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Stop-and-Frisk in New York and the Politics of Crime in America

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Crossposted on Tikkun Magazine

ByJames Vrettos

There are a series of relatively unpublicized trials presently going on this month in New York City that seem to represent attempts to settle civil disobedience efforts and nonviolent protests that challenged the New York Police Department’s increasingly unpopular stop-and-frisk policies and the way a whole generation of young people of color is being condemned to lives of criminalization, marginalization, brutality and the spirit-crushing, human-wasting confinement of the largest prison system in the world.

These trials involve Carl Dix who, along with Union Theological Seminary professor Cornel West, was the co-initiator of the “Stop Stop-and-Frisk” protests. He and several other activists in the movement are facing charges of disorderly conduct and obstruction of governmental administration which could result in two to four-plus years of jail time for them.

Stop and frisk practices have been increasingly put on the defensive by academic research which has shown the racist nature of the policy—85 percent of those stopped and frisked are Black and Hispanic and police are significantly more likely to use force when they stop them than when they stop whites. Most academic scholars concerned with the issue have conclusively argued that the proportion of gun seizures to stops has fallen sharply and the policy has not been a major factor behind lowered crime rates.

Furthermore, the policy has been stymied by various lawsuits including the granting of a federal class-action status by a federal judge, discussion of the creation of an Inspector General’s Office to monitor various police policies and practices—including stop and frisk, and the Bronx district attorney’s office decision to no longer prosecute people who were stopped at public housing projects and arrested for trespassing unless the arresting officer is interviewed.

Equally damaging has been the exposing of “policing by the numbers” management policy—a code for quotas in which crimes are being downgraded and police commanders are pitted against one another to match or exceed previous figures. Religious leaders, cultural figures, and politicians have been vigorously speaking out against the political and spiritual immorality of the practice as well.

The mayor and police commissioner seem to be fighting back and using these trials as an opportunity to punish these activists for questioning and challenging the policy. On the other hand, these trials potentially have the power to raise public consciousness about the New York City criminal justice system, which is increasingly based on a fear-based, surveillance-directed policing system. There is also the possibility that these trials could help formulate an alternative narrative which communicates the linkages of that system to the larger political, economic, and spiritual ethos of the culture in what West has warned are the “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism” identified by Martin Luther King Jr. a year before his death.

For this alternative narrative to become viable and the links understood it should be recognized first that the American criminal justice system has generally not seen itself as an ideologically driven, politically class-based vehicle through which collective justice and punishment is meted out. Nor are attempts to change or resist the “system” by individuals or groups alike seen as part of a larger, justified “political or cultural social movement” designed to redress economic, political, racial, and/or moral grievances.

Instead our criminal justice system has been largely rooted in a tri-part philosophical base of science and the scientific method, classical criminology and deterrence, and a Judaic/Christian religious historical tradition. This has largely led to seeing the “problem” of crime as an individual or group “failing” and the solution as rooted in a trust of scientific, technocratic expertise, and policy manifested by established authority and the police.

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