Protestors rally near the federal courthouse where the class-action lawsuit Floyd v. City of New York is being argued. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig.)
On Saturday, March 23, sixteen year-old Kimani Gray was buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, surrounded by family and friends. Gray had been killed two weeks earlier by a pair of plainclothes New York City police officers, who shot him seven times on an East Flatbush sidewalk. The officers claim the teenager pointed a gun at them, but witnesses, along with family and friends, vehemently dispute the NYPD's narrative. In the days before Gray’s funeral, hundreds of residents filled the street to display their outrage. Dozens were arrested, some as young as thirteen. As mourners prepared to lower the teen's metallic-blue casket into the ground, a young man in a black T-shirt featuring a picture of Gray broke from the crowd and sat in the grass next to a headstone. Resting his elbows on his knees, he lowered his head and began to cry.
The day before Gray was buried, civil rights attorneys in lower Manhattan wrapped up their first week of arguments in Floyd v. City of New York, a landmark class action lawsuit accusing the NYPD of violating the constitutional rights of hundreds of thousands of young men of color not unlike Kimani Gray. As with the protests following the death of Ramarley Graham in February of 2012— shot in his own home, unarmed, by a plainclothes officer in search of a gun—the anger in the streets was further fueled by deep-seated frustration with the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program, which overwhelmingly targets young men of color—sometimes leading to brutal and even deadly force.
Roughly 4.4 million people have been stopped by the NYPD during the joint tenure of Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, according to official government data. Nearly nine out of ten have been released without an arrest or summons. About 86 percent of those stopped have been black or Latino. In 2011, the NYPD's 67th precinct, which patrols the neighborhood where Gray was shot, ranked 16th among other city precincts in overall stops. The 67th came in second, however, when it came to stops that failed to prove wrongdoing: nearly 94 percent of the encounters resulted in no charges.
"They do it to a lot of people over here," said Kelly Fraser, 19, who told The Nation that Gray was like “a little brother” to her. "They always messing with you for no reason."
Lawyers for the plaintiffs in the Floyd trial hope to prove that stopping people "for no reason" is part of department-wide NYPD practice that is in violation of both the 4th and 14th amendment. The trial began in two packed courtrooms, one where the actual proceedings are taking place for the next several weeks, and another where an overflow of New York City residents, activists, politicians and local attorneys crowded onto courtroom benches, surrounding chairs and open spaces on the floor. They watched intently as the opening statements unfolded via a live feed.
"This case is about much more than numbers," Darius Charney, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is representing the plaintiffs said. "It's about people."
"There is a wide gap between what the New York Police Department's stop-and-frisk-related policies and procedures say on paper and how they actually operate in practice in the precincts and on the streets of New York City," he added.
The NYPD's authority to stop, question and, if needed, search individuals is not being challenged. Instead, attorneys for the plaintiffs hope to convince Judge Shira Scheindlin to reign in a police practice that has resulted in millions of stops, many of which were unconstitutional. The case turns not only on the testimony of the plaintiffs, but also on allegations and recordings made by active NYPD officers who claim that they are forced to abide by a rigidly-enforced quota system.