Leading up to Friday's mass civil disobedience at Harlem's 28th Police Precinct to Stop "Stop & Frisk," I heard many people's stories of being unjustly harassed, detained, humiliated, and brutalized by the NYPD. Far too often, these stories came with an air of resignation and comments like, "Its been going on so long, it will never change."
Well, that is certainly not how it felt on the streets of Harlem on Friday! I was arrested together with Dr. Cornel West, Rev. Stephen Phelps from Riverside Church, Rev. Earl Kooperkamp from St. Mary's Church, Debra Sweet and Elaine Brower of World Can't Wait, Prof. Jim Vrettos from John Jay College, and the author of this incredibly moving letter along with dozens of others -- including a sizable number from the Wall Street Occupation (their General Assembly endorsed this the night before) as well as folks who have been victimized by "Stop & Frisk." The crowd of supporters grew to more than 400 and brimmed with determination, defiance, and serious jubilation.
We not only frontally challenged the New Jim Crow of mass criminalization and incarceration of Black and Latinos, but the New Jim Crow attitude of acceptance of what the criminal "injustice" system does to people began to be cast off.
People felt in their souls what I have been insisting since we began; that we are in this to win it and we won't stop until Stop & Frisk is ended along with the whole mass incarceration and criminalization of our youth. Next week, on November 1st, we are taking this campaign of civil disobedience to the 73rd Precinct in Brownsville.
At least two key things went into making this launch so powerful.
First, the leading edge of this movement is determined resistance. With right on our side and the righteousness of putting a lot on the line for it, we cracked the sense that this is just the way things are, and there's nothing we can do about it that keeps people cowed during "normal times."
The second great strength was the powerful coming together of two different sections of people who this system works hard to keep divided; from one side, there were Black and Latino people who are routinely traumatized and brutalized by wholesale criminalization and mass incarceration, and from the other side were hundreds of white people who overwhelmingly have had no such experience.
During the rally, several Black people defiantly stepped to the front of the crowd and told story after story of being Stopped & Frisked. The eyes of the white people in the crowd literally widened. Many of them winced as they heard first hand stories of humiliation, brutality, and terror inflicted on Black and Latino people by the NYPD.
From the other side, a special moment came when Elaine Brower spoke. She began with something obvious: "I am a white woman." She went on to explain how she could have stayed home in her comfortable living room and that she's never been stopped or frisked. But, she insisted, "But I couldn't live with myself if I didn't come out here and stand with you against this racist policy and crime!" Hers was a message that hit very hard and in two ways. Immediately the Black and Brown faces broke into ear-to-ear smiles as they began to recognize the seriousness with which so many white people were beginning to see this New Jim Crow. For white folks, her words seemed to cement a basic stand and principle which had pulled them to participate but perhaps hadn't been so clearly articulated yet.
Our spirits only rose as we marched to the 28th Precinct. Cornel West and I were joined by thirty-four others in conducting non-violent civil disobedience by blocking its entrance. I am never going to say that I enjoy being in the custody of pigs, but if I am going to be, I can't think of better company to have! From the men's cell, we could hear the women singing Billy Holiday songs, Motown, even a Frankie Valli song or two. When they tried to start Otis Redding's "Dock of the Bay" in the middle, I couldn't allow that so I started them off at the beginning again. And on we went until we were released Friday evening.
All, that is, except two.
The police singled out two young organizers of the protest. They were held until Saturday night and charged with resisting arrest and obstruction. One of them is a member of the People's Neighborhood Patrol of Harlem whose purpose is to prevent law enforcement from violating the peoples' rights and brutalizing them under the color of authority.
Now, I have been around long enough to remember the price this system extracted from the Freedom Riders -- the jail time, the church bombings, the terror and the lynchings - so I take very seriously the singling out of these two young men for special charges.
Naming today's mass incarceration and criminalization of Black and Latino youth "The New Jim Crow" is not mere hyperbole. 1 in 9 Black men between the ages of 20 and 29 are in prison. The police are on a pace to Stop & Frisk more than 700,000 this year in New York City. 2.3 million people in prisons. Tens of thousands in the torture of solitary confinement, many for years upon years. Troy Davis, against whom there was no credible evidence, was legally lynched in Georgia. Days later, a crowd of Republicans gave a good-ol-boy cheer to the fact that Rick Perry has executed 234 people. A lifelong caste-like stigmatization and denial of basic rights like voting, public housing, and an equal opportunity to work now faces millions of ex-prisoners.
We must harbor no illusions that shattering the New Jim Crow is going to be any less of a fight, that it will require any less sacrifice, any less holding people to their convictions and their highest aspirations, any less coming together and forging collective strength many never dreamed they possessed, any less monumental transformation of the way we all think, relate, act, and dare, than it took to shatter the Jim Crow of my youth. Likewise, it will take waves of others - other prominent individuals, religious communities, public intellectuals, artists and voices of conscience, as well as wave upon wave upon wave of students and youth of all nationalities -- stepping up and stepping in behind those who have dared to kick open a new door.
One of the last things Cornel West said to me while waiting for the release of today's new freedom fighters, was that we cannot let this be just a "flash in the pan." He is right.
For my part, I promise not to back down or be backed down from what we began yesterday. I won't back down from anything the system throws at me or others who get involved in this movement, but also that I won't back away from telling everyone within "earshot" of me -- including you -- the truth.
The truth is: A door has been kicked open, the hopes of those who live under the constant terror of police harassment and the looming threat -- and the crushing reality -- of being locked down and locked out have been raised. The eyes -- and the consciences -- of many of those who do not face this have been opened to something new. Whether this moment is squandered, whether these hopes are dashed and harder to rekindle, whether the walls between different sections of the people are not only reconstructed but reinforced... Or... whether the seeming permanence of the existing conditions is further shattered, whether these hopes are given full flower, whether the strength and learning and mutual reinforcement that comes from forging multinational unity in the struggle for liberation is fully uncorked, whether a new generation not only rises to the heights of the struggle of my youth but surpasses this with all their own style and culture and determination and joy... depends on you.
This means is demanding that the charges against all 36 of those arrested be dropped. It means giving money. It means getting organized.
We targeted Stop & Frisk as a beginning in New York City because it is a gateway funneling our youth into the criminal injustice system. There are similar policies and institutions where you are.
Friday was only the beginning. Tuesday, November 1st at 4pm we are taking this civil disobedience to the notorious 73rd Police Precinct in Brownsville, Brooklyn -- and there will be more after that! Come and join us. Or organize to do this where you live.
Contact Michael Bloomberg and demand that all charges on the Stop & Frisk 36 be dropped. Fax (212) 312-0700 or email here.