Tale of Two Cities: NYPD's Racist Arrests Create Class War in New York

This Saturday, May 12, in New York City, an alliance of more than 100 community activists, mothers, city councilmembers and religious leaders marched from Foley Square to One Police Plaza, demanding an end to police tactics they say have resulted in two New Yorks -- or as the action was appropriately titled, “A Tale of Two Cities.”

VOCAL-New York, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), the Drug Policy Alliance, and other groups organized the event to demand an end to the racial segregation they say Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly actively enforce. The demonstration hinged tightly on the power of a united New York. Nine white New Yorkers attempted civil disobedience at the police headquarters, but were (ironically) not arrested.

Fearing for their children’s futures, many mothers in the crowd considered the action -- a day before Mother’s Day -- a timely mechanism to defend their children from injustice at the hands of the NYPD.

Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, said criminal justice is a mother’s issue. “Reproductive justice doesn’t just mean the right to decide to end a pregnancy or to continue to term,“ Paltrow said. ”It means the right to go to term, to have children, and not have to worry that when they are born, they will be arrested because of the color of their skin.”

For the NYPD's stats to add up, they'd have to have stopped every young, black man living in the city once--and then some. Both marijuana arrests and street stops are soaring under Bloomberg’s administration, but the data shows that rise in aggressive policing is only apparent in certain communities. Demonstrators stressed that pot arrests and stop-and-frisk have come to epitomize a city-wide problem requiring urgent redress.  

In 2011 alone, more than 50,000 New Yorkers -- 87 percent of whom are black or Latino -- were arrested for petty marijuana possession. Though often considered a trivial arrest, a pot conviction can have serious consequences.

LIke other drug cases, a pot arrest strips people of their access to student loans, public housing and quality jobs. Because the majority of marijuana arrestees are male youths of color in low-income neighborhoods, the consequences can be especially damaging to entire communities. Still, more New Yorkers have been arrested for pot under five years of Bloomberg than 24 years of mayors Giuliani, Dinkins and Koch combined.

“We have to stick together and remember that our youth is our future,” grassroots stop-stop-and-frisk organizer Jose LaSalle said at One Police Plaza. “If we don’t protect them, we don’t have a future.”

False Arrests and Repeated Harassment

While privately possessing pot has been decriminalized for 35 years in New York, marijuana “in public view” -- burning or held visibly -- is an arrestable, finger-printable crime. What’s worse is that investigations by various news sources and academics alike have revealed that many of these kids deserve a much lesser charge.  During stop-and-frisks, researchers found, police often reach their hands into the pockets or bags of suspects. Sometimes they find marijuana, and while the charge should be a decriminalized possession, police charge suspects with the more serious offense of marijuana “in public view,” even though police had to search them to find it. Stop-and-frisk has increased by 600 percent since Bloomberg’s first year in office.  

Commissioner Kelly inadvertently admitted that police were making illegal marijuana arrests this fall, when he sent an internal memo to officers telling them to follow the law, and only arrest people for marijuana “in public view” if officers did not engage in action to put it there. But Kelly’s memo resulted in little change. Marijuana arrests dropped only 13 percent, and 2011 still saw more marijuana arrests than 2010. Last year, in fact, held the record for New York City’s second highest marijuana arrests in history. The pot arrest crusade cost New Yorkers an astounding $75 million.

City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito said that, despite Kelly’s internal order, “Unfortunately...When it comes to stop-and-frisks, of which marijuana arrests are a subset, we know that those numbers continue to rise.”

She said she is“deeply concerned” with the racial division in New York City policing, and that “We are here to express our outrage, not only as elected officials, but as constituents -- a community disproportionately affected by these racist policies.”

The NYPD is legally able to conduct a stop if an officer has reasonable suspicion to believe a person may engage in criminal activity. Reasonable suspicion, however, is loosely defined, and can be justified by as little as “furtive movements,” the most commonly cited cause for a stop. In 2011, police made more than 685,000 stops, 87 percent of whom were black New Yorkers, and almost nine-tenths of whom were innocent of any wrongdoing.

Jose LaSalle, who grew up in Harlem, told AlterNet he could not count how many times he has been stopped and frisked, but says it happened so much, “It became normal to me. It was part of my culture. Being Puerto Rican in Harlem, I thought, you know what, this is supposed to happen to me, so why complain?”

Bloomberg defends the stop-and-frisk tactic as a life-saving tool to prevent gun crimes. But critics point out that less than 2 percent of stop-and-frisks actually turn up guns, and say the consequences are not worth the so-called benefits.

“Safety should not come at the expense of our constitutional rights,” said City Councilwoman Letitia James, “You should not designate young African Americans and Latinos ‘suspects.’” James said the NYPD has essentially declared a class war.

“We can no longer accept the price we are paying for a racially biased policing system,” said Kassandra Frederique, policy coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance. “We can no longer allow our tax dollars to be used to criminalize young people of color -- there are better ways to teach our young people to not use marijuana. Today we are demanding that our elected officials fight for a united New York. Telling public officials that their silence speaks volumes and so do our votes. Let’s all work towards one New York where we are all treated with respect.”

Harry Levine, a Queens sociologist responsible for much of the data on racist policing, told AlterNet, “Roughly half of all stops result in frisks, and most of them require a full search,” adding that “The most shocking thing is how routinely police put their hands in people’s pockets -- the amount of blatantly unconstitutional, illegal searches of people’s clothing and possessions.”

Off the Streets and Into the Halls

Often, in New York, officers’ encounters with black and Latino communities go beyond street stops and into homes.

Under Operation Clean Halls, officers are permitted to enter residential buildings, and question or arrest (often for bogus trespassing charges) whomever they want. What’s more, as Levine said at the rally, black and Latino youths are also much more likely to be arrested and ticketed for misdemeanor crimes like disorderly conduct and trespassing.

“Stop-and-frisk is only a byproduct of a system that is discriminatory,” Divine Pryor, founder of the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions, said. “It is illegal to be poor, illegal to be black, illegal to be brown, illegal to be human.”

Activists said they will use the summer, and the months between now and elections in November, to draw attention to their case and rally New Yorkers to vote for a united New York. A silent march, inspired by the NAACP’s 1917 protest of young, brown and black people murdered in St. Louis, is planned for this Father’s Day, June 17. Chino Hardin, an organizer for Institute for Juvenile Justice Reform and Alternatives, warned legislators, “If you want us to be there in November, be there for us in June.”

Kelly and Bloomberg -- not individual police officers, organizers said -- are responsible for creating a New York in which skin color, gender, age, and class guarantee incredibly different realities. They call for the ousting of Kelly and Bloomberg, and for the election of New York City legislators willing to stand up against the policies that white civil disobedients called “the new Jim Crow.”

Bloomberg will not seek a fourth term in 2013, but demonstrators emphasized the importance of ousting Kelly and electing a new mayor more concerned with the rights of all New Yorkers. There has been talk that Kelly may make a bid for mayor.

George Martinez, an Occupy Wall Street activist, hip-hop artist and adjunct professor of political science at Pace University, urged demonstrators to take control of their electoral politics and “Bum rush the vote!” Martinez is entering the congressional race this election, hoping to represent the 7th District in Brooklyn.

“We want to wish you a farewell,” he said to Kelly and Bloomberg, “The reign of terror at the hands of the NYPD is coming to an end.”

Photo credit: Sam Grace Lewis on Flickr.

Editor's Note: This article incorrectly identified Councilwoman Letitia James as Debi Rose, and has been corrected. 

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