Point of View Columns

Ten Years a Suspect

The Law of Unintended of Consequences is one of those laws that cannot be questioned. We have known all along that the race-based and unconstitutional Stop and Frisk procedure employed by the New York Police Department has resulted in the erosion of trust and confidence in law enforcement in many communities of color. As recent incidents at Barneys and Macy’s show, it has also resulted in the general criminalization of people of color.

Just about every adult black American who lives in or near a city has a story that involves their being followed around in a department store by security. It happened to Barack Obama and if you are an adult black American reading these words, it has probably happened to you.

During the past week, however, news stories regarding the arrest and detainment of black people who have legally purchased high end luxury items makes it clear that in New York, thanks to Stop and Frisk, white paranoia regarding the criminality of black people has reached hysterical, if not historical, levels. The fact that the wrongly apprehended individuals were offered a perfunctory apology by the NYPD does not hide the fact that there appears to be a new crime in the New York State Penal Code – LWB or Living While Black.

The Law of Unintended Consequences has been hard at work here. After over 4,000,000 unconstitutional and race-based stops over the past ten years, the NYPD’s Stop and Frisk policy has not only trained its officers to look at people of color as likely criminals, the virus has spread.

After ten years of official criminal profiling of people of color in New York City, a policy specifically and heartily endorsed by the mayor and the police commissioner and praised by more than a few businesses, newspaper editorials and citizens groups, there should be no wonder that many white (and non-white) New Yorkers (and retailers like Macys, Barneys and others) have come down with bad cases of profile-itis.

It is an ongoing tragedy that law-abiding citizens of the City of New York should have to worry about being questioned, detained or arrested for the simple crime of LWB. White citizens in New York do not think twice about walking into a department store and going to that section of the store where the luxury items are sold.

Black citizens of New York have every right to feel that, in a similar circumstance, they are seen as escapees from some racial township in a latter day version of American apartheid. They are simply out of their “territory” and even having the funds to purchase the items that they want is not enough to keep them from being caught in the jaws of a criminal justice system seemingly bent on promoting injustice rather than public safety.

Macys, Barneys and the NYPD have already issued their precooked apologies with all of the sincerity of stale beer. But just as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly remain adamant and unrepentant with respect to the odious race-based policy of Stop and Frisk, it is certain that there will not be any acknowledgement that “Ten Years a Suspect” could be the working title for a description of how that policy has been perceived by communities of color.

Meanwhile, as an ironic footnote to this sordid display of institutionalized retail racism, the rap mogul Jay-Z is planning to launch a line of eponymous high end clothing at……..you guessed it………..Barneys. And predictably, many of Jay-Z’s fans and others have called upon him to break off his relationship with Barneys. And predictably, Jay-Z has demurred to date.

The irony is that through his outlandish lyrics and commentaries that glorify violence, criminality and misogyny, Jay-Z has actually done more to convey the perception of young black Americans as potential criminals than ten years of Stop and Frisk. Again the Law of Unintended Consequences is hard at work.

One can be fairly certain that Jay-Z has never given a second thought to the impact and effect of his promoting some kind of faux gangster lifestyle. But one of the consequences of his successful promotion is that too many people, black and white, take him seriously. And the next consequence is that people of color get racially profiled and arrested by his business partner.

One would never have thought to see the NYPD and Jay-Z as strange bedfellows – but there they are – both complicit in demeaning, degrading and criminalizing communities of color but never thinking about the consequences.

 

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Point of View Columns

Weekend Edition – September 13, 2013

Michael Bloomberg has had a memorable twelve years as mayor of New York City. He is making his last few months really memorable, but for all the wrong reasons. Meanwhile the war cries over Syria have distracted national attention from the very real danger of the Teapublicans shutting down the federal government and collapsing the economy for good measure. And speaking of Syria, some people seem to be really disappointed that the United States cannot find a pretense for bombing Syria right now.

Bloomberg Didn’t Build That Either

The New York City mayoral administration of Michael Bloomberg has been notable for its embrace of art, innovation, bicycle lanes and efforts to markedly improve the health of New Yorkers. It has also been notable for some real serious errors in judgment, the Stop and Frisk program being one of them.

It will be up to historians to judge Mayor Bloomberg’s overall performance. But he isn’t doing himself any favors when he goes on and on about how much billionaires do for the poor people of New York City. He has expressed such barely concealed contempt for poor people that he makes it seem that rich people paying taxes is some kind of charitable donation for which the poor, and everyone else, should be grateful.

Mayor Bloomberg seems to have forgotten U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes quote, “Taxes is the price that we pay for a civilized society”.

Mayor Bloomberg also seems to have forgotten that long before he was a multibillionaire he was the beneficiary of taxpayer funded public education in his home state of Massachusetts. And as a student at Johns Hopkins University and Harvard he was the beneficiary of the gifts of wealthy donors who make sure that no student ever pays the full cost of their education.

Mayor Bloomberg speaks about how the poor in New York should be grateful that they are not poor in a third world country. He might want to also express gratitude that he is not wealthy in a third world country where he would be the target of pirates, kidnappers and revolutionaries.

Indeed, Mayor Bloomberg and the entire host of American billionaires would never have been become richer than Midas were they not able to take advantage of various taxpayer funded resources such as roads, bridges, electrical systems and an educated and skilled workforce.

Perhaps one day, after he has left New York’s City Hall, Michael Bloomberg will realize that he didn’t build the Bloomberg Empire by himself or on his own.

Dancing on the Edge

Because of the pounding of the war drums along the Potomac, one could be forgiven for not noticing that the Teapublicans are continuing to force march this country to the precipice of a government shutdown which will also have the effect of collapsing an already shaky economy.

The Teapublicans in the House of Representatives have already voted to abolish the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, over 35 times. Despite the fact that a bill abolishing Obamacare will never see the light of day in the Senate and that President Obama would most assuredly veto the hallmark of his presidency, the Teapublicans keep banging their already battered heads against this ideological wall.

Now they are threatening to shut down the federal government at the end of September unless Obamacare is defunded. How providing healthcare coverage for the people of this country is a cause for legislative battle is a mystery all but the Teapublican leadership.

In the meantime we can only watch out for more Teapublican inspired storm clouds on the horizon.

Serious About Syria

Even as President Obama was about to urge Congress and the American people to support a military strike against Syria, Russia and Syria (and France) came up with a plan that would remove chemical weapons from the possession of the Syrian government.

This plan had the effect of halting all talk of an immediate military strike and not surprisingly the right wing of the right wing has sounded like it is disappointed that this country has not started yet another potential war.

I guess they are just going to have to endure the burden of this country avoiding war.

Have a great weekend – stay strong and be great!

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Point of View Columns

A Tale of Two Bloombergs

There is a big digital clock in the offices at New York’s City Hall counting down the last days of the mayoral tenure of Michael Bloomberg. Now that there are less than five months remaining on what will be a twelve year term, it seems that this is as good a time as any to begin a retrospective on the Bloomberg Era in New York City. And it is fair to say that any analysis will arrive at the conclusion that it is A Tale of Two Bloombergs.

Michael Bloomberg was elected mayor in 2001 as a “virtual” political rookie. Buy many people forgot the “virtual” part of the description because Michael Bloomberg may not have ever run for political office before, but he certainly was no rookie when it came to politics. He wielded his unlimited funds and his media empire in the political process and was not a stranger to the arena where he was now the main attraction.

Michael Bloomberg rode into office on a tidal wave of cash that had only one donor – himself. That meant that he was not beholden to any interest group by reason of their financial support. That also meant that he felt that he didn’t really have to listen to anyone else unless he wanted to.

In telling The Tale of the Two Bloombergs, it should be clear that Michael Bloomberg introduced the people of New York to expanded visions of what the world’s greatest could be – and should be. As a result New Yorkers saw amazing (and free) art installations that encompassed all of Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge.

Bloomberg the visionary shared that vision with the people of New York and then, amazingly, he made many things happen. There is no doubt that Michael Bloomberg and Robert Moses would have gotten along famously if they had ever met.

Bloomberg the visionary installed hundreds of miles of bike lanes and turned out to be absolutely serious in bringing about a green, environmentally friendly culture to business, industry and everyday New Yorkers. But in The Tale of Two Bloombergs, even while New York became greener, Michael Bloomberg routinely flew around the world in one of the jets from his private fleet – arguably the most environmentally unfriendly way to travel known to humankind.

Perhaps most importantly, Mayor Bloomberg implemented serious public policy measures in the area of health that have saved lives. Most famously, the ban on smoking in most public places has certainly saved thousands of lives over the past twelve years and for the foreseeable future. “Nanny State” naysayers notwithstanding, the visionary Michael Bloomberg proved once again that government can be a force in transforming – and saving lives.

The Tale of Two Bloombergs also has shown us Michael Bloomberg playing a maniacal Captain Ahab to the White Whale of “Stop and Frisk”. Even as the majority of New Yorkers, the federal court and the United States Department of Justice have seriously questioned the tactic, Michael Bloomberg has refused to even acknowledge the possibility that black and Latino young men are being constitutionally violated by the extreme measures employed by the New York Police Department.

Bloomberg The Inflexible either cannot, or will not, see that there may be another side to the narrative that he has articulated. And it is Bloomberg the inflexible who is channeling his inner Alabama Governor George Wallace by stating that his administration will not cooperate in any way with the federal court decision regarding “Stop and Frisk”. And it is Bloomberg the inflexible who has now gone so far as to suggest that public housing residents should be fingerprinted raising the specter of the Slave Codes from long ago and apartheid-era identification cards from not too long ago.

Bloomberg the inflexible has been unapologetic and unrepentant in the face of the facts that the senior officials of his administration reflect so little diversity that there almost has to be an intent to bar all but a few people of color from the higher echelons of Team Bloomberg. Indeed Team Bloomberg has turned out to be whiter that the senior team of former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani who is the godfather of diversity and affirmative action denial.

Finally, by spending approximately a quarter of a billion dollars of his own money in getting himself elected three times, Michael Bloomberg has skewed the political process in New York City for the foreseeable future. If he wasn’t writing the playbook on how to buy elections, it certainly looks like it.

So the Tale of Two Bloombergs is complex and not given to simple analysis. Michael Bloomberg probably doesn’t care whether history will be kind to him. We can hope that history will tell the whole truth.

Wallace Ford is the principal and founder of Fordworks Associates, a New York-based management consulting firm, a professor at Metropolitan College of New York in New York City and is the author of two novels, The Pride and What You Sow.

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Point of View Columns

What a Difference a Day Makes

Monday, August 12, 2013 will be noted as an important day by those who pay attention to what goes on in this country. Because after all of the A-Rod, Anthony Weiner and Lindsay Lohan stories, there are actually some very important issues of justice that are being addressed. And how they are addressed is going to make a huge difference on how all Americans will live in the days and years to come. And we can start with today’s “Stop and Frisk” court decision.

Today, Federal District Court Judge Shira A. Scheindlin ruled in a 195 page decision that for close to a decade the New York City Police Department has systematically, intentionally and institutionally violated the constitutional rights of blacks and Latinos through its eternally controversial “Stop and Frisk” policy. Her decision does not mince words and leaves New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly without a legal leg to stand on.

For example, the City of New York argued that the high proportion of blacks and Latinos who were stopped reflected the high proportion of crimes committed by blacks and Latinos. Judge Scheindlin correctly and logically pointed out that stopping virtually all black and Latino young could not be justified because some black and Latino men commit crimes.

What is astounding is that the case itself brought to light the fact that over the past decade millions (yes, millions) of stops of the “Stop and Frisk” variety were inflicted on black and Latino young men (88% of the stops). Yet less than 10% of these stops resulted in reasonable cause for arrest and less than 5% who were stopped were ever convicted of a crime – and in the overwhelming majority of those convictions the crime was possession of small amounts of drugs (usually marijuana).

That the police department of a major American city would inflict such draconian measures upon a large and much maligned segment of the population is stunning. “Stop and Frisk” as employed in New York has been nothing less than despotic in its implementation and incredibly corrosive when it comes to the relationship between the police department and the minority communities of the polyglot capital of the world known as New York City.

The only surprise is that some people, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, are surprised that an impartial judge would find the City of New York to be at fault. And we can only hope that in the future the common effort to prevent and deter criminal activities does not give rise to other “simple” solutions that so casually violate the rights of millions of Americans.

And, on this same day, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Department of Justice will instruct U.S. attorneys across the country to limit charges in drug cases so as to limit the terms of incarceration that are imposed. Attorney General Holder pointed to the fact that although this country has 5% of the world’s population, it has 25% of all of the prisoners in the world. Clearly this astronomical incarceration rate is expensive ($80 billion per year) and just as clearly indicates a dysfunctional criminal justice system.

As the so-called War on Drugs approaches the half century mark it is clear that this war is beyond “winning”, whatever “winning” was ever supposed to mean. The War on Drugs did give rise to a private sector corrections industry and widespread corruption within the law enforcement sector. And it has also resulted in the horrific decimation of communities of color across the country as men (and increasingly women) in these communities are arrested and convicted and sentenced and incarcerated in much higher proportions than their white counterparts.

Interestingly enough, Attorney General Holder and the Obama Administration did not take this matter before the politically hogtied United States Congress. Even though the drug sentencing proposals have widespread bipartisan support at the state level, it is now a sad fact of life that any proposal with “Obama” connected to it is virtually DOA when it arrives at the door of the House of Representatives.

Nevertheless, Attorney General Holder and President Obama picked a good time to remind the Teapublicans in the House what the word “executive” in the Executive Branch actually means.

All in all a good day for justice.

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Stop Frisking!

The New York City Police Department has engaged in “Stop and Frisk” street crime prevention program that has been in effect for a decade. An average of 600,000 people have been stopped and frisked every year. Over 80% of the people stopped have been young black and Latino men. Less than 10% of these stops have resulted in arrests and less than 5% have resulted in convictions. Incredibly, there are many people who think that this is a good program.

The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, supported by the Fourteenth Amendment, prevents unreasonable search and seizure by any governmental entity, including the police. When almost a half million young men of color are stopped and frisked on suspicion of some vague notion of criminality, there would seem to be serious question about the constitutionality of such a program. The questions are more acute when it is statistically clear that the wholesale criminalization of a generation of young black and Latino men is not preventing or suppressing crime.

Right now, in a federal court in New York City, the constitutionality of the Stop and Frisk program is being challenged. Witnesses have come forward on behalf of the class action recounting the repeated humiliation, degradation and sheer terror that accompanies the Stop and Frisk program. Racial slurs, epithets, random violence and threats of violence are the unspoken accessories to this random ransacking of the Constitution.

Despite the fact that no other major city in a democratic country on the planet utilizes this awful police procedure, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly vigorously defend it. That is not surprising considering that they are the policy birth parents of this monstrosity.

What is surprising is that most of the mayoral candidates either support the Stop and Frisk program or suggest that it should exist with modifications. Considering the fact that the black and Latino population of New York City is approaching 50% it is an amazing position for a political candidate to take.

Essentially they are saying to black and Latino voters is, “stripping you and your children of their constitutional rights and degrading you and your children in the name of crime prevention is a good thing and you should vote for me”. Other supporters of stop and frisk “with modifications” also point to the need to prevent crime as the unassailable reason for continuing to violate the personhood of so many people.

Presumably, if every black and Latino young man in New York City was arrested the crime rate would plummet. If they were all imprisoned, according this way of thinking, New York would be the first crime free city in the history of world civilization.

Predictably, most of the mayoral candidates who support stop and frisk are white. Indeed, most of the most vocal supporters of stop and frisk are white. Most of these men and women (and their sons) have never been on the business end of a police stop and even if they were the odds are that they were treated with a level of dignity and respect rarely seen by black and Latino young men.

Even more interesting are the black and Latino public figures that support stop and frisk “with modifications”. The fact is that even if a person is stopped and frisked and is not cursed at or threatened with a beat down, even if that person is not thrown against a wall or subjected to racial epithets, they are still being stopped and frisked without probable cause. That black and Latino public figures would be complicit in degradation and humiliation “with modifications” is disturbing and distressing.

Black or white or Latino, it would seem that the supporters of stop and frisk either believe that only guilty people get stopped – but the statistics overwhelmingly show that this is not true. The alternative is that these apologists for illegality somehow believe that degradation and humiliation “with modifications” is a price that some people have to pay so that crime can be reduced.

The question has to be asked of these advocates of constitutional dilution – what price would be too high?

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Knowing the Difference between Right and Wrong

Michael Bloomberg has been mayor of New York City for almost twelve years. During that time he has placed an unprecedented governmental focus on the health of the citizens of New York City. Many of his initiatives such as banning smoking in public places and cutting down on fats in foods have provided a measurable benefit to New Yorkers and life expectancy has actually gone up in Gotham City. But some people just don’t seem to know right from wrong.

I recall that when the ban on smoking in public places was initially proposed I thought that this was an unnecessary governmental intrusion. After all, the thinking went, when you go to a bar or a nightclub you expect that people will smoke and most restaurants had established no smoking sections. But what about the waiters, waitresses and bartenders?

I hadn’t thought about that angle. Bartenders, waiters and waitresses inhaled the equivalent of several packs of cigarettes every week with the attendant health issues – emphysema, cancer, etc. So banning cigarettes in bars, clubs and restaurants made a lot of sense once we started to think about the collateral consequences.

Similarly, banning the sale of half gallon size “cups” in restaurants and certain establishments did strike some as unnecessary governmental inclusion. And it might seem that way until we realize that the size of soda servings has increased to such monstrous proportions not because of consumer demand but because soda (and fast food) providers have learned that people will consume larger and larger portions if they are offered, thereby increasing profit margins.

Once we realize that humongous soda servings are not a liquid expression of individual liberty it is then time to think about the collateral consequences. The regular consumption of large amounts of empty calories has been proven to impact upon health issues such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

While everyone is presumably entitled to kill themselves, obesity, diabetes and heart disease cause a gradual demise over a period of years rather than some dramatic departure. And during that period of years individuals suffer needlessly while they place dramatic and unnecessary burdens on the healthcare system. Reducing the size of soda servings seems like a small step when you take into account the suffering and societal expense that could be saved.

More recently, the Bloomberg administration started an ad campaign in New York trying to discourage pregnancies among teenagers. The advertisements are not cute and peppy; they tell teenagers about the real consequences of teen pregnancies – life altering, negative and mostly borne by young women. Not a snappy happy set of advertisements, but there is always the chance that a few teenagers will pay attention and in the process make decisions that will allow them (and their eventual children) to have a better quality of life.

Incredibly, Planned Parenthood criticized the ad campaign as a “scare campaign” that creates “stigma, hostility and negative public opinions about teen pregnancy”. Somehow, in the universe of the leaders of Planned Parenthood in New York City, there is something positive, ennobling and enriching about teen pregnancy and heaven forbid that someone should splash the cold water of reality on teenagers who may know how to create a pregnancy but have little or no concept about how to plan and care for the consequences.

I can only guess that the leadership of Planned Parenthood in their private lives does not soft pedal the idea of teenage pregnancy to their own children. And I am positive that the executives of Planned Parenthood do not dwell on “alternative aspirations” when discussing such a serious subject with their own teenagers.

There is a serious disconnect between the advocates of “freedom” for other people – the freedom to die of obesity, the freedom to die of lung cancer, the freedom to endure pregnancy as a teenage mother or father – “freedoms” that they would never seek for themselves or for their own children.

We can all understand the importance of principle, but principle needs to be grounded in the reality of its application and consequences.

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The Four Million Man March

Here’s a number to ponder – 4,356,927. That is the number of times people have been stopped and frisked during the ten years of the administration of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Keep in mind these numbers do not come from North Korea or Syria or the Gaza Strip. Over four million times in the past ten years New York City residents have been subjected to this highly questionable and absolutely intrusive police behavior. And, by the way, 80% of the individuals stopped and frisked are black and Latino men between the ages of 18-34. Do you detect a pattern here?

Outrageous strategies conducted in the name of some special purpose seem to be insulated from criticism. Waterboarding and other forms of torture have been justified in the name of national security. Mayor Bloomberg has sought to justify the stripping citizens of their personal dignity and human rights with the fig leaf of crime prevention.

The problem is that too many outrages have taken place in the name of crime prevention. That is why over the last century courts have ruled that homes cannot be entered without a warrant, that suspects cannot be questioned without having been given access to an attorney and why people cannot be beaten until they confess. There is no doubt that crime prevention would be a lot simpler if these restrictions on police conduct were not in place.

But the Constitution of the United States is not a pesky detail to be ignored or avoided whenever it is inconvenient. And the rights conferred to American citizens by the Constitution are worthless if they don’t apply to all American citizens.
The constitutional rights are not the sole possession of the white and wealthy.
Police intrusion for no reason except skin color or mode of dress should not be the sad inheritance of young men of color in New York City.

Here’s another number – 685,724. That is the number of people who have been stopped and frisked during 2011. Apologists for Mayor Bloomberg, a surprisingly number of whom are currently black and formerly prominent, drink the Bloomberg brand of Kool-Aid and point to suspect statistics that are supposed to describe a decline in the crime rate that is supposed to be totally attributable to Stop and Frisk.

But even if those statistics are true, and there are numerous law enforcement experts who dispute the statistics and the conclusion, how can the daily humiliation of thousands of human beings be justifiable? The fact that many criminal acts in New York City are committed by black and Latino young men does not mean that all, or most, black and Latino young men are criminals.

I cannot imagine the Justice Department going to Wall Street to stop and interrogate virtually all well-dressed white men between the ages of 30 and 50 just because most white collar crime is committed by that demographic cohort. How unfair and how outrageous would that be? About as unfair and outrageous as New York City’s current Stop and Frisk policy.

The worst part about this institutionalized degradation is that is turning an entire generation of young men into permanent suspects. It can only damage self-esteem and fan glowing coals of resentment and distrust that will burn for a lifetime and be passed on from generation to generation.

The men and women of the New York Police Department have a difficult and challenging task in protecting the citizens of New York City. Why Mayor Bloomberg wants to make their lives more difficult is incomprehensible.

There is no doubt that Mayor Bloomberg is a brilliant man and an incredibly successful businessman. There is also no doubt that there is an indelible tattoo of stubbornness that he doesn’t even try to conceal.

Instead he and his enablers are the perpetual organizers of a four million man march that will haunt the present and the future. The four million intrusions in to the lives of presumably innocent young men visit too many of them over and over until their only view of law enforcement is soaked in subdued rage and resentment.

If Mayor Bloomberg and his enablers wanted to create a generation of resentful and criminally-inclined young men who are leery of law enforcement and law and order, they couldn’t have come up with a better strategy than Stop and Frisk.

We will all grow old and die before Michael Bloomberg will admit that he is wrong. But he is smart enough to find a way out of this immoral morass.

It is way past time to stop Stop and Frisk.

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