Victories against police repression

April 15, 2014

Lawyer David Bliven looks at the implications of two legal cases in New York City.

TWO IMPORTANT and intertwined New York City police misconduct cases were settled in January--early on in the era of Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Floyd v. City of New York was the lawsuit challenging the stop-and-frisk policies of the NYPD. The case had far-reaching implications, as many other police departments would likely follow the lead of the case. If the plaintiffs won, police departments around the country would consider amending their own stop-and-frisk policies, but if the city won, stop-and-frisk would gain new life.

It was therefore a significant victory, particularly for minorities who have suffered at the hands of the NYPD, for the lawsuit to be successfully settled. In the end, the de Blasio administration dropped an appeal initiated by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and accepted the decision of District Judge Scheindlin. The decision, among other things, appoints a monitor over the police department to supervise reforms.

Alongside the Floyd settlement came a settlement in the 10-year litigation stemming from the police crackdown during the 2004 Republican National Convention (RNC). This settlement came with much less fanfare than the Floyd settlement, however. The implications of both must be seen as two parts of the same whole.

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The Republican National Convention lawsuit settled for over $12 million for the plaintiffs, which, as the National Lawyers Guild noted in its press release, is the largest settlement in U.S. history for a lawsuit stemming from a mass arrest.

The lawsuit pitted nearly every single civil rights lawyer in the entire New York City region (myself included) against "pro bono" lawyers from many elite law firms. The suit aimed to challenge the NYPD's ability to conduct mass arrests of "political protesters" who, in the department's eyes, "step out of line" at major demonstrations.

The real story is that the NYPD conducted a massive dragnet of activists--and several bystanders--herding them onto buses and then dumping them in an abandoned bus depot for many hours (more than a few stayed for days). Depositions revealed that most of the detainees were kept in wire cages like animals--in a clear attempt to dehumanize them. Many suffered health effects from breathing in the toxic fumes from the depot, since the city never bothered to clean the depot before it was made into an "impromptu jail."

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While the settlement amount was relatively large, the plaintiffs suffered a significant defeat in the case earlier on in the litigation. Plaintiffs sought to end the NYPD's ability to deem a particular march to be "parading without a permit," and then start arresting anyone who did not "promptly disperse."

Unfortunately, the court ruled against the plaintiffs on that issue, thus allowing the NYPD (and arguably other police departments in other cities as well) to simply wave a magic wand and deem a particular demonstration "illegal," and then seek to disperse it. Anyone refusing to leave the area--or indeed not leaving fast enough in the cops' eyes--may then be arrested.

From the perspective of the ruling class, it would love for its police to continue arresting people for no reason whatsoever. This would be the ideal police state, in which people--particular minorities who are the ones most disaffected by the system--live in constant fear of getting arrested or detained.

THESE LAWSUITS are a testament to the fact that the legitimacy of the system was being called into question, in the same way the system made a compromise to end the original Jim Crow when its maintenance would have weakened the legitimacy of the system in the eyes of too many people.

That said, socialists and radicals are aware that Democrats are just as committed to the criminal system of injustice as Republicans are--in the same way that both parties are committed to imperialism. Just as the Obama administration retooled the U.S. war machine and made it slimmer and "more focused" (a la drones and special forces) in its delivery, so, too, will they seek to do so on the domestic front with their police.

With the RNC court decision, the NYPD continues to have carte blanche to shut down political demonstrations. And we must bear in mind that the Floyd case did not completely end stop-and-frisk--instead, it ended NYPD's policy of "stop-and-frisk for no reason whatsoever." In other words, henceforth, cops will generally need a specific reason to stop and detain a person other than, say, their race or the neighborhood they're in.

But given this author's experience with cops, if they now need to come up with reasons to stop minorities, they'll come up with an assortment of reasons. The reasons to stop-and-frisk will now be as varied as their imaginations.

This is why activists cannot stop protesting the criminal system of injustice. We cannot rely on Democratic politicians to protect our rights--we must demand them. We must continue to fight for stronger reforms of police, such a cameras on their uniforms and the filming of all interrogations.

But we also must ultimately fight to end the police--we must make cops and jails obsolete. We must demand cuts to budgets of police departments and jails--and divert those funds to schools, jobs, decent housing, hospitals and increased social services.

Make no mistake about it--de Blasio is scheming to retool the NYPD and make it the "lean, mean, fighting machine" that Obama has achieved with the U.S. military. His appointment of William Bratton as police chief is an excellent example of this. Bratton doesn't oppose stop-and-frisk--he just opposes widespread stop-and-frisk. Thus, we may not see 700,000 to 800,000 people stopped every year--instead, under de Blasio/Bratton, we may see "only" 100,000 to 200,000 stopped every year.

What we won't see is the NYPD's budget cut in half and humane conditions at the city's jails--at least not without protest in the streets. But this indeed is always where the left has made its biggest advances--not in electing supposedly progressive candidates, but in organizing a resistance which rattles the system. We must therefore continue to organize the end the new Jim Crow--and nothing short of a new civil rights movement will accomplish that.

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