The Stop-and-Frisk Generation

Yesterday?s Silent March to End Stop and Frisk was an affair steeped in history. The 103-year-old NAACP led the way, invoking the spirit of their Silent Protest of 1917, which traveled a similar route down Fifth Avenue to demand an end to lynchings, race riots, and police brutality. The New York Civil Liberties Union, a youthful sixty-one years old, handed out fliers reminding attendees of their Miranda rights and encouraging them to download the organization?s popular new stop-and-frisk reporting app. Ministers and congregations from Harlem?s most venerable churches joined clergy and interfaith groups from around the city along the march. Organized labor was out in force, with members from SEIU, AFSCME, TWU, the UAW, and the UFT coming together as they have for decades, most recently for Occupy and May Day protests. Civil rights leaders and community groups, many well known to New Yorkers from past campaigns, hoisted their signs and took to their feet yet again. As their somber procession stepped off at 3 p.m., the message was clear: a coalition of historic proportions, one worthy of comparison to the great civil rights struggles of the past, has come together to insist that Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the NYPD end their systematic harassment and humiliation of law-abiding Black and Latino citizens at once.

Marching in stride with all of this living history were hundreds, if not thousands, of young people, their energy palpable even without cheers and chants. Young women in colorful hijabs carried signs protesting racial profiling in English and Arabic. Youth organizers from Make the Road New York, invigorated by President Obama?s announcement of ?Deferred Action? (blocking the deportation of young undocument immigrants), led their organization?s contingent. Sons and daughters celebrated Father?s Day by marching alongside their parents with unions and church groups.

Of the 685,724 people stopped and frisked by the NYPD last year, 87 percent were people of color, and the vast majority of these were young people, often minors. Eighty-eight percent are released without charges, but the incidents leave scars both personal and communal, making fear of police brutality a constant presence in their young lives and the neighborhoods where they live (law enforcement experts opposed to stop and frisk have noted that this fear and distrust makes solving serious crimes much harder). With their presence on Sunday, these youth showed that despite this constant humiliation and harassment, they have not been cowed into silent victimhood.

Opposition to stop-and-frisk policies has been growing for some time, and received a big boost last month when Southern District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin issued a stinging rebuke to the city in granting class-action status to a lawsuit challenging the practice. Under pressure from both the decision and the announcement of yesterday?s march, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly released a department-wide memo in May, emphasizing the need for ?reasonable suspicion? in all stops and urging his officers to avoid ?racial profiling,? while Bloomberg took to a Brownsville pulpit on June 10 to defend the policy while promising a review of its excesses. Though these acknowledgements by Bloomberg and Kelly were indicative of City Hall?s increased attention to the issue, they essentially reiterated the administration?s position that stop-and-frisk tactics are a necessary tool for reducing violent crime. In Brownsville, as he has elsewhere, Bloomberg invoked the specter of the city?s crime-ridden past to curry favor for his policies, implicitly suggesting that residents faced a choice between stop and frisk and a return to the free-fire days of the 1980s. However, the fact that the elected representatives of the districts Bloomberg and Kelly purport to be defending are often the most strident opponents of stop and frisk is instructive. These law-and-order speeches are not, primarily, for the citizens of Brownsville, but rather for the city at large, where Bloomberg and many other politicians still feel that a healthy dose of fear and a tough-on-crime stance is an unassailable combination.

The presence of so many young people on Sunday, however, suggests that the law-and-order coalition in New York City may be passing sooner rather than later. Young men and women like Tyquan Brehon, the Bushwick teen profiled in the New York Times documentary short ?The Scars of Stop and Frisk,? have been criminalized, victimized, and brutalized, and yet they have not been broken. This stop-and-frisk generation will not remember the ?scary 80s? but rather the ?scary 00s,? when the threat of violence came not from addicts but from uniformed officers. While stop and frisk has pulled many of their number into the vicious cycles of the criminal justice system, many others have been pushed into activism. Brehon himself has become an organizer with Make the Road NY, and others like him lead youth-run empowerment efforts across the city. Last fall I stood outside a school?s campus in East New York on the day of the special election in the 54th Assembly District, handing out literature for insurgent progressive candidate and Make the Road organizer Jesus Gonzalez. While many of the adults who came to vote dutifully pulled the Democratic lever (as seven out of eight Brooklynites do in every election) without pausing to hear about Gonzalez?s candidacy, dozens of students stopped to ask if I knew Jesus, or to tell me that they had worked with him or with Make the Road. If these students could have voted, Gonzalez might well have pulled off the upset.

This is the rising generation in New York City?stopped, frisked, but not going anywhere. If Mayor Bloomberg looked out his window on Sunday afternoon (the march ended a block from his residence), he could have been forgiven for thinking he was witnessing the approach of civil rights march from half a century ago. But the future was in that march, and it is a future that will favor leaders who know that despite their respectful silence on Sunday, the stop-and-frisk generation will not be quiet for long.

Photo by Joshua Kehn, 2012, via Flickr creative commons