The Powerful Lesson of New York's Police Oversight Law
It might have been the wee hours of a Thursday morning, but the atmosphere in New York City Hall on June 27 was electrifying. All the seats were taken in the upper chamber, crowded with those who had come to witness the passage of the Community Safety Act (CSA), which will bring some degree of reform to the New York Police Department.
Both chambers rose in thunderous applause as Ruben Wills of Queens delivered his vote, guaranteeing a veto-proof majority for the two bills that make up the CSA. The first of the bills, the NYPD Oversight Act (Int. 1079), will create an office of inspector general to independently investigate the conduct of the NYPD. The second and more controversial bill, the NYPD End Discriminatory Profiling Act (Int. 1080), will strengthen the provisions against bias-based policing, expand the categories of protected individuals (to include gender identity, housing status and others) and give individuals who believe they have been profiled a private right of action.
The passage of the legislation came on the heels of last year’s revelations by the Associated Press that the NYPD is engaged in broad-based surveillance of Muslim communities, as well as recent campaigning and legal efforts to highlight the department’s discriminatory use of stop-and-frisk, particularly against blacks and Latinos, but also trans and queer people, the homeless and others.
Communities United for Police Reform (CPR), a broad coalition of community members, lawyers, researchers and activists, breathed the CSA into life by mobilizing the public to demand its passage. Council members Jumaane Williams and Brad Lander sponsored the legislation and shepherded it through a long process of consultation and rewriting.
At the late-night meeting, council members provided various rationales for voting in favor of the bills, but one sentiment was echoed across the board. As Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer of Queens put it, “The loss of the rights [of profiled New Yorkers] is not legitimate collateral damage in the struggle for a safer city.”
It was an uplifting moment in a week of extremes when it came to civil rights—in New York and beyond. Just days before, the Supreme Court had gutted the Voting Rights Act, virtually killing one of the most significant and substantive achievements of the civil rights movement. Then the next day, the Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), ending the ban that prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriages.
In short, within the span of twenty-four hours, the legislation that had ensured full citizenship rights to African-Americans was eviscerated, while gays and lesbians were ordained by the state as subjects worthy of protection.
These two events are inextricably connected. Some academics and activists use the word “homonationalism” to describe such parallel and interlinked processes. The idea is that gay rights have been invoked to depict certain others—particularly Muslims and other people of color—as dangerous and undesirable. Consider the fear-mongering rhetoric over the supposedly inherent threat that Islam poses to gays worldwide. African-American communities have similarly been marked as homophobic in relation to the (white) norm.
The problems produced by homonationalism are twofold. As long as white equals gay-friendly and non-white equals homophobic, there is little room in this world for queer people of color. Moreover, as Gayatri Spivak taught us with the haunting phrase “white men saving brown women from brown men,” imperialism often dresses itself in the guise of liberation, whether it be in advancing feminism or gay rights. As (certain) gays and lesbians are incorporated into the nation-state as good, productive citizens, LGBT rights become a means for the powerful to demarcate the civilized from the uncivilized.
All of this was on my mind as I walked toward City Hall the night of the vote for the CSA. My Twitter feed was abuzz with celebratory declarations about the DOMA ruling, the previous day’s blow to civil rights seemingly forgotten.
But my feelings quickly changed when I arrived. Of the many community activists already gathered on the building’s broad steps, here is just a sampling: Streetwise & Safe, a project by and for queer and trans youth of color to help them protect themselves in their interactions with police; Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), who build the power of low-wage South Asian workers; and Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, “an organization of Afrikans in America/New Afrikans whose mission is to defend its people’s human rights and promote self-determination.”
What is so exciting about the CPR is how it brought these and its other sixty-plus participating organizations under one umbrella. Distinct groups are policed in distinct ways, and not only does CPR recognize this, it has provided a way to link people’s disparate experiences with an understanding that progress can be made only by struggling together.
Consider Picture the Homeless, a grassroots organization founded and led by homeless people, which was also in attendance at the vote. For them, joining the CPR was a no-brainer. Jean Rice, a civil rights campaign leader and founding member of the board of directors, told me, “Our constituency, by no choice of their own, are forced to live on the street, where the NYPD works…. We are ‘front-line soldiers’ when it comes to working with the police.” Picture the Homeless reports back to other marginalized communities about police behavior. As Rice pointed out, police abuse starts with the most vulnerable citizens—homeless New Yorkers—but inevitably affects other communities, too.
The incredible coalition that constitutes the CPR didn’t come into being overnight. It was built on the relationships and knowledge cultivated over decades of struggle against police violence in New York. Many of the activists I spoke to stressed the present-day importance of the anti-brutality work of the 1990s and 2000s, like after the killing of 23-year-old Amadou Diallo in 1999, and the continuing legacy of women like Juanita Young, who campaigned fiercely for justice after the death of her unarmed son in 2000.
The story of the CPR begins in 2011, after the first NYPD data on stop-and-frisk was released; the data showed that stops had increased by 600 percent during Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s term, and that over 90 percent of those stopped were black or Latino. With data in hand and other forces moving into alignment, it was an unparalleled opportunity to hold the NYPD to account. Everyone in the city was invited to sit at the table, from community-based grassroots organizations, to ally groups, advocacy groups and even prominent civil rights organizations like the Center for Constitutional Rights and the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU).
Given that this broad cross section of organizations had never worked together before, it would have been unsurprising if the most high-profile or best-funded members took the lead. Instead, the CPR committed itself to being driven first and foremost by the voices of the most affected communities. The director of the CPR, Joo-Hyun Kang, explained:
“When there were revisions on parts of the bills, we went back to organizations that are based in directly affected communities to make sure they were okay with them, that it still met their needs.” She added, “We take [this commitment] really seriously.We want to make sure that directly affected communities are not tokenized but in direct leadership.”
Prioritizing the leadership of the most affected communities also shifted the roles and responsibilities of other groups involved. According to Marjorie Dove Kent, the executive director of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), “Our role is not to tell groups what to do, just to listen and determine ways we can be strategic and supportive.” As perhaps the most unlikely ally organization, JFREJ was able to make important inroads for the passage of the bills. “Bringing a Jewish constituency to meet with council members is powerful—no one expects Jews to come in and say ‘police brutality is our number-one priority.”
For the CPR, legislative work—namely ensuring the passage of the Community Safety Act—is just one part of the solution. The coalition also provides leadership development opportunities for member groups and coordinates community education efforts, like providing “know your rights” trainings and organizing cop watches. Lastly, the CPR facilitates relevant litigation—notably, it publicized the federal class-action lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights and others against stop-and-frisk, Floyd vs. the City of New York—and engages in research around discriminatory policing and alternatives to the status quo.
Building such a diverse coalition wasn’t always easy for the groups involved. Candis Tolliver, a senior organizer for NYCLU, described some of the challenges. “[NYCLU] is used to running legislative and policy campaigns and dealing with negotiations for bills. In CPR, we’re working with diverse groups, some who’ve never worked on legislative matters. That pushes us to have deep conversations and to challenge each other to think about what’s best for the entire group.”
For Monami Maulik, the founder and executive director of DRUM, the campaign provided an opportunity to continue bridging the work around civil rights and law enforcement post-9/11—work that had primarily highlighted the impact on Arab, Muslim and South Asian communities—to the long histories of black and Latino struggles for police accountability. “Bringing post-9/11-impacted communities to this effort was slow at first, but we then mobilized many South Asian and Muslim immigrant workers and youth. At every moment we tried to remind our community that we can all learn from other communities, that we should work in unity for legislation that will impact and benefit all of us.”
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One might say that the CPR is grounded in a politic of solidarity: building understanding and mutual support across policed and surveilled communities with the hopes of empowering everyone. But we live in a world that plays by the rules of “divide and conquer,” where elites gain power by setting the weak against one another. These dirty tactics were on display a week before, when I trekked up to Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture for a mayoral candidates’ debate, organized by the Police Reform Organizing Project in collaboration with the Community Service Society, Brotherhood-SisterSol, The Nation, the Ethical Culture Society and the Schomburg Center.
The purpose of the forum was to hear in greater detail where the candidates stand on issues of police reform and criminal justice. Each contender was interviewed for about fifteen minutes, and asked about their position on a wide variety of issues, from stop-and-frisk, to surveillance, to prison conditions, to the presence of cops in schools.
It is well established that Democratic candidate John Liu is his party’s most outspoken critic of stop-and-frisk and the surveillance of Muslim communities. At the mayoral forum, I was impressed to hear him use the phrase “cruel and unusual” to describe solitary confinement and to address the dangers of criminalizing sex workers. Neither is a particularly popular position among politicians.
The rest of the candidates, the more viable ones, were much less willing to humanize and defend the most marginalized. With perhaps a misplaced confidence given the many community activists in the audience, Anthony Weiner told us, “We have to reorient City Hall to meet the needs of the middle class and those that aspire to be in the middle class.” Although Bill Thompson pushes for some reform of stop-and-frisk, he still repeated Bloomberg’s claim that the policy protects communities with high rates of violence. “Everybody in this city is entitled to public safety,” he stressed.
Then there was Christine Quinn, notorious for her vow to offer Police Commissioner Ray Kelly the same job. Perhaps she just is not that angry about how Kelly has treated Muslims and people of color New Yorkers, whether gay or straight. But the NYPD has also directly profiled queer people. It’s common for transgender and non-gender-conforming people to be stopped and arrested for prostitution simply for carrying condoms, and until recently many trans people were afraid to carry condoms for fear they could be used as evidence against them in court. I’m not alone in my ire for Quinn or my sense that she’s a flip-flopper (e.g., she voted no on 1080, but yes on 1079). There was even an “LGBT against Quinn” contingent at last weekend’s pride march. How depressing that a host of prominent gay and lesbians groups and activists—most recently Edith Windsor herself—have endorsed Quinn’s run for mayor. That’s homonationalism in action.
Days later, as I watched the CSA become law from the upper chamber of City Hall, the mayoral candidates’ cautious and conservative positions just made the words of the voting council members all the more poignant. Over and over again, council members invoked their proximity to the policed and to stop-and-frisk: It happened to me, to my nephew, to my son, to my constituent, to my aide. Council Member Donovan Richards described being stopped when he was just 13. Daniel Dromm, a gay councilman from Queens, reminded us that Stonewall was a riot against police corruption and brutality. Mark Weprin spoke of feeling safe around the police when he was growing up, and expressed indignation that so many feel otherwise.
There was a sense of raw intimacy as council members delivered their words—part speech, part confession, brimming with humiliation, sadness, anger, shock and guilt. But it was CSA co-sponsor Jumaane Williams who moved me the most.
“Historically,” he said, “there has been a paternalistic response to communities’ saying what they need to assist them, and people who do represent them and live there say that, ‘We know better than you, ever though you are living it’…
“I implore you…if you have never been a young black Latino male or female in the city of New York, to please listen to us.
“I implore you, if you have never been lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, questioning in the city of New York, to please listen to us.
“I implore you…if you have never been Muslim in the city of New York, to please listen to us.
“If you have never been Asian in the city of New York, please listen to us.
“If you have never been the people that we are trying to help, and who are dealing with these issues every single day, please listen to us.”
After the vote, the upper chamber began to empty out, amid embraces and words of congratulations. It was nearing three o’clock in the morning, but people were still hesitant to leave. A small crowd hovered at the bottom of the stairs, and another one gathered outside on the steps. The moment was stretched out, savored and shared.
What the passage of CSA taught me, albeit unexpectedly, is that a divide-and-conquer strategy may be pervasive, from our communities to the austere chambers of City Hall, but it’s not inevitable. The challenge faced by those of us who believe in a politic of solidarity is resisting the forces that seem set on driving us apart.
That’s the real beauty of the coalition-building, cross-alliance politic embodied in the CPR: it generates change from within, but also from without. Especially considering what the campaign was up against, from a vengeful mayor to a police union willing to lie through its teeth, the change the CSA will provide for the most affected communities is significant.
And the CSA is just the beginning. For right now, the Communities United for Police Reform is focused on ensuring that Bloomberg’s inevitable veto of the CSA is overridden. But next—who knows? In the word of that timeless protest chant, “The people united, will never be defeated!”