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Unreformable: an end to stop-and-frisk in NYC?

Under Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelley stop-and-frisk has been a racist technology of control wielded by an unchecked police force. With large-scale popular mobilisations against police racism and violence, and de Blasio set to take over as mayor of New York City, reform of stop-and-frisk seems in sight. But is such a practice reformable? 

Sophie Lewis
25 November 2013

Is meaningful change for the brutalized denizens of New York a possibility this year? The recently ex-Mayor and multibillionaire Bloomberg has been blowing a racist dog-whistle for over a decade—often on behalf of New York’s (soon-to-be-ex-) Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, the doyen of stop-and-frisk.

Headway made lately by the anti-racism movement in the USA has revived hope for thousands of people involved long-term in militating against the ‘new Jim Crow’, demanding justice for the dead, questioning the very idea of a police, forming ‘cop-watching’ justice committees, defending the Bronx, asserting Latino Justice, campaigning to ‘Stop Stop and Frisk’ or (more modestly) ‘change the NYPD’.

In August 2013 the Floyd versus City of New York case seemed to achieve a major victory as Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled stop and frisk to be unconstitutional and conducted in a "racially discriminatory manner". Scheindlin was subsequently removed from the case by judges on the Secondary Circuit, and Bloomberg's initiation of an appeal halted implementation of Scheindlin's directives reforming the NYPD.

With the recent election of Bill de Blasio as New York's new mayor, whose campaign promises included halting the city's appeal of the Scheindlin ruling, a new phase appears to be on the horizon. But can we stop at attempts to conduct stop-and-frisk 'properly'? At this juncture, an examination of stop-and-frisk under Bloomberg and Kelly is necessary – and revealing of it as a systemic and racialised disciplinary practice.

The production of black corpses

According to the Stolen Lives Project, around two Black or Brown people a month are killed by the New York Police Department (NYPD). A fairly up-to-date compilation on the Stolen Lives website shows—in the form of a heartbreaking gallery—how “At least 392 people in New York and New Jersey have been killed by law enforcement since September 11, 2001”. Perhaps, as many insist, every 'killer cop' is an exception, a bad apple? But if so, you’d think the police itself would ensure that some proportion of the officers responsible for the aforementioned deaths, the vast majority of which involved unarmed victims, were currently in jail. Instead, the society that produces black corpses exempts the producers from jail every time.

A couple of months ago, Ramarley Graham’s parents, co-founders of Ramarley’s Call, had to endure their son’s killer, Richard Haste, escaping indictment by a grand jury for a third time. “Would they have rushed into a white person’s house?” asked a weeping Frank Graham at the rally outside the home of the District Attorney who exculpated Haste. In February 2012, over a tiny bag of marijuana, 18-year-old Ramarley was gunned to death at point-blank range in his own bathroom, his grandmother and five-year-old brother standing by. Shantel Davis’s killer, Officer Phil Atkins, has escaped all charges. Amadou Diallo’s killers were acquitted in an appellate court. The families of mentally unstable victims Mohammed Bah and Darrius Kennedy haven’t a hope. The list of names goes on and on.

Police killed Kimani Gray on March 9th 2013 not far from where I was living at the time. For days afterwards, Brooklyn’s East Flatbush was filled with crowds of mourners and their supporters who gathered to take yet another stand against what I hope to have shown is best viewed as a racist paramilitary organization operating with violent impunity. Officers had killed this particular unarmed Black sixteen-year-old as he left a baby-shower, in what was unfortunately not the last, but one of many in an unrelenting stream of similar incidents perpetrated by police squads across the US. In his, and almost every, case of Black deaths at the hands of the NYPD, unsubstantiated smears have been circulated in Bloomberg and Kelly’s allies, the tabloid media. In police society, Black people can be labeled gangsters without evidence, and, having been thus dehumanized, can be killed in the name of security.

The statistics of stop-and-frisk

Everyone involved in this struggle is likely to have memorized a dozen damning statistics: 86% of those frisked are Black or Brown; guns are found in less than 0.2% of stops; 88% of people stopped are found innocent of any crime, despite the police’s prerogative to opportunistically discover petty offences; etcetera, etcetera. With the help of Officers Polanco and Serrano, prosecution witnesses in the Floyd versus City of New York case, the police union (PBA) has recently been proven to collude in the implementation of quotas: bosses have demanded 20 summonses and 1 arrest per precinct per month.

Here’s one I find visually compelling: because they’re so frequently stopped multiple times, more Black men between the ages of 12-24 are stopped in New York than actually live there. Another inconvenient truth for Kelly is that his 36,000 officers, armed to the teeth (Bloomberg’s “private army”, don’t forget), aren’t actually looking for guns where they tend to be found. Using NYPD data, the public radio station WNYC mapped gun discoveries and stops in various boroughs and found surprisingly little overlap, suggesting that gun recovery is not the true driver of stop-and-frisk. As Michael Skolnik of Global Grind explains, police would find more guns if they stopped and frisked the population entirely at random. Statistics, for what they’re worth in the ‘evidence-based policy’ era, are ‘on our side’, here.

But statistics per se don’t mobilize revolutions. Groups of enraged Americans flagging up centuries of experience of ongoing white supremacy might: an experience of pain and anguish that is renewed every time—on average every 36 hours—a Black woman, man or child is killed by Unites States police, security guards or self-appointed vigilantes. In this context, ‘stop-and-frisk’ stands as part and parcel of the racialized siege on poor neighbourhoods, a practice that is unreformable.

Over a million (expensive) police hours were wasted on petty marijuana seizures between 2002 and 2012. Needless to say, NYPD quotas for stop-and-frisk reflect the so-called War on Drugs, which has increased state correctional spending by 521% since Reagan, and which a large and growing chorus of voices ever since has denounced as racist, indisputably arbitrary, and guaranteed to reproduce the ‘problem’. In this context, the function of the police should be problematised, its spectrum of violence revealed as a technology for generalizing fear, the stop-and-frisk policy a mode of disciplining and traumatizing poor neighborhoods en masse.

As the City comptroller himself, John Liu, says: “Don’t mend it, just end it”. It bears saying and saying again: there is no “random” where police violence is concerned. Nor is this an issue about police officers’ beliefs and understandings of what it is that they are doing. However, the most aspirational voices in the potentially-epochal melee today are rejecting the idea that any NYPD could be desirably ‘targeted’, or overall benign. Those are the voices proclaiming, not ultimately ‘stop stop and frisk’, but ‘end the NYPD’, lock, stock and barrel. The complete version of the saying, after all, is ‘one bad apple rots the whole barrel’. The NYPD, then, is a barrel which, common sense dictates, should be written off as rotten; lopped off the body politic.

The techno-managerial racism

When this year’s long-running and highly important court case, Floyd v. the City, resulted in Judge Scheindlin ruling stop-and-frisk unconstitutional, an aggrieved Ray Kelly made appearances (looking characteristically like a CEO, against ‘Bloomberg Philanthropics’ back-drops) in order to deploy the typical sophistry of the ruling class. The CCR (Center for Constitutional Rights) and other plaintiffs in the class action suit were asking—Kelly implied—for an equal number of women to be stopped and frisked for things to be representative: ‘reasonable suspicion’, he wheedled, naturally applies overwhelmingly to males.

Through his straw-(wo)man reference to gender, the race question was made to disappear. It’s a move as breathtaking as that, two years prior, in which Kelly, berated communities of colour - erroneously - for doing nothing about “their” violence (for reference, there are myriad groups doing just that, including Fathers For Justice and Mothers S.A.V.E.). Kelly’s silver-tongued and mendacious political pronouncements complement Bloomberg’s neoliberal, ‘post-political’ techno-managerialism perfectly.

To do the job of vindicating what is officially termed SQF—“Stop, Question and (Occasionally) Frisk”—Kelly has also implied that, although quotas are racialised, New Yorkers are more racist than the NYPD, thus, they shouldn't be so ungrateful. Simultaneously, of course, Kelly vows that the NYPD isn't racist at all, but seeks only to efficiently disable crime. With the air of a martyr, Ray Kelly said the milestone Scheindlin ruling “cried out for appeal”.

Bloomberg proceeds to do just this. But with de Blasio now taking over from Bloomberg as mayor—elected on the back of a campaign in which he promised to cancel the City's appeal of the ruling—we shall have to wait and see how things pan out. If de Blasio does manage to defeat Bloomberg and Kelly, a really meaningful opportunity for organisers could emerge. But de Blasio’s projected Police Commissioner for 2014 is the 1990-1996 Commissioner and all-round ‘global’ force manager Bill Bratton (whose c.v. even nearly includes London’s Metropolitan Police). Bratton was also a significant engineer of the LAPD’s current deadly configuration, and pioneer of the gentrification-forcing ‘zero-tolerance’ school of urban crime. The potential return of Bratton as part of the de Blasio package should make us wary of hailing this election result, on its own, as too transformative a moment.

Like Kelly, Bratton has enjoyed much popularity—stemming from discourses about falling crime rates which credit the police (when in fact, regardless of policing paradigm, crime fell uniformly across the country) and ignore the increased experience of police violence and harassment by Black and Brown communities. It baffles me that Kelly has enjoyed such popularity. True, the experience of blood-thirsty moments of mainstream reaction like 1989’s monstrously libelled “Central Park Five” still function to cast cops in a good light. Yet, anyone identified with the masses ought to be capable of penetrating the bourgeois scare-mongering miasma of these arch-hypocrites.

As ever, of course, stop-and-frisk is a question of “whose streets?” or “who is the Police Commissioner talking to?” Listen to the public voice of stop-and-frisk propaganda in American newsrooms. Don’t “New Yorkers” of the unmarked category (ones like Ray himself) realize “they” won’t be “safe” without one of the world’s largest police forces operating unregulated and in the absence of an independent inspector, performing night and day the work of driving out, killing—or else incarcerating—New Yorkers of colour?

To paraphrase Stuart Hall, race is indeed still the modality in which class is lived in New York City.

A future hopeful?

Hope does spring from despair, and various actions of organisers in New York are presently affirming that fact. Anti-racists, and revolutionaries generally, have ever had to step over the bodies of those slain by the state, standing with fresh energy that stems from mourning and love, and which itself spawns higher forms of hatred. 2011-2 saw periodic conflagrations or protest around Black victims of the state, e.g. Troy Davis, Trayvon Martin, as well as thousands marching on Fifth Ave against stop-and-frisk.

Still, it could be that 2014 will see the movement against police brutality—and against the police, period—regaining strength it hasn’t known for 14 years. Back in 1999, thanks to a formidable movement taking the streets, the CCR successfully litigated against Police Commissioner Bratton to shut down the plainclothes Street Crimes Unit following their frenzied shooting of Diallo, who died—unarmed, as is the pattern—outside his own home in the Bronx. It was a meaningful victory, albeit one that wasn’t capitalized on as 9/11 followed hard upon.

Escalating and further building this movement will require activists to maintain their independence from the political mainstream. Investment will need to remain in the social movements – rather than the newly elected mayor – as the vehicle for change. Ramarley’s Call participants consider campaigns such as the fight for a Community Safety Act (a legislative package of accountability and anti-discriminatory provisions) and the hoped-for eventual conviction of Richard Haste as stepping-stones, intended to “tip the balance of forces in our favour, without losing sight of the goals of ending stop-and-frisk and police violence.”

Democracy Now! reported in August this year how, as part of a settlement with the Civil Liberties Union, the NYPD has ended its practice of keeping “innocent New Yorkers” in a stop-and-frisk database. It’s something. As Lichi D’Amelio, long-standing organizer against police brutality, puts it: “there is reason to be hopeful. There is a growing and deepening anger against police violence and impunity that goes far wider than what the movement has thus far been able to tap into.” As D’Amelio and others see it, a movement powerful enough to convict ‘killer cops’ would have the potential to “shift the very terrain on which we’re struggling.” The radical grassroots shall hopefully be able to terrify de Blasio out of reneging on his stop-and-frisk related policies, and—if it comes to it—punish him for instating an icon of white supremacist discipline at the head of New York’s police force.

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