Before you listen to armed public employees detain and abuse a 17-year-old Harlem boy, calling him a "f------ mutt" and threatening to break his arm, here are some necessary bits of context.
Innocent people are daily stopped by police on the streets of New York, shoved up against a car or a wall, and told that if they verbally complain they'll be physically assaulted on the spot. It's official NYPD policy to temporarily detain and frisk pedestrians who aren't committing any crime. The threats and other abusive behavior aren't officially sanctioned but happen all the time.
The stops themselves happen more than 1,800 times per day.
Innocent citizens, who make up 88 percent of those stopped, are often insulted, berated and humiliated. Despite knowing all this, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly insist that "Stop and Frisk" ought to continue. They can do so relatively secure in the knowledge that the people they know and love will never be subject to the policy, for wealthy people are stopped very rarely, and people with black or brown skin make up almost 90 percent of the stops. As a hoodie-and-jeans wearing grad student, I spent countless hours walking in Flatbush, Park Slope, Morningside Heights, and the Sugar Hill section of Harlem, often doing so late at night. NYPD officers never so much as indicated that they noticed me. Had I done the same thing while black or Latino I'd almost certainly have been stopped and frisked.
Were Martin Luther King Jr. still alive he would be marching against that reality.
I've read a lot about these encounters. In the paragraphs above, I try to describe them bluntly and without euphemism. But if you're like me, words cannot convey the reality of what goes on nearly as well as listening to the audio a 17-year-old kid recorded when he was stopped in Harlem.
The Nation obtained the audio and put it on the web. After contacting a staffer from a local civil liberties group and a police officers who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, the magazine reports that the encounter is not unusual, and echoes descriptions from others who didn't capture their stops on audio. I highly recommend listening to it yourself to get the full effect:
Eye-opening, isn't it?
Do you think that sort of thing would be tolerated if Caucasian, white-collar New Yorkers were routinely stopped and treated that way near 731 Lexington Avenue, where Bloomberg Tower is located? How would Mayor Bloomberg react if his daughter was stopped by an NYPD officer, asked why, and was told that if she didn't "shut the fuck up" she'd be punched and have her arm broken?
Now think about the place Stop and Frisk has had in our politics.
On the civil-libertarian left and the libertarian right, it is reviled, along with the drone policy abroad that operates on the same logic: Violating the God-given rights of many innocents is okay if in doing so you can get a few bad guys and assert that you're ultimately making everyone safer. But mainstream Democrats and Republicans aren't troubled at all by the fact that the biggest city in America is daily violating the liberty of residents numbering in the thousands.
The centrist, no-labels types are happy to ally themselves with Mayor Bloomberg, despite this policy. For them, there isn't anything radical or extremist about Stop and Frisk. Conservatives go on and on about government threatening liberty if gun regulation or higher marginal tax rates or the threat of right-wing terrorism is mentioned, but are somehow silent and apparently unperturbed by government employees abusively searching Americans for walking down the street.
There is a long overdue attempt in the City Council to end Stop and Frisk, as the New York Daily News reports:
A City Council hearing Wednesday on the NYPD's controversial stop-and-frisk policy degenerated into a racially charged shouting match with a black councilmember telling her white colleague, "I'm not one of your boys." The tempers flared after City Councilman Robert Jackson (D-Manhattan) argued that the policy of stopping hundreds of thousands of mostly black residents is a form of profiling. Jackson specifically cited an audiotape, recently posted on the website of The Nation magazine, that captured cops calling a stopped Harlem teen, "a f---king mutt."