The New York Police Department's "stop-and-frisk" policy is nothing less than state-sponsored persecution, explicitly designed to "instill fear" in Black and Latino youth.
That's the ugly picture emerging from the first weeks of testimony in Floyd v. City of New York, a federal class action lawsuit challenging the legality of the NYPD's policy on these searches.
Witnesses have painted a picture of a police department driven by quotas for stops and racist contempt for youth of color, who are routinely and systematically targeted for harassment. The vast majority of the victims are innocent of any crime, and only a fraction of the searches turn up a weapon of any kind.
The trial has proven already that stop-and-frisk encourages New York cops to racially profile and abuse young Blacks and Latinos. After all, that's what their bosses intend. According to the explosive testimony of a state senator and former officer, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly told him explicitly that the purpose of stop-and-frisk was to make youth of color fear an encounter with police whenever they step out the door.
Stop-and-frisk has been the focus of increasing opposition and protest by New Yorkers, including a dramatic silent march of tens of thousands in Manhattan last June. This energy has kept the issue in the media, especially in New York, and put pressure on politicians and the courts to allow the class-action lawsuit to move forward.
Now, with a hoped-for favorable ruling in the case, the movement may be poised to achieve a landmark victory against the largest and most prominent program of racial profiling in the U.S. today.
The NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy allows officers to stop and search people anyone they suspect may be committing a felony, a misdemeanor or in possession of a weapon.
Touted by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg as "a strategy that we know saves lives," supporters of stop-and-frisk claim the goal is to confiscate guns and reduce crime. However, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), no research has ever proven stop-and-frisk to be effective in decreasing the city's crime rate. Nearly 90 percent of those stopped since 2002 were innocent of any crime whatsoever, and guns were uncovered in less than 0.2 percent of cases.
The racial bias of the program is impossible to deny. In 2012, of the 533,042 New Yorkers stopped by police officers, 87 percent of them were Black and Latino. During the year prior, according to the NYCLU's analysis, more young Black men were stopped by the NYPD than their numbers in the population of New York City–meaning young Black men was stopped more than once, on average.
Even in neighborhoods that are predominantly white, youth of color bear the brunt of this racist policy. In 2011, Black and Latino New Yorkers made up 79 percent of stops in Park Slope in Brooklyn, though they were less than one-quarter of the neighborhood's population.
In filing the Floyd lawsuit, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) is challenging the legality of stop-and-frisk under the constitution. As the CCR said in a press statement, "The case charges the police department with a policy and practice of unreasonable, suspicionless and racially discriminatory stops in violation of the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures and the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause barring racial discrimination."
There are four chief plaintiffs in the case–David Floyd, David Ourlicht, Lalit Clarkson and Deon Dennis–representing the grievances of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, mostly African American and Latino, who have been subjected to millions of stops.
The vast majority of those stopped are harassed and intimidated simply for walking down the street while being a person of color. In an interview with ColorLines.com, David Floyd said:
The whole experience is humiliating and embarrassing. It doesn't matter how tough you are, it's a scary thing when you don't know what's going to happen with your life or your freedom…This type of activity is unacceptable, and I don't like walking around, feeling like I'm being treated like a nigger. And I say that because that's what it feels like when people stop you and threaten to take your freedoms away.
The itself has galvanized activists, cultural groups, and community and religious organizations, which have come together to demand police accountability and an end to racial profiling. As Aidge Patterson, coalition coordinator for the police watchdog group Peoples' Justice, said:
The Floyd case is of utmost importance to the police brutality movement right now, as stop-and-frisk acts as the main feeder for the mass incarceration of NYC communities of color, while NYPD practices are being spread across the U.S. and internationally. While ending stop-and-frisk will not end police violence or harassment against our communities, it is a powerful step we can take toward taking power out of the hands of the NYPD and back in to the hands of the people.
One cruel aspect of institutionalized racism in the U.S. is that it is generally not enough to prove in court that a criminal justice policy has a disproportionate impact on racial minorities. Proving illegal discrimination in a U.S. court requires evidence of intent. This can be difficult to present, since racial bias isn't always overt, and code words are often used–many in the NYPD talk about stopping "the right people," for example.
However, the testimony in the Floyd case has cleared that hurdle by a long ways–revealing the overt racism of the stop-and-frisk program.
Most notoriously, according to New York state Sen. Eric Adams, a 22-year veteran of the NYPD, Commissioner Ray Kelly "stated that he targeted and focused on [Black and Latino men] because he wanted to instill fear in them that every time that they left their homes they could be targeted by police."
Testimony from two NYPD whistleblowers shows that supervisors below Kelly got the message loud and clear.
Pedro Serrano, an NYPD officer in the Bronx, testified that the pressure he faced to make a certain numbers of stops led him to secretly record his performance reviews with his supervisor, Christopher McCormack.
On the tape, which was played in court, McCormack criticizes Serrano for not stopping enough people. McCormack then goes on to insist that Serrano has a duty to prevent crime by stopping "the right people at the right time [and] the right location." When pressed by Serrano on what that meant, McCormack replied, "I have no problem telling you this. Male blacks 14 to 20, 21."
Adhyl Polanco, another Bronx officer, presented tapes that also confirmed the existence of quotas, as well as the racial bias encouraged in officers. According to Polanco, if officers see a group of Black or Latino kids on a street corner, they re to "handcuff the kids" even if they aren't committing a crime.
Tapes provided by NYPD officer Adrian Schoolcraft further revealed the contempt many officers have for youth of color–who are referred to, for example, as the "fucking riff-raff on the corners." Another officer is heard to say, "They might live there, but we own the block."
Whenever the New York police have been confronted with accusations of racial profiling in the past, they have claimed that stop-and-frisk prevents violence. "Commissioner Kelly said he wants gunmen to be deterred from carrying weapons on them in the streets, particularly in those communities most victimized by gun violence," said NYPD spokesperson Paul Browne in October 2011.
But far too often, it's the police who are the gunmen, shooting down young people of color in their own communities and even their homes.
Just nine days before the Floyd trial began, officers killed 16-year-old Kimani Gray in Brooklyn, sparking furious outrage and nightly protests. Police claim that Gray was armed and pointed a gun at officers, but eyewitness accounts contradict this claim. Officers from the very same precinct shot unarmed 23-year-old Shantel Davis and left her to bleed to death on Brooklyn streets late last spring.
These latest killings have given fresh urgency to the movement to confront the NYPD's serial violence. Key to that struggle has been the participation of family and friends of the cops' victims in recent years–such as Ramarley Graham, gunned down in his own bathroom while his 6-year-old brother and grandmother were nearby; 22-year-old Noel Polanco, a National Guardsman shot during a traffic stop; and Reynaldo Cuevas, a 20-year-old bodega worker shot by police as he fled armed men robbing the store where he worked.
While the potential always exists for a stop-and-frisk to turn deadly, more often, they result in arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana–supposedly decriminalized in New York. According to a report by the Drug Policy Alliance, since 2002, the NYPD has spent 1 million hours making some 440,000 arrests for marijuana possession, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Because of racial profiling, Blacks and Latinos are much more likely to face charges for marijuana possession. As Harry Levine of Queens College wrote in the Brooklyn Rail:
The arrests unjustly target young African Americans and Latinos and their neighborhoods. United States government surveys consistently find that young whites use marijuana at higher rates than young Blacks and Latinos. But for many years, New York City has arrested African Americans at seven times the rate of whites, and Latinos at nearly four times the rate of whites…For the last 15 years, 87 percent of the people arrested for marijuana possession have been blacks and Latinos, who use marijuana at lower rates than young whites.
The city's warped priorities are such that Mayor Bloomberg would rather close schools and devote resources to harassing and arresting youth than provide the jobs and services proven to actually reduce crime.
As of 2012, fewer than one-half of African Americans in New York City of working age had employment of any kind. Instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars criminalizing Black and Latino youth, a jobs program would do much to improve the lives of youth of color while actually reducing crime in low-income communities.
Activists have played a central role in exposing the racist nature of stop-and-frisk, creating the political space for the Floyd trial to move forward. In recent years, they have engaged in civil disobedience and held mass marches to protest racial profiling in particular–in addition to organizing around cases of police brutality and murder.
Black and Latino youth are leading the way in challenging the policy that targets them, in particular by documenting and speaking out about how stop-and-frisk impacts them.
For example, last fall, a Harlem teenage name Alvin recorded and distributed a tape of NYPD brutality against him. Tyquan Brehon of Brooklyn–who estimates he was stopped and frisked 60 times by the time he turned 18, was featured in a New York Times short film called "The Scars of Stop and Frisk."
The trial itself is drawing activists and New Yorkers fed up with stop-and-frisk–day after day, they pack the courtroom to listen to the testimony.
On March 28, LGBTQ groups, including the Aurdre Lorde Project and FIERCE, showed up to raise awareness of the way sexual minorities, particularly LGBTQ youth of color, are targeted by the NYPD. The day before, Muslims United Against Stop-and-Frisk attended, organized by the Muslim American Civil Liberties Union.
The week before, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and the Arab American Association of New York were at the courthouse, joining forces for a march and street seder, while VOCAL-NY and New York Communities for Change mobilized their forces as well.
According to Five Mualimm-AK, an activist with the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow:
This landmark trial in New York is a beacon that shines a light on the sad fact that New York needs help policing its police. Every day since its start, droves of citizens, tired of being abused, have poured into the court as witnesses, supporters, and advocates for their communities, and to say New York has had enough. Even NYPD officers themselves have testified that they are pressured by this COMPSTAT performance quota system into making false arrests.
David Floyd, the lead plaintiff in the case, is a member of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM), which released a study last year showing that a Black person was killed somewhere in the U.S. by police, security guards or vigilantes once every 36 hours in the first half of 2012. According to Linda of MXGM, who spoke at the trial on April 2, things have gotten even worse–since then, "every 28 hours, someone who looks just like us is shot and killed," she said.
The trial and the publicity surrounding it have put increasing pressure on politicians to take a stand.
For example, Democratic City Council Speaker and candidate for mayor Christine Quinn broke her silence on the Community Safety Act, a collection of bills that would target discriminatory street stops and create an independent Inspector General to oversee the NYPD. Quinn vowed to pass a bill creating an Inspector General, and to override Bloomberg's threatened veto.
The Floyd case also comes on the heels of another legal victory in January, when federal judge Shira Scheindlin, who will also rule on Floyd, declared that the NYPD's "Clean Halls" program in the Bronx–a "stop-and-frisk" program focused on apartment buildings–was unconstitutional.
But two weeks later, Scheindlin issued a stay on her ruling after New York City lawyers argued that immediately halting the unconstitutional stops outside Bronx apartment buildings would place an "undue burden" on the NYPD–one that apparently outweighs the burden on Bronx residents subject to illegal searches.
The city is determined to continue its policies of racial profiling–so even if there is a favorable decision in the Floyd case, continued pressure from below will be needed to ensure that court decisions are enforced and that the NYPD doesn't simply replace stop-and-frisk with another racist policy.
A victory in Floyd v. City of New York would be a big step forward, but no matter what outcome is, the struggle against police racism, abuse and violence will continue.
Natalia Tylim and Lee Wengraf contributed to this article.
This article originally appeared on SocialistWorker.org.
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