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.


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.

Point of View Columns

Weekend Edition – May 18, 2012

The aftermath of President Obama’s expression of support for same sex marriage has been, as noted before, predictable, both in the nature of the support and the opposition. Nevertheless, there is a gaggle of black ministers who are engaging in behavior that can only be described as mystifying. And this week it was announced that last year was the first year in American history when there were more non-white births than white births. The browning of America continues. And finally, in New York City, a federal court has commented on the seeming unconstitutional nature of the NYPD Stop and Frisk policy. And it’s about time.

Nose Cutting Time

“Cutting of your nose to spite your face” is an old expression with a meaning that is very clear. Damaging yourself in order to respond to a real or imagined wrong simply doesn’t make any sense.

And that’s why the frightening number of black ministers who have proclaimed their intention not to support Barack Obama’s reelection campaign because of his stance on same sex marriage is puzzling. Let us put aside the fact that the gay community has been a very real part of the black church for a very long time. Let us also put aside the fact that homosexual and heterosexual indiscretions are an unspoken part of the narrative that describes the black church in America.

While we are all entitled to our minor hypocrisies, these black pastors should not be permitted to erode and corrode the support of one of President Obama’s key constituencies over an issue that defines neither this president or the critical needs and challenges of the black community.

Gay men and women are not the reason for the unspeakable levels of black on black violence in the black community. The gay community is not wrecking the financial system nor is it shredding the social safety net that endangers the lives and welfare of so many black men, women and children.

Certainly unemployment, poor housing, poor education and mindless media assaults present greater dangers to the institution of marriage than men who love men and women who love women. And I am not aware of any gay leadership in the Tea Party movement that threatens to take this country back to the 19th century.

But finally and most importantly, where will these pompous and self-righteous pastors go to hide their stained and miserable consciences if their statements of moral indignation serve to facilitate the election of Mitt Romney and open the floodgates to the Tea Party hordes that are hammering at the gates of good government?

Problem Solved

The recent announcement that non-white births are now exceeding white births in this country might help to solve a nagging question. For the past few years I have wondered at the willingness of the Teapublicans and the right wing of the right wing to abandon the future for the sake of the present.

While proclaiming concern for “the children of future generations”, the Teapublican agenda has called for “shrinking government to a size where it can be drowned in a bath tub”. This paints a very dull and gray picture for these “future generations”.

However, it may be that the Teapublicans have been reading their tea leaves and have seen the writing on the demographic wall. If indeed America is going to be less white and more black and brown, it seems that the singularly monochromatic Teapublicans do not want this darker future generation to have access to the public benefits that whiter generations of the past enjoyed. And they certainly do not intend to pay for it.

This would explain the contention that Americans will need to be more “self-reliant” and that the age of so-called entitlements will have to come to an end. And all along diminishing tax revenues so that government services will contract is the daily catechism of the right wing of the right wing.

The underlying rationale for the Teapublican philosophy is before us in black and white and brown.

The Saga of Stop and Frisk

I have previously pointed out the unconstitutional aspect of the New York Police Department “stopping and frisking” hundreds of thousands of black and Latino young men in the name of crime prevention. The fact that New York has enjoyed a reduction in crime does not justify this most severe intrusion into the lives of innocent people. Indeed, if everyone were to be arrested then there would be no crime but hopefully no one thinks that is a good idea….yet.

Now a federal court has indicated that there is a very real possibility that this policing policy may be declared unconstitutional. New York Mayor Bloomberg and New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly are staunch supporters of “stop and frisk” and minimize the impact of over 600,000 such stops in the past year (over 80% of the “stopped” individuals were black and Latino).

However, the children of privileged and secure white men are not being stopped. I doubt that Mayor Bloomberg or Commissioner Kelly have any personal acquaintances whose children have been “stopped and frisked”. The institutional assault on the rights and privacy of hundreds of thousands of young men cannot have a good long term result.

Certainly the community resentment and cynicism in the long term far outweighs any short term crime reduction that may be taking place. Chipping away at respect for law enforcement and building enmity just doesn’t sound like a plan for the future on which we can rely.

Have a great weekend!