Letter from the United States: 'Stop and frisk' gone wild in New York
Tens of thousands marched in June from 110th Street in Harlem down to billionaire New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s swank residence on 79th street in Manhattan.
The demonstrators protested the huge levels of police racial profiling and harassment in New York City, that has developed over the past decade.
The overwhelming majority of marchers were African Americans and Latinos. A multiracial contingent of LGBTI people also participated, reflecting another group singled out by the city administration.
“Stop and frisk” is the policy employed by police of stopping and searching anyone they find “suspicious”. It is a blatant violation of the constitutional guarantee against “unreasonable search and seizure” without a warrant.
But the nine robed reactionaries who sit on the Supreme Court interpret the Constitution any way they see fit. As long ago as 1968, the court gave the green light to the practice.
The New York Civil Liberties Union, which is fighting “stop and frisk” in the courts, has obtained official police statistics. In 2003, according to the cops themselves, New Yorkers were stopped and searched 160,851 times.
Of these, 87% were totally innocent (not arrested or given some sort of citation); 77,704 were Black; 44,704 were Latino; 17,623 were white and 83,499 were aged 14-25.
These figures ballooned each year, until by last year there were 605,328 such searches. Eighty eight percent were totally innocent. Fifty three percent were Black; 34% were Latino; 9% were white and 51% were youth.
Figures for the first three months of this year show 2012 is set to top last year.
Even under the Supreme Court’s 1968 ruling, the cops were supposed to have a “reasonable suspicion” that the target is carrying a weapon. Is it believable that the cops actually had a “reasonable suspicion” that nearly 90% of those they searched, who were totally innocent, were carrying a weapon?
An investigation by a Reuters reporter found the police most often listed as the reason for their “suspicion” was “trespassing”. Another was common reason was “loitering”.
It turns out that the more than 600,000 “stop and frisks” last year turned up about 770 guns out of the hundreds of thousands of guns in the city. That’s a bit more than 1% of the searches.
The Reuters reporter also found that most of these guns were found outside the heavily Black and Latino neighborhoods where the police concentrate their stop-and- frisk activities.
A Black man in his 20s, Nicholas Peart, who is a recent college graduate, wrote an opinion piece in the December 17 New York Times about the four times he was stopped since he was 18.
The first was when he was talking with friends in the evening on the sidewalk. “Suddenly, out of nowhere, squad cars surrounded us. A policeman yelled from the window, ‘Get on the ground!’
“I was stunned. And I was scared. Then I was on the ground – with a gun pointed at me.”
The cops fished in his pocket, found his ID, and let he and his friends go.
“Two years later … a squad car passed me … Then backed up. Three officers jumped out. Not again.
“The officers ordered me to stand against a garage door, fished my wallet out of my pocket … then they let me go.
“I was stopped again in September 2010. This time I was just walking home from the gym. It was the same routine…
“Last May, I was outside my apartment building on my way to the store when two police officers jumped out of an unmarked car and told me to stop and put my hands up against the wall. I complied.
“Without my permission, they removed my cellphone from my hand, and one of the officers reached into my pockets, and removed my wallet and keys …
“One of the officers …. then entered my building and tried to get into my apartment with my key. My 18-year-old sister was inside with two of our younger siblings; later she told me she had no idea why the police were trying to get into our apartment and was terrified. She tried to call me, but because they had confiscated my phone, I couldn’t answer…
For young people in my neighborhood, getting stopped and frisked is a rite of passage. We expect the police to jump us at any moment. We know the rules: don't run and don't try to explain, because speaking up for yourself might get you arrested or worse. And we all feel the same way degraded, harassed, violated and criminalized because we're Black or Latino.
Last year, young Black people were stopped more times than there are young Black people in the city.
What about the 10% or so who are arrested or cited? About 9% aren’t carrying a gun.
Community leader Andre Mitchell, who runs an outreach program for young Blacks called Man Up!, says that too often a stop and frisk can turn into multiple charges. Challenging a trespassing or loitering charge can lead to a disorderly conduct charge. A few more wrong moves can add a charge of resisting arrest or even assaulting an officer, a felony.
“These things can spin out of control easily,” Michell said.
All Black and Latinos, regardless of age, are targets. Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! interviewed great-grandmother Joyce Williams, who is Black, at the June protest.
Williams said she was also a victim of the stop-and-frisk policy: “About six or eight months ago, I was stopped, manhandled, physically manhandled, womanhandled, with the police woman digging in my bra…
“I had just left my apartment, going to pay my bills with bill money in my pocket. When the police walked away from me, my bill money was gone…
“If they’re stealing from great-grandmothers, they’re stealing from these young kids, also.”