3 Bits of Context from the Struggle for a Police-Free New York (re-posted from Novara Wire)

re-posted from the excellent Novara Media‘s buzzfeed-style blog Novara Wire.

All moments are ACAB moments when you live in the city controlled by the world’s largest paramilitary organisation. In light of the recent non-coverage of the #myNYPD affair, here are three aspects of what’s behind that sentiment in New York City.


1. #myNYPD’s torrent of “Old News” (Black corpses).

Typical #myNYPD experience: a 16 year old from the Bronx being brutally stopped and frisked for being “a fucking mutt”. The tragedies of Kimani GrayMohamad BahDeion Flood,Ramarley GrahamShantel DavisSean Bell and Amadou Diallo. These New Yorkers of colour were gunned to death (while unarmed) by NYPD officers who walked free, but they are “old news”, according to Police Commissioner Bill Bratton. The Stolen Lives project reckons that two Black or Brown people a month are killed by the NYPD. The hundreds of thousands oftwitpics – many of them simply snapshots of these victims, and many more – expressed what the New York Police Department really means to people in a way that suggested their rage was more immediate. While the vast majority of discourse about #myNYPD has expounded the dangers of ‘PR failure’ for corporations in the age of social media, the better frame for this story is the failure of the very logic – and existence – of the police.

2. #NYPDonTrial: the ‘end’ of stop-and-frisk.

Floyd et al. 2013 was a federal class action lawsuit, successfully charging the racism of both the conception and practice of ‘Stop, Question & Frisk’, that won the biggest ever court case to be brought against the NYPD. The incumbent mayor Bill de Blasio’s black son even appeared in a campaign video promoting the end of stop-and-frisk. A monitoring body has formed which may prove to have teeth: new documentation is in use on the streets, the Democratic media are jubilant, and the right-wing has cried ‘racism’ (of the phantasmatic ‘reverse’ variety). Cops are officially no longer being trained to “target the right people” – a ‘post-racist’ lie about which you can read tortuous legal arguments.

Meanwhile, the police commissioner appointed by De Blasio for this new dawn is, er, Bill Bratton, doyen of ‘Broken Windows’ and erstwhile supporter of stop-and-frisk. Indeed, Bratton has fallen in line with Bill de Blasio’s noble push for “respecting civil liberties” as colour-blind, albeit neither stopping nor frisking people on the street is going to be abolished as we “turn the page”. This is America, as Michelle Alexander says in The New Jim Crow: “no other country in the world incarcerates such an astonishing percentage of its racial or ethnic minorities.” Perhaps unsurprisingly then, the tone behind new policy remains saturated with a structural, biopolitical liberal racism that is concerned with the best way to get the streets clean and orderly by putting real criminals into prisons while not perturbing the innocents of society. De Blasio speaks of being “honoured to work with” the NYPD’s 43,000 cops, as if the police could set New York free from racial oppression. His campaign does not concede that there are macro relations producing classed racial apartheid in NYC. It merely concedes that “democracies” don’t “break the law to enforce the law”. To paraphrase Stuart Hall, race is indeed still the modality in which class is lived in New York City.

3. “Essentially all the same”.

It could be that 2014 will see the movement against police brutality – and against the police, period – regaining a strength it hasn’t known for 14 years. Back in 1999, thanks to a formidable movement taking to the streets, the Centre for Constitutional Rights successfully litigated against Police Commissioner Bratton to shut down the plain-clothes Street Crimes Unit. It was a meaningful victory, albeit one that wasn’t capitalized on as 9/11 followed soon after. Particularly in the aftermath of 2001, the homogenization of Black people as abjects extends to other ‘groups’. But it is potentially the proliferation of groups the NYPD attacks – pedestrians (‘jay-walkers’) may now join bikers, sex-workers, queers, homeless people, people of colour, trans* people and women as targets – which opens the door for a more generalized struggle to dismantle the state’s armed wing.

Much could change if women rose up with people of colour to repudiate the image of police as their protectors. One of many deferential books on the NYPD, Two Cultures of Policingblithely quoted an officer as saying: “Precincts are like women … Some of the external goodies might make one more attractive than the other … they’re all alike”. Certainly this will have been the experience of Cecily MacMillan (whose high-stakes trial for reacting to being groped by a cop is ongoing, see #Justice4Cecily) and Lydia Cuomo (attacked by Officer Michael Pena, then forced into a lengthy legal nightmare by the state of New York which did not then recognize oral or anal “rape” of a woman). All evidence points to domestic violence being endemic among police officers, and chronically under-addressed. Meanwhile, women continue to be encouraged to feel anxious in public places and to associate the danger of rape with men outside their families.

Often, the most vulnerable, minoritarian communities are targeted. Some evidence points to a conscious turn to meet arrest quotas (sorry: suggestions for officers’ guidance) by raiding shelters where families might be living in contravention of a court order to stay apart. Yet concerted solidarity organizing has won real victories in recent months. In the freezing winter of February 2014, the NYPD announced pre-dawn raids on the homeless people on the subways: a groundswell of opposition from campaign groups and anarchists forced its cancellation. In New York and New Jersey, Muslims and their allies have beenfighting back, in and out of court, against being indiscriminately surveilled and have won.

The NYPD puts so many people away on Riker’s Island even the City Board of Correction has had to admit the prison is a factory for mental illness, which bodes for a long-overdue wave of prisoners’ resistance. On which note, I’d like to submit a contribution to the hash-tag avalanche #myNYPD:

Now’s the chance to stop the NYPD

I wrote this for In These Times: read it there at the Uprising blog.

Whether or not we think that cops can—meaningfully—be tried and sentenced in the courts, there is every reason to closely watch the class-action law-suit Floyd et al vs. City of New York. Multiple new and long-term struggles against the Police Department’s systemic, bloody, and racist violence are now converging. Among them we must count the movement for justice for Kimani Gray, Stop Stop and Frisk, Stop Police Brutality, the CPR, Ramarley’s Call—Ramarley Graham’s parents link his death with stop-and-frisk—and those still battling for justice for the “Central Park Five”. Thanks to prosecution witnesses Officers Polanco and Serrano, the police union (PBA) has recently been proven to collude in the implementation of quotas: bosses have demanded 20 summonses and 1 arrest per precinct per month. This is, it goes without saying, an interesting and an important moment for New York.

Some reminders of the facts: with 87% of those frisked being Black or Latino, and 88% innocent of any crime, so-called crime prevention would be far better off performing stops blind. The police don’t often put their hands on the group which, when stopped and frisked, is most likely to be carrying guns or marijuana. NYCLU statistics confirm this: cops do not detain and handle the bodies of white people very often at all, though when they do, they are able to seize a relatively high proportion of the aforementioned commodities. The Center for Constitutional Rights, and class action, director Vince Warren thunders, “They’re not stopping the people that have the weapons”.

Yet the premise of the policy “Stop-Question-Frisk” (SQF) is, Michael Bloomberg says, to “take guns off the street and save lives”. He alleges there is “no denying” the thousands of SQFs imposed each month accomplish this. But this means the mayor sees undeniable proof of a policy in a O.15% success rate. As Michael Skolnik explains, police would find more guns if they stopped and frisked the population entirely at random.

As decades of bitter experience under the terrors of “drug crackdowns” have taught, there is no “random” where police violence is concerned. By generalizing fear, it effectively disciplines poor neighborhoods en masse. Quotas seem arbitrary: over a million hours were wasted on petty marijuana seizures between 2002 and 2012, most of those harassed being Black and Latino. Stores of evidence have accrued that officers routinely trample UF-250 protocol, penetrating beneath clothing without reasonable suspicion, humiliating locals and aiming to produce summons- or arrest-worthy behaviors—like possessing a small amount of pot in public view, a cop having conveniently removed it from one’s pocket—through trickery, provocation and, often, sheer verbal or physical hatred. One helpful example of the latter remains Ross Tuttle’s October 2012 documentation of an arrest that included explicit threats to “break your fucking arm”, recorded as such, “for being a fucking mutt”.

In this context,  the case led by David Floyd—namely that racial profiling is unconstitutional—began on Monday just as a number of uneasy city lawmakers agonized over a deal to install an inspector general over the force. Activists are hoping to leverage Christine Quinn’s fierce opposition to Bloomberg, in support of an independent overseer, in challenging Ray Kelly’s hitherto autocratic sovereignty over the handling of officers accused of crimes. “We have a genuine chance right now”, enthused a person identified with Copwatch, present on Wednesday’s overflow room, “to win victories against this ‘rogue’ state organization”.

The City’s lawyers, Heidi Grossman and Brenda Cooke, are currently warming up to give Judge Schira Scheindlin a second week’s worth of defense arguments out of many anticipated in this long-haul class action. Both have, predictably, so far echoed Ray Kelly in passionately arguing—with bare-faced disregard of maps like these produced with the NYPD’s own data—that stop-and-frisk is not about racism, but quite simply “where the crime is”. In fact, as Warren repeats, more guns are found outside SQF hotspots. A Deputy Inspector, covertly recorded while ordering officers to frisk “the right people … male blacks 14-21” is tentatively thought to have sunk the City’s argument. Darius Charney, senior CCR staff attorney and lead counsel in the action, believes “it’s going to be debunked completely”.

Hundreds of community members, activists, mourners, and habitual victims of police violence, grouped in- and outside 500 Pearl Street this week. Some stress it shouldn’t matter whether a target of a stop does have a gun or not. “Regardless! Cops shouldn’t be shooting to kill! Yet they are shooting to kill us every time, look at RamarleyShantel,Kimani…” cried a woman standing with the Bronx Defenders last Friday, with reference to three notable young Black fatalities of the past year. “Can we even imagine America where the second amendment applies to Black people?” added Jamila Clark, 19, from East Flatbush, standing outside the court.

The struggle against police brutality in New York won victories against Giuliani, but now desperately needs to re-gather force within a strong left movement in order to tackle Bloomberg’s administration and escalate the issue. Slayings rose 70% last year, and SQFs have rocketed 600% since 2002. Back in 1999, thanks to a formidable movement taking the streets, the Center for Constitutional Rights successfully litigated against Police Commissioner Bratton to shut down the plainclothes Street Crimes Unitfollowing their frenzied shooting of Amadou Diallo, who died—unarmed, as is the pattern—outside his own home in the Bronx.

Now, once again, we face the question of what a just and a desirable NYPD might look like in the imagination of the communities it besieges, whose vigils it ham-fistedly beats and kettles. Contrary to Inspector McCormack’s claim that “the community overwhelmingly is supportive of it”In These Times found no one demonstrating to #changethenypd with a single kind word for the Department. “Let the City send the Bronx some decent housing, medical, schools, you know, help with childcare!—instead of racist thugs in uniform. Then we’ll talk” suggested Elric Amin, 28.

It has been pointed out that Mourad Mourad and Jovaniel Cordova, the killers of Kimani Gray, were both sued over abuse of stop-and-frisk. Though both were themselves “minority” individuals, to take a famous phrase from Stuart Hall, race is the modality in which class is lived in New York City. A Black community fightback may continue to gain momentum, whether or not Floyd et al. gain their formal judicial breakthrough in Manhattan. Only continued mobilization by all in solidarity can ensure it. When, if not now, will it be possible to stop the NYPD?


“Let Kimani be the last”

I was asked to write this for the Uprising blog of In These Times magazine. Read the edited version there.


East Flatbush’s latest loss and the struggle against police brutality       

Cops killed Kimani Gray on Saturday March 9th. Every day since then, East Flatbush crowds, mourners and their supporters, have gathered to take a stand against what is widely seen to be a racist paramilitary organization operating in their neighborhood with violent impunity. Its officers murdered this sixteen-year-old, in the absence of any provocation, in the latest of an unrelenting stream of similar incidents across New York City and the US. It is mid-March; police have killed 79 already this year.

Present in last night’s demonstrations were Bronx community activists Constance Malcolm and Frank Graham, the parents of Ramarley Graham, whom the police slayed in his grandmother’s bathroom at close range slightly over a year ago. Disgracefully, this year a federal District Judge lifted the momentary ban on stop and frisk in the Bronx that had been achieved through concerted struggle by groups like Ramarley’s Call and the Stop Mass Incarceration Network in defense of young black men.

Last night, as on every night since Gray’s death, scores of police squads terrorized the growing body of participants in #KimaniGray vigils on Church Avenue. The NYPD arrested Kimani’s sister and an estimated fifty others—mainly local young people, with some outside supporters—who remain detained at several precincts. Protesters faced off police, loudly contesting efforts to net and mass-arrest them throughout the evening. Councilmember Charles Barron told Democracy Now“this is the least that the community could do is to respond and resist.” Since 1.30am on Wednesday Twitter reports have been emerging of East Flatbush as a whole becoming a so-called “Frozen Zone” (the NYPD blithely invented this unofficial and illegal tactic around 9/11).

Heartbreakingly, Kimani was the second brother Mahnefah Gray lost, the second son of Carol Gray’s now dead. Jamar died in a car accident two years ago. Several community accounts tell how Kimani actually suffered taunts from police officers over this bereavement, as well as personal threats. Friends and relatives now bear prints of his face on their shirts and sweaters. Of course, everyone in Flatbush will tell you: many have died. It is worth noting how, ten hours before Kimani’s death, the NYPD killed Clinton James at a traffic stop in Staten Island. According to the Stolen Lives Project, the NYPD kills around two Black or Brown people a month.

So, activists’ enemy in the struggle is also the very logic that normalizes cop-on-gun-violence and permits us to rationalize Black deaths when they involve “gang members”. Kimani has been smeared as a ‘Blood’ and a gangster, as though this (unsubstantiated) fact would make his unprovoked death at the hands of the state OK. In the UK, where gangs hardly exist, police murdered Mark Duggan, sparking riots across the country; Prime Minister David Cameron likewise dragged up the unrelated issue of so-called “gang culture” as a smear tactic. Those out last night refuse to see lives devalorized in this way.

A spokesman for the Police Department declared that the gun “found on the scene”, which, we must repeat, no one except cops has seen, contained four live rounds. So, we are supposed to believe that Kimani, who was attending a baby shower, had a gun on him. He was by all accounts a young man with common sense, too well acquainted for comfort with the dehumanizing ubiquity of Stop and Frisk. Yet we have to believe that he whipped around like Rambo to aim at some plainclothes cops when they suddenly confronted him. This means Ray Kelly is asking us to believe there was reason to shoot, even though Kimani never shot the phantom gun. Even though he pleaded for his life.  Even though the first two bullets knocked him down. Cop message-boards are of course calling this “a justified shooting”. Yet, after the first, Kimani received another six bullets out of the eleven—eleven!—fired at him. Either the plainclothes sergeant, or the officer, is said to have instantly cried out “oh god!” Much, much too late.

We still don’t know the names of Kimani’s murderers. But we know that these trigger-happy “protectors of the peace”, who fired eleven rounds into Kimani’s body, have alleged that he pointed the .38 at them upon being told to freeze for adjusting his waistband “in a suspicious manner”. “Birds’-eye-witness” Tishana King’s testimony directly contradicts the police version of events: King saw that Kiki had nothing in his hands. As Lichi D’Amelio (Ramarley’s Call) commented, the details of the NYPD’s unaccountable and contradictorily narrated murders of, amongst others, Mohamah Bah, Shantel Davis, Reynaldo Cuevas, and particularly Noel Polanco in the last year has lent widespread credence to the claim that it is in fact systemic police practice to lie and even to plant guns at the scene of the crime.

D’Amelio sums up the struggle against police brutality in New York:

“We are not yet at the point where those in power feel that they would be taking enormous political risks by allowing police to continue to kill with impunity. It is up to us, now, to build a movement that can use campaigns such as the fight for CSA and the conviction of Richard Haste to tip the balance of forces in our favor, without losing sight of the goals of ending SQF [Stop, Question and Frisk] and police violence once and for all.”

As the voices from the street put it: let Kimani be the last.