A mother who is a friend of mine in Highbridge, Bronx was looking out her window when she noticed the police were stopping cars. They even stopped cabs and made people get out. Then, everything changed for her when she saw the police stop her son’s car and pull him out. She raced out into the street but her questions to the police were met with the usual answer: “Shut the fuck up.”
The mother at the window saved her teenage son that day but was not so lucky this year when another cop patrol broke her son’s arm and arrested him because they said someone told them he was putting out gang signs when in fact he was going to the store for a soda.
Highbridge is a poor Black and Latino community. It lies in the shadow of Yankee Stadium and is used by the city as a dumping ground for homeless shelters, incuding a transitional housing facility for men. It also finds itself on the frontlines of the NYPD’s relentless campaign to criminalize youth of color. Mothers here are afraid of gangs of all kinds, including the one with badges and guns. Some parents are sending their boy children away for the summer to avoid any contact with NYPD. One father told me his four sons, ranging from 11 to 17 years old, stay inside when not in school, and are escorted places. Parents are having to teach their children how to survive interactions with the police. It is not uncommon to see a corner covered with bodies of young Black/ Brown men face down with hands behind their backs and cops going through their pockets.
I noticed the NYPD were becoming more aggressive around 2005 when police vans began stopping children early in the morning as they headed to school. When my daughter entered a high school in Lower Manhattan that she had to travel to from the Bronx, I would walk her to the subway in the morning to prevent those police vans from approaching her. Like many Black mothers, I dreaded having my child fall into the clutches of the police. My turn came early one evening in 2008 when I got that phone call.
“Mrs. Johnson, your daughter has been arrested.”
Like the mother in the window, I flew out the door with my heart pounding. My daughter had been active in protesting the war and had traveled to New Orleans after Katrina to gut houses and help children in schools. Her alleged “crime” had occurred when she came out of a restaurant in Harlem and witnessed a stop-and-frisk under way. She yelled at the cops that what they were doing was illegal and that these young men could refuse to be searched in such a manner. So they nabbed her too.
When I entered the Manhattan Task Force precinct in Harlem that night, the lobby was full of people who were upset about the aggressive tactics of the special unit that my daughter had encountered. And then a short young white cop had the nerve to come up to me and say my daughter was “behaving herself now.”
The NYPD’s heavy-handed policing has garnered the support of some people in the Grand Concourse section of the Bronx. During a recent community meeting held at the 44th police precinct, a frightened group of about 30 elderly residents was sold a bill of goods that “those kids” were something to chase, hound, and investigate. They were encouraged to condemn the uncouthness of our youth and to be ashamed of them. When prompted to clap for three young white police officers standing in front of them, they did.
An expert brought in from California explained different graffiti tagging used by gangs and encouraged those present to go online and report back to them any words or activities they suspected as gang-related. It was all so smoothly done. I stood up and reminded the precinct captain that “those kids” actually live in “their” communities. I also recounted for those present how we have seen time and again cops getting away with murder and coverups of their crimes. Some of those present had a change of heart about joining the police surveillance program but many of the elders decided to sign up.
Mothers in Highbridge and other Bronx communities have witnessed enough of these modern-day slave patrols and are also getting organized.
On Mother’s Day, about 100 people gathered near the 42nd Precinct on East 158th Street, including the mother I described at the beginning of this article, and marched through the South Bronx without a permit. We encouraged residents to protect their children from the NYPD and to demand an end to stop and frisk and police brutality. Our march concluded at 149th Street and Third Avenue, a major transportation hub where we held on to the corner and gave out information and gathered stories.
Vigils continue to be held each Thursday in the northern Bronx outside the home of Ramarley Graham’s grandmother where the 18-year-old Bronx youth was shot and killed by undercover police in February. The vigils are followed by protest marches through the neighborhood to the 47th police precinct where the cop who killed Graham was stationed.
The NYPD think they are the masters of the universe while the young sense futility and despair in the faces and the voices of those of us who have fought these battles for a long time. The only light at the end of this present tunnel is that Mayor Bloomberg will be leaving office and (hopefully) he will be taking his police commissioner with him. In the meantime, mothers are talking more and getting to know where to go and what to do if they find their family under siege.
COMMUNITY IN ACTION
Growing outrage over the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy and other racially-biased police practices has sparked an upsurge in community-based resistance.
POLICE REFORM ORGANIZING PROJECT (PROP) — With Mayor Michael Bloomberg leaving office at the end of 2013, PROP wants to make police reform a central issue in next year’s elections. Volunteers are working to gather 25,000 signatures on a petition (they had nearly 9,000 by the end of May) that calls for ending stop-and-frisk and quotas as well as the creation of an independent agency to oversee the NYPD. PROP hopes a successful petition campaign will push candidates to support meaningful reforms in these areas. For more, see policereformorganizingproject.org or call 646.602.5625.
COP WATCH — Is a network of video activists that document and film police activity. It conducts street outreach and know your rights trainings and unites communities for police reform. Central Harlem Copwatch contact: Alisa Grahm, at email@example.com
PEOPLES’ SURVIVAL PROGRAM (PSP) — Started in 2008, this group puts on comprehensive workshop series on how to become an effective community organizer against the abuses of the criminal injustice system. Taking a page from the Black Panther Party, PSP also provides free food, clothes, and health screenings. Contact: Bro. Shaka at firstname.lastname@example.org or Bro. Shep at email@example.com.
Stop / Stop & Frisk — Emphasizes public education, civil disobedience and use of social media to expose the reality behind NYPD stop and frisks. Chanting “We say no to the new Jim Crow!” members of S/S&F led a peaceful sit-in at the front of the 21st precinct station in Harlem last October that resulted in the arrest of 31 people. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Campaign to End the New Jim Crow — A national human rights movement working to confront and challenge racial bias that exists at every step in the criminal justice system and to educate the public on how criminal convictions deny people the right to vote, access to housing, education, employment and other human rights. See endnewjimcrow.com or contact Ben Davis at email@example.com.