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

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Struggles to politically transform or question the system by ordinary individuals or protesting groups are seen as an invitation to chaos, unjustified questioning of legitimate and expert authority. Indeed, these struggles are seen as attempts to recklessly change a finely tuned mechanism that is allegedly working well and soundly rooted in tradition, scientific research, and moral fairness agreed to by general consensus in a free and open democracy.

It has become clear that we need a dialogue that is true to our democratic roots. We need more community participation to solve our common fears and needs for justice and security. It is this common humanity that should unite us, and the realization from those in power that they gain their mandate from ordinary people in those communities. When that is understood and that conversation begins, the hurt and violence of the system can begin to decrease on all sides.

This alternative narrative from the Judaic/Christian and secular American prophetic and progressive tradition of Martin Luther King Jr., Eugene Debs, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Dorothy Day, George McGovern, Pete Seeger, Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer and countless other Americans—one that speaks truth to power—would focus on our common humanity and is capable of understanding the hurt in those communities as well as the abuse and exploitation of the police.

To deny that race and class do not matter in contemporary America and its criminal justice system is to deny the most obvious political, scientific, and moral reality of our society. To say that you are the president of the country (or the mayor, or the police chief of all the people of New York City) and then to carry out the political and economic policies that fundamentally benefit the interests of the 1 percent of the city or to promote criminal justice policies that overwhelmingly impact the city’s poorest communities of color is to deny the “political” nature of crime and the possible response to it—including political resistance to those policies and attempts to change them through broad-based nonviolent political and social movements.

The activists now on trial in New York have educated us to the class and racial nature of policies like stop-and-frisk—policies which are now hotly contested in the city and in the courts. In that sense, they have helped us understand a system that has taken our common humanity away from us all. They have furthered the sort of Judaic/Christian/secular narrative we need to have to help bring about the common healing and public safety we all desperately need and want. These freedom fighters need to be supported. Their charges need to be dropped. And the policy of stop-and-frisk needs to end (not be reformed) so that this more honest “political and spiritual” conversation can go forward.

James S. Vrettos has taught sociology, criminology, and criminal justice at John Jay College–City University of New York for twenty years. He coauthored the critically acclaimed text The Elementary Forms of Statistical Reason and has facilitated New York City's Tikkun Community organizing group. Professor James Vrettos was involved in an Oct. 21, 2011, Harlem civil disobedience action and subsequent trial protesting stop-and-frisk polices.   To read more pieces like this, sign up for Tikkun Magazine emails or visit us online. You can also like Tikkun on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

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