Taking to NYC's streets against stop-and-frisk

Gary Lapon reports from a huge protest march against the NYPD's racial profiling.

Some 15,000 people filled Fifth Avenue for the silent march against the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy (Adriano Contreras)Some 15,000 people filled Fifth Avenue for the silent march against the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy (Adriano Contreras)

NEW YORKERS came out in the thousands for the "End Stop-and-Frisk Silent March Against Racial Profiling" on June 17. A multiracial procession of about 15,000 people stretched for nearly 25 blocks down New York City's Fifth Avenue.

Spearheaded by the NAACP and National Action Network, and endorsed by dozens of labor unions, activist groups, civil rights organizations, cultural groups, and community and religious organizations, the march brought together a diverse group united in its opposition to the racist policies and practices of the New York Police Department.

According to the NAACP, the march was silent "as an illustration of both the tragedy and serious threat that stop-and-frisk and other forms of racial profiling present to our society. The silent march was first used in 1917 by the NAACP--then just eight years old--to draw attention to race riots that tore through communities in East St. Louis, Illinois, and build national opposition to lynching."

Participants in the demonstration explained how this has become a civil rights issue of today. "I've been stopped and frisked for a case of mistaken identity," said Justin, a high school senior in Brooklyn. "The cops stopped and searched me without a warrant, without anything--and they just said, 'Mistaken identity.'" As Justin continued:

It's getting crazy. My little brother just got stopped the other day for no reason...He's only 11, but he's a big kid, so they thought he was older, and they searched him. He was scared, he went home crying to my mother. People are scared to come out of their home thinking they'll be searched by the cops. It shouldn't be like that.

Another marcher, Dina Adams, said she had a lot of personal experience with stop-and-frisk. "I have three teenage sons, and so this is a battle that I go through three times as hard," she said. "It impacted [my middle son] so much that where his schooling and everything--his whole life, seemed to have gone upside down."

"The NYPD has too much power," Adams said. "They need to stop focusing on Blacks and Latinos, stop focusing on our youth, stop screwing their lives up."

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STOP-AND-FRISK is the NYPD policy under which police annually stop and search hundreds of thousands of mostly Black and Latino youth, the overwhelming majority of them innocent of any crime. The policy has effectively criminalized a generation of New Yorkers of color.

According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, in 2011, the NYPD stopped and frisked New Yorkers 685,724 times. Of these, 88 percent of those detained were released without any action by the cops. A total of 87 percent--or seven out of every eight people stopped--were Black or Latino. Blacks and Latinos make up just over half of the population of New York City.

With over 200,000 stop-and-frisks in the first three months of 2012, according to the police's own statistics, the NYPD is on pace to surpass 800,000 this year, an increase of more than 16 percent last year, and more than eight times the number of stops in 2002.

Young Black men are especially targeted by stop-and-frisk policies. A recent NYCLU report found that "the number of stops of young Black men exceeded the entire city population of young Black men (168,126 as compared to 158,406)."

Stop-and-frisks hardly ever turn up evidence of a crime or a real danger to the community. The NYPD found just one gun for every 3,000 stops in 2011. Despite the fact that stop-and-frisks overwhelmingly target people of color, Blacks and Latinos who are searched are less than half as likely as whites to be found with a weapon.

Thousands of the arrests that do take place during stop-and-frisks are for possession of marijuana, which is only supposed to be an arrestable offense when it is in "public view"--and that only happens as a result of the officers' often illegal searches, say victims of the policy.

As NAACP President Benjamin Jealous told Democracy Now! earlier this month, "This is really the biggest, most aggressive racial profiling problem that we have in this country, and it just has to be stopped."

Beyond profiling, humiliating and terrorizing Blacks and Latinos, stop-and-frisks often lead to police misconduct and brutality--from NYPD Officer Michael Daragjati's boast that he "fried another nigger" after allegedly lying about a stop-and-frisk on a police report, to the beating of 19-year-old Jateik Reed and the murder of 18-year-old Ramarley Graham by the NYPD earlier this year.

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OVER THE past several months, the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy has been subjected to heightened scrutiny by activists, lawyers and even politicians.

Last October, 32 activists, including author Cornel West, were arrested in a civil disobedience action against the racial profiling policy outside the NYPD's 28th Precinct in Harlem.

Since then, the spreading "Stop Stop-and-Frisk" movement has raised awareness and generated opposition through numerous protests against the policy and involvement in struggles against police brutality, including campaigns for justice for Jateik Reed, Ramarley Graham and Shantel Davis, an unarmed Black woman gunned down by the NYPD in Brooklyn last week. Activists have passed out thousands of "Stop Stop-and-Frisk" buttons, which are an increasingly common sight on the streets of New York.

This builds on years of efforts by community organizations and coalitions and the New York Civil Liberties Union to document statistics on stop-and-frisks, exposing the racist nature of the program. In addition, Jazz Hayden of the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow has documented stop-and-frisks for years, posting videos online at AllThingsHarlem.com, in spite of a retaliatory arrest by NYPD officers who Hayden was monitoring.

Pressure has also been building on the legal front. Last month, a federal judge granted class-action status to a lawsuit against the NYPD for its stop-and-frisk policy. This will allow hundreds of thousands of victims of the policy to be represented in the suit collectively.

Also, the tireless efforts for justice on the part of family members of victims of stop-and-frisk-related police brutality--such as Rev. Bernard Walker, the father of Jateik Reed, and Constance Malcolm and Franclot Graham, the parents of Ramarley Graham--have provided the movement with further centers for organizing. These parents' calls for justice have gone beyond demanding accountability from the officers who brutalized or killed their children, indicting the stop-and-frisk policy as a whole.

Adding to the momentum were related anti-racist mobilizations of the past months, from the 1,000-plus New Yorkers who took to the streets after the execution of Troy Davis in September 2011 to the 5,000 people who marched from Union Square on March 21 as part of the nationwide "million hoodies" marches demanding justice for Trayvon Martin.

All this pressure has prompted local politicians to address the issue of stop-and-frisk. In February, City Council member Jumaane Williams and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer held a press conference calling for an end to the policy "as presently constituted," in the words of Stringer.

Then, earlier this month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana in public view, a pretext for thousands of stop-and-frisk-related arrests each year.

However, the movement has yet to force Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly to back down.

One week before the march, Bloomberg had the nerve to defend stop-and-frisk at a Black church in Brownsville, Brooklyn, one of the hot spots for the policy, where there is roughly one stop-and-frisk per resident per year in a single eight-block area.

The mayor again defended the policy on Fathers' Day, even as marchers stopped by his apartment on the Upper East Side to express their outrage. However, he addressed the issue of police abuse and claimed that the number of stop-and-frisks would decline in the coming months--a sign that even Bloomberg may be yielding to pressure from activists.

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THE URGENCY of the marchers' feelings about racial profiling was clear from the first gatherings for the Sunday march.

Ramarley Graham's parents organized a feeder march that kicked off two hours before the main silent march. About 300 people rallied at 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard to demand justice for Ramarley, before marching down Malcolm X Boulevard to 110th Street to join the bigger march, with Ramarley's parents in the lead.

As Constance Malcolm told the crowd:

This is not just about Ramarley. [It's] about the youth and the Black people in this community...We've been brutalized for so long. We have to stand up and let Mayor Bloomberga nd Kelly know that we are sick and tired of this! You can't keep killing our kids. They are the future, and we are going to stand up and let you all know we're going to fight back, no matter what it takes.

Malcolm encouraged the crowd to come to the 161st Street Courthouse in the Bronx on September 13 for the next court date for Richard Haste, the NYPD officer who was indicted last week for manslaughter for shooting her son. "We don't want [Haste] to get away with this," she said. Speaking about police support for Haste, she said, "They were glorifying this man, clapping and chanting...You take a young man's life, and you sit and laugh about it--what kind of man are you? This is an epidemic."

Garth Thomas Messiah, who only a few days before witnessed the killing of Shantel Davis, a 23-year-old Black woman, in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, also spoke. "It was hurtful, how they've slain a young, 23-year-old-Black woman," he said. "That was not an accident, it was cold-blooded murder...After he murdered her, he put the gun back in his holster with blood all over him."

At the gathering point before the silent march, Heavy Dev, a junior in high school in Bushwick, Brooklyn, spoke about his experience being stopped and frisked: "Just because I was walking down the street with two people, and we had hoods on...he said we were a gang looking for trouble. But when he got close to us he said, 'Oh, you don't look like troublemakers.'...So basically the way we look is how they judge us."

David Francis, of Transport Workers Union Local 100 and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, explained why labor turned out for the silent march:

The youth as well as minorities have gotten involved in labor because that was our only means of getting some fairness, of having equality within society--and yes, it's all connected together. It's like a domino--you knock one down, and they're all going to fall. They're trying to divide us, and we're just at a point in time where we all need to come together.

Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, spoke about the connections between stop-and-frisk and NYPD spying on Arabs and Muslims:

It all goes back to the same thing--it's religious and ethnic profiling, discriminatory policies by the NYPD, and the lack of accountability. So we're here to show the NYPD that it's not just Blacks and Latinos who are out in the streets screaming, it's Arabs and Muslims, and Caribbean people and immigrants, and white people of conscience...It's New Yorkers. We're here to show our solidarity and demand accountability from the NYPD.

One less-talked-about consequence of stop-and-frisk is its impact on transgender youth, particularly transgender youth of color. "The young people I work with, especially my trans clients of color, are targeted," said Raven Burgos. "This happens all of the time--they're exposed to violence, they're policed, they're moved."

Rachel Cholst said she saw the impact of stop-and-frisk as a student teacher of an eight-grade class in Brooklyn. "Some of these kids, by the time they're 13, it's a normal experience for them," Cholst said. "Especially if they happen to be larger or have gone through puberty, it's not unusual for them to be stopped by police and illegally searched. I think it gives them a sense of being criminalized. I can't imagine what it feels like as a child to walk around assuming that adults have it in for you."

Jose LaSalle, an activist with the "Stop Stop-and-Frisk" campaign talked about about the importance of struggle, both winning justice in individual cases like Ramarley Graham, and in the wider fight:

With stop-and-frisk, they racially profile people...That's the reason why they followed Ramarley--because they saw a young Black man around his own neighborhood, and they assume that he was out there dealing drugs. And then they follow him, and they thought they were going to get lucky and discover some guns or drugs in the house, but they didn't.

The human family is tired, and the more support that we get, and the more people we can have in these courts when the hearings are taking place, the more people are going to understand that we're not going to stop until we get real justice.

Adriano Contreras contributed to this article.