By Keith Rushing
The news of discriminatory police tactics targeting people of color in New York City seems to just keep getting worse and worse. In the past month, it’s been hard to keep up with all of it.
First, the New York Civil Liberties Union released data showing that the New York Police Department [NYPD] increased the number of New Yorkers searched in 2011 under its humiliating and intimidating stop-and-frisk policies. This practice tramples on the Constitution, specifically the right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures and the right to equal protection of the laws.
Despite extensive criticism from members of the New York City Council, and from black and Latino leaders representing those who bear the brunt of these policies, the NYPD decided to double down on its unconstitutional searches. The Department conducted a record 684,000 stops and frisks in 2011—a 14 percent increase from 2010. Eighty-seven percent of those stopped were black and Latino, even those those groups account for only 54 percent of city residents. An astonishing 4 million New Yorkers were stopped and searched between 2004 and 2011.
And if that disturbing news of racial profiling wasn’t enough, the Associated Press broke a story three weeks ago about Muslim college students and professors in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, including at prestigious Ivy League universities, being spied on and monitored by the NYPD without their knowledge. And after that, the Associated Press of mosques, schools and Muslim-owned businesses in Newark – New Jersey’s largest city. This expose came on the heels of stories about police mapping Muslim neighborhoods and monitoring the activities of Muslims throughout New York City.
New York City, often thought of as a melting pot, and not without good reason, also has a sordid history of rampant racial discrimination, both interpersonal and institutional. Bias attacks date back to the Civil War draft riots of 1863 when hundreds of African-Americans were targeted or killed by whites who resented being drafted into the Union Army.
This resentment of the mere presence of African Americans has reappeared time and again. It has manifest itself in everything from workplace discrimination — a mere 3.4 percent of the city’s firefighters are black — to the firebombing of homes belonging to black people in largely white ethnic neighborhoods, to lynch-mob attacks on black males like Yusef Hawkins in 1989.
Hawkins was attacked after he entered a heavily Italian working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn to buy a car. He was set upon by a group of thugs who didn’t want a “nigger” coming to their neighborhood.
New York City made national headlines again in 1999 for another hate attack on a black man when Amadou Diallo was shot 19 times by police in a hail of 41 bullets. The Guinean student and street vendor was trying to enter his Bronx apartment.
The mistrust between the Bronx’s minority residents and a police force dominated by outside whites was so pronounced that no jury in the borough would convict Larry Davis, a young black man suspected of shooting six NYPD officers in 1986
I had my own encounter with blatant racism in 1979 at the tender age of 14 when a group of white males in a car, spewing racial epithets and curses, threatened to drive me down.
This is the New York City that I know.
On the one hand, it’s a city where black, brown, yellow and white intermingle in mixed safe zones. A place where people from different backgrounds share one another’s cultures in ways that come naturally. It’s also a city of ethnic neighborhoods where racial tension can be thick as mud in a Southern swamp.
Neighborhoods like Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, and much of the borough of Staten Island are simply no-go zones if you’re black. And there are neighborhoods in Brooklyn, the Bronx and parts of nearby Newark which are nearly impassable to white pedestrians.
If we’re going to talk about race in New York, we need to be real about it or we might as well keep it shut — for we will surely add nothing to understanding our way out of this morass.
Now, lest anyone think I’m beating up on white people, let me say that it would be unfair to say that communities of color, although suffering under a largely one-sided racial oppression, are blameless when it comes to relations between the races.
After all, it is not uncommon for black folks to hear a young black male refer to whites as devils. The term was coined by the Nation of Islam, which is considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
A white friend of mine told me that he was chased through the streets of Harlem by people shouting “get the white boy.” And a classmate of mine at Columbia University was thrown on the floor of a subway car in the Bronx and called a “white bitch” — simply for being white in a place where the perpetrators of the hate figured they could get away with it.
Clearly no group has a monopoly on bigtory.
Given all this, you would think New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commisioner Ray Kelly would be on constant alert against racial friction. You would think they would bend over backward to ensure that people were living as harmoniously as possible, instead of feeling under siege because of their race or religion.
And you would be wrong.
Instead of formulating policies based on such principles, the mayor and police chief operate out of fear and stereotypes. Their attitude is that "if we don’t monitor the Muslims, and don’t stop and frisk the blacks and Latinos, they’ll get the upper hand on us – we have to keep them in check and off balance."
I suspect there’s an unspoken understanding between Bloomberg and Kelly of an us-versus-them divide, which requires police to protect one group of Americans that resembles themselves from “the other.” Us being the white and privileged and them being the city’s black and Latino residents, particularly the young males they associate with street crime.
The duo seem to have a special contempt for the Muslims of the New York City metro area, whom they hold responsible for the attacks of 9/11. Instead of blaming these attacks on religious extremists, they can’t seem to get past the religion of this particular group of extremists and are content to implicate an entire faith for their actions.
This attitude is reminiscent of those practiced by Western colonialists in the 19th and 20th centuries, who sought to keep native people subjugated to protect their privileged positions.
Bloomberg continually denies any bias or constitutional violations. The richest elected official in U.S. history also has been engaging in an unbelievable level of denial about police impropriety and the constitutional limits on police power.
Bloomberg seems to lack a basic understanding of the Constitution – specifically the Fourteen Amendment guarantee of equal protection. The amendment prohibits the very thing the NYPD is guilty of using the powers of law enforcement in a discriminatory manner to target a group of people based on religion or race.
Both Kelly and Bloomberg also have alluded to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and the 9/11 attacks as justifications for monitoring Muslims. But surely you cannot target a whole faith community differently because of the acts of a few anymore than you could regard all white Christian males with suspicion due to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, or the existence of skinheads and white supremacist groups which target people of color.
The reactions from Bloomberg and Kelly show a lack of regard for the constitutional rights of New Yorkers in addition to a lack of transparency, accountability and sensible thinking.
To prevent terrorism, illegal firearms, and drug activity, the police need policies that foster trust and inspire the support of all city residents. People need to see the police as members of their community who care about its members and are working to protect them.
If police are seen as an oppressive force that treats people of color and Muslims differently, members of those communities will avoid tipping them off to crimes, testifying in trials and remain alienated, frustrated and angry.
New York City is the city it is because of its diversity. Whether it’s a blessing or a burden depends greatly on the character and quality of those in leadership positions.
The city’s vital role in the development of American culture — from jazz, to Hip Hop, to fashion and post-modern art — is unparalleled. Honoring the people who produce that art and give the city its multi-cultural texture makes sense.
But making that kind of sense requires a mayor and a police commissioner who value every black and Muslim male as they value the children in their own families and neighborhoods. It requires that they feel black, brown or Muslim children are entitled to equality and to the same freedoms, and the same right to live with respect and dignity, as all other children who reside in this city.
Something must be done immediately to prevent the dangerous perspectives embraced by the mayor and police chief from doing additional harm to race relations and thereby undermining the peaceful coexistence of all New Yorkers. The NYPD and Bloomberg clearly need help developing police policies that aren’t discriminatory and protecting the Constitutional rights of the city’s residents.
Toward that end, the U.S. Department of Justice has a duty to investigate what is a clear pattern or practice of discrimination against people of color and Muslims, so the city’s misplaced priorities can be turned around.
New York City is long overdue for federal oversight, monitoring and mandated accountability so that it can live up to its potential as a city of true racial and religious harmony.