Proactive Heckling: Ray Kelly Shouted Down at Brown University

New York City police Commissioner Ray Kelly received an unexpected greeting at Brown University. On October 29, 2013, Kelly was slated to give a public lecture at Brown about policing titled “Proactive Policing in America’s Biggest City.” A group of students and community members protested his speech, decrying his support for and implementation of stop-and-frisk policing in New York City. People read from statements and made demands of the university. Some heckled. The protest was so loud and strong that Kelly’s lecture was canceled.

Brown University’s Doreen St. Felix penned an op-ed in The Guardian explaining why she protested Kelly. St. Felix explained that after the lecture was announced and before it started, “organizers – including Brown students and members of the Providence grassroots organization Direct Action for Racial Equality (Dare), circulated a petition demanding that the university cancel the lecture. More than 500 professors, administrators, students, workers, activists, and Providence residents signed.” They also “asked that the generous honorarium set aside for the talk be donated to local organizations, like Dare, working to end racial profiling.”

The university refused and continued the lecture. St. Felix was unsurprised. She added, “Discourse facilitated, legitimized and moneyed by the few in power is not true ‘discourse’ at all. Those who asserted themselves in protest – an organized, deliberated and strategically executed protest, to be clear – exposed the falsity of these terms.”

Responding to critics, St. Felix fired back, “When did naming injustice become uncouth? … As inspiring as it was to see many members come together, the space was an important reminder of how out of touch discourse on racial issues is at Brown and throughout America.”

Not everyone shared the protesters’ views. The Nation posted a debate about the “shutdown” with contributions from writers Rania Khalek, Richard Yeselson, Jesse A. Myerson and Nation columnist Katha Pollitt. Khalek and Myerson supported the protesters, highlighting Kelly’s draconian policing as a legitimate reason to do so. Yeselson and Pollitt felt differently. The liberal commentators scolded the protesters for stifling free speech and being disrespectful and ineffective. They weren’t the only ones who felt that way. Peter Beinart of the Daily Beast called the protesters “latter-day totalitarians.”

The university decided to go farther. Brown University President Christina Paxson announced in a campus letter that she would form a committee of five faculty members, two undergrads and one graduate student to investigate what led to the event and whether any student should be punished. However, student reaction was mixed. According to a Brown Daily Herald poll, while 73 percent opposed the shout-down, 80 percent supported the protest outside the building and 71 percent agreed with canceling the lecture beforehand, a demand made by the protesters.

Free speech?

But when it comes to free speech, it is worth mentioning that the rights enumerated in the US Constitution apply to the relationship between the government and individuals rather than between individual persons. The Constitution’s 27 amendments protect the rights of individual persons from state power. This is why the First Amendment reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Ray Kelly was not censored by the government; he was booed off stage by students and community members in a form of protest, which is also protected speech, especially because they were protesting a government official and his policies.

Part of free speech is the inherent risk of being denounced for saying things people find reprehensible. During the summer of 2010, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, who is white, said the word nigger repeatedly in a racist rant responding to a question by a black female caller on her radio show. Subsequently, people boycotted her show and Schlessinger lost corporate sponsorship, which forced her to apologize and leave the show. Schlessinger complained that this violated her free speech, similar to how many say Kelly’s free speech was violated by students and community members who booed him. However, nationally syndicated columnist, comedian and journalist Tina Dupuy countered that “Free speech doesn’t mean free of repercussion of speech. Free does not mean immune. Protected speech does not mean protected from the consequence of speech.” Kelly has just as much a right to free speech to express his support for stop-and-frisk in a lecture, op-ed, or elsewhere as the students have a right to denounce it via heckling, protesting, or other means of expression. While heckling may not be preferable, it does not violate free speech. The only caveat is that the government cannot censor anyone. So, technically, Kelly’s free speech was not infringed.

Contrast this with a similar incident. When comedian Dave Chappelle was heckled by a largely white audience in Hartford, Connecticut – unlike the Brown students, these hecklers weren’t making a political point – he did not walk off stage as Kelly did. Rather than shuck and jive in the way the hecklers wanted him to, Chappelle took the remaining minutes of his stand-up routine to smoke a cigarette, read from an audience member’s book, and tell the hecklers “You are booing yourself. Go home and look in the mirror and say ‘boo’ at yourself. At the moment, that’s how I feel about you.” While the hecklers were a nuisance, Chappelle did not complain that his free speech was violated.

Ray Kelly, King of Stop-and-Frisk

Far more important than the free speech question is Ray Kelly’s record as police commissioner. For one, Kelly oversaw the New York Police Department’s massive surveillance program that targeted Muslims and spied on other New Yorkers. NYPD designated mosques as terrorist organizations, which legitimized around a dozen “terrorism enterprise investigations” since 9/11. Informants and undercover officers are sent to mosques to spy on Muslims, usually without evidence of any criminal wrongdoing. Additionally, NYPD investigated many “innocent Muslims and planted information about them in secret police files,” according to the AP.

Kelly is particularly notorious for supporting and implementing stop-and-frisk policing in New York City, which earned the Brown protesters’ ire. Kelly’s name is practically synonymous with the policy. Stop-and-frisk is the practice of police stopping, questioning and searching via pat down any person whom they suspect of carrying a weapon or contraband.

But the practice amounts to another form of racial profiling and violation of privacy. While they make up 4.7 percent of New York City’s population, black and Latino men between the ages of 14 to 24 accounted for 41.6 percent of stops in 2011. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, “In 70 out of 76 precincts, black and Latinos accounted for more than half of the stops, and in 33 precincts they accounted for more than 90 percent of stops.” In 2012, 87 percent of those stopped by NYPD were black or Latino. Blacks and Latinos are more likely to be stopped and have police force used against them than whites – but less likely to be found with a weapon.

Supporters of the policy argue that it’s necessary to keep New York City safe. However, nine of 10 people who are stopped are innocent, and no gun is found in 99.9 percent of stops. Since 2002, when Michael Bloomberg assumed office of New York City mayor, more than 4 million stops have occurred. There is very little research proving that stop-and-frisk is effective. Crime, particularly homicide, has dropped in New York City during the past several years, but the reasons are largely unclear. It has little to do with stop-and-frisk and aggressive police tactics. As the NYCLU points out, “In 2002, there were 1,892 victims of gunfire and 97,296 stops. In 2011, there were still 1,821 victims of gunfire, but a record of 685,724 stops.” Additionally, crime has been falling throughout the United States since the 1990s, which may contribute to some of New York City’s crime decrease.

Also, according to a whistleblower report, the NYPD has been churning misleadingly low crime statistics. This practice increased under Bloomberg and Kelly’s reign. Former NYPD officers observed intentional downgrading of serious crimes to petty offenses, crime reports that were never filed, crime victims discouraged from filing complaints and other forms of manipulation. It is true that New York City is safer than it used to be in the 1970s and ’80s, but the NYPD’s numbers cannot be taken at face value. As the authors of the report – professors Eli B. Silverman and John A. Eterno and law student and researcher Jesse P. Levine (not a co-author) – wrote in the Huffington Post, “The mayor and other officials, the real estate and tourist industries, and the top brass at the NYPD all have a strong interest in keeping the crime numbers low.”

To justify the stopping and frisking of black and brown people, supporters argue that most of the perpetrators and victims of violent crime are people of color. In a likely attempt to counter accusations of racial bias, last year the NYPD released crime statistics covering the beginning to the end of June 2012. The data show “that 96 percent of all shooting victims and 97 of all shooting suspects in the city were black or Latino,” reported the Huffington Post. However, John Jay College criminal justice professor Andrew Karmen told HuffPost that the numbers, in isolation, paint a misleading picture, leading one to believe that all black and Latino people are criminally suspect. While most of the shootings are committed by black and Latino youths, they represent a small proportion of those demographics. He said “A small number of black and Hispanic youth are committing the majority of the crime,” which “doesn’t justify hundreds of thousands of stops of innocent people.”

This squares with other research about crime. Last year, Colorlines released data debunking five myths about crime in black communities. One myth is that crime is uniquely prevalent among African-Americans, which would lead one to believe that draconian policing in black communities is necessary. However, the reality is “most black youth aren’t actually committing any crimes.” Using data from youth behavior in Washington, DC, Colorlines pointed out that 7 percent of black youths sold drugs, 6 percent stole more than $100 of goods, 4 percent ever carried a gun and 11 percent intentionally attacked someone. Additionally, according to FBI data, in 2011, 37.7 percent of all homicide offenders in the United States were black, while 32.5 percent were white, 1.8 percent were of other races, and race was unknown for 28 percent. The total number of black offenders that year was 5,486 out of a national African-American population of more than 40 million. Not only are blacks no more likely to commit homicide than whites, but black homicide offenders represent a tiny fraction of the larger African-American population.

Rather than keep communities safe, stop-and-frisk terrorizes black and Latino communities, making them distrust police. Multiple testimonies of stop-and-frisk victims, particularly young black and brown men, attest to this. In a video by Communities United for Police Reform, Kasiem Walters, an African-American high school student in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, recounts his experiences being stopped and frisked. He was 13 years old when he was first stopped. The police stopped, searched, harassed, and pushed Walters as he was waiting outside his friend’s house. “At that moment,” he said he felt “frightened and confused.” That experience changed the way he looked at police, “I couldn’t look at them the same.” He said, “They instill this fear in you. And then it forces you to have this mindset where you are a criminal.” Since then, Walter has been stopped and frisked seven times. As a result of this invasive dragnet targeted at communities of color, blacks and Latinos constantly walk on eggshells whenever they are around New York City, fearing that any move they make, however trivial, could trigger a humiliating search by police or worse.

Indeed, this effect is intentional. Look no farther than to Kelly’s own words when he told New York state Senator Eric Adams, a Democrat from Brooklyn, that stop-and-frisk focused on blacks and Latinos because “he wanted to instill fear in them that every time that they left their homes they could be targeted by police.” That goal, at least, seems to be working.

Not only is stop-and-frisk ineffective, oppressive and dehumanizing, it is unnecessary to achieve real public safety. In the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn, one group was able to achieve 363 days with no shootings or killings. The group, Man Up!, is responsible for that. The group’s strategy is to “send people into the streets to figure out where the violence was going next so they could hit the pause button. Mediate. Listen. Talk,” The New York Times reported. Man Up! consists of former street criminals and victims of violent crime. The group focuses on instilling African pride and reaching out to youths as mentors before they get into trouble. Man Up! founder Andre T. Mitchell explained that violence is not just about gangs, “The majority are interpersonal disputes: ‘Why you looking at me?’ ‘No, why you looking at me?’ Our job is to get them before they reach for the gun.” One mentor, Kenneth Watson, said their authority is “based on trust.” The people “don’t see us as police officers. We don’t share any information with the police. Our job is to stop the shooting and killing. Minimize it,” he said. As a result, community members feel more relaxed and safer. Not only that, but their rights are not violated, nor are they treated as less than human. While police are present, the group’s efforts at building trust and mentoring youths play a strong role in making the community safer. This pokes a major hole in the oft-stated argument that aggressive policing is necessary for safety.

Stop-and-frisk has come under fire from fiery grass-roots activism, the judicial system and the recent New York City election. Last August, Judge Shira Scheindlin of the US District Court of New York ruled stop-and-frisk unconstitutional, saying it unfairly targeted blacks and Latinos. This made it a “policy of indirect racial profiling,” Scheindlin said. The ruling did not order an end to stop-and-frisk but required reforms of the policy. Bill de Blasio’s opposition to stop-and-frisk was a key part of his campaign, which propelled him to win New York City’s recent mayoral election. However, a federal appeals court removed Scheindlin from the case and blocked her ruling, prompting a challenge by stop-and-frisk victims. That, combined with de Blasio’s promise to enforce the reformist ruling, rather than eliminate stop-and-frisk altogether, raises additional questions about how much the mayor-elect will change the status quo.

The real purpose for draconian policing

Draconian policing does serve another purpose. As Black Agenda Report columnist and Harlem resident Margaret Kimberley told Truthout in a recent phone interview, “Stop-and-frisk is the enforcement arm of gentrification. It tells people, ‘In case you didn’t get the memo, you’re supposed to get out of here.'” New York City has been experiencing massive gentrification, increased rents and distribution of wealth and income to the top. The city’s rent averages more than $3,000 a month for an apartment. Wealth and income gains largely have gone to New York City’s wealthiest, making it the most unequal city in the country. According to a report on income inequality by New York City Comptroller John C. Liu, the city’s richest 1 percent had 16.9 percent of total income in 2009 and the top 5 percent had 31.7 percent. Neighborhoods that used to be working-class or predominantly nonwhite, like Manhattan’s Lower East Side and many parts of Brooklyn, are becoming more expensive, gentrifying those residents out and bringing a richer, whiter demographic in. This has coincided with the growth of aggressive policing in New York City.

Ray Kelly represents more than just stop-and-frisk. He represents a get-tough mindset in domestic policing that treats certain populations as inherently suspect. Its notion of “public safety” is legitimized by criminalizing and repressing poor, black and brown peoples. Hence mass surveillance, racial profiling and other draconian practices directed toward those communities. Such policing sends a clear message to those communities that they are unwelcome because their very existence is a problem. So for university students and communities affected by draconian policing to give Ray Kelly a rude unwelcome of his own is perfectly legitimate. It’s better than no accountability at all.