Matthew Swaye’s hand-printed sign read, “NYPD stopped and frisked every single young black man in the city last year.”
Not quite, but the power of the statistic doesn’t necessarily lie in its accuracy. The message hints at the outrage that drove thousands to march on Mayor Bloomberg’s town home last Sunday to protest the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy.
Bloomberg defends the practice by invoking the need for security and crime prevention. On the other hand, most of the protesters chose to focus on the racial component of police stops. Both claims have some truth to them.
But Bloomberg, if only in a twisted Orwellian sense, comes closer to revealing what is really at the heart of the matter. The upswing in police stops must be situated in a broader context of economic instability and a political culture focused on criminality and its supposed agents.
Mike Konczal recently explored the resurging right-wing focus on preventing criminal behavior. Unsurprisingly, he locates its origins in Barry Goldwater’s 1964 “law and order” themed presidential campaign.
Almost no issue has managed to unite contemporary neoconservatives and neoliberals other than the state’s role in policing crime. Konczal reasons that this is because neoconservatives view police crackdowns as an opportunity to expand the scope of their ability to govern populations, while neoliberals see crime as a cardinal sin because it disrupts market relations. He grounds a contemporary political culture that is particularly receptive to offensive (in the strategic sense) police work in this confluence of ideologies.
At the same time, politicians at the helm of the government — many of them either neoconservatives or neoliberals — have been implementing economic policies that result in fewer stable jobs and less jobs in general. Minorities are disproportionately affected by this. Over the last few months the unemployment rate for African-Americans has hovered around twice the national rate.
Thus the ideal government’s citizen — white and employed — must be actively protected from chaos inflicted by the rabble. But the concept of an ideal citizen implies that there is an opposite: in this case an unemployed person of color.
So Bloomberg’s intransigence can be somewhat explained by the way he is able to market stop-and-frisk to the public. Not as race-based, but security-based. This strategy allows him to neatly skip over the structural causes of street violence and brandish statistics — such as the fact that people of color are more often than not the perpetrators or victims of certain types of violence — that just happen to indict the poor and unemployed. And when you put it like that, the fact that police stop African-Americans and Hispanics at a far higher rate than anyone else seems like a secondary concern that is outside the domain of Bloomberg’s policy reach.
While it’s certainly despicable, you’re forced to admit that a political platform is damn good when it manages to present the act of recoding and reworking out-of-vogue right-wing practices to preserve racial and socioeconomic hierarchies through police violence as a commitment to tolerance.
So when the police tried to corral the rally onto a side street at the corner of 77th street and 5th avenue, there was no racial divide. People of color were the majority in both the rally and the gun-and-badge crowd. And no irony was lost on the crowd over the fact that the first two people arrested were not white.
After the rally was broken up a hot dog vendor gave a police officer free bottled water to thank him for “protecting us all.” When pressed to justify her gratitude in the face of the violent arrests that had just taken place, she expressed solidarity with the protestors but reiterated her approval of the NYPD’s efforts to police disorder.
Could it be that by putting race at the center of an anti stop-and-frisk rally, activists risk falling into a trap set by Bloomberg the NYPD? A small but significant cadre on Sunday’s march expressed this sentiment. Significant because they weren’t from Occupy Wall Street but from the neighborhoods hardest hit by stop-and-frisk policies. Indeed, when police pulled out billy clubs and handcuffs, middle class liberals were not the ones who sedulously held their ground.
In fact, a lot of protesters were ambivalent about the efficacy of a silent march that is sanctioned by the police. “This is what the trade union movement has become. We’re a bunch of zombies,” one participant muttered to his friend.
I am not pointing this out to bash the rally or its tactics. Marches like Sunday’s are important because they create a shared culture of protest and they invigorate communities. I am not even saying that race should not be at the heart of an anti-police violence movement.
What I mean to draw out are two subtler points.
The first is that liberal reform movements tend to treat the intersections between race and class at best as static and at worst as invisible. But the area and shape of the confluence should always remain a question and a question that is answered on a case-by-case basis.
The second is, who should be giving answers? Perhaps it is the people who are most willing to engage in a protracted campaign. And those are the same people who seemed to be most disgruntled with Sunday’s rally.
It may be that we need more broad “stands” against racism. But it could also be that what we need even more are political platforms whose cores are melded alloys of interrelated struggles. Those take a bit more work to forge.