The New Freedom Riders
Two things struck William Rivera about the 30 protesters who, after an hour of chanting and speechifying to cameras, cops, and the curious, were now marching deeper into the Bronx on an overcast January afternoon. The first was that somebody was finally speaking out against the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy, a tactic in which officers pat down and question people on the street without a warrant. The second was that a lot of those somebodies were white.
“Hell, yeah, I’m surprised that white people come out here fighting for us,” says Rivera, 24. Police, he says, stop him three or four times a week, and he now automatically assumes the “shirt up” position whenever officers cross his path.
“I know it’s not normal or right that I accept that, but it’s how we have to live,” Rivera says of his South Bronx neighborhood, where talking back to cops, he adds, is not an option. “Maybe if the government or the police see their own people helping out, maybe they’ll pull back.”
In 2011, the New York Police Department (NYPD) recorded more than 680,000 stops—a 14 percent increase over the number of people stopped in 2010, according to data released Tuesday by the department. Last year, 87 percent of the pat-downs involved black and Latino young men in communities of color. Annually, nine out of ten stops end without any charges or summons. Under the policy, police can detain, question, and pat down people they deem suspicious, sometimes based on witness accounts.
The NYPD maintains that stop-and-frisk saves lives and reported that homicides decreased in New York City by 4 percent in 2011, with police confiscating 819 guns for that year alone. The department credits the policy with keeping the murder rate below 600 people a year for the last decade.
This February marks the first wave of trials for a loose-knit group of activists who have been arrested after responding to a call put out last fall by Princeton professor Cornel West and his longtime friend Carl Dix, a national spokesperson for the Revolutionary Communist Party. Inspired by the nonviolent civil disobedience campaign of the Freedom Rides to draw attention to segregated interstate bus travel during the 1960s, West and Dix’s Stop Stop-and-Frisk campaign seeks to raise awareness of what they say is a racist policy that targets and criminalizes black and Latino men.
“We’re always hearing about post-racial America, but if you look at the criminal-justice system, you know that race is still with us,” says Derek Catsam, history professor at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin and author of Freedom’s Main Line: The Journey of Reconciliation and the Freedom Rides.
Whether this new tactic will bring about change in the controversial policy remains to be seen. For onlookers along the march’s route through the South Bronx, though, public demonstrations on this issue matter a great deal—and so does the participation of whites.
At the Bronx demonstration, Greg Allen held up one side of a white banner that read, in big, red capital letters, “Stop Stop and Frisk.” The sight of a white man with that message in a neighborhood that is 96 percent black and Latino with a median household income just shy of $9,000 convinced seen-it-all New Yorkers to stop and look at the demonstration. “I’ve seen kids who I’ve known since they were three years old become targets of the police,” says Allen, an active member of Occupy Wall Street who moved to Harlem in the mid-1990s. In the last six months, he has been arrested three times during civil-disobedience demonstrations held in front of city police precincts.
Sociology professor Joyce Robbins got involved with the Stop Stop-and-Frisk Campaign because of her students at Touro College, a private university with a Harlem outpost. “I’ve never heard any white person mention the kinds of things my students talk about,” Robbins, who is white, says about her own classroom education. Her students, she says, have missed class because of court dates from citations issued for being in a park without a child under the age of 18, riding a bike on the sidewalk, or not having an identification card.
Many residents, including her students, are afraid to talk about race, Robbins says, but it matters.
“It legitimizes [the protests] in a certain way,” she says, “that whites are noticing what’s happening with stop-and-frisk and are not denying that it’s racism.”
Besides the kumbaya imagery of many races working together for racial justice and modeling the Freedom Riders’ integration ideal, there is a practical and strategic element to expanding the stop-and-frisk protesting ranks to whites.
Alicia Harrington, a 24-year-old African American Bronx resident, helps to plan Stop Stop and Frisk civil-disobedience demonstrations but has three months left on probation and worries about an arrest for protesting.
“A lot of young black and Latinos have prior convictions or are on parole, and it intimidates them from acting,” Dix says, admitting that the population most targeted by stop-and-frisk is also the least able to demonstrate against police brutality.
But, “as a white man,” says 29-year-old social worker Nick Malinowski, “I have the privilege of being able to get arrested for civil disobedience when other people might not.” Malinowski, who the last six months has organized five stop-and-frisk demonstrations in every borough except Staten Island, has one arrest for protesting.
Leaning on the open door of the Mount Lebanon Baptist Church, James Yancey, 73, watched as Malinowski and other protesters walked by while he waited for choir rehearsal to begin. Living in a community with a high rate of stop-and-frisk, Yancey has experienced the policy firsthand.
Three years ago, up the road from his church, police stopped and frisked him when he paused to retrieve his oxygen pump from a low-hanging jeans pocket. This area of the Bronx is known for its hills, and he wanted some breath before taking an incline.
“They frisked me down in front of people who knew me,” says Yancey, who has salt-and-pepper hair and a splash of moles on the tops of both cheeks. “I felt very embarrassed. I felt very, very embarrassed.”
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