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Spencer Wolff Headshot

Now That's Something

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August 22 marked the second time in a period of two weeks that I saw a major activist for police reform choke up with emotion at a historic occasion.

Council Member Jumaane Williams, who at high noon stood on the steps of City Hall and lambasted Mayor Bloomberg for spreading lies about the Community Safety Act, could barely finish speaking when it came time to cast his vote to override the mayor's veto.

"Until we understand that we are not in a post-racial society," he began, "we will not be able to move into a post-racial society. I know that we have a lot more work to do, that the conversation will never stop about better policing... I do hope that the police union will stop spreading the lies about what these bills do, because that is the only thing that is dangerous about what is going on. I'd like to thank everyone whose hard work made these bills possible, and also, my ah... I want to thank my mom... my little brother... I want to say... I think... my father would be proud..."

Council Member Williams could not proceed. His voice cracked and chocked with emotion. The galleys erupted into rapturous clapping and cries of encouragement. The scene ended with a room-wide standing applause.

A long and bitter fight ended Thursday with the override of the mayoral veto and the passage of the Community Safety Act. On January 1, 2014 New York will join a growing number of major American cities that have appointed an Inspector General for their police departments. The second part of the Community Safety Act, which passed with exactly 34 votes, or the minimum number required to override Bloomberg's veto, will permit an expanded class of New Yorkers to bring discrimination claims against the City if they feel they have been unfairly targeted by the police.

Brad Lander, council member and co-sponsor of the Community Safety Act, expressed his dismay over the divisiveness of recent polemics around the reforms. "The debate around this Bill has been polarizing. There's been a lot of name-calling, a lot of harsh words."

Mayor Bloomberg has thrown the weight of his office against the legislation. In his public addresses on the topic, he has conjured up the specter of a return to the crime-ridden days of New York in the 1970s and 80s. Several council members have stood with Bloomberg. Scott Levin, when his turn came to vote, thundered, "New Yorkers will rue the day that we passed these bills."

If emotions were high throughout the session, Jumaane Williams stood out. Of all the Council Members, he benefited from a uniquely personal insight into the actual psychic costs of being stopped & frisked. Two years ago, Williams was exiting the West Indian Day Parade to attend a luncheon at the Brooklyn Museum. The police stopped him, and when he tried to produce his official credentials, he was pushed several times and then handcuffed. A de Blasio staffer, who was with him, was also pushed to the ground and also arrested.

The incident sparked a two-year crusade to reform police practices in New York City that ended in dramatic fashion Thursday.

Last week, I wrote about named Plaintiff David Ourlicht's own tears of disbelief and joy, when Federal Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled the New York City Police Department's application of Stop, Question & Frisk to be unconstitutional.

David Ourlicht and Jumaane Williams. Their elation, astonishment and tears should tell the rest of us something about how those individuals targeted by Stop & Frisk have understood the practice, both emotionally and intellectually.

As Keeshan Harley, who was recently profiled by The Nation, put it, "It's not like they just ask for your I.D. and then let you go. They push you up against the wall, or put you on the hood of a car. They humiliate you in public, in front of your neighborhood, your family, your friends."

Time and time again, the police have let Jumaane Williams, David Ourlicht and Keeshan Harley know one thing. The political process is rigged against you. The police don't care for you. They may even be your enemy.

The override of Mayor Bloomberg's veto flew in the face of every lesson that young men of color have been taught over the last ten years in New York City.

Fahd Ahmed, legal policy director for DRUM, declared himself overwhelmed as well. "Today was a victory for justice." He said. "When you can have Council Members and people who themselves have not experienced an injustice, but who understand and emphasize with your experiences, that is a manifestation of justice."

Keeshan felt it more viscerally. "It was a huge weight off my shoulders. I feel optimistic, I feel joyful, hopeful, that we can make progress now."

His friend Justin Serrano was similarly ecstatic, "My heart dropped when everyone started yelling. Finally, it passed. Now I can walk down the street with my little brother, and we won't be targeted by the police. Finally!"

The right to walk down the street with your little brother and not be harassed. Now that's something.