Thousands of New Yorkers silently marched from Harlem to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Upper East Side home on Sunday, in a protest of the New York Police Department’s discriminatory stop-and-frisk practices. The multi-racial and cross-generational show of force included community members, local organizations, religious groups and unions, whose somber Father’s Day procession down 5th Ave was a powerful show of resistance to a practice that they say violates their Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
Stop-and-frisk, the policy in which police officers can stop and search individuals they consider to look suspicious, predominantly targets young Latino and Black men and has been a focal point of criticism against Mayor Bloomberg and his police commissioner, Raymond Kelly. According to the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), 84 percent of individuals stopped and frisked in 2011 were black or Latino, even though they respectively comprise only about 23 percent and 29 percent of New York City’s total population.
While 685,724 people were stopped by the NYPD in 2011 alone, the policy, which is meant to cut down on gun violence, had only a 1.9 percent success rate in finding weapons. Instead, it has lead to increased policing of low-income neighborhoods and confrontations between police and young minority males. The February death of Ramarley Graham, an unarmed teenager who was shot by an NYPD officer as he fled from an attempted stop-and-frisk, has heightened awareness of the controversial policing tactic.
Marchers spoke freely about their experiences while gathering on the north side of Central Park. Tairece Flowers, 17, was with a community group called El Puente. “I have a friend who got beat up by the police. They maced his eye. They threw him on the ground, put their knee on his face, and he didn’t do anything wrong. It feels very unsafe,” he said while holding a banner calling for an end to police brutality. “A lot of people are very afraid to walk and be free. They feel that the people who are supposed to be protecting them are actually bullying them.” Once the march began, participants were instructed to respect the call for silence. As the route went south, the chatter dropped away, leaving only the sound of walking and birds chirping from nearby Central Park. An NYPD Community Affairs officer respectfully whispered to marchers as she tried to cross the street.
Celeste Kirkland, a power cable maintainer for the MTA and a vice-chair of the Transit Workers Union (TWU), was stopped and frisked while shopping near her home in Harlem. “A cop grabbed me. I put a report on them and they did nothing about it,” she explained before the march began. While it’s not unusual for women to be stopped and frisked, men are usually the targets. Organizers planned the march for Father’s Day to focus attention on how the policy continues decades of injustice against minority males. Kirkland reflected, “It’s very important to do it on Father’s Day because it says, ‘Fathers, men, we support you, and we know that this is wrong.’”
Since Bloomberg came into office in 2002, the rate of stops-and-frisks in New York City has increased by 600 percent. Leroy Barr, the director of staff at the United Federation of Teachers, pointed out how even the classroom is affected in communities with high rates of stops-and-frisks. “How can we teach justice and equality when they live a life that contradicts that everyday?” Barr asked. “It’s difficult to have the impact in the classroom that you need to have when they live in a world that is completely different than what we teach.” Teachers formed a column towards the middle of the parade, where they walked with large blue umbrellas, providing some of their older members with shade.
The destination of the march was Mayor Bloomberg’s luxury townhouse on 79th Street. True to form, the mayor wasn’t there to listen to his constituency. (He had spent the morning at an African American church, defending stop and frisk as something to be “mended, not ended.”) Marchers were rerouted to 78th Street, and some protesters were involved in violent skirmishes with cops. But the majority dispersed into the warm, late evening.
Mitchell, 21, a gay man who has been stopped and frisked four times, believes that Bloomberg will reverse his course on the issue. “Something is really building. I think we have a chance to change this,” he said, surrounded by other members of Streetwise and Safe, a group that works with LGBTQ youth of color. Queer youth are a frequent target of the stop-and frisk-policy, because, as Mitchell reasons, leaving it up to the officers to decide who to stop allows them to engage in homophobia. “One police officer grabbed my ass and called me ‘faggot,’” he said. “The issue is that it’s left up to the police officer’s discretion to choose who to stop.… It’s a bullshit policy that allows a police officer to make any type of judgment they want.”
The CCR has filed a federal class action lawsuit against the NYPD, alleging that stop-and-frisk policies violate not only Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches, but also—given widespread claims of racial profiling—the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. Darius Charney, a CCR senior staff attorney for the plaintiffs, showed up to the march with his two young sons in tow. He explained that the lawsuit seeks “broad, far-reaching changes … to the entire police department, not just a particular precinct or group of officers.” In her recent decision granting the case class certification, US District Judge Shira Scheindlin expressed similar views with regard to scope, stating that “the stop and frisk program is centralized and hierarchical.”
This is not CCR’s first time challenging the city’s discriminatory policing; following the death of unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo at the hands of police officers in 1999, the organization brought and settled a case involving similar claims of racial profiling. According to Charney, policies that disproportionately impact minorities, like stop-and-frisk, have only expanded under Bloomberg’s watch. During recent public appearances, the mayor has maintained that preventative measures have helped reduce violent crime. Critics such as the NYCLU dismiss such claims as “misleading.” Amir Varick Amma, an activist with the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow who has been stopped and frisked several times, regards the administration’s approach as misguided: “What they should be doing is getting our children used to being in school and becoming our leaders instead of labeling them as criminals.”
Although Bloomberg and Kelly continue to defend the practice, they recently relented to public pressure enough to signal support for decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana (one of the primary sources of arrest stemming from stop-and-frisk). Still, the number of illegal incidents continues to rise; the first quarter of 2012 marked the highest rate of stops to date.
Silent marches were a tactic first used by the NAACP Harlem in 1917 in the aftermath of violent race riots in East Saint Louis, Illinois. Sunday, the NAACP joined other groups to protest the continued inequity of the justice system, and to support the struggle that unfortunately, both fathers and their sons must face. Ronald Stark from Flatbush, Brooklyn marched with his father, Wayne Stark. The older Stark, a community activist, raised his son to be weary of the NYPD’s policing methods, having gone through the justice system himself. Even though Ronald doesn’t march often with his father, he came out for this event. “That unity is big for us. Not only in the family, but in the community and in the nation,” Wayne said. “Fathers and sons are out here together. Arm in arm.”
Whether Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Kelly listen to the voices of the communities they serve remains to be seen. It would be wise for them to listen to the people — they won’t march in silence forever.