You're walking along, wearing a hoodie. You're young (remember - we're imagining here) and not Caucasian. Suddenly, a male with lighter skin than yours demands that you stop and explain yourself.
No, you're not Trayvon Martin, but an even younger multiracial teenager in Harlem named Alvin, walking down 116th Street after visiting your girlfriend, wearing a hoodie in the early June air, and an empty backpack.
And this was your second time today to be stopped and frisked by New York's "finest."
Not because they had a bulletin from the precinct to be on the lookout for somebody looking like you who'd just robbed a bank. But just because you're not white, and you're young.
If the Zimmerman verdict has proven anything, it's that the death of Trayvon Martin will not be contributing positively to our nation's dialog about racial profiling. It's been woefully tainted by bias and crippled by a lack of irrefutable proof. Meanwhile, farther north up the East Coast from Florida, a longstanding police policy that has been vehemently criticized for almost as long as Trayvon was alive has languished outside of the national spotlight. It's a policy within the New York City Police Department called "stop-and-frisk," in which cops can basically detain anybody they deem suspicious on the spot. They can frisk a person without reading them their Miranda Rights, or advising them of the crime with which police intend to charge them.
In fact, in the overwhelming majority of stop-and-frisk cases, no crime at all is involved. Unless, of course, you count the actions and attitudes of the cops.
The practice has been heavily used and debated in the Big Apple for nearly two decades, with minorities and limousine liberals decrying stop-and-frisk as unconstitutional, while whites and the business community generally have been ambivalent about it, since it's been credited with helping give the city incredibly low crime rates. The city lost a court case over stop-and-frisk ten years ago, but that didn't stop the practice. Police officials are convinced that those low crime rates are due in no
small measure to the success of their widely-used stop-and-frisk initiative.
It hasn't helped discourage the practice having bigoted agitators like Al Sharpton acting as spokespeople against it. Nor has it helped that the overwhelming percentage of crime in the city is perpetrated by minorities, or that the "gangsta" culture prevalent among minorities intentionally intimidates whites in the city's streets, mass transit, elevators, and parks. Stop-and-frisk became synonymous with the "broken window" theory, in which it's believed that the best way to increase public safety is nip crime in the bud, starting with the most basic of anti-social events, like a broken window, or a person who "looks suspicious."
Even though plenty of New Yorkers were uncomfortable with stop-and-frisk, it seemed to be working, and hardly anybody except the guys who were being stalked by the police really knew what happened during these stop-and-frisk episodes. Episodes which took place a staggering 4.8 million times during the past decade. And which, as statistics are now revealing, provided evidence of a crime - such as illegally possessing a weapon - only 12% of the time.
The Nation, a left-wing periodical based in New York and devoted to helping progressive urbanists feel ever so superior to everybody else, has been an ardent opponent of stop-and-frisk. In 2011, they produced a video based upon the audio recording Alvin made that day on Harlem's 116th Street of an experience with stop-and-frisk.
For conservatives who had insisted that the NYPD conducted this practice professionally, it was an obscene wake-up call. Literally:
In terms of their overall objective, please understand that The Nation espouses an exceptionally left-wing political platform with which I cannot agree. However, it's quite obvious from this video that Alvin is not a pawn in any partisan agenda. He was not stopped for any reason other than a punitive, vicious form of racial profiling. There are times in which racial profiling can be relatively benign, such as when my friends and I were accosted for supposedly being rich homosexuals on the subway. But there was nothing benign, partisan, or moral about how Alvin was treated by the cops.
Which begs the question: out of nearly 4.8 million stop-and-frisks over more than a decade, how much of an exceptionally brutal example of the practice was Alvin's recorded encounter with it? Doesn't it seem to you as though this was all part of their day's work for the cops? Routine? Kinda fun, even? In a macho, drunk-on-power kind of way?
How could this continue for so long in one of the most liberal cities in America? Well, as it turns out, the NYPD didn't pull stop-and-frisk out of thin air. It's actually based on a Supreme Court decision from 1968 in which the Constitution's Fourth Amendment provision against unlawful searches doesn't apply when a police officer believes a person could be an imminent participant in a crime. However, that was then - and in Cleveland, Ohio, too, where the Supreme Court case, Terry v. Ohio, originated. Today, what stop-and-frisk has apparently degenerated into is a thinly-disguised form of racial profiling. Currently, two bills are before New York's city council that seek to discourage stop-and-frisk, but the bills themselves represent typical political posturing that may not resolve anything. A federal class-action lawsuit against the city that has been waged since 2008 may be decided by Manhattan Federal Judge Shira Scheindlin as early as this month, with legal experts predicting that Scheindlin will appoint a federal monitor to oversee the city's deployment of stop-and-frisk. But powerful city officials continue to stake their professional reputations on stop-and-frisk's legitimacy.
Many New Yorkers, including the police chief, and its current mayor, Michael Bloomberg, have opposed any interference in stop-and-frisk since the tactic was introduced back in the early 1990's. The time right before the city's crime rate began to dip drastically. That's not coincidence, stop-and-frisk's defenders insist.
Maybe not. Maybe some form of stop-and-frisk has a place in law enforcement's arsenal, as long the police are acting on credible information, and have specific characteristics for which they're looking relative to that credible information. Nevertheless, no police department should simply assume that "crime is going to happen" so it's safe to assume that people who fit a broad generalization regarding what typical criminals look like can be harassed in the off-chance they might be walking away from a crime, or getting ready to commit a crime. Can simply frisking people without a warrant and finding a knife or a gun on them 10% of the time be sufficient grounds for perpetrating stop-and-frisk on an entire race or gender?
According to The Nation's video, and the accounts of other whistleblowers within the police department, an unofficial quota system exists for stop-and-frisk that has likely corrupted the original intent of the practice. Doesn't it make sense to start there, within One Police Plaza, the department's headquarters, and dis-incentivize stop-and-frisk? Terry v. Ohio was about "reasonable suspicion," but New York City's version of it looks like "unreasonable racism."
Indeed, what's not up for debate is whether or not the treatment 16-year-old Alvin received from the police on that sidewalk in Harlem is acceptable. It absolutely, definitely, incontrovertibly is not. It's not a question of liberal or conservative, black or white, New Yorker or Texan, rich or poor, urban or rural, law or chaos. It's basic humanity.
This is what many people wanted the Trayvon Martin tragedy to be about. And maybe many cases of stop-and-frisk aren't as clear-cut as the one shown in this video. But still, why the disparity in our mainstream media's coverage of both stories? Was it the "gated community" or "stand your ground" buzzwords? Was it the fact that Trayvon got killed, whereas Alvin was "only" humiliated? Was it Zimmerman's gun? Was it the fact that New York's profilers are intimidating, "professional" cops? Even in New York City, while stop-and-frisk has generated heated debate, it hasn't been nearly as polarizing as the Zimmerman verdict. Maybe that's because what happened to Alvin really is the exception, instead of the rule. And maybe not knowing whether that's the case gives the same ambivalence about the practice to New Yorkers as the Zimmerman case gives to many whites.
That same ambivalence towards racial profiling that blacks have long suspected whites of harboring may have helped fan flames of pain and unrest among blacks after the Zimmerman verdict. But much of what the Zimmerman verdict lacked in terms of its applicability to the subject of racial profiling is present in sobering abundance as we near a verdict in New York's class action lawsuit against stop-and-frisk.
Alvin's biological father is a cop. If you listen closely, you'll hear one of the cops in the video even recognize him as the son of a cop. But by then, the recognition came too late.
Seeing people for who they are can't be all about assumptions.
Update - August 12, 2013: Judge Scheindlin has ruled stop-and-frisk as unconstitutional, and will appoint a monitor to oversee the city's wind-down of the practice.