Like most Black people in this country, I will never forget my first encounter with the police. Like most Black people in this country, it was not a pleasant experience. Before I take you down that memory lane with me, let me say up front that today I am joining arms with Cornel West and others to voluntarily land myself in the custody of the police. We are conducting non-violent civil disobedience at the 28th Police Precinct in Harlem, New York to put a Stop to the NYPD policy of "Stop & Frisk."
Just last night, one of the younger organizers with this historic action which is now being taken up by others -- including high school students, Wall Street Occupiers, families of police murder victims, and people of faith -- asked me about what it was like when I was growing up. Here is the story I told:
I remember the day well. There was some light rain and everyone was wearing a trench coat, myself included. That was the style back then. Those 77 Sunset Strip trench coats.
An undercover man ran up from behind and tackled me. Next, he decked me. He said someone had been robbed and I "fit the description." It soon became clear what "description" he was talking about. He and other cops had also stopped a 40-something year old who was 5'6" with a full beard. I was only 13 years old, no facial hair yet, and six feet tall. The only thing we had in common was our Black skin and our stylish trench coats (which, again, everybody was wearing).
They asked where I was coming from and where I was going. I explained that I was coming from the library and heading to my grandmother's house. They kept saying I was lying and I kept telling them the truth.
Finally, they threw me in the police car. They kicked me because they said I wasn't moving fast enough. Back at the library, with one big white cop holding each of my arms, they dragged me back to the front desk and said to the woman there, "This kid says he came here and returned library books. Do you recognize him?"
The only problem was, she wasn't the same woman as when I'd been there. Still, she looked at me and then looked and then at the way they were treating me and said, "Yes, he was here."
After that, the police said, "You are free to go, but we better drive you home or else you'll get picked up again." They viewed this as a favor they were doing, but what struck me -- and what never left me -- was that part about, "You'll be picked up again."
As traumatic an experience that was and as shocking as it still ought to be to everyone, it probably is no surprise when I tell you that was in the year 1961.
Since that time, we saw the Freedom Rides and the Civil Rights movement as well as the Black Liberation Movement and the revolutionary upheaval of the 1960s. I myself was mightily influenced by that revolutionary upsurge and contributed to it more and more deeply, first through refusing to serve in Vietnam and instead spending two years in Leavenworth Military Prison. Later, by hooking up with Bob Avakian and becoming a founding member of the Revolutionary Communist Party.
But, the way the ruling class and its mouthpieces have constructed their "official history," the kind of experience I described above supposedly doesn't happen anymore. Supposedly Black people have won their equality. Supposedly, the "achievement" of having a Black president proves it. Its hard to think of a more elegant word to describe this than: bullshit.
Listen to this story, told just yesterday down at Occupy Wall Street by a young Black Navy Vet:
Another time with my friend Chris in my neighborhood, my neighborhood's quiet, a nice neighborhood. They pulled us over got out of the car, put us in hand cuffs told us to sit in the sidewalk while they searched the car and one of the cops came up to us, they said, "The only way we'll let you go is if you dance for us." They said, "You heard of the dance 'chicken noodles soup?'" "No we haven't," we said. "The only way we'll let you go is if you do chicken noodle soup for us." They let us go when when we said we didn't know. They were jokin' around but to me, it's no joke, they're trying to degrade us.
I've been stopped many times, they just pull up on the side walk. They went through my phone one time, that was a violation of my rights. One time I was waiting for my friend by myself they pull up on the sidewalk they search me take my wallet and phone out the cop goes through the phone sees pictures of my girlfriend "Oh, you've got some pictures in there." I don't know why you're asking me where I'm going, who I'm waiting for going through my phone.
... It's happened so many times, those are just stand out ones, happens all the time.
Aside from the cellphone, there is not a single significant difference between his stories and mine. But that is not all. Lest you tell yourself this was some kind of "isolated incident" -- multiply his story times 75 times every hour. Multiply that story times 1,900 times every day. Multiply that story by 700,000 times a year.
This is the reality of what goes on in New York City alone with the New York Police Department's policy of "Stop & Frisk." More than 83 percent of those stopped are Black or Latino, many are as young as 11 or 12, and more than 90 percent of them were doing nothing wrong when the police stopped, humiliated, brutalized them or worse.
This policy is wrong. It is illegal, racist, unconstitutional and intolerable! It is just one of the many pipelines into the wholesale mass incarceration of a generation of Black and Latino youth. Today there are more than two million people held in prison in the U.S. That is the largest prison population in the world! And its not just men; more than one third of all women imprisoned in the entire world are in prison in the U.S.
Just like the Jim Crow of my youth, this "New Jim Crow" of mass incarceration and criminalization is totally unjust, immoral, and illegitimate. But just that like racist regime, it is part of a conscious policy whose roots of white supremacy lie deep within the economic, social, political and ideological fabric of America.
The reason we are facing this backlash against the accomplishments of the 60s liberation struggles is precisely because we didn't "break on through" and make a real revolution at that time. That is why I am still working to build the movement for revolution today; yesterday wouldn't be soon enough to get rid of this system that causes so much misery not only to Black and Latino people in the U.S., but to all those disgruntled masses showing up at the many occupations springing up across the U.S., and among the many victims of the U.S.'s wars of aggression in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond. Not to mention the environmental devastation being wrought on this planet through capitalist pollution and blind competition.
Even short of revolution -- that is, even if you aren't convinced of the need for revolution or even if you are and want to build up the strength towards the day when such a revolution will be possible -- it is incumbent upon all of us to stand up today against and stop one of the greatest crimes taking place every day in plain site. "Stop & Frisk" is totally illegitimate and unjust. It is destroying spirits and brutalizing bodies on a mass scale. It is imprinting a tremendous psychic scar, and real shackles and chains, an on an entire generation and is part of a whole system that has no future for our youth.
It is time -- it is past time -- for all of us who refuse to sit aside as slow genocide takes place beneath our noses to stand up. From "Up Against the Wall" to "Up In Their Faces!" October 21st, I will be conducting non-violent civil disobedience at the 28th police precinct in Harlem, New York City together with:
Cornel West, Professor, Author, Public Intellectual
Rev. Stephen Phelps, Interim Senior Minister of Riverside Church
Rev. Earl Kooperkamp, Rector of St. Mary's Episcopal Church
Debra Sweet, National Director of World Can't Wait
Rev. Omar Wilks, Union Pentecostal Church
Prof. Jim Vrettos, John Jay College of Criminal Justice
Elaine Brower, Military Mom and World Can't Wait
Today, we are putting themselves on the line to STOP IT. This is the beginning; this is serious; we won't stop until Stop & Frisk is ended.
This mass initiative can be contacted at:
The Stop Mass Incarceration Network: PO Box 941, New York, NY 10002
firstname.lastname@example.org* 973.756.7666 * stopmassincarceration.tumblr.com