a movement that’s been long in the making and is now comprised of what some advocates say is an unprecedented coalition of city constituencies.

The Data Doesn’t Lie

The stop-and-frisk program has been the central issue in the fight for greater checks on the cops, largely because the numbers so starkly reveal a problem.

New data has born out the reality on the street for hundreds of thousands of black and Latino men. Though the police tactic is now a decade and half old, begun may Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the program that the police call “stop, question and frisk” exploded under the command of Mayor Bloomberg and his police commissioner Raymond Kelly. In 2002, Bloomberg’s first year as mayor, the NYPD conducted just under 100,000 of these searches on city streets, subway stations and public housing complexes. In 2011, Bloomberg’s NYPD conducted 680,000 stops, 87 percent of whom were black and Latino men. In all, among black men and teens between 14 to 24, the total number of searches in 2011 was greater than their total population in the city.

“Every person of color in the city knew these numbers before they came out,” said Djibril Toure, an organizer with the Malcolm X Grassroots Committee, which works in communities of color in New York against police brutality. “But the numbers made it impossible for the rest the city not to see, too.”

New York’s mayor and police commissioner say that the stop-and-frisk program is responsible for a rapid decline in crime in New York City. In a speech last week at a predominantly black church in Brooklyn, Bloomberg said “We are not going to walk away from a strategy that we know saves lives.”

But there’s no evidence that the tactic is responsible for falling crime in the city. The fallout in communities of color is palpable. “It’s gotten to the point where nobody can trust the cops anymore,” said Carlos, the marcher who would not share his last name. “It’s gotten to the point where I hate the cops, where I want to do something to them because they’ve done this to me so many times.”

An Electoral Issue

The numbers on stop-and-frisk simply can’t be ignored anymore, and they haven’t been. Every likely contender in New York City’s Democratic Mayoral primaries has come out with a statement criticizing the practice. And many of the candidates, most of whom joined yesterday’s march, have framed their objections as a matter of racial justice.

In February, city council speaker Christine Quinn, the frontrunner in the mayoral field, in a letter to police commissioner Kelly, wrote, “I am concerned that a rift has developed between the police department and New Yorkers—particularly New Yorkers of color.”

Quinn went on to offer support of the practice in principal but said changes are needed. “Although I support the continued use of this practice,” she wrote, “I believe that, at times, [stop-and-frisk] has been carried out in a way that has sown distrust in communities of color.”

Her comments place her not so far from Bloomberg, who under attack from advocates said at another speech at a black church this weekend that the practice needs to be “mended, not ended.”

Other candidates have more broadly assailed the program.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer said in February, “Communities of people who are Caucasian, people who look like me, never worry about their child or grandchild going to the store for a glass of milk. They’re not worried about the police, they welcome the police on their street corner.”

Bill Thompson, a former city comptroller who lost by an unexpectedly small margin to Bloomberg in 2009, has called for a major shift in the implementation of the program on the grounds that it wreaks havoc in communities of color.

“When a group of men, a group of young men, a group of young black men are stopped because of what they look like, there’s something wrong,” Thompson said in May.

John Liu, the Comptroller of the City of New York and a possible candidate in the Democratic mayoral elections, has been the most forceful in his opposition to the program.

“It’s the most widespread manifestation of racial profiling anywhere in the United states,” Liu told last week. “It’s embarrassing that it’s happening right here in NYC that’s suppose to be the capitol of the world.”

“The policy” says Liu, “needs to be abolished.”

Whatever their position on stop-and-frisk and its potential merits as a police tactic, the emergence of the issue is a sign that the movement against it has worked.

David Birdsell is the Dean of the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College in New York. He says that stop-and-frisk has become one of the few ways for candidates to position themselves with or against the status quo.

“Bloomberg’s legacy is something that everyone wants to run against but it’s hard to run against it,” he said. “The fiscal success of the city becomes a stamp of success as far as many are concerned. You don’t want to run against that. You don’t want to run against bike lanes. But the stop-and-frisk program is clearly identified with this mayor and with a growing black and Latino electorate in the city,” it’s a “clear path to votes.”

A Broad Coalition

The outrage against the program and its emergence as the most discernible electoral issue to date did not just happen. It the result of a concerted effort among advocates to make the issue a central one in the 2013 mayoral race, and use stop-and-frisk, which polls show is widely disliked, to change police practices more broadly.

Joo-Hyun Kang is the director of Communities United for Police Reform, which formed two years ago. It’s composed of over two-dozen organizations that for their own reasons are worried about police practices and the general lack of oversight in New York City over the police department.

The group made a concerted decision to wage a campaign to push police issues into the center of city politics. “Part of the decision when the group formed in 2011 was to make this the key issue in the 2013 mayoral races,” said Kang.

“We wanted to sustain public pressure to secure policy changes and to be able to implement them. But this was only possible,” said Kang, who led a group in the silent march on Sunday, “because we’ve been working on police accountability for years. This massive attention is really the culmination of that.”

Indeed, the police reform movement has been growing steadily in New York for the last decade and a half. The shootings of Amadou Dialo, an unarmed 23-year-old Guinean immigrant who was shot and killed in 1999 by a group of four cops and that of Sean Bell, another 23-year-old black man who was killed by cops the night before he was to be married, crystallized activism focused on police violence against the city’s black Men, said Kang.

Then, in February, New York City Police officers shot and killed 18-year old Ramarley Graham inside the young man’s Bronx apartment after he ran from officers who’d apparently approached him in a routine stop-and-frisk. A small amount of marijuana was reportedly found in the bathroom where Graham was shot.

Meanwhile, other organizing has grown around the city focused on the cops’ treatment of gay, lesbian and transgender communities and of Muslim communities. News reports have emerged recently of collaboration between national civil rights groups and gay, lesbian and transgender rights groups. Last month, the NAACP voted to support marriage equality for same-sex couples. And national LGBT groups have reciprocated by engaging directly in the fight to end police brutality. But the nearly 30 smaller gay, lesbian and transgender groups that co-sponsored Sunday’s march have long worked on police accountability issues. As a recently released study from’s publisher the Applied Research Center shows, LGBT community spaces have been targeted systematically by cops and organizers have fought back.

The same is true of Muslim communities, which have been targeted by police surveillance since 2001.

Fahd Ahmed, who led a group at the March on Sunday, is a the legal director of the group Desis Rising Up and Moving, which organizes Muslim and South Asian communities that have been heavily targeted by police through surveillance. He says that while stop-and-frisk is not an issue that DRUM primary worked on, they sees it as another entry point to a larger movement for police reform in the city.

“Muslim surveillance is a lot more controversial in the city than stop-and-frisk, which does not have a lot of support. While we want surveillance debated and in the spotlight, we felt it made sense to get behind a push for greater police oversight that led with stop-and-frisk. In the end, the root causes are the same.”

On Wednesday, Ahmed was among a couple of dozen speakers at a press conference at New York’s City Hall to announce a piece of legislation to appoint an inspector general position to oversee the NYPD. The bill is part of a package of legislation supported by Communities United for Police Reform and other groups to curtail stop-and-frisk and racial profiling and provide greater oversight over a police department that’s largely functioned in the shadows.

Councilman Jumaane Williams, who announced the bill on Wednesday, told Colorlines, “this bill, this movement has been coming for a long time.”

In September, Williams was pushed to the ground and cuffed by police officers as he walked in a cordoned off part of a sidewalk during Brooklyn’s West Indian Day Parade. Williams was on his way to a closed event in the Brooklyn Museum that required him to walk there. The incident made headlines and helped catapult the issue of police violence into wider view.

“The fact of the matter is that people are starting to feel that we can win on this matter and the mayor’s argument is crumbling down around him,” Williams said.

“I think it’s a perfect storm. This is touching everyone here.”

This article was originally published by Colorlines.

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