Revolution #269, May 20, 2012

Freedom Fighters in the Struggle to STOP "Stop and Frisk" Speak Out

The following are excerpts from interviews with defendants that were done by Li Onesto during the STOP "Stop and Frisk" trial, April 30 through May 4, 2012, New York City.

Cornel West, Princeton University professor

People are standing tall, it's a beautiful thing to be with, to work with, be alongside so many freedom fighters. It's just a magnificent thing to be with the other 19. They courageous, they visionary, they strong, they got determination, we all in it together.

The defense, the voices were so eloquent, so powerful. I think the strongest were the personal experiences of the ways in which the police have humiliated so many folk, try to break their spirits, and yet they bounce back. The variety of voices was quite powerful, all colors, genders, all committed to justice.

Earl Koopercamp, priest at St. Mary's Church in Harlem

I think it's very important because we got so many people to tell the truth about what stop-and-frisk is, a great injustice, a great racist immorality that's going on, time after time, literally minute by minute. Now people are aware of it. People are willing to stand up and fight against it, to turn this racist policy over. Also that's why today was so important, people stood up on October 21, stood up again today and spoke that truth to power, and like Dr. West said, out of love, especially for our young sisters and brothers, African American, Latino who bear the brunt of this policy, bear the brunt of that suffering. So I thought it was so incredible to see such strength, such unity, such truthfulness, stand for justice in this kind of a case. And especially, I have to say, I was very pleased to see so many young people here, people who are both subject to it, but who really, to change the world, to make a better world, are the ones who have to get involved. As one of the old gray heads in the front row, it was really nice that we had young people involved, that's where the future is on this. So we're going to keep fighting like we said. We're going to stop stop-and-frisk in this city, we're going to stop this mass incarceration, the new Jim Crow that's going down in this country. We're going to make this world a better place for all god's children.

Rev. Stephen Phelps, Presbyterian minister at Riverside Church in Harlem

The larger significance is that our whole society is at risk of coming apart, I think. It doesn't look like it yet to many people, especially people of light skin, people of privilege. But we have so undermined the comity, the relationship of all here, through our economic disparity, through racism, that we risk having the rule of law itself come under such disregard that a great deal of legal and illegal violence could result—on the part of all expression of government; legal with air quotes around it, where the law practices violence against the people. We are a long way down the road toward late decadent capitalism. It's in trouble. I don't think capitalism, I'm not going to get into a whole long line here—I don't think capitalism itself is inherently mistaken, but capitalism without the rule of law, without regulation, without an actual democracy to support it, cannot possibly sustain a population. We're in trouble. This is the end of an empire unless there is a wakefulness on the part of a critical mass who see that all of these abuses are interrelated. I didn't invent the idea that capitalism, militarism, and economic oppression are closely related.

I spend most of my social justice energies on questions of mass incarceration. I have friends who put their energies on food justices, others in global warming and so on. And nobody is wrong on this. But I believe hearts can break open on this issue. And unless there is compassion in the heart of a person along with ideas to change their thinking, those two have to happen together for the middle of the country, the movable middle, to change. Nobody ever changes their minds with thought alone, it always has to do with an emotional component. And this issue is so evident, I've seen any number of New York City white people change their minds about something around this issue.

Are you talking about people changing their minds about how they look at people in prison, how they look at Black and Latino youth?

Absolutely. I'm not saying large numbers, I'm saying it's a possibility. It's where I put my energies more than the other issues, valid as they are, because I believe this one has the capability of causing consciousness to rise in any number of areas, they're all related.

Elaine Brower, World Can't Wait

We listened, yesterday we listened to police testimony about what they saw and who were arrested. But today we were able to tell our side of the story, the 20 who were arrested in front of the police precinct…. we were able to get a lot of statements in about stop-and-frisk. And the people who have actually been stopped and frisked and what our feelings were about it. I think the diversity of the people involved, people coming from all walks of life, all ages, all races. Including the clergy, you know, which was interesting. We came from complete atheists to clergy people. I think the diversity was there and the people were literally personally affected by stop-and-frisk.

Which ones in particular did you feel were striking?

Carl Dix definitely because of the span of years he's been dealing with the oppression of Black people. And [the defendant] who is only 22, who said that her mother brought her to a protest and actually told her about this protest. She was pretty, really feisty and she stood up to that prosecutor. And this prosecutor was getting frustrated with her. Because she couldn't rattle her case, she tried to, and that was impressive. And of course the [defendant] who was stopped and frisked you know, many many times. And hearing him speak honestly, openly and without fear was really impressive.

I'm glad we did this and I'm glad we took this to trial and I think we have a really good defense team and I'm happy to be a part of it. I'm hoping this goes down in history!

You know I'm not your typical middle class white working woman from the suburbs…. Women where I live, they're shopping, driving their SUV's… Suburban's or whatever…. I don't identify with that. I identify more with humanity. People's rights shouldn't be violated. No one's rights should be violated! You know, just because somebody looks a certain way doesn't give any people in authority, quote unquote, the right to stop them or even touch them. And I am hoping that there are more and more people like me out there that are gonna be willing to come forward.

Young Black man

I think we were able to get a lot of our stories and personal experiences out there, especially why we were there that day. A lot of us didn't even know each other at the time, but you know a lot of people from different backgrounds, we just came together and joined in the fight to STOP "Stop and Frisk" in Harlem on October 21, and even though we didn't know each other we shared common anger and frustration about this issue. So, I mean, to see this play out in court was something that was really good.

I testified and I spoke about my personal experiences about stop-and-frisk and about the police terror and harassment that goes on in these communities all the time and the judge actually let me talk about it, a friend and I getting stopped and him [the police] wanting us to dance to get the handcuffs that were too tight, off.

Yeah, my experience and being stopped and frisked in several occasions, that was just one story which was the most, like, outstanding one. There were many other situations like that that had happened.

How did it make you feel when another defendant said that when she heard you tell that story at the rally at 125th Street it played an important part in her deciding to go on the march and risk getting arrested?

It was very touching cause I didn't think, like to me, it wasn't a big deal to me. It was like, OK, this happens. But, I think this comes from being desensitized to it as well. Like, oh well this is just something we have to do deal with, it happens. But it's touching other people in different ways that don't know about it, or have never heard anything like this, they're like "are you kidding me?" And it's just, I'm sure I'm not the only one it's happened to but it's happened to thousands of others. Maybe millions in this country and city. So I'm just the one to tell the story for the many other millions of other Black and Latino youth that don't get to tell their story.

I mean, I think no matter what happens I think we made progress. I think even if we get convicted, we win. If we don't get convicted, we win. It's gonna help even more get this out into the mainstream and get stop-and-frisk into the mainstream…and also mass incarceration, how these things are pipelines to mass incarceration. And how youth are being demonized and humiliated on a daily basis. And it's inhumane and how it needs to stop. I think it will make an impact in society in the long run. I mean, look what we've done already with the newspapers, the question is being asked in the newspapers, in newspaper articles all the time now, and more on a societal level in the country in different ways.

White youth who "spends most of his time in social activism"

The testimony has been very entertaining and also it's been very eye-opening, I've learned a lot about my fellow defendants which I did not expect. I learned about the backgrounds of a lot of them. Most of them are very well-educated, come from surprising educational facilities, cover a wide range, cross-section of society, people from many walks of life. I think I learned something about myself as well. I learned that although I did what I did on October 21 for my own moral and mental well-being, it's more important to care about the other people, to stand side by side with them and to stand in solidarity with them even through tough times, which I would consider this trial to be one of those tough times, although not anymore. I claim victory, no matter what happens. We won the moral victory, which is the more important victory.

Why were you out there that day?

One thing I mentioned on the stand is that I had never seen a stop-and-frisk take place in my neighborhood… which is predominantly light-skinned in complexion, community members there. And I felt that was very repulsive, morally. The first time I heard about stop-and-frisk was in high school from a friend of mine, someone who is Latino. At the time stop-and-frisk was just a phrase, I didn't understand the scope and the details. Then I slowly learned more, especially in the last two years I've learned a lot more. If you want to talk about the humanity of it, it's disgusting, hearing people's testimony of what happens being stopped and frisked. And even if you don't want to deal with that, people's emotions, just looking at the numbers speaks for itself. It's disgusting, it's ridiculous, hundreds of thousands being stopped arbitrarily, for no reason at all. And then they're being treated like they're not even human beings. And also the defense of why this is a "good policy" is that gun control is one of them, and look at those numbers too, the amount of guns confiscated is laughable. I think by anyone's standards this is a failure of a policy.

I think it ties in with mass incarceration, it's very inter-related. People get stopped and frisked for no reason at all. And then for minor charges, like for a marijuana charge, which technically is supposed to be decriminalized in NYC. But because of stop-and-frisk it allows a police officer to go into your pocket without permission and pull it out and once the marijuana is in public view then it is a crime and then the charges are much more severe. And even though that person had it concealed and it was on their person and thus was not in public view the police officer is allowed to say now it is in public view, in my hand, and that's a misdemeanor, you're under arrest. That's ridiculous, it's illegal, and it's disgusting. So that does help fill the prisons up.

White Social Worker in Harlem

It was great to hear people's individual stories. It was great. It's interesting that there are so many different types of people doing this. There's people from really different backgrounds, people who really are at very different places in their lives right now. There's young people, there's older people, there's religious people, there's people who don't care about religion, there's people of different ethnicities.

What motivated you to be there that day?

I live in the 26th precinct which is adjacent to the 28th precinct, and I've lived there a really long time and I wasn't like pro police before but I moved to New York 15 years ago, I moved to Harlem, then after a while I saw the way policing happened in Harlem and you can't really see what's going on with the police on the street—to me it's like wow, this is really not right, you can see something's wrong, you can see the way they treat different people, it's just racist in different neighborhoods, if you see it, you're like this is crazy. I've seen young kids handcuffed and searched and then let go because they weren't doing anything in the first place. Stopped by the police, sitting on the bench, handcuffed, they go through their pockets, unhandcuff them, then bye bye. That's crazy, and it was young, Black teenagers, and would they ever in a ba-zillion years do that in the East Village outside one of these nice community schools? No.

Working as a social worker I learned a whole other side of policing that was like a way more grimy, criminal side, how much the police take money from people, there are police that will steal your dog if you have a nice dog, they will take your Metro card, they'll take cash from people. They plant drugs on people. So a lot of stuff that people think is extreme is so common place, I think people would be really shocked.

What do you think is the significance of this trial?

I hope it will be something where people all over the city can be like, oh wow there are people who see this happening and are trying to see it as the emergency that it is. Because in some neighborhoods it's a really big deal. It's a really big deal to be a young Black teenager going out in the street, a young Spanish teenager, Latino, going out in the street, an adult too. For some people, it's really a consideration about the police that you make when you leave your house, about how do I look right now… it's just a really big deal. And it's not a big deal because people are paranoid. It's a big deal because it is likely that if you look the "wrong way" when you leave your house you might have a problem and in some cases it might lead to violent assault and in some cases it leads to murder. So I feel it really is a big deal.

Writing teacher in the South Bronx

I was happy that we were able to put stop-and-frisk on trial. The first couple of days I didn't know if that was going to happen, going through the minutia of where we were standing and this and that. But I was happy that between all of us, nobody was telling the same story… I think everybody had a different access point to it and most striking, I mentioned Jim Crow to the prosecutor and I don't think he had ever heard that phrase or knew what it was, he kind of gave me a blank look.

With two degrees, and as a man in my 30s, I really couldn't have given two good sentences about American slavery. I had heard that term [Jim Crow], scattered through my education, but never felt it was appropriate for me to ask. At the time I met Carl Dix, I thought Jim Crow was a man—it was more of a who than a what for me at that point, that's just the level of ignorance—it's a privilege to have that kind of ignorance, to not have to think about those kinds of issues or American history in any kind of way that encompasses the real history of this country.

Can you talk some about what you were prevented from saying in your testimony?

I would have liked to talk about Corcraft and how the appliances in this courthouse are made by prisoners for 20 cents an hour. I would have liked to talk about how the women's prison population has doubled in the last 10 years. How you can go around the back of this courthouse on your way to the dumpling house and see young Black men brought in in chains. You have to be totally ignorant to not make the connection to what that is. It's not a metaphor, the new Jim Crow. The new part is useful in the discussion. But it's the same role, the same principle being applied, to subjugate a huge section of the population.

I was really struck by how [another defendant] said growing up in East Harlem this [stop-and-frisk, new Jim Crow] was just part of life, he didn't have a name for it. Just the fact that we can now name it, give it a name and then we can start discussing it. But without a name for it, it's just what goes down. The shame that people must feel when it happens to them as if they did something wrong. Even though they know they didn't. We can talk about the system and how the system is unjust and that relieves them the burden of having to hold this private guilt or shame.

Black student at Columbia University

I think the judge may have made a mistake in letting us all testify because I think we're a lot more eloquent than he may have thought we were going to be. The exact meaning and the purpose of why we conducted this action and why the action was planned to begin with is coming out through each and every one of us. Like it's been mentioned there's a cross section of New York, of the world that's been represented with this action. And I think it's really coming out through our personal testimonies. Everyone has something that brought them to the action and we're getting our space to say it. The purpose for this was to get the community more aware of stop-and-frisk practices which are, like I said in my testimony, built upon racial profiling, which is built upon the foundation of the United States of America.

What brought you out there that day?

I'm a student at Columbia University. I know that there is a distinct relationship between Harlem as a community and Columbia University as an academic institution that's built upon the myth of white supremacy, capitalism, inevitably and a lot of foundational structures that the United States was built upon and it speaks to that same culture. And it I think it would almost be a disservice to my education and not in the traditional sense of that word, to ignore that fact. And I think that stop-and-frisk as a policy which is a small microcosm of NYPD practices, government practices, and we can go into capitalism too, if we need to—I think it speaks to every reason why I should have been out there, and why the only choice I could have made in that position was to risk getting arrested.

Young Latino woman

Tell the story that you tried to tell on the stand that you didn't get to finish…

Me and my friends, we were at a park, we left and these cops pulled us over, we were walking and one of them said, sarcastically, and I don't like sarcastic at all, even though I'm sarcastic. He said something happened at the park, there's vandalism at the park and I know you guys would never do that so I'm just saying that if you have any information or if any of you want to step up to what you did. So I didn't know not to talk back to cops at the time so I said well we didn't do anything I don't know why you're stopping us, we didn't do anything and he said no… and so him and his partner got out of the car and went in our faces and they were just like, step up to what you did and we'll work something out and I was just getting really mad. He said something else like that and I said, it's not that serious. I told you we didn't do anything and you're harassing us and it's not fair, so can we please go. And I guess I was rude about it so he went up in my face. He put one hand on his gun and one hand on his cuffs and said, say something else. And then my friend stopped me and pulled me away. That's what I learned. Before that I won't say I loved cops, but I didn't see anything wrong with this. Like I said, I wanted to be a detective. But it showed that they're not who they're supposed to be. Like one of the cops on the stand said, they think they're here to control us instead of protecting us and keeping us safe or what not. A lot of police brutality videos have been going up and so along with those… and all the time, one time I saw this whole group of kids, Black, young they got stopped, literally four cop cars and one huge NYPD thing for all these kids who didn't do anything and they just stopped them and kept them there for like a good 30 to 45 minutes, took their IDs, I've witnessed it a lot. At first I didn't know what it was. I didn't know what stop-and-frisk was honestly until my mom told me she saw two guys, they had juice boxes, they're walking and suddenly a black van, tinted windows, stopped, I guess plainclothes officers, jump out the car and suddenly like without even getting told they just put down the juices and put their hands up like it's routine for them, like it's just normal. And so when she told me that I was like, this is ridiculous, so obviously I'm going to do something about it and yeah I was willing to risk getting arrested, but like I said I didn't go to get arrested. No one wants to get arrested and not get fed for five hours.

Young Black multimedia artist, who teaches in an inner-city school

It's our job to cut right through the bullshit and not meet them on their terms and we started to see that today in the testimony… saying things like the testimony saying I learned the consequences of talking back to the police, the chicken noodle soup story… So you see very clearly how they're trying to divorce this set of circumstances from the larger issue of what's going on—a human rights violation, to simply a matter of a few feet, the position of certain people, whether or not people in a line were a permeable membrane or not, which are thoroughly unrelated to the larger questions that this is about.

This is a situation where people's free speech rights were impeded upon and at a demonstration they were arrested for having done nothing wrong and the police acted only to arrest them.

This trial is certainly a continuation to not only broaden the terms of stop-and-frisk and mass incarceration so that people who haven't experienced this and people who don't know about this are beginning to know and starting to hear these millions of stories and people who themselves have experienced it and know it throughout their lives and worn it as shame are starting to break out of that and really see this as something that they're victimized by and becoming empowered by that.

Regardless of the results of this trial… there is no way we can lose, this has brought massive attention to stop-and-frisk and broadening those terms in society and starting to reconfigure what the terms of mass incarceration are in general. There are criminals that go to jail for crimes? Or is this really a method of social control where people are rounded up in large numbers because of the color of their skin? This court case is the first court case in decades that is breaking out of that framework which is tremendously exciting and that will reverberate and will have nationwide effect. It's already made national headlines.

Meghan Maurus (defense lawyer)

All of the defendants minus one were able to testify. And it was if nothing else really extraordinarily inspiring to hear the stories of how such a cross-section of people ended up being in front of the 28th precinct on October 21. The trial involves a number of people who were part of larger group of people protesting the stop-and-frisk policy of the NYPD and over the course of the trial, beginning with the state's case where they put on a number of police officers who were there and the latter half was the defendants getting up and telling what happened and how they came to be there.

Everyone had a different story to tell. Some people have very direct experiences with the criminal justice system and stop-and-frisk and others became motivated out of interaction with, some are professors and had interaction with students, others are members of the religious clergy and have parishioners, or just out of a sense of justice. So it wasn't just 19 people who got up and talked about the one thing that happened to them. It showed what a large swath of society is affected by this and how deeply they are affected by it. And the passion in the room was really permeable and it was really amazing.

This has been, last year and now this year, are quite a year for political activism. Thousands and thousands of people have come out who have perhaps never protested before and many especially among 20- to 30-year-olds, I think out of a sense of not apathy, but there wasn't a way to feel heard when these things are happening. And not just this trial, but the context of this trial is an incredible awakening of activism and protest and registering dissent. And this is a very large trial about a huge issue and we're definitely putting on a good fight in terms of the actual underlying charges which have nothing to do with protesting. But also it's people being heard and I think that that's really powerful.

On a personal level, what compelled you to take this case?

I've done a lot of work with the mass defense committee of the National Lawyer's Guild over the past year or so. But I would say that I'm in the lawyer's chair to begin with for exactly this thing which is, it's not just about protesters but about anyone who is effected by repression of any kind, or just charged with anything. Everyone deserves to have their say. And I feel like a lot of my job is to enable someone to know that someone is fighting for them. And to give everybody as fair of a chance as they can get. They don't always get a fair chance. My job, and I love it, that I get to try very hard to do so. This is exactly why I'm a lawyer and I'm really happy that I was able to be a part of this.

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