Nicholas Peart doesn’t appear to be a menace to society. Mild-mannered, humble and a little shy, he described his time as a student focusing on liberal arts at a Manhattan community college and how he now works at an after-school program in Harlem. Devoted to looking after his siblings, nothing about him should make a cop look at him twice on the street. Oh, well, there’s one thing: He’s a young, black male.
Peart is one of the plaintiffs in the federal class action lawsuit against the New York Police Department’s policy of stop-and-frisk, where officers use their power to roam the streets and stop, search and question people they believe may be connected to crime. Their allegation is that the application of this method is racially biased and unconstitutional. Over the years, the data breakdown is fairly constant; last year, more than half a million stop-and-frisks took place. Eighty-nine percent were innocent, 55 percent were black and 32 percent were Latino. Peart has been stopped, frisked and harassed several times, which has been the basis of his testimony and of a powerful New York Times op-ed piece.
The federal trial, now in its seventh week, has featured testimony from victims of the tactic as well as cops and has served as an eye-opening experience for the taxpayer, who for the first time after countless protests and newspaper articles regarding stop-and-frisk, have everything on the record. A police officer even revealed an audio recording of his commanding officer mandating racial profiling with the stops, saying, “I have no problem telling you this…Male blacks. And I told you at roll call, and I have no problem [to] tell you this, male blacks 14 to 21.”
One of revelations is the true desire of the police in their use of this controversial tactic. While civil libertarians show how few of these stops actually result in arrests or recovered weapons, that’s not how the cops are viewing success. Various testimony over several weeks have confirmed that the police view every single stop-and-frisk as successful, as it is a reminder to every black and Latino male that they are not in charge, the police are in control and that they are being watched. NYPD advocates believe this scare tactic against an entire segment of the city’s population has result in a drop in crime.
On its surface, to parochial newspaper editors and the lawyers battling it out in court, the case is merely about the constitutionality of the tactic’s application. But the deeper question the judge will answer is whether it is moral or even effective for the greater good that entire communities, defined by their race and economic misfortune, to be governed solely by the criminalization of their spaces. On trial, in a sense, is the Hobbesian state.
Not only is this not unique to the Big Apple, as many other city police departments either use stop and frisk or other heavy handed tactics, it’s not unique to our era. Temple University historian Heather Ann Thompson has noted a similar “criminalization” of rural spaces in the South populated by African Americans resulted “in the record imprisonment of black men that undermined African American communities in the Reconstruction and Jim Crow–era South.”
Because tactics like stop-and-frisk are connected to quotas, there are some in the argument who find a middle ground, saying that it should selectively applied, and that its the numbers and the micro-management that have gotten in the way of good policing. In debates such excesses, it’s easy to fall into the trap that modern police departments have lost their way, and everything from the War on Drugs to Homeland Security has turned the once benevolent beat cop with a soothing Irish brogue twirling his billy club into a member of an occupying army. But it is a dangerous myth. In fact, as University of Wisconsin historian Alfred McCoy notes in his exhaustively researched book, Policing America’s Empire, America perfected its modern policing apparatus in the Philippines with brutal efficiency. The archipelago served as testing grounds for the modern day policing tactics that would later be used at home against such criminalized spaces. The idea that America would use the police to control its “others” at home—immigrants, political dissidents, people of color, etc.—the same way it would rule colonial inhabitants abroad for the purpose of subduing them in order to take their resources is more than a century old.
Remember, while an Associated Press investigation showing that the NYPD has engaged in wide spread spying on Muslims shocked many, this was only the natural tendency of the department’s intelligence unit. Jethro Eisenstein, the co-counsel in the Handshu case, which deals directly the issue of spying on political activities, noted that this arm of the government was used in previous generations against left-wing radicals, and before that, against Italian immigrants. In short, it was a weapon against the “other.”
With a legacy that deep, it’s no wonder any attempts to hold the NYPD accountable to the taxpayer, like any other arm of the government, draws such scorn from people in power. Outgoing New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who refers to the NYPD as “my own army,” has vowed to veto any bill creating investigatory oversight of the department, and he has defended stop-and-frisk despite the negative press emanating from the trial. In short, attempts by the public to create accountability aren’t seen as citizens participating in democratic government, but rather unruly, occupied people violating their subservience to “his” army.
This mentality of the state results in catastrophic social consequences. As Peart told me during an interview at the offices of the Center for Constitutional Rights, despite having no intentions of being a criminal, his numerous stop-and-frisks gave him the creeping feeling that he perhaps he was, indeed, a criminal. Day in and day out, taxpayers are paying police to tell a generation of blacks and Latinos—on their way to work, school, a friend’s house or the park–that they are bad, bad people. That’s a pretty powerful way for the state to control people, when you’re not only controlling their movement, but their emotions and unconscious thoughts.
People who are okay with this situation are winning the argument. A bombing in Boston reduced the city to a state of martial law, and already the nation is debating exceptions to the Miranda warning. One minute, Fox News is holding up the constitution as golden perfection, the next they’re dismissing the Bill of Rights as liberal filth. This comes only a few years after several states implemented sweeping powers to police to stop and question people suspected of being undocumented immigrants. So for citizens’ sake, the court must rule against New York City in the stop-and-frisk, and rule against fervently, not only to preserve the civil rights of the blacks and Latinos who acutely suffer from this campaign, but to refuse that fear will be the state of governance.
After all, New York City tends to set a standard for other American cities. A civilian court rebuffing its armed forces in such a high profile case maybe serve as a warning for other governors and mayors.
Ari Paul is a regular contributor to the Brooklyn Rail, and has written for The Nation, the Guardian, Dissent, the Forward, the American Prospect and many other outlets.