“We have a genuine chance right now to win victories against this rogue state organization,” enthused a member of Copwatch seated in the overflow room of New York’s U.S. district courthouse at 500 Pearl Street last week.
The rogue organization being invoked, of course, was the New York Police Department (NYPD). The federal class-action law-suit Floyd et al vs. City of New York—which challenges the police department’s Stop Question Frisk (SQF) strategy as unconstitutional — has provided new openings for New York activists who have long battled police repression and brutality. A high-profile trial opened last Monday, just as a number of uneasy city lawmakers agonized over a deal to install an inspector general over the force. Activists are hoping to leverage New York City Council Speaker and mayoral hopeful Christine Quinn’s fierce opposition to the Bloomberg administration in challenging New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s hitherto autocratic sovereignty over the handling of officers accused of crimes.
As the trial moves into its second (of many expected) weeks, the city’s lawyers are warming up to present defense arguments to Judge Schira Scheindlin. So far, they have (predictably) echoed Ray Kelly in asserting — with bare-faced disregard of maps produced with the NYPD’s own data — that stop-and-frisk is not about racial profiling, but going “where the crime is.”
But opponents are hopeful that they’ve already sunk the city’s chief arguments. During testimony last Thursday, Officer Pedro Serrano played a covert recording on which a man he says is Deputy Inspector Christopher McCormack is heard ordering officers to frisk “the right people … male blacks 14 – 21.” Serrano, who made the recording, acknowledged during cross-examination that McCormack never told him to target “all” blacks and Hispanics. But Darius Charney, senior CCR staff attorney and lead counsel in the action, believes that the city’s assertion that stop-and-frisk doesn’t amount to profiling is “going to be debunked completely.”
Last week’s testimonies also contained another explosive revelation: The police union (PBA) appears to have collaborated with the NYPD in the implementation of arrest quotas. Though the NYPD has long denied the use of quotas, they’ve emerged as a central contention in the trial.
Whether or not police can be held meaningfully accountable by the courts, the case represents a landmark challenge to the Bloomberg administration’s policies. It also provides an opportunity for convergence between multiple struggles in New York. Some are still battling for justice for the “Central Park Five” teens wrongfully convicted of a brutal rape in the 80s based on confessions coerced by police officers; many are still reeling from this month’s fatal shooting of Kimani Gray and the rebellion it sparked. The common thread is the NYPD’s racist and systemic violence.
The struggle against police brutality in New York won important victories in the 90s against former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. Thanks to a formidable movement on the streets, the Center for Constitutional Rights successfully litigated in court to shut down the plainclothes Street Crimes Unit following their frenzied shooting of Amadou Diallo, who died — unarmed, as is the pattern — outside his own home in the Bronx.
Now, the movement desperately needs to re-gather force in order to tackle the Bloomberg administration’s policies. In its tenure, SQFs have skyrocketed, increasing by 600% since 2002. Last year, police slayings rose 70%. 87% of those frisked are Black or Latino, and 88% are innocent of any crime. The police don’t frequently put their hands on the group which, when stopped and frisked, is most likely to be carrying guns or marijuana. NYCLU statistics confirm this: Police do not detain white people very often at all — but when they do, they are able to seize a comparatively high proportion of the aforementioned contraband.
As Michael Skolnik explains, police would find more guns if they stopped and frisked the population entirely at random.
But as decades of bitter experience within black communities have proven, there is no “random” where police violence is concerned. By generalizing fear, the policy effectively disciplines poor neighborhoods en masse. The quotas may seem arbitrary: Over a million hours were wasted on petty marijuana seizures between 2002 and 2012. But evidence has been accruing that officers routinely trample protocol – penetrating beneath clothing without reasonable suspicion and humiliating locals – in hopes of provoking arrest-worthy behavior through trickery, provocation and, often, sheer verbal or physical violence. In October 2012, Ross Tuttle documented an arrest that included explicit threats to “break your fucking arm,” recorded as such, “for being a fucking mutt.”
What might a less unjust NYPD look like for the communities under siege at its behest? Since the trial began last Monday, hundreds of community members, activists, mourners, and habitual victims of police violence, have gathered at 500 Pearl Street. Some stress it shouldn’t matter whether a target of a stop does have a gun or not. “Regardless! Cops shouldn’t be shooting to kill! Yet they are shooting to kill us every time, look at Ramarley, Shantel, Kimani,” cried a woman standing with the Bronx Defenders last Friday, with reference to three well-known young Black victims killed within the past year. “Can we even imagine America where the second amendment applies to Black people?” added Jamila Clark, 19, from East Flatbush, standing outside the court.
Contrary to Inspector McCormack’s claim that “the community overwhelmingly is supportive” of stop-and-frisk, In These Times found no one demonstrating to #changethenypd with a single kind word for the Department. “Let the City send the Bronx some decent housing, medical, schools, you know, help with childcare! — instead of racist thugs in uniform. Then we’ll talk” suggested Elric Amin, 28.
Mourad Mourad and Jovaniel Cordova, the killers of Kimani Gray, were both sued over abuse of stop-and-frisk following a week of explosive protests in Brooklyn. A Black community fightback may continue to gain momentum, whether or not Floyd et al. gain their formal judicial breakthrough in Manhattan. Only continued mobilization by all in solidarity can ensure it. When, if not now, will it be possible to stop the NYPD?