Through the back of Jamel Mims' black leather baseball cap, a sprig of short, slender dreadlocks sticks out, looking like cooped-up children eager to see what's outside. What's outside today are 100 or so protesters in the South Bronx. Affixed to the right side of Jamel's hat is a button depicting a red line through the words “Stop and Frisk.” Such is the name of the New York Police Department's (NYPD) policy of detaining on suspicion, whim or fancy, (and searching the person of) anyone at all. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), “more than 4 million innocent New Yorkers were subjected to police stops and street interrogations from 2004 through 2011.” Predictably, “black and Latino communities continue to be the overwhelming target of these tactics. Nearly nine out of 10 stopped-and-frisked New Yorkers have been completely innocent, according to the NYPD's own reports.”
“As we march up Third Ave.,” Jamel tells the group assembled beneath the cloudy skies to protest the practices, “your job is to recruit everyone you see. You've been drafted. You ain't got no say-so.” Jamel is a photographer, digital media artist and educator, who has been instrumental in organizing many of the Stop Stop and Frisk rallies in black and Latino majority neighborhoods around New York. Rallying the troops to march, he tells the crowd that we are here so that “no more generations of our youth will continue to be brutalized because of the way that they look. We're here to say, 'No more of this shit.'”
The rally, perhaps because it is not situated amid the most important square mile in the financial world, is not under very heavy police supervision. Of the half-dozen officers there, most are black or Latino. I come upon Ramon Jimenez, a protest old-timer who wears a very dignified hat and tie, talking to two police officers. One of them responds sheepishly that he “can't articulate for them.” I ask Ramon what he was saying. “In the '70s, I was out here, and in every new police brutality situation, we demonstrated. One of our demands would always be more black and Latino police officers. Now that we have more black and Latino officers, many of them have become incorporated into this regular police mentality. They forget how they got their jobs.”
At Occupy Oakland, the general assembly consented to a proposal early on that declared the encampment officially hostile to police. No such proposal was adopted by Occupy Wall Street – in the first week of the occupation of Liberty Plaza Park, rapper Lupe Fiasco even offered to pay for a snack table specifically for the cops stationed around the park for surveillance purposes. As we proceed on the Bronx march, it resoundingly adopts its own take on that issue. “The cops. Aren't. The 99 percent,” they chant. I catch up with one chanter, who I'll call Jay, who started the chant.
Jay works with “Take Back the Bronx,” which he says came out of Occupy Wall Street. “I've been arrested four times so far,” he tells me. The most recent such incident particularly attested to the reason he was involved in this movement. Having been to a know your rights seminar, Jay tells me he informed the police who had begun to search him that he did not consent to this search. “They get rougher, so I started shouting, 'I am not resisting!'” They arrested him for excessive noise. “It's so prevalent, it's so normalized, that it becomes a happenstance.” This, Jay says, is part and parcel of the mistreatment to which poor people are subjected by those in power. “The schools are already effed up. So, there's already a lack of opportunity. There's already no jobs. And then you get harassed randomly, just to put us in a subordinate position.”
This analysis sounds very familiar. In fact, it resembles closely the words of Daniel, a participant in the riots that rocked London in August 2011. Precipitating those riots, the Metropolitan Police Service had shot Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old black man, to death. Daniel told The Guardian UK, “I saw it as my opportunity, like now was the opportunity to get revenge. It was even just the police, just the whole government, like everything they do, they make things harder for us. Like they make it hard for us to get jobs. Even when we do get benefits, they cut it down. Some people are trying to change their lives; some go to university. And they're raising up the prices, and then people can't afford university. So, they go back to selling drugs and stuff, and then you want to arrest them and say you don't understand why all of these young people are acting like this, when really and truly, they're the reason why we are the way we are … It was just our way of getting revenge.”
I mention the affinity to Jay, who remarks, “As conditions become worse and opportunities become more scarce, that's going to happen.”
The feeling of alienation is pervasive. Halfway along the route, Kafahni Nkrumah from the Freedom Party takes the people's mike and addresses the crowd, saying Stop and Frisk “makes residents feel like we're all criminals, and we're not. We want the police department to understand that we are people, too, and we want our rights respected. We don't want to have beef with the police. We want good relations in our communities and we want to be safe in our communities.” His outrage at the system is not so great as to deplete his trust in electoral politics to get the job done. “We also need to inform our elected officials that Stop and Frisk is wrong, and they need to talk for us. Just the other day, [NYPD Commissioner] Ray Kelly lied about the treatment of the Muslim community. We object to that and we say these tactics have to go. Spying on communities has to go. Stop and Frisk has to go. And if our elected officials refuse to stand up for us, then they have to go, too.”
The march ends at the 42nd Precinct, outside which barricades have been set up to pen in the protesters and press. A street sign in front of the precinct (a one-block street) reads, “Way of the Finest,” beneath which protrude three other commemorative street signs: “Detective Philip A. Lamonica,” a policeman who was killed in 1952 pursuing armed bank robbers who had escaped from a Pennsylvania prison; “Police Officer George Mead,” who was killed off duty in a robbery; “Sergeant Walker S. Fitzgerald,” whose 1997 off-duty killing in Queens was surrounded by “questionable circumstances” that kept Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Commissioner Howard Safir away from Fitzgerald's funeral. Fitzgerald's younger brother, Patrick, also a police officer, shot himself to death two months later.
Police forces commemorate their slain members, and so do these activists. Names like Sean Bell, Amedou Diallo and Eleanor Bumpers come up frequently, both in speeches and in chants. There is a historical memory alive in the anti-police brutality movement that isn't found in many other sectors of Occupy Wall Street-affiliated activism. There is also a larger social analysis. Christina Gonzalez, another Stop Stop and Frisk organizer, speaks in front of the precinct, pointing out that the problem goes beyond just this policy. That includes, for instance, mass incarceration. “We can't call ourselves the freest country in the world,” she says, “when we imprison the most people in the world. It doesn't make any sense.” She continues, “I was in Brooklyn the other day to hear a cop tell members of the Brownsville community that it's their fault that their kids are in trouble with the police and that this is really an issue of parenting. Meanwhile, the very next day, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly's son was accused of raping a woman. Who's got the parenting issues? I don't think it's us.”
Wrapping up, Gonzalez addresses the political negligence that begets institutional racism. “Our black president,” she says, “came to Harlem and charged $100 to $25,000 to hear him speak. Did he talk about Stop and Frisk? Did he talk about mass incarceration? No.”
The rain begins to fall. “The system's just racist; they lynched Troy Davis,” the group chants.
While the country has moved on from events in September, finding itself wrapped up in minor controversies dozens of times a month, the activists here harbor a stubborn unwillingness to forget, or worse to ignore, certain stories. Life and death stories. Stories about millions of people coming together to protest injustices in progress, and about those people being ignored and injustice proceeding as planned. One week into Occupy Wall Street, it was on a march to commemorate Troy Davis that Anthony Bologna's infamous pepper-spraying incident occurred, after which Occupy Wall Street began to attract press attention. Cruelty imposed on the poor by uncaring authorities touched this wave of protests off, and these activists would not be surprised by that if their global perspective is as keen as their historical perspective.
In Tunisia, authorities seized Mohammed Bouazizi's vegetable cart, which was illegal, but his only meager means of income. His subsequent self-incineration touched off riots there. In Syria, school children who had written anti-Assad graffiti were arrested and tortured, setting off riots there. In Libya, it was the arrest of human rights activist Fathi Terbil, an attorney who had been working with the families of victims of a prison massacre, that set off riots. Greece's riots in 2008 started when policemen killed Alexandros Grigoropoulos, a 15-year-old student. In all these cases, the people who began rioting were the people who were most prone to police abuse: the poor, the neglected, the harassed.
So it was in London, where 73 percent of rioters who took The Guardian UK's survey attested to having been victims of a controversial stop-and-search practice routinely employed by the authorities in London's poorest neighborhoods.
If Jay's prediction is right and there are riots this year, we must all be prepared to remind the world that the nonviolent protests were ignored by the people in power.