In the Midst of Storms Natural and Unnatural, Prosecuting Freedom Fighters Still a Priority for NYC

November 5, 2012

by Jamel Mims | November 18, 2012 | Revolution Newspaper |


The following article was posted on the Stop Mass Incarceration Network website.

For several days, I have been watching the largest metropolitan area in the wealthiest country in the world brought to a standstill by the most crippling natural disaster in decades. Much is revealed of the priorities of this country by what they pour resources into fastest. Schools are shut down, but the New York Stock Exchange is up and running. Residents of the Lower East Side in Manhattan who live in poverty are without power and basic necessities, yet the Financial District at the southern tip of Manhattan is open. The subways and railroads are flooded and in limited operation, but the courts and the political railroads remain flooded with people and continue operating on the fast-track. While the city focuses its attention on recovery from the damage of the "Storm of the Century," the tempest of mass incarceration and its path of destruction goes swirling on, tossing about and disintegrating the lives of thousands of people each day.

On October 31, I traveled through gridlocked traffic in two boroughs to appear in court in Queens. I am in the midst of trial, facing up to one year of jail for nonviolently protesting the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy at the 103rd Precinct in Jamaica, Queens. This action in November 2011 was part of a series of city-wide actions called for by Cornel West and Carl Dix, which has ignited resistance to the policy and helped bring about a climate where the policy is at the forefront of every news headline.

Despite the storm, the line at the Queens County Criminal Courthouse wrapped around the block, and I overheard stories of people without power, water, or transportation who somehow made it to the line that morning to deal with the cases the state has against them. Many of them had their cases delayed substantially, six weeks out until December. But when our attorneys met with the judge, it was made quite clear that not only is our trial scheduled to continue with great haste, on Monday, November 5th, but that the judge is also considering the relatively unprecedented step of a re-voir dire of one of the sitting jurors. He feels that juror may no longer be unbiased, as during the original jury questionnaire she expressed her opposition to the stop-and-frisk policy. This comes on top of the District Attorney twice escalating the charges before trial, first adding an additional count of Obstruction of Governmental Administration, and again by charging us not as individual agents, but as "acting in concert," which means if I or any of my three co-defendants are found guilty, we are all found guilty.

Now confronted even more sharply with how seriously the gears of the injustice system are grinding forward in this case, I want to go further than my last piece in explaining why this case matters to more than just those who know and care about me personally. I know that many who already lived one paycheck away from disaster—the bulk of those who are the targets of the very policy I am facing jail time for protesting—are legitimately distracted and profoundly overwhelmed by the urgent need to get food, dry clothes, and clean drinking water. In the midst of these catastrophes, with both natural and unnatural causes, our prosecution still remains among the city's top priorities. Why?

Sharing the story of our protest against the stop-and-frisk policy, and the outrageous charges lobbed at us as a result, has galvanized support from people from all corners of my life, and helps to shed light on just why the authorities are so adamant in pursuing the charges against us. High school classmates at Sidwell Friends; acquaintances from the Fulbright program; teachers, artists, and students I work with here in New York City; people across the country are inspired by the city-wide civil disobedience actions we conducted, and the stand we are taking through these trials.

It's been amazing to receive such an outpouring of support among my high school network at Sidwell Friends, many from sections of people who are not the victims of racial profiling, yet are outraged that it happens in this society, and that one of their classmates now faces jail time for protesting it. Many of their sentiments even begin to call into question the legitimacy of the justice system. There are also those who have shared their stories of living under the New Jim Crow. One co-worker recounted growing up in Jamaica, Queens at the 103rd, under constant harassment from the police, even going so far as drawing their weapons on him on several occasions. Another co-worker shared the humiliation of coming into work and being stopped and searched at the door by school police, while her boss was waved in past the metal detectors without issue.

A young man from the South Side of Chicago responded to my article, recalling that "stop-and-frisk" was always the norm in certain areas. "This was usually performed by un-uniformed detectives in Chevy Caprice Classics and Ford Crown Victorias. In my case, there was no formal announcement of policy, it was just the norm. If you were a young Black man walking or driving through certain areas you stood a significant chance of being stopped and searched. At the time it was very common to grumble about it, but it was rare that anyone took the time to advocate for our rights in the face of that type of oppressive behavior. So I say all that to say: Thanks for what you are doing Jamel. I wish that there had been one of you in Chicago during the 90's."

There is much to learn from these expressions of support. They are not only indicative of the tremendous social weight of the issue we face, but also of the tremendous fear the rulers of this system have of further exposing the scope of, and fomenting resistance to, the human rights nightmare of mass incarceration. The powers-that-be really have a dilemma on their hands. In the face of upheaval around the social fissure of mass incarceration, they can choose to back off of repressive policies such as stop-and-frisk, like releasing a steam valve in order to release the pressure. Or, they can dig in and enforce it more brutally, and isolate and crush any potential movement against it, risking unleashing an even more severe and thoroughgoing wave of resistance.

In light of this, it comes as no surprise that just as stop-and-frisk is a controversial flashpoint in society we are facing an unprecedented wave of repression. The authorities have doubled down on their support of stop-and-frisk, and continue to wantonly harass and murder Black and Latino youth. Just this year, Reynaldo Cuevas, a young Latino, was murdered in the Bronx as he ran to safety fleeing a robbery at the bodega in which he worked. Jose Polanco, a National Guardsman, was shot point blank in his car on the side of the road by an officer with a case of road rage in Queens. These cases are by no means uncommon: every 40 hours, another young life is stolen by law enforcement in this country. Just in New York City, the NYPD have made 685,000 reported stops—the NYPD has in fact stopped and frisked more young Black men than there are young Black men in the city.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly have gone on a PR tour justifying this brutality to the masses they inflict it upon, speaking to all-Black congregations to remind them that Black and Latino youth are dangerous, and that these measures are taken to protect the citizenry from unruly criminals. The case against us is a particular expression of this dilemma: as stop-and-frisk is objectively on trial in society, we stand trial facing up to a year in prison for protesting the policy at the 103rd precinct, which set off a city-wide wave of resistance against the policy and mass incarceration. Yet the refrain from the judge and prosecution has been "stop-and-frisk is not on trial here." Tell me, how could this be about anything else?

The system of mass incarceration sits atop a fault-line social contradiction historically centered at the core of the development of the United States: the oppression and exploitation of Black people and other racial minority groups. Since its inception, the United States has maintained a cohering mythology of "the greatest nation on earth," and a free and democratic society for all, while maintaining, and depending on, some form of racial caste system. First it was slavery, then Jim Crow segregation, and now the "New" Jim Crow, mass incarceration. We find ourselves in the midst of a "post-racial" society with equal opportunity for all, yet 2.4 million mostly Blacks and Latinos are warehoused across the nation, with their rights denied, barred access to housing and voting rights, and legally discriminated against, wearing a badge of shame and dishonor for the rest of their lives. The trial itself, and the prosecution and judge's attempts to rule out any discussion of stop-and-frisk speaks volumes about the necessity they face to maintain this myth, to maintain a veneer of legitimacy while not only trampling over our First Amendment rights to protest, while fundamentally violating the rights of a whole section of people they have historically criminalized.

The stakes of our trial are high for the movement, and for society. Stop-and-frisk and the scourge of mass incarceration are not just our pet project, nor a "cause du jour." This isn't just about defending our right to protest, but about acting with urgency to stop the continuous assault on another's right to live. One wouldn't sum up the Black Liberation Movement of the 1960's, or the Abolitionists of the 1850's, by saying, "Well, that was just some people's thing, or that was a certain section of people who were passionate about expressing their right to protest."

The Freedom Fighters against the old Jim Crow, those who conducted the freedom rides and sit-ins, acted not just out of passion, but out of moral imperative to challenge policy as a way of bringing an end to an entire system of state-sanctioned racial oppression. Now, we face a situation drastically worse, where millions of youth have stories of living under the New Jim Crow, and thousands of communities bear the scars of a system of mass incarceration whose effects are tantamount to a slow genocide. Yes, the police and the courts trampled over First Amendment rights in the process, but precisely because we spoke up against, and fomented resistance to a conscious policy that concentrates a leading edge of the New Jim Crow. They want to send a message: if you make too much noise around this, we'll shut you up. We want to send the opposite message. You can fight against injustice and beat it back, and win. Their fate, and the terms of mass incarceration more broadly in society, is bound up with what is allowed, and not allowed, to happen to us.

As we recover from one storm and brace to endure another, we stand at the crossroads of a moral imperative. If we are convicted of these unjust charges, there is a danger of weakening the movement, and setting disturbing new terms for those who wish to protest injustice. In winning, we have the potential to put the movement against mass incarceration onto a new trajectory, and come much closer to ending this horror once and for all. In either case, the terms of the conversation won't be the same as they were before. Mass resistance is needed to solve this problem. We are seeing the embryonic steps toward this in the protests against the execution of Troy Davis, the courageous efforts of inmates at Pelican Bay in hunger striking to demand an end to their torturous conditions, in the upheaval against the vigilante murder of Trayvon Martin, and in the resistance concentrated around the issue of stop-and-frisk.

There is still quite a way to go. When we look back at this moment in history, when stop-and-frisk was on trial in society and more specifically in the trial of four Freedom Fighters who put themselves on the line to drag this injustice into the light, which side of history will we fall on?

Check for trial updates, ways to support, and stay involved in the struggle.

Jamel Mims is an multimedia artist, hip hop pedagogue, and activist from Washington, D.C. In 2008 he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study hip hop in Beijing. His work, which ranges from multimedia ethnography to political expression, is joined together by common themes of youth culture, social transformation, and the urban environment. He currently lives in New York City.

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