Though Commissioner Ray Kelly promised to investigate the murder of 18-year-old Ramarley Graham in the Bronx, community members who have spent their entire lives surviving in neighborhoods under the intimidating eye of police patrols and perennial surveillance towers already know the cause of death: the NYPD's discriminatory, unlawful, and abusive policing practices. Yet Commissioner Kelly and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have yet to acknowledge the ways in which "broken-windows" policing and the department's stop-and-frisk practices make hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers like Ramarley Graham less, not more, safe.
Many are understandably shocked and rightfully appalled at the most recent evidence of the department's discriminatory deployment of stop-and-frisk tactics toward people and communities of color: 684,000 stops in 2011, a 14-percent increase over an already record-setting number of stops in 2010, and a 602-percent increase since Bloomberg took office.
Eighty-eight percent of these stops resulted in no arrest or summons. In fact, stop-and-frisk yields guns or contraband less than 2 percent of the time. And about 87 percent of people stopped were black or Latina/o.
I am one of the 88 percent.
I am also one of the millions of people of color who moved from the South to New York for access to better opportunities and the anonymity and acceptance that this city has provided to artists, immigrants, and LGBT people for centuries.
But within months of moving to the city, I was stopped and frisked during a bike ride with a friend near Fort Greene. The encounter was unnecessarily dehumanizing, but afterward I was comforted in knowing I had survived a known rite of passage for black men and police officers in Brooklyn.
Later that year I was stopped and frisked again on my way from a laundromat in Bed-Stuy, presumably on the laughable suspicion that my overstuffed mesh laundry bags were drug money bags. The alacrity with which I sought to get them home was misinterpreted as furtive movement that necessitated further investigation.
Just this past December I was stopped and searched again in Harlem at the park with my friends. This time, the fact that my companions and I were gay clearly played a role in why we were stopped and the questions we were being asked. Giving up our rights in exchange for safety from further police harassment, we handed over our bags for a search, hoping to cut the intimidation short. Afterward, the officers walked away having bullied us and found nothing.
This last experience is not an uncommon one. While the experiences of LGBTQ youth of color are not documented by the official numbers, a survey conducted by researchers at CUNY revealed that LGBTQ youth are much more likely to have negative experiences with police than their heterosexual peers, including negative legal contact, verbal contact, and physical contact, and, most concerning, more than twice as likely to report negative sexual contact with police in the preceding six months.
Before these humiliating incidents, based on a mix of racial profiling and flawed guilty-until-proven-innocent judgment, I had a fairly positive view of the police department that my peers who were born and raised in the city never understood. After those incidents, in addition to a less-than-subtle told-you-so from said friends, my opinion changed quickly, and I was reminded of my favorite author, James Baldwin, who wrote of being stopped and frisked in Harlem, and my late grandmother Maggie Baker.
My grandmother told me that the only thing I could realistically do to escape constant suspicion was to go to college and accept a well-paying job. But that didn't prevent Harvard professor Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, Jr. from getting arrested trying to enter his own home in an affluent Boston suburb. Nor did City Councilman Jumaane Williams' credentials stop police officers from slamming him to the ground as he attended the West Indian Day Parade. Knowing my chances of legal recourse would always be slim, my grandmother advised me to manage my contempt, speak well, and never openly suggest that race played a factor in anything -- a bitter pill even our president continues to swallow.
It should come as no surprise that more than 80 percent of the people stopped by the police are people of color. What is surprising is that this practice persists in the face of the lack of drugs or guns recovered as a result of this officially endorsed practice of racial profiling. It's hard to ascertain why a strategy with a success rate that would make most investors jump ship if this were a business practice doesn't seem to be a cause for concern among its supporters.
New York needs real CPR -- Communities United for Police Reform, that is. CPR is an unprecedented campaign to end discriminatory policing practices, bringing together a movement of community members from all walks of life and all five boroughs with lawyers, researchers, and advocates. This past month marked the launch of the campaign with a week of action across the city, featuring rallies, know-your-rights trainings, and public forums. Historic legislation was introduced that would prohibit police profiling based on race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, and, in a historic first for LGBT New Yorkers, sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, along with housing status, occupation, and age -- and put some teeth behind that prohibition. It would also require police officers to identify themselves during stops and advise people that they have the right to not consent to a search.
Commissioner Kelly and Mayor Bloomberg need to admit that the current policy doesn't work. Until they do, CPR will be on the streets, educating people about their rights and monitoring and documenting police abuse, and we will be in the courts and on the steps of City Hall and at the state capitol, demanding changes in NYPD, until the failed policies end.
For more information about CPR, go to changethenypd.org.
This piece originally appeared in the Gay City News on March 16, 2012.