Civil Liberties  
comments_image Comments

Don Lemon Stirs the Stop and Frisk Pot—What Ever Happened to Nuance and Good Judgement?

A fierce polarized battle continues on Stop and Frisk, as new Mayor de Blasio will need to thread the needle.
 
 
Share

Photo Credit: By Neon Tommy [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 
 
 
 

Twitter is exploding right now. CNN's Don Lemon is the focus of 140-character rage as accusations fly back and forth that his weekly Tuesday radio commentary on The Tom Joyner Show was a defense of stop and frisk -- a NYPD policy that, on the one hand, criminalizes millions of black and brown men and, on the other hand, gets credited for a declining crime rate by the likes of former mayor Bloomberg and police chief Ray Kelly. Stop and Frisk is a policy that is passionately hated, debated and defended.

The tweeted headline for Lemon's piece was, "Would You Rather Be Politically Correct Or Safe & Alive?" The headline sparked a storm before the content could be more clearly heard. The devil was in the details of Lemon's commentary, which did not defend stop and frisk at the outset. This was about the 'n' word. No, not that one: nuance. What Don Lemon initially said was powerful and crucial. He argued that "stop, question and frisk" had been so abused it could no longer be seen as a viable policy by the thousands of New Yorkers against whom the police had practiced this discriminatory policy.

Lemon began by arguing fewer New Yorkers would object to the stop, question and frisk policy if a police force respectful of New Yorkers practiced it. Abuses of power, he went on to note, made that unlikely.

Lemon said:

... If you question many people in NYC, even some black and Hispanic people, they will tell you that on the surface they don't really have an issue with stop, question and frisk, not the idea of it at least, not if the controversial policy was conducted like the occasional random airport screening, if they could really believe that officers would stop someone and say: "Sir, I'm sorry I need to check your bag or your person." But they know that's not the reality of things on the street. They know that officers will most likely not be that polite, if you can call that polite. They know that in reality they will probably be ordered to put their hands up, spread their legs, or lay on the ground and be handcuffed while an officer or officers had their ways with them, touching them wherever they like, or handling them however they like. So for those of us who would like to believe in theory that we'd rather be inconvenienced by being stopped by police than shot by gun wielding criminals on the street we deeply know that while that is true -- it is highly unlikely that the police, the people holding the authority and our fates in their own hands will treat us as citizens who deserve the same respect as any other citizen who happens not to be of color in the United States. And while we are not letting the people who commit the crimes worthy of stop, question and frisk off the hook, for perpetuating these stereotypes, we know that it is too easy for police and people in authority to become so drunk with power that they abuse it.

Lemon makes several valid points here, and the numbers back them up. In May of this year, the New York Civil Liberties Union released a full analysis of the NYPD's own 2012 stop-and-frisk database. WBAI New York radio news reporter Linda Perry spoke to NYCLU's Legal Director Chris Dunn about their analysis: "[T]he most dramatic thing in the report is that over 90 percent of the people who were stopped were not given a summons or arrested and those people are all innocent people. A 90 percent innocence rate is a pretty clear signal that people are being stopped without justification." On frisking specifically, Dunn said: "The frisking is off the chart. Police officers are only allowed to frisk somebody if they suspect they have a weapon, yet we see frisk rates of 55% for 2012, and of those people frisked only 2% produced a weapon. It is completely clear from the department's own numbers that they are systematically frisking people without any justification." Perry also asked about evidence of force in the stop and frisk policy. Dunn explained: "The most troubling thing about the use of force is the racial disparities. Blacks are almost 50% more likely to have force used against them than whites. And there's no explanation for that other than race playing a role."

Had Lemon stopped there, Twitter may not have erupted in the way it did. He didn't, however. The problems start at the 2 minutes 22 seconds mark and continue until the 3 minutes 23 seconds mark in his commentary. Don Lemon dangerously went on and equated the possible elimination of stop and frisk by newly elected incoming Mayor Bill de Blasio with the elimination of New Yorkers' sense of safety and the city's economic prosperity.

What he actually said:

Stop, question and frisk is the biggest issue in the country right now... and the next New York mayor...if he alters the equation of the formula that has reduced crime in NYC to its lowest in decades, one of which is stop, question and frisk, and the crime rate creeps back up, beyond local citizens moving away to the suburbs, people will stop visiting, stop spending their tourist dollars, a big driver to the city's economy. The city will suffer international consequences, cities and municipalities around the country will follow suit looking at the Big apple as an example of what to do or not to do. So, Whatever the mayor here decides will be reflected in your city, reflected in your crime rate, in your economy. So the question is: Would you rather be politically correct or safe and alive? That's the real issue facing the citizens of New York and ultimately you.

Lemon's full 4-minute commentary is here. Lemon's commentary was followed by a joke about the possibility of Bill de Blasio's family being potentially stopped and frisked. New York's new mayor, Bill de Blasio, is a white man with a black wife, daughter and a black son who is likely to face stop and frisk as so many other young black and brown men do every single day. Given that context, stop and frisk is not comedic material, certainly not for the thousands of young black and brown men who face the daily harassment of being questioned and frisked by NYPD officers.

When Lemon's commentary hit Twitter, it sparked condemnation and outrage, followed by a mocking hashtag. HuffPostLive host, author and scholar, Marc Lamont Hill, tweeted that the Twitter rage was failing to listen to Lemon's full commentary and that Lemon was actually making a more nuanced point. At that point, Twitter rage shifted from Lemon to Hill. Hill ended up defending his own condemnation of stop and frisk posting several interview links reflecting his public stance and activism around the issue.

What was the big deal? The 'n' word, again -- nuance, that is. Lemon did not initially defend stop and frisk. Instead, he argued that if the policy was practiced respectfully, it might not alienate so many New Yorkers; abuses of power, however, made that unlikely. 140-character rage dismissed such detail and leveled accusations of defending stop and frisk against Professor Hill, an activist scholar who has always and often publicly condemned the controversial policy. Personality and previous history got tangled with the detail of this latest commentary Don Lemon is a black man who had previously provoked outrage when he supported Fox host Bill O'Reilly's comments that crime in African American communities was due to the disintegration of the black family, he went on to chastise black boys and young men around pulling up their pants up as one of five things black folk should do to improve their lot in America.

This year has seen the NYPD stop and frisk policy litigated in the courts of public opinion, the legal courtroom, New York's city council and on New York city streets. In March of this year, a case calling for reform of the policy was brought by the Center For Constitutional Rights (CCR). In "Floyd v. NYPD," the CCR charged that the police department had 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. During the trial, Sergeant Serrano, a NYPD cop, testified to the presence of quotas that encouraged, required and rewarded officers for stopping black and brown men. Outside the courtroom, there were regular protests wherein young black and brown men, faith groups, activists, advocates, social justice organizations offered personal testimony about the policy's impact and officer's treatment on their daily lives. In August, Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled the policy was discriminatory, as reported by the New York Times. In a nearly 200 page ruling, Judge Scheindlin explained, "The city's highest officials have turned a blind eye to the evidence that officers are conducting stops in a racially discriminatory manner... In their zeal to defend a policy that they believe to be effective, they have willfully ignored overwhelming proof that the policy of targeting 'the right people' is racially discriminatory." For a moment it seemed a legal ruling reflected a public's experience. Then that ruling was stayed by the Court of Appeal, and Judge Scheindlin's impartiality was challenged.

In June 2012, outgoing mayor Michael Bloomberg stopped off at a Baptist church in Brownsville, Brooklyn to staunchly defend the stop and frisk policy. He argued the controversial policy took guns off the streets, saved lives, and that the plan needed to be "mended not ended" and should be implemented by the NYPD with as much courtesy as possible. The mayor's "mend it not end it" approach was to tweak stop and frisk in four different ways: re-issue a ban on racial profiling; implement new training courses; conduct audits of the data collected at the precinct level; and weekly meetings that held precincts accountable.

Nuance is not a word that can be applied when it comes to stop and frisk. It is defended by those who are not subject to it and have no relationship with the violation and humiliation that comes with it; protested against and hated by those who routinely face its discriminatory practice, their loved ones as well as social justice and civil liberties organizations, activists, advocates and elected officials. One of those defenders is now CNN host Don Lemon.

The latter part of Lemon's stop and frisk commentary was deeply flawed and downright dangerous. Equating a potentially escalating crime rate to the call to reduce or eliminate stop and frisk and, worse, tying the economic fate of New York to the continuation of stop and frisk is the kind of ammunition right wing extremists applaud. His question -- Would you rather be politically correct than safe and alive? -- is invalid and dangerous. To expect to be treated as the citizen that you are, and respected by the police force you as a citizen employ is not "political correctness," it is what a citizen of this city and nation has the right to expect.

Lemon's question and latter point essentially invited black and brown young men to accept being harassed, disrespected, and having their citizenship questioned, their bodies violated in order that a segment of the population to whom this does not happen, feels safe. Another way of putting it: black and brown New Yorkers should willingly give up their right to respect and protection from their police force as part of their citizenship, face discrimination and arbitrary violence in order to make more affluent white New Yorkers feel safe and stay rich. This is more than a current policy - it is a historical wound. It speaks to a history of negating black bodies' needs, humanity and safety for the security of white ones. It reflects a politics of emotionality that consistently caters to white bodies and condemns black ones, and then invites those black bodies to make peace with what has become routine injustice.

Esther Armah has written and reported across Europe, Africa and America. She now lives and works in New York. She is a political commentator on MSNBC Live's The Brain Trust Panel, a playwright and the creator of "Emotional Justice Unplugged," a multi-platform, multimedia, public arts and conversation series. Follow her on Twitter @estherarmah.