The commissioner of hypocrisy

July 23, 2012

Lichi D’Amelio and Don Lash document the lies of Commissioner Ray Kelly in his campaign to shift attention away from the NYPD's racist stop-and-frisk policy.

IT'S HARD to think anything more stomach-turning than the head of the New York Police Department--one of the most brutal institutions in the world--admonishing racial justice activists and community leaders for allegedly remaining silent about violence in New York City.

But that's exactly what Commissioner Ray Kelly is doing. The ever-loyal mouthpiece of New York City's political establishment, the New York Daily News, quoted Kelly as saying, "Many of them will speak out about stop-and-frisk" but are "shockingly silent when it comes to the level of violence right in their own communities."

Not only is this patently false--community leaders have spent a lot of time speaking to the question of gun violence, and there are a number of community organizations dedicated to ending violence--but it is utter hypocritical, especially in the aftermath of several police killings and beatings that have gotten more attention than usual.

Kelly and his boss, billionaire New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, don't care about the lives of African Americans and Latinos in New York City. Kelly's words show that the two are really concerned about the public outcry against the NYPD and its racist and increasingly aggressive stop-and-frisk policy that has gained nationwide attention and scrutiny.

NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly speaks as Mayor Michael Bloomberg looks on
NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly speaks as Mayor Michael Bloomberg looks on (Azi Paybarah)

GROUPS LIKE Stop Stop-and-Frisk and the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow have led a broad coalition of anti-racist activists, established civil rights groups, community organizations, unions and even previously silent elected officials.

The outrage has been building for years, but intensified over the past year as a series of scandals hit the NYPD, involving gun-running, planting of evidence and explicit racial profiling. Anger over police violence came to a head around several cases this winter and spring, including the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Ramarley Graham and the beating and arrest of 19-year-old Jateik Reed during a stop-and-frisk.

All this combined to produce one of the largest mobilizations against the police in years when some 15,000 New Yorkers marched silently on the streets of Manhattan June 17, in a protest demanding an end to stop-and-frisk.

In May, a federal judge rebuffed the city's attempts to get a class-action lawsuit challenging the discriminatory impact of stop-and-frisk thrown out of court. In March, another class action suit was filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), LatinoJustice PRLDEF and Bronx Defenders challenging the NYPD's "clean halls program"--an extension of stop-and-frisk that "allows police officers to patrol thousands of private apartment buildings across New York City," according to the NYCLU's website.

Stop-and-frisk, reports the NYCLU, resulted in 685,724 searches in 2011, up from 97,296 in 2002--a sevenfold increase in a single decade. No one can possibly deny the racial disparities. In 2011, 87 percent of people subjected to stop-and-frisk were Black or Latino, in a city in which Blacks and Latinos account for just over half of the population.

According to police data obtained by the NYCLU, Black New Yorkers are most likely to be stopped and frisked, accounting for 23 percent of city residents and 53 percent of stop-and-frisk encounters. Latinos are also over-represented, making up 29 percent of residents and 34 percent of stops. Whites are distinctly underrepresented, at 33 percent of city residents and only 9 percent of stops.

The statistics are even more incredible when age is taken into account. Black and Latino young between the ages of 14 and 24 are less than 5 percent of New York City residents, yet they accounted for 42 percent of the victims of stop-and-frisk encounters. According to the NYCLU, because young Black men are stopped so many times in a year, "the number of stops of young Black men last year actually exceeded the total number of young Black men in the city (168,126 as compared to 158,406)."

And on top of it all, nearly 90 percent of people subjected to this humiliating policy are innocent of any crime.

THIS LAST statistic--which points to the hard fact that stop-and-frisk is ineffective at preventing crime, especially violent crime--makes Kelley's blame-the-victim smears all the more infuriating.

"Ninety-six percent of our shooting victims are people of color, yet these community leaders are not speaking out about that," Kelly claimed in the Daily News article. "I'd like to see some political outcry...I want them to be outraged that a 3-year-old child is shot on the streets." This last point referred to Isaiah Gonzalez, who narrowly escaped death after being shot in the leg as he sat in his stroller when a gun battle broke out in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.

In fact, group like Fathers Alive in the Hood (FAITH) did respond to Isaiah's shooting, organizing a march in Bed-Stuy on June 21 to bring attention to the impact of gun violence on families affected most by it.

But that didn't stop Kelly, with the help of the Daily News and New York Post, from cynically using the reality that oppressed communities face disproportionate amounts of violence to imply that those communities themselves are to blame.

The two tabloids, owned respectively by billionaires Mort Zuckerman and Rupert Murdoch, have been the most exuberant in defending stop-and-frisk.

In a June 13 editorial, for example, the Post, incredibly enough, accused the victims of stop-and-frisk of "beating up on the police." The editorial expressed sympathy for Kelly and his department because of "the punishment" that the NYPD has been "absorbing from the usual suspects for their aggressive efforts to disarm the young men who wander the streets armed to the teeth. The stop-and-frisk program has most of them in a swoon: cops paying special attention to suspicious characters in crime-prone neighborhoods. In the past, the program has paid real dividends."

In reality, of course, it's the NYPD that "wanders the streets armed to the teeth," with a uniformed force of 36,000 officers.

A recent report from the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement reveals just how often the cops exact the ultimate punishment. According to the report, since the start of 2012, one Black man, woman or child has been killed every 36 hours in the U.S., by police, security guards or self-appointed vigilantes.

What Kelly, Bloomberg and their friends in the media hope to cover up is the fact that stop-and-frisk has little to do with "getting guns off the street to save lives."

The number of guns recovered through stop-and-frisk has always been tiny. As a strategy to stop gun violence, the policy can hardly be said to justify the enormous investment of police time, not to mention--as NYPD never does--the impact on the targeted individuals and communities.

In 2011, New York police recovered one gun for every 879 stops--about 0.1 percent of all stops. Moreover, though the number of stop-and-frisks increased sevenfold over the preceding decade, officers found just 176 more guns in 2011 than they did in 2003.

NYPD statistics show the cops find more weapons in the hands of the minority of whites who are stopped. In 2011, in stops of Blacks and Latinos that resulted in a frisk, 1.8 percent resulted in the recovery of a weapon of some kind. In stops of whites that resulted in a frisk, 3.8 percent produced a weapon. So if stop-and-frisk were really about finding guns, the numbers indicate that whites should be disproportionately targeted.

On top of that, a report by WNYC radio found that the "hot spots" where stop-and-frisks are concentrated aren't the same places where the most guns are recovered by the NYPD.

THE TRUTH is that Kelly is trying to exploit real concerns about violence in poor and minority communities to justify a police program that does nothing to prevent such violence.

Instead, stop-and-frisk is most "effective" at racial profiling--and channeling youth of color into the first stages of the system of mass incarceration that has destroyed so many lives.

NYPD officers are famous for stopping Black and brown men, verbally assaulting them, pushing them around, throwing them up against a wall and demanding that they empty their pockets or bags. Technically, this is illegal, but most young people of color know that asserting their rights in this situation can get them beat up, arrested or worse.

Once pockets and bags are emptied, it's possible that marijuana is found. Possession of marijuana only becomes a crime in New York City--a misdemeanor--if it is in "public view." And in cases of stop-and-frisks, the only reason the pot is in public view in the first place is because of the officer's illegal command. This practice has gotten so out of hand that Kelly was compelled to issue a memorandum "explaining" to officers that they should ease up.

Racism is inherent in the "war on drugs." According to the Sentencing Project, African Americans are about 12 percent of drug users nationwide--roughly equal to their numbers in the population--but they make up 38 percent of those arrested for drug offenses and 59 percent of those in state prison on a drug charge.

New York City is no different from this national trend. Although young whites are statistically more likely to use marijuana, 87 percent of the marijuana arrests in New York City over the past decade were Blacks and Latinos.

The racial bias in drug arrests has become so embarrassing that some politicians are pushing for downgrading the punishment, at least for marijuana possession. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo put forward a proposal to change the penalty for marijuana in "public view" from a misdemeanor to a violation--punishable by a ticket and a fine. But Republican legislators blocked the proposal.

For a generation of African Americans and Latinos, though, the "war on drugs" has already pushed them into the clutches of the criminal justice system.

When young people of color get pinned with a criminal record, it impacts their ability to get financial aid for school, be considered for a well-paying job, or apply for public housing or even food stamps, just to give a few examples. As Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, writes, all the old forms of discrimination associated with segregation and even slavery are suddenly legal.

Shut out of almost every legitimate way to earn a living and put food on the table, millions of people are forced into the underground economy in order to survive. This brings with it an array of additional problems and dangers. Operating outside of the law means that there's no legal recourse, for example, for people to recover money owed to them. It's easy to imagine how these circumstances can lead to a higher level of violence.

So stop-and-frisk doesn't just fail to reduce violence. More police, more racial profiling, more searches and more arrests create the conditions that contribute to more violence.

THE PAIN and anguish of losing a loved one to violence is terrible, no matter the source. But it's important for activists to draw a distinction between violence that is an inevitable result of a lack of jobs and resources and violence that is directly perpetuated by the state, ultimately in the service of defending a society filled with poverty and suffering.

One form of violence is the result of a lack of power--and hope--while the other is the result of the state exerting its immense power against the most vulnerable communities in order to control and contain them.

Equating the two leads to blaming the victim. The exhortations to simply "stop the violence"--even when they come with the best of intentions, from among working people themselves--don't address the lack of jobs, adequate schools, housing, after-school programs and more that could actually alleviate the pressure-cooker conditions that so many people are forced to live in.

Above all, they don't challenge the state for imposing these conditions. Instead, people are expected to "rise above" often insurmountable obstacles.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous words about the U.S. war on Vietnam are instructive: "I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today--my own government."

In reality, a number of steps could be taken to prevent violence in all corners of society. More afterschool and summer programs could offer young people an array of options to discover and develop their potential in music, sports, dance, art or something else.

Rather than closing down public schools and squeezing more and more kids into fewer buildings and classrooms, how about increasing funding for schools, hiring more teachers and TAs, giving them smaller class sizes, and paying them what they deserve?

Instead of closing hospitals that serve the poor, like St. Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village or Harlem's North General Hospital, and laying off their entire staffs, the politicians could try opening more hospitals; hiring more doctors, nurses and other health care workers; and ensuring greater access to health care, including mental health care.

Rather than increasing fares while simultaneously cutting services in New York City's Metropolitan Transportation Authority, why not make public transit affordable for all New Yorkers, add more trains and bus routes, and hire more drivers, conductors and station agents?

Instead of foreclosing on people's homes and throwing entire families--disproportionately Black and Latino ones--into the street, why can't we make the banks pay for the housing crisis they caused?

Imagine if New York City had subsidized child care for parents who are struggling to make ends meet, want to go back to school, have a job with a challenging schedule or just want to enjoy some leisure time. You can bet that Kelly, Bloomberg and the rich people they actually "protect and serve" get plenty of leisure time.

Ultimately, people in oppressed communities need more jobs--well-paying jobs, with benefits and worker protections--not lectures from the police commissioner about violence, and not more police humiliation, harassment and brutality.

These are the kinds of demands that the growing movement challenging the racist policies and practices of the NYPD can put forward to address the question of violence. But we'll have to build a larger and stronger movement to win them, along with holding the killer cops accountable and ending stop-and-frisk once and for all.

If we can do that, just imagine how much further we could go.

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