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 Ramarley, Shantel,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?