Some people would think that the Jim Crow laws enacted between 1876 and 1965 which mandated “separate but equal” in all public facilities for “negros” was over. Well, in the year 2011, and under the administration of an African-American President, it is alive and well and vibrant in New York City.
Of course this practice of targeting individuals who look “suspicious” or may “pose a threat” to police and the public, in other words walking “while black”, has been growing strong over the last 30 years. However, the NYPD has perfected its use and is now on target to “stop and frisk” (SNF) over 700,000 young men in 2011. The Police Department said it made 601,055 street stops of potential suspects last year, with about 10 percent of the stops resulting in arrests. In 2009, there were 575,304 stops. There are now lawsuits pending against the NYPD demanding proof that this policy is not racially biased and legally viable.
For this reason, the “Stop Mass Incarceration Network” has formed the “Stop, Stop and Frisk” movement. People throughout the city, and those who are now part of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, are challenging this racist, illegitimate and immoral policy by taking to the streets demanding its demise. They are the “New Freedom Fighters.” The first protest was on October 21st in Harlem at the 23 precinct. Members of the community, activists and victims of SNF blocked the entrance and shut down the precinct for a short time, shouting the slogan “Stop and Frisk don’t stop the crime, stop and frisk is the crime.” After about 30 minutes, 37 people were arrested for disorderly conduct. But it didn’t stop there. Two more protests, November 2nd in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and November 19th at the 103 precinct in Queens, challenged this policy by directly confronting the perpetrators of the crime, the police themselves.
On Saturday, November 19th, 20 people were arrested, and incarcerated for “Obstructing Governmental Administration” a misdemeanor, and the second charge of “Disorderly Conduct”. I was one of them. We started our march in the neighborhood where Sean Bell had been brutally executed by police. Members of the community stood up to speak about how SNF had stolen the lives of young black and Latino men by police who eagerly snatch and grab them on the streets as they are going about their daily lives. Many are put up against a squad car in broad daylight, told to empty their pockets, frisked, questioned and usually arrested for minor “offenses” such as not having ID, appearing to look like they are a criminal wanted for questioning, or holding a negligible amount of marijuana in their pockets, out of public view. According to the breakdown, police stop and frisk about 1,900 people a day, most if not all of who are black and Latino men from the age of 16 to 25, who live in the inner city neighborhoods.
After holding our rally, we marched through Jamaica, Queens directly to the 103 precinct, which has the highest percentage of stop and frisks in the City. Our plan was to walk to the main entrance, determined to let our presence be known. However, upon arrival, there were police barricades surrounding the entire square block, the building, and one cop every 2 to 3 feet behind those racks. We stopped and assessed the situation, since this put a kink in our plans. But before I knew it, there was an officer standing at one section of racks asking if we wanted to go inside to the main entrance. He opened up one section, and let those of us in who were committed to taking our message up front.
After only 10 minutes tops, we were ordered to leave or we would be arrested for “Obstructing Governmental Administration.” I thought this was rather harsh since shortly before they allowed us entrance to the area we occupied on the steps. An officer was counting down to the second, and repeated the order. Swiftly they started removing people, me included. Cuffs slapped on and tightened in anger, we were all literally pulled and dragged to an awaiting van just 25 yards away. There were police swarming all over us, and the area. They outnumbered us 4 to 1.
From there we were taken to the 105 precinct for processing. Six women and fourteen men, it took 10 hours to fingerprint us and then we were hauled to Queens central booking for the night. Our property was strewn all over the floor while in the precinct, cops by the dozens were in and out of the holding area, with guns on their hips, and the women were told we would be strip searched for certain property they were looking for. I was there with 5 young brave women, 2 who had never been arrested before. They were somewhat frightened by the police behavior, but stood their ground, did not succumb to threats and bullying. We sang songs, laughed and told jokes until handcuffed again.
Once at central booking, the nightmare continued. By this time we had already been incarcerated for about 11 hours, no food or water, and constant harassment. I had to stick my fingers in my ears to stop the noise from giving me a further migraine. We had already been fingerprinted at the precinct, but now we had to walk through a metal detector, get frisked, and have an optical scanner shoved into our eye sockets. Now I started to get enraged. No one ever asked me if I wanted my eyeballs scanned for database entry so that I would now forever be traceable. My rights had been already egregiously violated that at this point we had no choice but to continue this process.
The outright bad attitudes of the police continued on to the corrections’ officers. The entire building, even where they work, was absolutely filthy. There was dirt and dust in every nook and cranny from the 1960’s. I couldn’t imagine going to work there everyday, but could understand how their bad attitudes were only exacerbated by their working environment. There were roaches crawling on the empty DOC food bins, which once contained dinner of PPJ and cheese sandwiches. We got locked into a holding cell, now in general population. We met others who were similarly disgusted. They talked about how dirty the place was, and how when they were there previously, they had bed bugs and bites on their legs and arms. They warned us not to eat the cheese sandwiches because they were “lethal,” and were truly amazed that we voluntarily placed ourselves in this predicament.
Once another intrusive interview was conducted, where they ask basically your weight, where you were born, and how you earn a living, we were escorted by a miserable man into the main holding pen. By now it was 2:30 am, and the pen was filled with women. There was absolutely no room to move. We had to walk in and step over bodies that were on the floor, sleeping on dirty mats with equally filthy blankets. Searching for a spot, I had to take to the wooden bench, last spot left, that abutted a wall that had blood, urine and feces stains. The bench was about a foot in width, which is way smaller than my ass. Everyone else scattered inside the pen to find their spot, pretty disheveled and disgusted by this point.
Here we were, the new “freedom fighters” going through the system we were fighting against. We all started questioning our resolve and wondering how stupid we could be to have put ourselves there. I looked around the pen, thinking that I had to remain calm, focused and in a Zen like state to get through the next day, or more. Most were sleeping, or attempting to sleep in the crowded, miserable area.
Just as I dozed off at 6 AM, a corrections officer and 2 inmates dressed in orange pinstripes appeared at the gate. The officer started yelling “if you want to eat, line up.” And he continued to yell “ladies, hurry up or you won’t eat.” That’s when I got to see the other occupants of the cell. Young women mostly, an ethnically mixed crowd; Asian, Black, Latino, and me. The discussion was cordial, and turned to “what are you in here for.” There were 2 young women picked up for solicitation, several others for drug use, and then the rest, believe it or not, were “stopped and frisked.” I couldn’t believe my ears. We told them we were there for protesting. Our story was met with disbelief, but complete support. All of them knew about the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, and were pretty well informed, up to the minute. They asked about the police raid last week, expressed concern that the police just “tossed out” personal items, tents, and books; and that the cops generally “sucked.” We had a political conversation about how bad the government was, and how America was absolutely not the country they thought it should be or people believed it was.
The Asian women were from Beijing, China. They said they want to go home. They came here thinking they could live a good life and get good jobs, because that’s what everyone believes. But realize at this point that’s a lie. The young black women were picked up by cops just as they were walking out of their building. They were stopped and asked for identification. They responded that they didn’t have any because they weren’t going anywhere, and were immediately arrested. Another young black female was in the park with her boyfriend after 9 pm, not realizing that there was a curfew. She said out of the bushes came 2 cops who told them they were “trespassing” and immediately cuffed both of them, no questions asked.
So here we were, having put ourselves into the “system”, having doubts about doing so, yet realizing the reason we were there. Stories upon stories of violations of civil rights were told. Stories of disgust with the NYPD, and the situation in this country. After several hours of discussion and debate, we had all bonded, realizing we had much in common. Here were women from the inner city, targeted for very similar reasons to be thrown into the system that would and could destroy their lives. They had kids left at home unattended, jobs they couldn’t get to and questions about their freedom. And yet strangely enough, some, who were constantly in and out of jail, had built a symbiotic relationship with the police who held them hostage and bound in their chains.
For instance, Linda, a hard core addict, greeted a female officer on the morning rounds. They exchanged greetings, and Linda said “she’s my friend for 25 years.” The officer said to Linda “I’m retiring in 30 days, when are you going to retire?” Linda responded, “I’m working on it.” And they both chuckled. I had witnessed earlier at the precinct the desk sergeant walking out with a group of young boys, and I mean boys, who were probably just victims of stop and frisk. She went up to the front of the line as they were cuffed and chained, and fussed with one kid’s hat. She pulled at it and fixed it for him. He seemed uncomfortable, shifted his feet, and hunched a little. She then said to him “Isn’t that better?” He couldn’t really respond because there was no mirror. I could see many emotions passing over his face. What could he have been thinking? Probably “don’t touch me bitch.”
By noon, 20 women were taken to the court holding cell, a 10’ x 12’ space. Once again the walls and floors were blackened with years of dirt, and the toilet, open for viewing, was unspeakable. By now most of us had been held almost 24 hours or more. We were hungry, tired, irritable, and smelly. The hallways were bustling with cops, and corrections officers. They were yelling and cracking jokes about all of the prisoners there, as if we couldn’t hear them. Calling names, exerting their perceived authority and superiority. One corrections officer, Johnson, started to call a women from Occupy Wall Street by her first name. He relentlessly pursued harassing her, until she answered him. The officers then all chimed in and asked us if we were all the “99% ers”.
I told the young woman who was with me not to answer, to ignore their chiding and snide remarks. But by this time she was angry and extremely stressed. Johnson said that he “was with us”, but she said he wasn’t and if he was he would quit his job, or make life better for those of us on the “inside.” They debated and talked about what it meant to be part of the 99%, what the government oppression was all about, and the role of the police protecting the 1%. The discussion raged, and more guards got involved. At this point the women in the cell wanted to put an end to it. Here we were, six “freedom fighters” who were attempting to create a better world being told we were causing a problem. You see those who spend their lives in this cycle of oppression, depend upon this abusive relationship between guards and prisoners. I was told by a woman that Johnson was a “good guy,” that he gave her cigarettes, and water when she was there at other times. Linda said that we were causing a problem for them because they had to return and deal with the guards; that their relationship was important to the comfort of their incarceration.
How odd. The guards depended upon the inmates for entertainment, to make their day go quickly; for exercising their power and supremacy over those that they imprison; and for keeping the system running so that these women would return, and the cops would continue to have a job. The women depended upon the guards for a perceived comfort, like a battered wife saying that “he isn’t so bad,” and basically they were treated “ok.” A textbook abusive relationship, cycling on for decades.
Here we were, women who wouldn’t tolerate the condescension, challenging the system that others knew was oppressive, however, wouldn’t allow us to continue to actually tear a hole in it. I can’t stress enough how important it then became for us to bear witness to this situation of dual dependency buried deep inside a system that perpetuates oppressive, demeaning behavior for all of those involved.
By this time the legal aid lawyers started calling our names and getting us ready for court. There was no privacy to speak to an attorney, so either we stood at the bars by the door, or go inside a tiny room that was refuge for the remaining women who were cramped in the cell with us. My lawyer was thumbing through my file and with a look of shock and a hint of a smile asked me about my “record.” She said “I see there are other cases in your file.” I asked her what she saw, and that nothing was outstanding. In fact, I was acquitted at a trial in Philadelphia. She looked up at me and said “yes, I see that.” We remained in the cell until 3 PM, all of us with no food, water or room to even stand comfortably.
By the time I was called into the courtroom, my head was about to explode, I was shaking, ready to vomit, and worst of all, my makeup was completely smeared on my face. When I got out into the air, all I wanted to do was flee, go home, take a long hot shower, and eat. As I got into my car, and drove along the Brooklyn Queens Expressway to my home in Staten Island, looking at my bruised wrists that were cut from the flexi cuffs, I couldn’t stop thinking about those women I had met on the inside.
I had a retreat. I could go back to my all white neighborhood, with my 4 dogs, 2 cats and husband. My nice 2 story home, on a tree lined street in the most middle class area of the borough was awaiting me. How sad. Those women I left behind didn’t have that option. They would either get out and go back to a place that was targeted by a system of repression, where they couldn’t even walk out of their building without being harassed, or remain in jail to face further incarceration and harassment. There was no retreat, or very little. They had to remain on alert, constantly operating in emergency mode, and most especially, their male friends had to do the same in fear of the police who comb their streets only to pick them up again because of a policy that targets the color of their skin in the place where they live. Whereas I could even drive without identification.
If this isn’t the new Jim Crow, then tell me what is. We live in a country that was founded on genocide, and built on slavery, which won’t end until we make sure it does. It is incumbent upon us, those who can openly fight the system, to do so. Yes, it is more difficult than natural child birth, but the results could benefit all of humanity.
December 2nd is the next day of action where students will be called upon to leave school and rally against this racist policy. Join us. Call 866-941-9139 or visit Stop Mass Incarceration Network.