Notes from the Courthouse
As part of the Communities United for Police Reform Coalition, we attended the trial, Floyd, et al. v. City of New York et al, a federal class action lawsuit that challenges the NYPD's practices of racial profiling and unconstitutional stop-and frisks. Rachel Jane Liebert posted updates on our Tumblr so that others could follow along. Her entries are compiled below.
Day 1, Monday March 18th
I’m not usually one to grab the daily paper when I get off the subway, but as I was leaving the City Hall station this morning, the cover story of AM New York got my eye. A silhouette of a police officer taking aim down some kind of sci-fi-futuristic-tunnel was framed with the headline, “NYPD 2.0: How city beats crime with high-tech tools”. I couldn’t help but witness the synchronicity of the image. It was Day 1 of the Floyd Trial to challenge the unconstitutionality of the NYPD’s “stop & frisk” practices. Last week the city “celebrated” it’s five millionth stop – the absolute majority of which involved the violation of black, brown, and innocent, yet supposedly “suspicious”, young men.
Argued by some as a technique in crime-fighting, others as a technique in apartheid, this number came just days after two NYPD officers shot Kimani Grey, a 16yo African American man out with his friends in Brooklyn. The vigils and protests that have followed Kimani’s death are testimony to the ongoing reality of police brutality for NYC communities. Grief, outrage, and fatigue make for powerful alchemy.
There is something here that echoes with the political context of the landmark Terry vs. Ohio case where the “reasonable suspicion” standard for stop & frisk was unleashed. Similar to how that case was embedded within the black resistance movements of the 1960s, this one also speaks within historic struggles and Occupy-ed uprisings. Like then, are the militant tactics of the NYPD – bragged by Mayor Bloomberg last Fall as “the seventh biggest army in the world” – once again becoming increasingly called upon as a means to instill fear and block emergent resistance?
Is this what was behind the image that AM New York was projecting? At least it was what was whispering to me as I walked through the freezing cold toward 500 Pearl Street, Courtroom 15C.
With hundreds of people coming out to support the case, shortly after 9am most of us were being directed into overflow rooms. I was told to remove my Communities United for Police Reform button (activist!!!), and sat with everyone else trying to see the static televised image of Judge Scheindlin and listen to the opening statements coming from off-camera. Thankfully one of my fiercely awesome students managed to hustle me into the courtroom after an hour or so. It was only then that I was able to see behind the camera and was disturbed by the predictability of the space. As far as I could tell, and with the exception of the counsel for the plaintiff, the people who were participating in the proceedings – the Judge, court personnel, defense counsel, and courtside reporters – all appeared to be white. What does it mean when the people who are most affected by the outcome of this trial are not represented in those who are making the decisions? Indeed, when the people making the decisions are lubed by the white supremacy reproduced through racist policing?
I guess this is what it means to sit fifteen floors up in the pillar of justice.
Speaking for the plaintiff, Darius Charney, lead counsel from the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), argued that stop & frisk has “laid siege to Black and Latino communities”; it is “arbitrary, unnecessary, and unconstitutional harassment”. Combined with a pattern of suspicion-less stops that rely on porous notions of “furtive movement” and “high crime area”, he went on to explain how “race is used as a proxy for criminality”. The defense in turn insisted that their “proactive policing” is based on “data not race”. Moreover, one’s innocence, they continued, is “misleading and irrelevant” given that the stops are made under the suspicion that people are about to commit a crime. It follows that, wrapped in the commonsensical and benevolent language of “prevention” and “safety”, these stop & frisk practices can never be falsified.
Yet, doesn’t this mean that they can also never be justified?
A large part of the plaintiff’s argument also spoke to the “wide gap” between what the NYPD “says on paper and what happens in practice and on the streets”. As Charney put it, “the problem starts at the top and ends with the stop”. The defense painstakingly outlined all the ways that they “watch” their officers; saying that “performance standards” (read: quotas) make “good business sense”. After all, how else could the NYPD get their employees – even “donut-eating” ones – to work hard? (It seems like young black and brown men aren’t the only ones being stereotyped and surveiled within the prison-industrial complex). Overall, the defense drew on all-too-popular neoliberal discourses of personal responsibility; landing stop & frisk “errors” in the individual bodies of bad, lazy police officers, and refusing to see the systemic flaws and structural injustices that provide the fertile context for widespread, exploitative policing practices.
Then again, maybe this post is just another example of what the defense defensively described as “theories and speculation” – as opposed to “evidence” – on the “Let’s Criticize The NYPD Bandwagon”.
Day 2, Tuesday March 19th
After the crowds of yesterday, I arrived at the courtroom embarrassingly early this morning and spent an hour or so smitten with the view out of the fifteenth floor windows of 500 Pearl Street. Wearing a hat of mist, the scattered snow-scene of downtown Manhattan was beautiful and meditative. It seemed twisted that I could find peace in the phallus of a system that pours people into cages. Perhaps likely not not because I was gazing from the body of what can at least pass for a young, white, upwardly-mobile, able-bodied woman. This place is designed to protect people like me…
My privilege and I eventually wandered into the empty courtroom. It turned out that it was supposed to be locked, but before being kicked out I had the honor of connecting with three shiny people. Dion Dennis – an African American man in his forties who was a witness for the plaintiff and would continue testifying today on his experiences with stop & frisk; Officer Serrano – a Latino man who was also a witness for the plaintiff and would be testifying on his experiences in the NYPD; and Lillian – a 93yo white woman who had been “watching stop & frisk for years” from her home in the LES.
Why were we, this motley crew, all here? Because we believed that things were wrong, and they needed to change.
And we were joined in struggle by the notable number of ghosts in the room today. The trial for the shooting of Ramarley Graham – an 18yo black male who was killed, unarmed, by an NYPD officer in the bathroom of his grandmother’s apartment last winter – was occurring simultaneously in the Bronx. The black priest from Queens who was sitting next to me spoke of the passing of his wife last Christmas and how he was learning to balance his activism and community work with being a single father. And Nicholas Peart, who also took the stand as a plaintiff’s witness on his experiences with stop & frisk, was introduced as a 23yo African American man and an after-school facilitator and the legal guardian of his three young siblings following the passing of his mother from cancer several years ago.
Maybe it was the presence of so many diverse and determined souls that made the courtroom feel so charged today. As “spectators” we watched the cross-examination of David Floyd, and then the full examination of Dennis and Peart. It was startling (but, again, not surprising) to see the interactions between members of the defense team and the witnesses. Three young white lawyers desperately, aggressively trying to undermine the accounts of three black men. Firing bullet-questions that shattered their experiences into binary yes/no categories. (And yet having a good giggle together during the breaks; it was obvious who was not carrying the stakes of this trial.)
First up, the defense team was trying hard to imply that the witnesses had bung memories by making people repeat and stumble over excruciatingly minute details, thereby suggesting their accounts were not trustworthy. A seemingly obvious tactic, yet any difficulties people had seemed moreso to illustrate how prolific, inconsistent, and confusing these stop & frisks were. Even Judge Scheindlin said that by the end of his testimony, she had “lost count” of all the stops that Peart had experienced.
Second, they implied that there was no, or limited, threat and force in people’s interactions with the NYPD such that they had some sort of freedom. Their wave of the neoliberal wand thereby making the witnessesmagically accountable for what they experienced. Yet, as Floyd said, “in reality it wouldn’t have been smart for me to not follow directions”. Being “free” to question, to refuse, or to leave doesn’t sound quite so all-American when, as he continued, “the interaction could escalate into something violent and possibly something deadly”.
Third, was the implication that people’s beliefs that their blackness contributed to the stops were false, if not, in the case of Peart, based on his supposed intentions to, as the defense put it, “get the NYPD into trouble”. This tactic smelled particularly ironic. Are these lawyers trying to argue against the “reasonable suspicion” of racism? Post-Terry, officer “intuition” has become accepted for stopping people. Yet the embodied expertise of people whose communities have experienced decades of harassment and abuse by the police conveniently does not count as “evidence”.
Even though it is precisely this expertise – what Peart described as a “sensing” – that testifies to the circulation of context in people’s interactions. The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) did an incredible job of bringing this into the space today. An honoring that takes on all the more significance given that, in a world of stop & frisk, such expertise usually gets reduced into a 250 check for being “furtive”.
Indeed to not be furtive after having interactions with the police when going to the bodega for milk, leaving your grandmother’s house, hanging out with friends on your birthday, or walking home from the gym – interactions that involved being frisked, searched, inappropriately touched, screamed at, handcuffed, put in the back of a police car, having guns pointed at your head as you lay on the ground, your cell-phone and wallet taken from you, and/or an officer walking off with your keys and entering the apartment building where your little brothers and disabled sister are alone, in bed, and waiting for you – because you “fit a description”, arguably warrants more suspicion than acting nervous and fearful around the NYPD.
And this list comes only out of the experiences described by Peart. He cried during his testimony today. As did several other people in the courtroom. Perhaps this is why, at least by my reading, after the break when we had to “all rise” for Judge Scheindlin, she kept us standing until Peart had also entered the room to re-take the stand. Indeed throughout the day she seemed overwhelmingly supportive of the plaintiffs. Casually making her power known though sips of Coke Zero in an otherwise dry courtroom, several times muffled laughter rippled through the space as she called out the points of the defense team for being repetitive and irrelevant.
Word on the bench is that the defense think they are going to lose, btw.
Their concerns could only have been amplified by the testimony of Officer Polanco at the very end of the day, who soaked the space in outrage-ous accounts of quota systems as experienced during his service in a Bronx precinct. Despite the enormous amount of activities that officers undertake to help communities, Polanco said that “productivity” is defined in terms of “one thing and one thing only – how many arrests you make, how many summons you write, and how many 250s you did in a month”. 20 summons, 1 arrest, and 5 stop & frisks per officer, at least.
Notably this “success” was about quantity not quality; “They just want to make sure we have them. How we got them they don’t ever care about”. In his daily recaps and monthly monitoring meetings with his supervisor, Polanco was never asked if the stop & frisks were based on reasonable suspicion. In fact, if he did not meet his quotas for the month, he would be pushed until he “got the numbers”, including a practice known as Driving A Sergeant whereby, “they would throw something at me”. That “something”? A person who is up against a wall – literally and metaphorically. Officers are forced to issue 250s following stop & frisks that they have not even been involved with.
Is this, then, what happens when – as the opening statement by the defense explicitly (indeed, proudly) attested to yesterday – policing is run on “good business sense”? If there is one thing that echoed on the fifteenth floor of 500 Pearl Street today: racist policing is both product and tool of neoliberalism. And people are refusing to let it go on.
Day 4, Thursday March 21st
Officer Serrano took the stand today. Himself stopped multiple times by the police given his Hispanic-in-Harlem demographic-magnetism, he presented absolutely damning evidence about stop & frisk from his 42nd precinct in the Bronx. Much of this came from recordings that Serrano secretly made during roll calls and evaluation meetings, where he was told that fifty percent of his evaluation score was based on only one of 28 categories in the official performance monitoring sheets. Justified by Operations Order 52, supervisors are told that they “can and must set performance goals” for “the issuance of summons, the stopping and questioning of suspicious individuals, and the arresting of criminals”.
Or, as Serrano put it, “quota, quota, quota, quota”.
With a series of recordings from roll calls at the 81st precinct in Brooklyn, the team from the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) revealed the systemic flaws from which these practices emerged. The supervisors were pleading – actually pleading – with the officers to “do the work”, “get the numbers”, “increase activity”, “step it up”, “get the 250s”. Not because this was asked for by the community, or even for the grand discourse of ‘public safety’, but because otherwise the supervisors would “get yelled at” by their own commanding officers.
So. Many. Layers. Of. Watching.
Why? Because the numbers must speak with the statistics. The NYPD have to show that they are “deterring” crime in areas with a “spike”, which manifests as crime-hunting-cum-“proactive” policing. Yet the NYPD are also known for not responding to and/or recording reports of actual crimes, in order to push the crime statistics down. Constructing The City as a veritable crime-fighting machine.
Many of the officers refer to 2007 – aka CompStat – as the moment when these pressures intensified. CompStat is designed to generate data in “real time” so that precincts and officers know how to “best” direct their policing. Constructing The City as a data-driven, crime-fightingmachine. Quite the political branding.
It’s disturbing to think that a computer program could have such productive (Foucauldian and neoliberal) and violent effects. Couldn’t proactive mean resuscitating endangered public spaces, such as education and healthcare? Or targeting the white supremist capitalist patriarchy that scaffolds the conditions for un-safety?
Quite the opposite, it seems. To proactively police is to focus on suspicion not crime, future not present, software not people – all contingent on a self-fulfilling, contaminated potential. During a recording made during the appeal of his evaluation, we heard Serrano’s supervisor yell, “We go out there and we … 250 people. The right people, at the right time, and the right location”. That is, black males, 14 to 21 years. And the 81st precinct recordings included depictions of people in Bed Stuy – a predominantly black neighborhood – as “fucking riff raff” and “all having warrants”. As an older woman from Brownsville said to us afterwards, these supervisors are referring to her 84yo grandmother.
We can’t forget how these quotas circulate racism. With the help of their affiliated words: “accountability”, “addressing the condition”, “activity”, “self-initiated”, “proactive”. All banal, professional, and concealing the precarious assumptions, dynamics, and effects of the practices underlying them.
And not only on the ‘suspects’. During the break, Serrano’s silhouette echoed against the window at the front of the courtroom, looking out and away from the space, silently speaking volumes. While an extremely confident witness, it suddenly dawned on me what a risk he was taking exposing such brutal relations of power. Already punished for not meeting quotas, colleagues have also told Serrano to “be careful”, that he is “being watched”, that his supervisor is “out to get him”. Someone even put rat stickers all over his locker. And when he said that in two weeks time he has to attend “performance enhancement training”, a chill ran up the right hand side of my body. In Serrano’s words, it’s like he is bleeding and being circled.
The courtroom too felt like shark tank today. With an adolescent tone of disgust in her voice, the defense counsel tried desperately, and unsuccessfully, to tie rapid-fire questions around Serrano’s tongue and pull him into disrespect. Yet she did not even get his name correct when first approaching the podium, and was clearly both amusing and aggravating Judge Scheindlin. If Tuesday felt like witnessing a shooting, the weapon today was a toy machine gun. When Serrano cried during his testimony one member of the defense team even stormed out the courtroom, muttering “sickening!”
I think it was at this point that I had a flashback to the defense team as they approached the courtroom this morning, in V-formation with matching roller suitcases.
There is so much more going on in the courtroom than what makes the transcribed thread of common law. The role of sound and bodies and space, is huge. The energy on the spectator bench was escalating to an agitation mixed with disbelief at how outrageous, twisted, and explicit the evidence and the legal process were. Forming the visual and affective backdrop to the view from where the Judge is sitting, perhaps packing the court has more of an effect than we realize.
When I escaped at lunchtime to shake the courtroom vibes out of my bones, three Buddhist monks crossed my path in the concrete canyon outside the courthouse. It was a jarring and grounding and much-needed image that returned an hour later as I was trying to get back up to the fifteenth floor but found myself being creatively blocked by security for half an hour. My distrust of what was happening may have just been a reflection of the piercing whistles in my head from the morning. Then again, when I picked up my phone from the front desk at the end of the day, the power was on. I could have sworn I had turned it off…
Day 5, Friday March 21st
While waiting for the day to start, I couldn’t figure out why the crowd seemed different this morning. Even more white than usual, and a lot more suits and all-in-all uptightness. It turned out it was our first Defense Day. Five antagonistic testimonies from NYPD officers – four in flesh, and one in role-play. Each witness conveniently on some sort of autopilot with their own series of “I don’t remember”’s, “I don’t understand”’s, “Maybe”’s, “Not necessarily”’s, and different truths. So much so that the day was dragged out by having to consistently ‘remind’ people what they had said in their deposition statements, or even on the stand just a few moments earlier.
These techniques to block the process were frustrating in their obviousness and effectiveness. Yet at the same time, and quite ironically, conveying an inflexibility and incompetence that flies against the valuing of officers’ “reasonable suspicion” in Terry.
Overall, people were attempting to depict the presence of intensive training and supervision around stop & frisk and racial profiling, and the absence of quota impositions with adverse consequences. Yet we still heard an Officer say she was never disciplined for her involvement in a stop & frisk that led to a broken arm (sorry, my bad, an “allegedly” broken arm), despite that the incident was substantiated by an IAB investigation. And from a Captain who “absolutely!” imposes consequences on officers for not doing enough “activity”, evaluated in part by the number of 250s they have filed. And a Sergeant who, in his first seven years of service, never saw the NYPD policy on racial profiling. And, an Assistant Chief who conceded that there are no procedures in place to monitor officers’ racial profiling.
Nonetheless, unlike those Bad Cops from Thursday who described their assignments as punishments, these Good Cops were dedicated to “doing their job” in otherwise “crime-ridden” areas, even “volunteering” for impact overtime. Their policing constructed as a humanitarian capitalist exchange: Bad Area + Good Cop = Earned Wage.
There were so many reductive calculations in the room today. I am still struck by the roboticity (yes, I made up this word) of the witnesses. The intensity of the power hierarchies perpetuated through the culture and structure of the NYPD was glaringly evident in just the ways that they conducted themselves. Twice I believe people even said “Yessir” to the Judge herself. All punctuated with the recurring, ominous question from the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), “Would you agree that the NYPD is paramilitary organization?”
The embodiment of which was Chief Marino. The first older white male to take the stand, I wondered if it was by coincidence that he was taken on by CCR’s own only older white male. Marino was in full uniform, dripping with badges and medals, hat held at his heart. Center-part in his hair, a reddening scalp. And hyper, hyper-rational.
Honestly, he scared me.
During his time in the 75th precinct of East New York, Marino instituted quotas (woops, my bad again, “performance goals”) of 10 summons, 2 stops, and 1 arrest per officer each month. And in doing so was found guilty for violating state labor laws. Nonetheless, with their potential to stop the drug-dealing double-parker from coming back (his example, not mine), Marino continued to argue that these numbers enabled our good friend, “proactive policing”. And when asked about the numerous complaints that he received for suspicion-less stops, he replied, “Sometimes people make mistakes, and sometimes the community makes mistakes”. Vindicating his practices from any accountability, while dismissing the seriousness of people’s concerns.
If officers did not meet Marino’s quotas, they were told to, “do your jobs or suffer the consequences”. This included reassignment to another precinct. Marino justified this application of “mandated numerical standards” by saying that “the level of productivity was so low” that it was “actually a detriment to the community”.
And how did he define low productivity? Issuing 5 summons a month.
This shrinkage approach to policing also came through in Marino’s response to the 79th precinct protest in 2010. Instantly blocked by the defense for inclusion in the testimony (they cried “OBJECTION!” so loud that Judge Scheindlin’s first response was, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa”), Marino recently made the news for threatening officers who were planning a “riot” instead of “doing their jobs”. Read: a 24-hour strike on writing summons – as in, just stopping to give tickets for a day, nothing else – in an action against quotas.
I wonder if the NYPD would ever consider a more participatory organizational structure…?
The ongoing sword-fight between Marino and the plantiff’s lawyer was strikingly clichéd, but much appreciated and, I would even hesitate, necessary. Forceful tones, multiple interruptions, as well as dramatic removals of spectacles from the stationary Marino, and dramatic pacing and turns toward the spectators on behalf of the counsel. The climax was reached during the break when the lawyer loudly exposed a member of the defense team who was trying to discreetly call him a “scumbag” and a “disgrace to the profession”. (Notably this was the same defense team member who threw the tantrum about Serrano’s tears yesterday.)
Meanwhile, NYPD officers in the courtroom were overheard describing Marino as “the worst of the worst”. For he is also known for his role in the Adrian Schoolcraft tapes – an officer who recorded his colleagues entering his home and taking him to a psychiatric unit for whistle-blowing. As someone who does research around the circulation of psychiatric diagnoses and treatments under politics of terror, this connection triggered **something** for me. It’s swollen with the US history of “schizophrenia” – a diagnostic label that jumped from the bodies of white, female, docility to those of black, male, hostility during the anti-racism struggles of 1960s. What does it mean if protest can be pathologized as “paranoia”?
And how does this all move with/in a trial to defend the constitutionality of the NYPD’s “reasonable suspicion”? I am not exactly sure, yet. But it feels worthy of a stop and question.
Exceptionally cinematic, it was hard at times to not be swept away from the reality of what was on trial when watching this stage, set well over 1000 feet high in the sky. At lunchtime the elevator took me back to the ground-level, and I walked outside to a press conference from the Bronx community. It was a welcome reprieve. People from Picture the Homeless, the Bronx Defenders, and the Morris Justice Project (the Public Science participatory action research project that I am affiliated with) spoke of ongoing harassment, police-induced homelessness, and hope. This powerful, grounded action – a protest against stop & frisk – was a light in the shadow of the police state that had been cast on us in the courtroom.
Maybe that’s why it was so cold in there today. When I looked around in the afternoon, most of us were still wearing our coats and scarves.
Day 6, Wednesday March 27th
I played Count The American Flags as I walked toward the courthouse this morning. As usual, at first there didn’t seem to be many. But, like so many symbols and mechanisms of injustice, it’s frightening what jumps into view once you start looking. (At least for those with the privilege to not have it shoved in your face, sometimes literally.) In this case, all over the rooftops, the flags dutifully took on the position of snipers.
Defending what? Justice? The Nation?
The founding document of this country – the very same constitution that is being called upon in Floyd – was written in the interests of slaveholders. And it’s no newsflash to communities of color that the mass incarceration of black males (and increasingly black females) is the post/modern machine in the United States for reproducing the racial caste system.
Defending White Supremacy.
I imagined star-shaped targets from these stripy soldiers burning into my head as I hurried into the courthouse and up to 15C for the trial; stop & frisk is central to this New Jim Crow (as Michelle Alexander puts it). In effect, and perhaps even in design. Today four more police officers took the stand – each involved in either Devin Almonor’s or Dion Dennis’ stop & frisk, two of the four plaintiffs.
And each revealing the violent and creative ambiguity of these practices.
Officer Dennis – a middle-aged small white man – was one of the people involved in the stop & cuff & frisk & question (in that order) of Almonor, a 13yo boy in Manhattan’s Hamilton Heights during 2010. (A place name in itself swollen with the astute analysis briefly referenced last week by another plaintiff, Nicholas Peart, that stop & frisk is a tool in gentrification…)
Following ten minutes of radio calls from residents about a “large disorderly group” of “kids”, Dennis and his commanding officer, Lieutenant Korabel, stopped Almonor as he was walking with a friend in the neighborhood for “furtive movement” and “fitting a description”. Aka walking briskly, looking over his shoulder (toward an oncoming vehicle – the unmarked police vehicle – as he was crossing the road), and touching the right hand side of his waist.
And being “a black male”, and “young”.
In a “matter of seconds” Dennis got out of the car, grabbed Almonor’s arm, pushed him onto the hood of the police car, and handcuffed him. No weapon was found, yet he was still put in the back of the police car and driven to the precinct where his parents were phoned to come and pick him up.
On the way he was told by Dennis to “stop crying like a little girl”.
Dennis justified these actions because he “possibly” had reasonable suspicion that Almonor was in “criminal possession of a weapon”, and because Almonor was being “verbally evasive”. Notably the latter is not because Almonor did not answer the officers’ questions about his name, age, purpose, and address. He did. It was because Dennis was “not satisfied with the answers”. In particular, he seemed “bigger than” Dennis’ own 13yo son…
Korabel, on the other hand, said that Almonor’s “unreasonable noise”(-cum-resistance: “Leave me alone! What are you doing?! I’m going home! I’m a kid!”), objection to being (unlawfully) handcuffed, and jaywalking gave reasonable suspicion for “disorderly conduct”. Only the latter of which, to the courtroom’s nervous amusement, occurred prior to Almonor being handcuffed.
However, the inconsistent yet official documentation of the event – by my count, splayed across six different material and digital spaces – states that this treatment of Almonor was actually driven by a “suspicious bulge”. One that Dennis now says was imagined.
Notably all of this – the actions and the erroneous reporting – was in front of Korabel, Dennis’ commanding officer. In fact, in his monthly review, Korabel described Dennis as “always courteous and respectful when interacting with the public”, and in court today argued that NYPD Operations Orders on police practices are “only a guide”.
Enter the overarching theme of today’s testimonies: the systemic flaws in NYPD supervision. Sergeant Rodriguez, for example, ‘investigated’ Dion Dennis’s complaint about his 2008 interaction with the police, and said today that to do so he spoke to Dennis for less than two minutes on the phone, and did not speak to either of the officers involved. Indeed the only conversations he has with his “subordinates” about stop & frisk is whether or not their 250s have been completed properly. If not, he will ask them to make corrections.
Yet, as the lawyer from the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) pointed out, these are not simply “errors”. They create the events. Making them lawful.
While making Them criminal.
The cumulative, constructed signs of suspicion assemble bodies as dangerous, in excess, and less than human. It is this raced and gendered process by which the checked boxes of NYPD forms (re)activate a becoming, that can get a little lost in the legal arguments around stop & frisk. Even though this creation of Otherness has proven historically necessary for the workings of oppressive social structures – whether colonization, slavery, patriarchy, the ‘war on terror’, or the criminal ‘justice’ system.
I am thinking here about the experience of one of my students, an extremely smart young black woman, who, among other things, had her hair searched by courthouse security guards when coming to watch this very trial last week. As she put it, “I felt like a criminal the way they searched us”.
And then there is Officer Pichardo, who spoke this afternoon of “looking for summons” in order to meet the numerical standards (…) expected of him during the impact overtime shift in which he was involved in Dennis’ stop & frisk so that he could continue to be seen as a good worker. As we shared an elevator in silence at the end of the day, I wondered what it must be like to be a young black officer in a racist, paramilitary organization.
When leaving the building I noticed a large plaque on the wall inside that I had somehow not seen before. It turns out that the courthouse is named after Daniel Patrick Moynihan – an infamous NY sociologist and politician who wrote a report during the civil rights movement locating the systematic dispossession of African American communities in familial and cultural pathology (= black mothers). As opposed to, say, racism.
If only that giant Lady of Justice statue in the lobby would take off her blindfold.
Day 7, Thursday March 28th
After smiling politely through routine comments about needing to remove my boots for the courthouse metal detector yesterday morning, I was so busy admiring my hole-less stockings that I was taken completely off-guard when one of the security personnel appeared in front of me, reached above my naval, and took hold of the long necklace I was wearing – a small leather pouch filled with oh-so-mystical things, known as a ‘medicine bag’.
(Freud would love this, btw.)
Weirdly mimicking an image from a dream I had had the night before, I was stunned – staring at my sacred pouch sitting in his hand. The officer – an older white man – proceeded to tell me how “tribes in Puerto Rico” wear these to “ward off witches”, but then paused. Pulling gently so that the leather string pressured the back of my neck, he did not (would not) finish schooling me until I looked him in the eye.
There is a lot of manufactured eye contact from security in these parts. I get the sense that people are not only establishing power, but also trying to see if we are nervous. Furtive even. But there was something about the intimate intimidation of this particular banal interaction that is still sticking to me forty hours later as I write up this post. My body (soul) put in its place, or else…
It came just after I had watched a young, white, power-suited, femme, cis-gendered woman also go through security. Taking off her belt and her high heels, sexualized in the name of ‘safety’. She was going up for a job interview, and came into my mind as I was contemplating the exceptionally heteronormative defense team for this morning. (I seriously wondered at one point if all the wedding rings were strategically placed.) There is something poetic about these representatives of The City – these NYPD lawyers – having bodies that defend the status quo.
While glaring in the process and space itself, the surveilling and policing of gender has yet to be officially witnessed in the trial content thus far. This is despite that a 2009 survey from the Welfare Warriors with 171 LGBTGNC (gender non conforming) New Yorkers – the vast majority of whom also identified as people of color – found that 54 percent had been stopped, 47 percent arrested, 29 percent strip searched, and 19 percent physically assaulted by police in the previous two years. And these actions were much more likely to happen to people who were transgender or two-spirit identified, or female identified.
So you can imagine my joy today, when the court was packed with queers. The large and exceptionally punctual crowd could not have been more timely and needed; reminding us that gender circulates with race through the prison industrial complex.
Together we sat through the revelation of more holes in NYPD bureaucracy. It was frustrating and tedious to be shown – over and over again – that officers either do not do their paper work around stop & frisks, or they do so incorrectly, if not dishonestly.
All under the supervision of commanding officers. Sergeant Kelly for example, admitted that officers under his command, and himself, have “violated NYPD policy” in how they (in)complete their 250s and/or memo books, including with regard to David Floyd’s stop. As commented by Officer Joyce, “practice”, (as opposed to policy), “means you do it every so often”.
And when the Judge asked him what it means to “review” a 250, Kelly replied, “just that I read it”. Noone looks into the checked boxes; “reasonable suspicion” is left empty. And therefore fill-able. While deciding just today to add that he had also thought Floyd was ‘casing the joint’ and had a ‘suspicious bulge’ (both unverified by his partner Officer Hernandez and supervisor Kelly), Joyce’s original 250 for the stop transformed jostling the doorknob into “Furtive movement”, and having an out-of-state ID into “Evasive, false, or inconsistent responses to officers’ questions”.
Meanwhile (and objected – and overruled – by the defense lawyers for inclusion), all that Joyce could remember with regard to Floyd’s physical description was that he was “Black”. No height, weight, hair style, clothing. Nothing. Indeed, in a sworn statement to the CCRB, Joyce described “half the Bronx” as looking like the plaintiff.
The 250 becoming a visceral – albeit paper – indicator of Franz Fanon’s argument that classification is akin to imprisonment.
Joyce also could not remember or recall the name of the area where the stop happened, what the residence looked like, where the car was stopped, what (if anything) was discussed with his colleagues before approaching Floyd, the details of the ‘crime pattern’ they were “trying to hit” at the time, and any of the other forms he completed. All this from an officer who, when asked if it was “difficult to see crime happening” on patrols, replied, “no … we just had a sense … we could just tell”.
Joyce’s ‘lack’ of memory did nothing to legitimate any faith one might have in police powers of observation. (Or, their respect for the justice system.) Same goes for the consistent inconsistencies between his account and those of Hernandez and Kelly. Including (ironically) about whether or not they had spoken with each other about this lawsuit – Joyce said at least five times, Hernandez said none.
One thing these officers did agree on, however, was Floyd’s stop as “ending well”. Yes a young man of color was yelled at, put against the wall, and frisked by three NYPD officers for trying to help his neighbor get into his house with keys. But after he was “good to go”, “everybody was happy”.
Everybody? Are the NYPD really so disconnected from the effects of their actions?
During lunchtime the courtyard outside 500 Pearl Street echoed with, “As a queer person of color, this trial matters a lot to me!” New York City Anti-Violence Project, the Audre Lorde Project, FIERCE, and the LGBTQ community of Make the Road NY and Streetwise & Safe, were having a press conference. The persistent and passionate resistance of these organizations to NYPD brutality captured perfectly on the back of someone’s blue hoodie: “We are powerful because we have survived”.
I could hear the action continue as I stood in line to cross the border back into the bleached courthouse. Awkwardly holding coffees and feeling like I was entering the wrong place, I wondered if the folks outside would be allowed back in to 15C or sent to the over-flow room – the designated place in this trial for bodies deemed excess.
It was eerily empty in the courtroom all afternoon.
Day 8, Friday March 29th
A friend came with me today. We seemed to be getting a lot of looks walking to the courthouse together – she a tall skinny brown woman, me a short white one. The guy at the deli where we grabbed some bagels even asked, excited after we said we would use the same bag, “Is that all that you share??”
We decided to leave him hanging (so to speak), but later on – while eating our bagels – got talking about cross-color alliances, given how the Klan and the Crips are apparently joining together this week to protest the proposed re-naming of a park in Memphis. Both groups do not want the history of the area to be forgotten.
I still can’t quite get my head around this peculiar rupture of solidarity. A line of flight that seems so creepy yet, dare I say, with a revolutionary potential. Throughout US history, ruling-class whites have launched terrorist campaigns (many of which have been c/o the Klan) that construct blacks as a threat to poor whites, thereby ripping out the seeds for any alliances that might be powerful enough to overthrow the capitalist hierarchy. Aka divide and conquer. Our individualist culture the smelly-arse fertilizer to this classic, effective technique in maintaining oppressive social systems. Criminal justice included.
Indeed it is to the mundane bureaucracy of these rational systems – not the bodies that get pushed through them – that we should be looking for danger.
Sergeant Kelly (the supervisor in the stop of David Floyd) continued his testimony this morning. Generated from reports given by other police squads, officers are given a ‘pattern sheet’ outlining the ‘crime condition’, which in turn directs their attention to “suspicious behavior relating to the crime” in “a certain area”.
Yet, the sheet that was wrapped around Floyd during his stop, frisk & question (not a typo) during daylight in March of 2008 showed seven burglaries at all different times, the most recent of which happened three weeks earlier, all of which occurred a mile or more from Floyd’s home where he was stopped, only one of which involved the front door, and, um, none of which involved… keys. Reframed by an increasingly flustered Kelly today as a potential “burglary tool”, and therefore joining with Floyd’s jostling of an old Bronx doorknob for “a couple of seconds” to seal his “reasonable suspicion” that Floyd was engaging in a “possibly violent crime”.
Kelly got “Sergeant of the Year” in 2008, btw. Even though he has never spoken to anyone in the community about their concerns around how the NYPD conduct stop & frisks. Or racial profiling. Indeed Kelly has never discussed the latter with his officers; not necessary, apparently, because he has a team that is “made of everything – hispanics, a white, a woman…”
Everything. Spinning the diverse ethnic and gender affiliations of his ‘subordinates’ into fixed objects, Kelly’s choice of words was telling. I doubt the allusive NYPD policy on racial profiling explains that racism is not an attitude – an entity that lurks within an individual – but a relation washing through systems, structures, psyches, statistics. No matter one’s skin-color or genitalia, the capacity for racism is there. Which is why opening practices (and egos) to critique is so necessary.
Enter documentation, and outside eyes. Bummer that – as came out again today – seemingly no-one in the NYPD takes this seriously. From 2006 to 2008, the Quality Assurance Division of the NYPD rated the Patrol Service Bureau “substandard” for their memo book documentation of stop & frisks – notably the only place where racial profiling can be traced.
The NYPD try to engage in their own “quality analysis” of stop & frisks, however. As heard through the deposition of Chief Diaz (the commanding officer for Dion Dennis’ stop), CompStat meetings involve taking a sample of 250s and figuring out what percentage of people had a criminal history, “to see if we are stopping the right people”. This once-a-criminal-always-a-criminal stereotype is used to assess whether or not officers’ suspicions were generally reasonable.
‘Reasonable suspicion’ is also assessed in terms of the location of the stops, and which felony or Penal Law misdemeanor was thought to be possibly occurring. Both of which must match the ‘crime condition’. Indeed, Inspector Montgomery – direct supervisor of Diaz – said in his own deposition that if an area is not indicating a drop in crime, the commanding officer will be called to stand in a CompStat meeting and told, “You’re getting killed by crime. What are you going to do about it? What is the proof that your officers are working? How many stop, question & frisks are they doing?”
(And in an excerpt from meeting minutes we hear a Chief asking an Inspector what the average number of stop & frisks “should” be…)
There is something loopy about all this logic. The statistics drive the policing, which drives the statistics, which drive the policing…
Painfully boring (even Judge Scheindlin could not contain her yawns), the details presented in the courtroom today were actually exceptionally violent. A pattern sheet spirals into practices that create apartheid. At some point during the monotonous sounds of the young white woman reading the depositions of these powerful male officers, I was able to remember that in some US cities, more than half of all young adult black men are under some sort of correctional control.
Everyone seemed relieved that we were ending at lunchtime today. No doubt the half-day was because Easter Friday is considered a Christian holiday, despite its origins in Pagan spiritualities. Kind of perfect given that so much of this trial – both its process and its content – is about the ways in which a white-washed rationality (over)rules.
Day 9, Monday April 1st
Late last night a friend of mine who had come to watch Floyd when Chief Marino took the stand, emailed me after listening to the Adrian Schoolcraft tapes. He was frustrated at how The System threatens to simply ‘reset’ itself with whistle-blowing and out-of-control quotas; purging itself of ‘bad apples’ (like Marino), before continuing on it’s merry, albeit oscillating, way.
Until the next time someone gets murdered by the NYPD.
Trials such as this create openings for public outrage, mobilization, and reform. But ‘reform’ within a Western liberal model of justice seems perversely shrunken into ‘better’ data, ‘better’ performance, ‘better’ officers, ‘better’ civilians… There’s a militant beat here that makes me (and my friend) uneasy.
Especially given that Terror hummed in the spaces between people’s words today.
We heard first from Senator Adams, a middle-aged black man who entered public office following 22 years of service in the NYPD. Wearing a dark suit and a pink tie, Adams had a grounded and confident presence, playful banter with Judge Scheindlin included. As Senator for the 20th District in Brooklyn, Adams hears from African American and Hispanic community members (NB: not the white middle class nor Hasidic) that stop & frisk is increasingly being used “incorrectly” on their young people. He is concerned.
With the gold-roofed building on 26th Street glinting out the window, we listened to Adams testify about an intimate meeting he had attended at Governor Paterson’s midtown office in 2010. He was there to defend a bill that he was co-sponsoring to curtail stop & frisk, as this proposal had been receiving a lot of opposition (NB again: only from white politicians). Here, Adams heard Police Commissioner Ray Kelly argue that stop & frisk is a “good deterrent” of gun violence and that there is “no evidence” this practice increases gun recovery – a point that Judge Scheindlin herself bought up several times during Adams’ questioning.
The mechanism by which stop & frisk ‘works’, then? According to Kelly, by “instilling fear in people that every time they leave their homes they will be stopped by the police”.
= Explicitly terror-fying.
This twisted tactic rang even louder today given who had jam-packed the court. Youth. The presence of so many brown and black 14 to 16 year olds fighting to change the NYPD, was beautiful and powerful. Yet the attempts by the white female defense lawyer to frame Adams’ account as hole-y, hearsay, and uncooperative were delivered with such mean-face that the space felt toxic. People were squirming, hurt, confused, angry.
At one point I heard a young female voice from behind me, “I can’t deal with this”.
And the older man of color from Brooklyn sitting next to me sighed; clearly things were sounding all too familiar. Also regularly attending the trial, this retired psychology professor has been watching stop & frisk since the shooting of Amadou Diallo, a 23yo black male who was shot 41 times by the NYPD in 1999 when getting some air outside his home in the Bronx. They thought his wallet was a gun.
The police, as Professor put it, “terrorize communities”.
The same communities that Captain Guimares – the direct supervisor of Sergeant Kelly who was overseeing David Floyd’s stop – gushed about on the stand following Adams as the “eyes and ears” of the NYPD. As the “best source of information”, community “trust”, apparently, is (nothing but a) “tool” for policing.
Trust? Or fear.
While also smelling a little too much like the Homeland Security’s fear-thy-neighbor unreasonable-suspicion campaign, “If you see something, say something”, there was something extra disturbing about Guimares’ supposed compliment given how the NYPD deploy terrorist tactics that propel a widespread (and well-founded) distrust.
The huge press conference at lunchtime was soaked with sadness and outrage as young people gave their own testimonies about stop & frisk. Including being called racial slurs, thrown against walls, and watching a friend be arrested for possessing small amounts of drugs after being coerced into making it public – one of the main means by which stop & frisk lubes brown and black bodies for exile…
Yet not without struggle and expertise.
Kristianna Acevedo, a Latina female, was walking to the bank through a desolate industrial area in Queens in 2007, when two men started to call out to her from a parked navy-blue van and reverse toward her. She ran to a UPS truck-driver for help, and a woman jumped out of the van and ran after her, yelling, “When you hear ‘police’ you stop!” She pushed Acevedo against the truck, shook her shoulders so hard that her head banged against the side, and held her by the wrist as the two men also ran up, asked her for ID, and searched her bag and pockets.
When Alcevedo asked to see the plain-clothed officers’ badges, only one obliged (just). When she said that the UPS driver was a witness to how they were treating her, “What can he do? We have guns”. And when saying she would not get into their unmarked van, “Did you forget to take your medication this morning?”
And Clive Lino, a black male, was waiting with a friend for take-out in Harlem in 2008, when two officers approached and frisked them because they “had orders to stop anyone on that corner whenever they felt like it” and his friend’s jacket “fit a description”. After being allowed to go and grab their take-out (giving an odd interlude to the story that shines light on both the normalization and ridiculousness of these stops), three more officers arrived and did it all over again. In 2011, Lino was also followed onto a subway platform by two officers when heading home from his mother’s house. Carrying a grocery bag with a tupperware container of leftovers, Lino was searched and detained for half an hour because now his jacket “fit the description”.
When Lino asked for badge numbers during the 2008 stop, one officer walked away, the other sarcastically said, “Well since we’re playing name games why don’t you give me your’s again”. When asking for the reason behind his 2011 stop, “Shut the fuck up”. And when he pulled out his phone to take down these officers’ details, “Oh you’re not taking no fucking picture of me”.
Indeed, earlier in 2008 when Lino called up an officer for stereotyping him in a stop (the officer said his 50 Cent ringtone would provide “a little rap music to calm you down”), he was told that, “Your attitude is the reason you get stopped”.
These two formal testimonies demonstrate the power dripping through stop & frisk. Even when people know their rights, encounters are haunted by the entitlement that comes with structures of domination and histories of brutality. Yet their resistance also shows how this trial has the capacity to make racist policing visible, intolerable, and not the way it has to be. To push over assumptions of inevitability and ubiquity, and make radical change away from seemingly self-perpetuating systems of humiliation, dehumanization, and terrorism in/of NYC communities.
And so, I like to think that when the Judge held her head in her hands today and nodded off in the afternoon, she wasn’t just overcome by the repetition of the NYPD, but day-dreaming of alternatives. Her fatigue embodiying the necessity of imagination in the pursuit of justice.
Day 10, Tuesday April 2nd
Today, while, waiting for the Judge to return after lunch, an older white queer woman broke the orderly silence of the half-filled courtroom by loudly refusing a request from one of the bouncers to remove her top. It was a navy-blue hoodie with “end racism” written across the chest in a white lower-case lettering. I assume too Activist, too Political. ‘Removed’ by common law from this living room of justice.
What does it mean to be fighting racist policing through a system that does not permit these words? Yet does permit whiteness to dominate the space – discursively and visually. An integral node of a prison industrial complex soaked in racial disparities, in a way we are asking the court to reveal and unravel the foundations from which it towers.
US common law has been moving to sustain racism over the past 200 years or so. In part this is performed by disallowing questions of racial discrimination to be discussed under the Fourth Amendment, which protects “against unreasonable searches and seizures”. Instead, people must go via the Fourteenth Amendment, which promises “equal protection of the laws”.
A route, importantly, that insists on Intention. Hence the repeated attempts by the defense lawyers over the past couple of weeks to disprove racism by asking if one’s race has ever been directly mentioned, or racial slurs used, during police encounters.
“Of course not.”
Based on a narrow, imperialist construct of the ‘individual’, this insistence denies that racist systems are an assemblage of multifaceted, interconnected, dynamics. As wonderfully simple as it might be to think otherwise, in actuality there is no one naughty ‘causal factor’.
A troubling implication of this Intention approach was shown in the Judge’s explicit statement yesterday that the “effectiveness” of stop & frisk is irrelevant to this trial. Granted, she was referring to its identity as a tool in crime control (…), but does this also mean that the racist effects of this practice will not be (officially) admitted?
Remembering that this country has a quarter (a quarter) of the world’s prison population, 70 percent of whom are people of color.
This denial of the systemic violence that is actually on trial here, is also enacted via the Judge’s explicit refusal to include any arguments about the racism experienced by cops of color within the NYPD itself. Something that would add to the ‘evidence’ that it is the organization of this organization – the relation of all its bits to each other – that generates a racist potential…
An atmosphere so strong, that I found it difficult to breathe today.
The courtroom first rained with 31 audio-recordings of roll calls taken at the 81st precinct in Brooklyn during 2008 and 2009. The earnest and/or aggressive voices of four different commanding officers each providing startling evidence of quotas (“I want a couple of 250s out there please”), adverse employment consequences (“If you don’t want to be on a foot-post the best thing you can do is stop someone”), pressure from above (“I am what keeps the wolves from coming in here and chewing on your bones”), and racial slurs (“I want them herded in here”).
It turned out one of protagonists, Detective Inspector Mauriello, had been sitting down the back of the courtroom the entire time. Already drenched with his toxic words, we then listened to more as he was directly examined by the plantiff’s lawyer from the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR).
I had a direct line of sight to this stocky middle-aged man in uniform. White skin, dark hair, light eyebrows. He was leaning so far back in his chair, arms by his side, that even the Judge ended up asking him to sit up properly. Swollen with power siphoned through a paramilitary organization, his embodied entitlement was confronting.
And confirmed when we heard that, despite these tapes having gone public in 2010, Mauriello has never discussed them with his superiors, let alone been disciplined. In fact, the Chief of Patrol for NYPD “rewarded” him that year for doing “such a good job” by transferring him to a higher position (a gesture that Mauriello refused to call “a promotion”).
This shield of protection was even more illustrated by his flat out refusal to agree that we had all just heard what we had all just heard. Mauriello insisted that there were no numbers or quotas, no pressure given to his subordinates, no pressure from his superiors, no racial profiling or stereotyping. Instead he repeatedly talked about “doing your job”, “getting crime down”, “community engagement”, and “bad guys” ‘versus’ “the good people”.
At times even providing the courtroom with some comic relief:
“Be an arsehole, shine a light in their face” = “Be a police officer, engage with the community”
“Lock ‘em up, done deal, you can always articulate later” = “Paperwork”
“You gotta get your activity up – 3 arrests, 5 parkers, no C’s, and the only 250 you do is when I force you to do overtime?!” = “Hypothesized numbers”
“If they’re walking down the street and they’ve got a bandanna coming out of their arse, they gotta be stopped … 250” = “I want my officers to be engaged … I want them to say, ‘Hello’”
The Judge was a mixture of amused and annoyed. Obvious in his discursive dance, she was not too interested in Mauriello’s interpretations, saying at one point, “It seems pretty clear to me what it means”. And another time preventing the lawyer from moving on when an unmentioned part of the transcript caught her eye, “Wait a minute, this is a good one! Why are you skipping over this one? Don’t you want to get this one?”
“Thank you, Judge”
Meanwhile, the young black men – some wearing hoods, even – sitting around me on the spectator (spectator, ‘spectator’) benches, were also responding. “That’s messed up”.
Increasingly aware that this violence could run off my body, and the Judge’s, and the lawyer’s, and Mauriello’s, I felt disgust and hatred at what I was witnessing. Indeed, what I was participating in. Scribbles stopped coming out of my pen as I started to think about what I was going to send out for tweets today, and write in this blog – does the world really need more poison?
I heard a loud sigh and realized suddenly that it was me. Head in hands, suddenly immobilized by the injustice of the situation. The weight of my heart increasing by the second, by the time the Judge said we were breaking for lunch, it lurched and I was fighting back tears. My feelings had transformed into an absolutely overwhelming sadness. I felt sick with grief.
Shaking, I walked outside and into an incredible sense of calm as folks were preparing for a press conference. (Community members and activist groups have been holding press conferences about stop & frisk nearly every day of the trial thus far.) Today’s was by/with/for people whose family members had been murdered by the police. With the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement releasing a report showing that every 28 hours a black person is killed in the name of ‘law enforcement’. As one man said, “It is condescending to think that we do not know what is going on in our communities”.
No justice? No peace.
Leaving the courtyard to re-enter 500 Pearl Street felt more wrong than ever. Used to doing more collaborative, disruptive activism than courtroom-days and computer-nights, I still just can’t shake the sense that I am becoming a part of a hollow system.
At the end of the day I saw that the courthouse in which the overflow room from this trial is located is named after Justice Thurgood Marshall – the first African American to be appointed to the US Supreme Court. His ongoing commitment to naming and refusing racist governance stood powerful against the legal landscape as I walked to the train.
Day 12, Thursday April 4th
After having a security guard spit at me on Tuesday, “Professor?? What are you, like, 10?”, I wondered whether or not I was going to have to again execute my right to remain silent during the courthouse checkpoint today. A reasonable suspicion confirmed when one security guard said to another, right in front of me, “If all my professors looked like that I’d have my PhD”.
My academic abilities stripped off my body with a single line, and on a day when I was extra-supposed to be wearing my (albeit oversized) Social Scientist Hat.
Hardly anyone was outside the courtroom after I had checked in my cell-phone and digital-recorder, put back on my jacket, cardigan, scarf, boots, intellect, wholeness, dignity, fight, and made my way up to the fifteenth floor. Apparently it was because people found yesterday exceptionally tedious. Professor Jeffrey Fagan had taken the stand about his report on stop & frisk. His analysis of the 4.4million 250s submitted by the NYPD between 2004 and 2009 speaks fiercely back to the constitutionality of stop & frisk; suggesting that the NYPD’s practices do not use reasonable suspicion, and are race-based.
‘Furtive movement’, for instance, was checked off in approximately 20 percent of stops during 2004, and 50 percent during 2009. Meanwhile less than 15 percent of stops are because someone ‘fits the description’, only 1 percent of stops recover a weapon, and only 12 percent end with an arrest or summons.
And the more black or Hispanic people in a neighborhood, the more stops there are. Regardless of how much crime is happening in the area, how many police are patrolling, how poor people are… Racial discrepancies that have only been intensifying over time.
All in all, Fagan is casting serious doubt on the NYPDs claims that their policing is ‘data-driven’.
The defense team – representing “the city”, apparently – tried to undermine Fagan’s selection of variables, interpretation of officers’ memos, and sampling methodology. Fagan should have, they said, compared his findings to the racial breakdown of “violent crimes suspects”, as opposed to people in general. Their (co**racist**ugh) assumption being that violent criminals are more likely to be black or brown. Yet race is only known in just over half of the people (yes: people) suspected of these crimes, and less than 15 percent of stops done by the NYPD are because a violent crime is being reasonably suspected.
(And what, or who, gets categorized as ‘violent’, anyway? Recalling that corporate brutality, gentrification, colonization, neoliberal dispossession, positivism, misogyny, securitization… typically emerge from spaces of whiteness and rationality).
As Fagan pointed out, even the NYPD’s own Rand report – notably drawing on only just over half of all stops – suggests racial disparities in their policing. A look at their data (as opposed to their conclusions) shows that non-whites are stopped at a rate more than 10 percent higher than whites. Moreover, as these researchers themselves point out, if the NYPD is in fact biased, then the data they collect is probably biased too.
If I understood correctly, this means that any indications of racism – whether in the Rand, or in Fagan’s report – are likely to be underestimated…
The Judge too did not seem swayed by any of the critiques of Fagan. At one point saying, “the gross statistics are still of interest to me”. Granted though, it had been a long day. The absolute majority was spent with her trying to understand where Fagan was coming from, much to the increasing amusement and frustration of the spectators. For she, and I would say most of us who were in the space, do/es not speak fluent statisticese.
“Negative binomial model of regression” – “correlation coefficient” – “controlled for” – “statistically significant” – “relative to the population” – I could not help but sense just a little bit of epistemological pollution (as Thomas Teo would put it) wafting through the room.
Fagan’s findings are powerfully illustrative of the widespread unconstitutionality of stop & frisk. Yet his relentless use of jargon in the courtroom – even that which is tossed effortlessly around (parts of) the ivory tower – was threatening to erase the reality, the people, the feeling, of these practices. Endowed with the authority of Science, these somewhat taken-for-granted academic practices too easily wrap the bodies and streets of stop & frisk in statistical obscurity.
Quantitative analyses of large datasets help to articulate an experience that is collective. They construct a ‘we’; giving ‘us’ a voice. One that is even louder in struggle given our Enlightened fetish with numbers.
At the same time they are saying what people already know.
It follows that the point of these statistical performances, as far as I can tell, is to use the numbers they generate to propel a message. If so, they have to be able to be heard. Especially when the person doing the listening is the sole figure deciding whether or not policing is legally unreasonable and racist.
But, in doing so, statistics absolutely cannot be represented as ‘better’ or more ‘legitimate’ than other forms of expertise. Particularly when that ‘evidence’ is experiential. The Black Women’s Blueprint performed guerilla theater outside the courthouse during lunchtime. Once again giving a striking juxtaposition to the dryness of the courtroom, one woman was wearing a sign that provided the most effective and affective truths of the day.
“I should not be illegally stopped by the police because they think no one will care what will happen to a black woman”.
She asked me whether or not the experiences of black women had been included in the trial so far. I said, no – people have only talked about race. Her silence was loud and clear, echoing with Kimberlé Crenshaw’s influential call for intersectionality. (One that emerged from the courtroom, even.)
The consistent repetition of racial categories – whether in a trial, a statistical analysis, or a blog… – risks reproducing not only divisions between ‘groups’, but also erasing diversity within. The challenge, then, is how to name and disrupt racism, without enacting, as Chandra Mohanty reminds us, this kind of discursive colonization.
The expert eyes of this woman, outside, shining more nuance and injustice on stop & frisk, than the nine inches of papers stacked on the lawyer’s podium. I left the courthouse today wondering how (and why) we might re-imagine the idea of ‘evidence-based’ policing.
Day 13, Friday April 5th
The defense picked up their cross-examination of Professor Jeffrey Fagan today, trying to debunk his damning statistical analysis of the NYPD’s 4.4million 250s between 2004 and 2009 through questions about his text-string coding, definition of a high crime area, benchmarks, zeros, spatial units, temporal units, patrol strength measure, changes in police practices…
Funnily enough, all this did was enable us to extract some more telling findings. For example, while a correction to Fagan’s analysis suggests that 80 percent of stops are apparently justified,this means that 20 percent are not. Given that a few weeks ago the NYPD reached five million stops, by my math the defense counsel was still telling us that one million stops are legally dodgy.
Even those 250s that did suggest a legal reasoning got a little shakier when poked a bit. For one, police officers gave ‘high crime area’ as an excuse in 60 percent of all stops, regardless of the crime rate in an area. Moreover, as Fagan pointed out, we can’t conflate what is marked on the 250 with what actually happened. We do not know the relationship between what officers see, and what they say, because the movement from flesh to paper is ultimately interpretative.
And, none of this affects the racial disparities, which Judge Scheindlin herself was inserting into the record today:
Fagan: “Blacks are more likely to be stopped than whites–”
Judge: “–even in a predominantly white neighborhood.”
She even called up other points made by the defense as irrelevant (“I don’t know why we are spending time on this”) and inappropriate (“I think this is an objectionable question”).
Professor Eli Silverman’s testimony after lunch was also damning. His 2008 survey of 491 retired NYPD captains, deputy inspectors, inspectors, deputy chiefs and chiefs, found that after the introduction of CompStat the pressure to conduct summons increased nearly two-fold, arrests over two-fold, and stop & frisks over five-fold. A similar pattern came through in a later study that was completed by 1960 NYPD retirees of all ranks, which also found that pressure to obey legal constitutional restrictions decreased after the introduction of CompStat.
And the survey respondents gave a consistent message that this “pressure was for the sake of pressure … that this was in terms of making numbers”. A finding that was struck from the record, along with evidence of crime ‘downgrading’ by under-reporting the quantity, or reclassifying the quality, of criminal activity…
All this from a system designed ultimately for ‘accountability’. I have to admit I am quite fascinated by CompStat. It conjures up images for me of a giant evil computer – replete with mean cartoon-monster teeth and eyebrows – sitting in a penthouse lair somewhere in Manhattan. A little too reminisce of an eighties sci-fi film, I am working on a more Deleuzian version, but in the meantime I’d like to know how the NYPD define accountability. I suspect they would draw upon the rhetoric of ‘crime control’, but if this is really (…) ultimately about keeping the people of NYC safe, their accountability system is effectively eating itself.
(Cue monster-computer image.)
Anywho, returning to Fagan, as we watched all the defense counsel’s questioning run right off him, I realized that his apparent shield – part jargon, part privilege (white, male, older,and an Ivy League professor) – not only stopped his analyses from getting out, but also stopped others’ critiques from getting in.
Albeit now useful for our side, my creeping sense that this shield is not okay, was only intensified by the absolute enjoyment of his two white, male, older, professor friends on the bench in front of me. Loud laughter at his jokes, joyful grins at how dominating and patronizing he was being. For the first time it felt like we were an actual audience; that this legal game-on was being played for us. With Fagan, too, obviously enjoying himself.
My critical feminist eye was squint-y by the end of it all.
As was those of the predominantly female graduate students sitting all around me. The City University of New York (CUNY) had packed the court. The crowd was so large and early, that 15C was overflowing by 9am, and bodies were being pushed across the road. I found out in an email tonight from a colleague that two such bodies – young, female, brown – were outrageously harassed; blocked from entering this supposedly public space because of their headscarves. Repeatedly yelled at and denied access to a supervisor, these two law students were rendered vulnerable, exposed, and humiliated. In the bathroom later that day, one of the women said to my colleague’s co-researcher, “I didn’t cry when I had my baby, but I cried today”.
What happens in the courtroom is not a game for the majority of people in NYC. Interactions such as this are experiential testimony to what is on trial. That is, the everyday policing of youth of color. Ironically exactly that which was also witnessed and documented by Maddy’s (my colleague) participatory survey, Polling for Justice. And the reason why her and her co-researcher were at the court today – the lunchtime press conference was held by CUNY, where I am also based as student, teacher, and activist.
Incredibly, I was pondering this upcoming action on the half-full train back to Brooklyn late last night, when myself and the two young black men standing next to me suddenly had our lines of sight braided together. We were weirded out by a 40ish white guy in navy blue opening the subway-car door, taking a step forward, and just standing there, a meter or so away, staring in our direction. We stared back, mesmerized, confused, and a little pissed off. After a while he backed away, closing the door in front of himself. Kind of like a cuckoo clock, but threatening.
And then the young man said casually to his friend, “It’s because I’m black and I’m standing next to her”. As in me.
If any white person thinks that the issues on trial here have nothing to do with them, they are seriously mistaken. Just like brown and black people, those of us who do whiteness are complicit in racist policing even by virtue of our flesh alone.
Tossed high into a racialized caste structure dependent on the criminal justice system, it can be hard to see from such a dizzying distance the violence on which one’s privilege is based. The lube on our bodies gets in our eyes; systematically blocked (via epistemologies, practices, and politics of ignorance and ‘security’) from connecting with people who intimately know the workings of power. Connections that could generate the expertise and the imagination needed to overthrow that which keeps us divided, conservative, conquered.
Constructing spaces for these sorts of connections is, I think, the (a) potential of public scholarship. Something that CUNY – established to serve the people of NYC – has a proud legacy of, and commitment to. Yet, as an institute of public education, this school is being seduced by a neoliberal agenda that allows current students – the vast majority young, Latino/a, and African American – to be policed on campus, while also increasingly closing its gates on these same potential students in the name of competition and elitism. A bleaching of the student body that pushes some (like mine) into ‘success’, and others into the prison industrial complex.
It’s all getting a bit loopy again, isn’t it…
Day 15, Tuesday, April 9th
A few days ago the Wall Street Journal published an article reducing Floyd to a “piñata” for the mayoral race, and lamenting that a, “story that doesn’t get out is the astonishing transformation of New York City over the past two decades”. Unlike today, they continued, 1990 was plagued by, “a sense of menace in every borough and on the subways. A 10-year-old girl was strangled to death. A 22-year-old tourist was killed defending his mother against a gang of muggers. Dozens of New Yorkers were killed by stray bullets”. The “secret to this anti-crime success”? Stop & frisk.
Sickened and furious, it was hard for me to read past these opening paragraphs (and to repeat them here). In a single year, over 300 black people alone die in the name of law enforcement. Is the Wall Street Journal suggesting that these bodies are ‘collateral damage’ in the protection of tourism?
This trial raises significant questions about whose suffering matters. Questions that were especially crying out for answers this morning given that the courtroom was packed with a high-school class from East Flatbush – the neighborhood where 16yo Kimani Grey was shot to death by NYPD officers just a few weeks ago.
And that the day began with a reminder from the Center for Constitutional Rights’ (CCR) lawyer of Amadou Diallo, whose wallet was taken as a cue for murder in 1999 by an NYPD team of elite commandos – now known as an Anticrime Unit – hired to stalk the streets of black and brown neighborhoods.
And that the main witness today was Joseph Esposito, who just retired from the NYPD as Chief of Department – aka the highest-ranking uniformed officer – after nearly 45 years in the service. Sixties, balding, and white, Esposito had an unnerving resemblance to a plain-clothed police officer that appeared next to me one morning a few years ago while I was waiting for a cross signal on Fifth Avenue. Still looking straight ahead, this frightening figure proceeded to tell me that he had “reached for his gun” when he saw a young black man approach me on the busy street a block earlier…
Combined with the solid wall of white, dark-suited police officers in the front row of the spectator area, and the ghosts of Grey and Diallo, Esposito’s presence today haunted my thoughts with lynching.
A violent ambience that was only amplified by Esposito’s overall ‘friendly’ demeanor – putting his hand on the small of the lawyer’s back as he approached the stand, casually whispering something in his ear, and asking Judge Scheindlin if he could be called “Joe”.
Esposito’s confidence was all-the-more chilling given that his tenure as Chief of Department began right when Diallo’s murder triggered the Daniels trial – a class action lawsuit carried forth by CCR against the NYPD for racial profiling and unlawful stop & frisks. Floyd is swirling with the grief, outrage, and unfulfilled outcomes of Daniels. As confirmed today by Esposito, who was apparently unaware of, confused about, ambivalent toward, or unable to recall the Attorney General’s report, settlement stipulations, or policy changes that were affiliated with Daniels.
Stark evidence that the NYPD failed to take this trial – and the lives it represented – seriously.
Esposito was, however, aware of the 2007 Rand report – produced for the NYPD on stop & frisk and including recommendations to inform people of their rights, reduce racial disparities and disproportionate force, revise documentation and training, and investigate individual officers with “out of the ordinary” patterns. None of which Esposito could fully recall being substantially implemented. Nor, again, did he seem to particularly care.
Instead, Esposito had two messages for his audience. The first: “That’s. Why. We. Rely. So. Strongly. On. The. Supervisor.” He consistently deflected accountability for stop & frisk on to the NYPD’s “chain of command”, despite also demonstrating repeatedly that what exactly is supposed to be done by supervisors, and who exactly is supposed to be doing it, is not clear.
In fact, Esposito could not recall ever discussing the potential for racial profiling or the toll that stop & frisk takes on black and brown communities with his own supervisor – none other than Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.
And his second message: “If. You. Establish. Reasonable. Suspicion. Then. There. Is. No. Racial. Profiling.” To the morbid fascination of the courtroom, Esposito was adamant that non-racist policing was simply ticked off vis-à-vis the 250’s checkboxes. Conveniently ignoring that these gaping holes are overflowing with histories, politics, and economics of ‘suspicion’.
This blind-250-faith was so strong that Esposito could not even recall ever using the term ‘reasonable suspicion’ (and ‘thus’ ‘racial profiling’…) when directing the NYPD’s weekly CompStat ‘accountability’ meetings. Instead, 250s were interrogated as per whether they were done “in the right area, at the right time, for the right crime”. Yet, as CCRs lawyer pointed out, in nearly 90 percent of stops reasonable suspicion is not substantiated, and thus technically not ‘enforcement activity’.
Esposito stumbled through this argument with his own question, “How many crimes are prevented by stopping a person that is giving us reasonable suspicion?” Something that, by his own admission, “we don’t really know”. Indeed all Esposito could draw upon for his “tremendously understated” point that stop & frisk is a prevention tool, was the infamous (and debated) “forty percent decrease in crime” over the past two decades.
Met with a learned skepticism by the Judge, this statistic was nonetheless wrapped up pretty with a series of other slogans. …“Fighting crime” – “Our sergeants are the best in the nation, the best on the country, the best in the world, rather” – “Keeping the city safe” from “the bad guys”… So much so that Esposito was called up several times by the lawyer and Judge for answering beyond the scope of what he was asked, told off for giving a “speech”, and admitted at one point that he was on his “pedestal”.
The Judge told him he could do the latter “outside”.
Mimicking the ventriloqy of the Wall Street Journal, who (or what) is the puppeteer here? Certainly not the constitution, common law, or – god forbid – The Public; the distrust and hostility that stop & frisk inflicts on community and police relations does nothing for the ‘government interests’ and ‘individual interests’ used to justify the move to reasonable suspicion in Terry. Clearly we need a different ride to safety than that taken by the NYPD.
In the elevator on the way down from 15C, Espositos ‘jokingly’ said when members of the CCR team joined us, “Oh this is bad. Couldn’t we get different elevators?”
A nice metaphor, I thought.
Day 18, Tuesday April 16th
Having left overnight, the front pages in the subway this morning threw yesterday’s bombing back into my consciousness. That, and the police presence – passing half a dozen cops on my way to Pearl Street, seeing one in plain-clothes watch and follow me from across the road as I began to take photos, and having another four plus a dog wash over me in the few minutes that I stood on the courthouse steps to finish my emails. (And take more photos.)
Adrift in this Spring Tide of security, I thought of what Cindi Katz calls ‘banal terrorism’ – those ever-there, usually barely-noticed, reminders of (the threat of) Terror in the US that affectively and discursively allow the repetition of military invasion and occupation ‘elsewhere’.
In part through their ability to detach us from the suffering on which they feed. When I arrived at 15C, Julie – a white activist in her sixties, and perhaps the most regular Floyd watcher – spoke of a friend who was at the Boston marathon. An influential activist following the death of his two soldier sons (one while deployed, one by suicide afterwards), he was supporting a marine who was running for the anti-war charity he had established in honor of their lost lives. He ended up pinching the femoral arteries of other spectators when the bombs blew off their legs.
The overlapping layers of injustice in Julie’s story are deep, intricate, painful. And consistently obscured by mechanisms of security that propel fear, distrust, racism; blocking us from witnessing collective traumas. Especially when those traumas potentially have at least some of their roots in a long and violent history of US imperialism, and neoliberalism.
And when they happen daily (even if not reported daily…) in the name of democracy, freedom, and security. 50 people died in Baghdad yesterday, too.
These dynamics also spiral through stop & frisk. A ‘prevention tool’ to identify and intervene on suspicion, it is a telling coincidence that this domestic apparatus did nothing but increase dramatically over the decade of US terror that has followed 9/11.
Based on potential, and using preemptive practices that can never be falsified, the policing of suspicion carries an inherent capacity for inflation and proliferation. While this capacity is in part propelled through quotas (when asked in his deposition if he had ever heard his fellow officers complain about quotas, Officer Edward Arias replied, “Yes you hear it. Cops complain about it all the time - locker-room talk, office talk – yeah, sure”), it is also decidedly hooked on non-sense – the dominant theme for today.
Wearing a silver suit and pink shirt, Arias was on the stand because of his involvement in (yet not documentation of…) Clive Lino’s stop & frisk in Harlem. Lino standing on a corner for five minutes, walking into a restaurant, and then coming out holding a bag of food was taken as “furtive movement”. Waiting for takeout spun into reasonable suspicion; these two men were seen through a lens smudged by Terror. Young, black, and wearing jackets (that notably changed color and weight several times over the course of Arias’ testimony), they “fit the description” of people wanted for gunpoint robberies. To the amusement of the courtroom, the defense lawyer even proudly read into the record that these descriptions included being between 5’6’’ and 6’. As Judge Scheindlin said later, this range “could include the entire black male population between 25 and 30”.
Such non-sense was further authorized and normalized by Inspector Charles Ortiz – another brown, bald, although more boring-suited male – who was the commanding officer when David Floyd was stopped for his own “furtive movement” (aka trying to open a door with keys). While Ortiz worked hard to convey a steadfast supervisory structure, particularly with regard to the implementation of policies on stop & frisk and racial profiling, it still emerged once again that these practices aren’t considered fodder for NYPD discussions or analyses of ‘accountability’. Instead, it is the supervisor’s signature on the 250s that makes them lawful.
Effectively unchecked, reasonable suspicion is simultaneously rationalized and mystified.
And then, the afternoon brought the complete testimony of Lieutenant Enno Peters and the final part of Lieutenant Carlo Barelli’s – the former affiliated with Deon Dennis’ stop, the latter with David Ourlicht’s. Both white and red-faced with crew-cuts and 80’s suits (I wondered if Peters had just walked into the backroom and returned to the stand with a different pair of pants) – they evoked an image of car salesmen. One that was only intensified when, with some irony, these two Integrity Control Officers filled the courtroom with refusal and ignorance. After saying that he could “not recall” everything he was asked in his deposition about discussions, practices, and polices regarding stop & frisk and racial profiling, Peters was described with awe and anger by the Judge as “dramatic” in how today he then “changed his whole testimony”. And the testimony of Barelli was simply met with, “What did I learn from this witness?”
Like watching glossy paint peel off a decaying building, today was painstakingly slow. The presentation of documents – operations orders, patrol guides, CompStat minutes, substandard QAD audits – consistently wrapped in transparent police-speak by the different witnesses. While this repetition powerfully illustrated the systemic nature of stop & frisk’s unconstitutionality, it was deeply problematic in the courtroom itself. By the end of the day there was widespread frustration and agitation – the Judge telling off the lawyers, the lawyers fighting with her and with each other.
All exhausted and stressed, and many sick, I left with an overwhelming awareness of us as bodies in a shared space.
A sense also lifted up through the Boston bombing. Judith Butler suggests that it is the exposing of our collective vulnerability and dependency that ultimately makes acts like this so disturbing. What would happen, then, if we used these moments to enter and embrace this reality, rather than desperately deny it?
Outside, activists representing the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow, chanted, “Stop and frisk does not stop crime! Stop and frisk is a crime!” While their linguistic spiral perfectly encapsulated the non-sense of this domestic (in)security mechanism, it was the presence of this small group – courage, trust, unity, outrage, hope – that seemed especially potent in these urgent times.
Meanwhile, more trash cans are being removed from the streets of New York City. I could not count even one on my walk back to the subway.
Day 20, Thursday April 18th
Floyd made the front page of Metro New York this morning. The short piece inside was about Cornelio MacDonald, who testified yesterday about having been stopped & frisked when returning home from his Mum’s house at around one in the morning. While not mentioned in the piece, it turned out that MacDonald’s “suspicious bulge” was his hands in his coat pockets; it was cold out.
What was mentioned, however, was MacDonald’s past allegations of racial discrimination in his job, and that every time a police officer says “Hello” to him, he thinks it’s a stop. Constructed to imply that MacDonald was paranoid, and never mentioning what his “race” was, the piece effectively removed racism from the story of stop & frisk.
Colluding in the color-blind ideology that fuels the New Jim Crow.
This subliminal pincer move would have entered the skimming eyes of hundreds of thousands of commuting New Yorkers today. Although what troubled me more was the much longer, and taken-for-trusted, New York Times article – likewise leaving out the histories and politics of ‘suspicion’, as well as the daily suffering inflicted on communities of color through stop & frisk.
Surrounded by whiteness, this newsprint was oozing rationality and neutrality. Imperial traits only ever assigned to words that maintain the status quo, despite that all knowledges are partial and dripping with assumptions and power.
Inspector Terence Riley’s testimony, for example, peeled back the objectivity surrounding the 2007 report of stop & frisk by the Rand Corporation. Riley was the Project Coordinator for this study; his direct examination by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) undermined the neutrality of this process so strongly, that the defense did not even try for a cross.
As an “independent contractor” Rand was paid more than $120,000 by the NYPD Foundation to analyze stop & frisk just four months after the murder of (young, black, male) Sean Bell by police officers. An unjust death that triggered public outrage, protest, and scrutiny of police racism, the NYPD were doing damage control. Their contract with Rand stipulated that the researchers must submit their draft analyses and conclusions to the NYPD for comment, and then take these into account before releasing their final report.
“Disturbing racial disparities” became “some racial disparities”. “Innocent pedestrians” became “suspects who have committed no crime”. And concerns about the data were dramatically minimized, despite that external reviewers asked the researchers to be more forthcoming about how unreliable it was for depicting racial disparities.
Meanwhile, as we heard from Inspector Helen McAleer, complaints about stop & frisk and racial profiling are coded in the NYPD database as “general dissatisfaction” and then flushed down the chain of command for investigation. No record, no follow-up, no analysis. Erased by discourse and diffusion, the implications of this leaky process were exposed spontaneously in the courtroom when the CCR team found out through the cross-examination about a racial profiling complaint made against an officer who stopped one of the plaintiffs in this case.
Yet I think what most disturbed me about today, was how all this journalistic, scientific, and bureaucratic peroxide undermines the expertise of individual and collective experience and resistance.
As was illustrated by Sergeant Christopher Moran’s description of ‘furtive movement’ as “a very broad concept” that includes: “acting nervous”, “running away from a crime scene”, “evasive answers”, “looking side to side”, “shaking a little bit”, “being sweaty”, “changing direction at the sight of an officer”, “walking a certain way”, “acting a little suspicious”, “going in and out of pockets”, “making a movement that’s not regular”, “if they stuttered”, “acting a little bit out of the normal”, “moving in or out of a car”, “adjusting hip or belt”, “looking over their shoulder”, “looking back and forth constantly” … All “helping” Moran to “establish reasonable suspicion during a conversation”.
‘Reasonable suspicion’? “When you think the situation isn’t what it seems”. Perhaps this is why, in his 2009 disposition, Moran said that that he would fill in a 250 every time he “had a conversation” with someone.
Like the “conversation” he had with David Ourlicht in 2008 = stopping him for “walking a little bit weird”, frisking him because he saw a “bulge coming out from his right waist area” (one to two feet long, although not mentioned in the 250), searching him because his subsequent “irrational” protest meant Moran “reasonably suspected he was hiding something from me”, and finding him “guilty of disorderly conduct”.
A “conversation” that began with “Hello” perhaps? Like the furtive movements listed above, the suspicion of people like MacDonald seems reasonable given the pervasiveness of these kinds of police interactions. Ones that become all the more crazy-making given how they can then be swiftly erased by the NYPD. The defense also called their first witnesses to the stand today, both of whom – in record-speed testimonies – flat out denied that any racist comments were made when they stopped Clive Lino in the lobby of his apartment building.
“Absolutely not, its not professional”. It was hard to hear over the hum of an organization that prides itself on being paramilitary and punitive.
We live in a country that depends on paranoia for its securitization and militarization, yet simultaneously pathologizes any insight into the injustices of these processes as Paranoid. A magical feat with serious implications for social change.
I spent the evening at a town-hall in the Bronx with folks from the Morris Justice Project. They were presenting the results of their participatory action research, which collected the experiences of 1000 residents who are consistently harassed and failed by police. One of the co-researchers wished to remain anonymous; a Paranoia that provides powerful testimony to the power and threat of the NYPD in that area. Another told me such horrific everyday stories of the police targeting their family since they became known for protesting stop & frisk, that now I am too Paranoid to give any details in this post.
The last thing people need is to be further terrorized.
Yet these are the stories that will raise the public consciousness necessary for a revolution. As the man I was sitting next to said to me during the break in court today, “Change needs to happen on the streets”. Young and black with locks and an immaculate suit, he was a defense lawyer there to hold a press conference with other law professionals who are against stop & frisk.
Working with the Masters Tools, yet advocating for unashamedly passionate protest to dismantle the Masters House. Audre Lorde’s prayer rang loud today.
Day 21, Friday April 19th
Just as I was turning off my phone to head into the courthouse this morning, an article on Boston dropped into my Inbox. One ‘bomber’ killed, his little brother being ‘hunted’, the community on ‘lockdown’. As I showed my ID (a new – post-Boston – procedure) and stripped for the scanners, the security guard told me that the little brother had since been surrounded somewhere – bombs wrapped around his body and a pile of assault rifles at his fingertips.
Overwhelmed that this was all going on in our same time-thread, when I arrived on the fifteenth floor and the courtroom bouncer asked how I was doing, all I heard myself say was, “I feel really sad”. Soon joined by the second bouncer, the three of us talked at length about the bombings and the bombers. They are afraid of “the Muslims”. I am afraid of their fear.
With no one else waiting to go in, the space was eerily quiet; our soft-spoken, conflicting words had a loud echo. I could see US flags flying half-mast through the windows around us – symbolizing sorrow, respect, and the looming threat of increased violence toward Muslim (or presumed Muslim) communities. Later I watched as a plane cast a large moving shadow over these flags and the beautifully messy rooftops of downtown Manhattan, and thought of the black water towers that I had seen when in Palestine. Blanketing the houses so that families could share their extremely limited access to the water supply, they had looked like crows.
Leroy Downs had been on the stand all morning – a tall, gentle, 35yo black man in his thirties wearing a suit and spectacles. After walking home from his job as a substance abuse counselor, Downs was outside his house talking on the phone with a hand-held mouthpiece when an unmarked police car drove past, stopped, reversed, and spat out two white plainclothes cops. No cigarette, no smoke, no smell, they approached Downs saying, “Hey buddy, you look like you’re smoking weed!” and pushed and pinned him up against his fence – frisking him, emptying his pockets, and going through his wallet. After finding nothing but cookies, the officers laughed when Downs asked for their badge numbers – saying he was “lucky they didn’t lock him up” and that they were “just doing their fucking job”.
Downs went straight to the precinct. After hours of being blocked from filing a complaint, he took a photo of the officers’ car, walked home feeling “frustrated and angry”, and filed one online with the CCRB. He was subsequently sent to the Citizens Police Academy.
Ten months of retraining on how to be policed?
Meanwhile the officers, as Judge Scheindlin pointed out, had “said under oath that none of this ever happened”. “Troubled”, she ordered the defense team to immediately recall them. They panicked – smelling perjury. Three hours later, instead of the officers, two large-burley-broad-suited-white-older men entered the courtroom and began to aggressively and arrogantly argue with the Judge. They were “independent lawyers” trying to suggest that she was violating the officers’ rights. She fought back, saying “obviously you are worried about them being identified by Mr Downs” and telling them that if they did not comply with her order she would hold them for contempt of court.
A little shaken, the Judge asked the court for a couple of minutes after the NYPD’s hired goons had left. Her skinny older frame wrapped in a black robe up high behind the bench, it felt like she had re-entered her body after rising up. And we spectators sat there – stunned, and impressed. The officers will come in on Monday.
David Ourlicht had also been in the courtroom witnessing this exceptionally powerful figure fight the NYPD (and patriarchy) for justice. He took the stand after Downs. A 25yo from Manhattan, half black half white, wearing a suit and on crutches from a snowboarding accident – he was the first plaintiff to exude class privilege. Not that this provided him with any protection from police brutality.
Stop 1: Wearing a black down winter jacket, Ourlicht was heading home in Queens when a white male uniformed cop drove past in a three-wheeled police scooter and stopped in his path up the street. Officer Moran told us yesterday that he thought Ourlicht was “walking weird” and had an overly large “suspicious bulge”. He asked where he was going, requested an ID, then touched him around his belt buckle. When Ourlicht asked Moran for his ID he was told, “Now you’re getting the full treatment. Get against the wall”. “Scared”, “upset”, and “in disbelief”, Ourlicht put his hands against the wall and spread his legs as Moran unpacked his suspicious bulge – keys, phone, wallet, passport, large 5-subject notebook, pens, paper, I-pod – throwing it all on the ground. Responding to the subsequent summons for disorderly conduct, Ourlicht said, “That’s fucked up. You think I’m some young punk kid and you can treat me like this, but I’m not. I’m going to fight this”.
“Yeah yeah I love it when you guys try to fight. You never win”.
Stop 2: This time with a friend, Ourlicht was heading to his parents’ house for dinner, wearing the same jacket but with only his phone, keys, wallet, passport, and a small bottle Advil in the pockets. An undercover police car with four white male plain-clothed officers pulled up, windows wound down, saying they were looking for guns, and asking Ourlicht for ID. Getting out of the car, they told him to back up against the fence and simultaneously surrounded, questioned, frisked, and searched him. Saying over and over again, “We don’t care about bullshit drugs, all we care about is guns”.
Meanwhile his friend – his white friend – was standing ten feet away, talking face-to-face with one of the officers and showing his ID. Ourlicht watched out of the corner of his eye as the officer reached into his friend’s pocket, pulled out a small bag of marijuana, said “Look what I found!”, put it back, and then join his three colleagues in a second and even more “aggressive and thorough” search of Ourlicht. Going into all his pockets, putting their hands inside the waistband of his pants, running their fingers all around his zipper, feeling him up and down. And saying over and over again, “As soon as we find anything, we’re arresting you”.
They didn’t. Walking away, his friend had his name called out and was told to “be more careful next time”. Ourlicht on the other hand was left feeling “scared” – “It was night-time, there was nobody around, my safety was in jeopardy”.
Stop 3: Ourlicht had been spending the morning helping his friend – his black friend – clean up his apartment in a public housing complex, when they went outside for a cigarette. Sitting in an enclosed space with other people from the building, two white male uniformed cops suddenly rushed in off the street, drawing their guns, and shouting, “There’s a gun! Everyone get down on the ground!” Chin and forehead on the pavement, hands on the back of his head, Ourlicht saw a paddy-wagon-ful of white male uniformed cops pull up, jump out, and run in with their guns drawn. “Terrified”, he was picked up by his belt, thumbed around the inside of his waistband, dropped to the ground.
Once again finding nothing, the officers looked at everyone’s ID and then dismissed them – saying casually, “Sorry about that, we had reports of a gun in the area”.
These everyday stories are ones of terror, and of apartheid. What struck me most about Ourlicht’s testimony was his passport. An historic weapon in the violent policing of people’s movements, homes, and subjectivities, it seemed like it was taken-for-granted that he needed to have identification on him at all times. Indeed, the knowledge and endurance that both Downs and Ourlicht displayed about NYPD practices today was extraordinary, and infuriating. Why should communities of color carry the burden of police brutality and police accountability?
Once more expected to service white supremacy.
Yet I left today filled with energy. There had been a mobilizing blend of dignity, laughter, anger, and comradery to the courtroom. I even found a lone trashcan on my way back to the train. After thinking on Tuesday that they had all been removed in a post-Boston security move, it was an unlikely beacon in an otherwise terror-fied landscape.
Day 25, Thursday April 25th
Running late, I spilled out of my apartment building this morning to land on an oddly deserted block. Living on a main road in Brooklyn and directly across from a large public high school, the 8.30am emptiness was stark. And then outlined with lots of navy-blue people, guns, NYPD cars and vans, flashing lights, and yellow police tape. I asked a young Latino guy with tattoos and a pitbull what was up but neither of us could figure it out. Walking and talking together along the sidewalk, he soon got told off by an officer for being in the area; I was ignored…
In retrospect, the banality of this whole scenario was what was most unnerving; too used to police discriminately swarming this block and the nearby subway station in the mornings and around 3pm. Over the past decade, this city has accrued more security guards per public school student than others’ have officers per person. Schmooshing the neoliberal production of knowledges and subjectivities with suspicion, the ‘Pentagon epistemologies’ (Hugh Gusterson’s term) that drive these distortions are an ‘accepted’ exchange for ‘safety’.
By coincidence, my subsequent walk-train-walk-queue-lift soon thrust me into another twinning of terror and training in court today. Embodied by the defense team’s witness, Chief James Shea – a(nother) middle-aged white man in a suit, testifying from his recent position as Commanding Officer of the Police Academy.
The Police Commissioner had transferred him there from the Joint Terrorism Task Force…
Shea described the lessons that all pending-police receive on stop & frisk, which began with a 10-minute video on ‘Recognizing the Characteristics of Armed Suspects’. Male voice-over, dramatic music, strobe-like edits and effects, fonts and colors fit for a men’s shaving commercial; we were about to have our “powers of observation sharpened” in order to “be effective” as “professional police officers”.
After two re-enactments of real-life ‘street scenarios’ from real-life cops, a series of images showed us what constituted legal grounds for a frisk. An outline of a gun in a pocket here. A suspicious bulge there. Oh, and a shirt worn on the outside of a jacket, ‘inappropriate’ clothing (“like a long coat in summer”), a heavy-looking zipper pouch, a “tilted shopping bag”, an elongated package, a stiff leg, hands in pockets, and walking away from the police.
As we flicked through these increasingly everyday images, the noun used to describe the person on whom all these grounds were forced, intensified from “individual” to “suspect” to “prisoner”. While the body remained the same; with the exception of one white male in an (inappropriate) trench coat, all were brown or black men – the vast majority young, one older in a suit (his shirt Tellingly un-tucked).
…“Don’t be afraid to draw your gun”, “Be especially careful if the suspect turns his back on you”, “Do not let them out of your sight”, “They might be about to fire on you”…“Take control”, “Handcuff them immediately”, “Be thorough–” (“–don’t be shy about going into the crotch area”), “Use a command voice”, “Don’t let them engage you in conversation”…
The video ended with music stopped, as we heard and watched an officer run after an individual-suspect-prisoner and were warned by the voice-over to, “Be careful if he has cover, and you don’t”. Now with the unsuspecting officer having a gun pointed at him from behind, “You might be in serious trouble”. Followed by a progressive extreme close up of white font on black (‘think. Think. THINK’), “Your safety is of paramount concern”. Cut.
Mouth gaping in disbelief, I could not believe what I was seeing. Pushing an exceptionally dangerous mix of heroism and fear, this ‘educational’ video was deadly serious.
On direction from direct (now the defense team), we went on have our suspicion skills further schooled by Shea. If someone is “overly friendly” or “unnaturally aggressive” when “you might just be saying, Hi”, it could be that “they are walking around with a jail sentence on them”. Same goes if they make “subconscious movements” that are “comparable to embarrassment” like sweating or blushing, have their arm “unnaturally” close to their body, do a “reassuring touch” around their waist, have a sagging or pulled pocket, or turn their body away from you (“blading”).
And then the weapons themselves could look and/or feel like a cell-phone, pen, belt buckle, wallet. Or be concealed by a bandanna tucked into the front pocket, or a shirt un-tucked on one side. Or cause someone to be standing around or looking over their shoulder, “like an animal” on guard.
Layers of rationality caked into paranoia and dehumanization. This “gold standard” of observation (as I heard one dazzled spectator describe Shea’s arguments) is swollen, inflamed, festering with racism and violence.
While Shea emphasized that our suspicion must depend on the “objective facts” of the situation, he also noted several times that these have “infinite” possibility. Which is why, he continued, officers are also trained in ‘Policing with Professionalism’. The accompanying Student’s Guides emphasized ‘discretion’ – or “the ability and authority to select the tools to solve a problem on basis of training and experience”, and ‘impartiality’ – the officer must not base their decisions on any “biases or prejudices”. Racial profiling “being the ugliest one” requiring this (imaginary) off-switch.
A section on the ‘perception of public’ (as in the public’s perception of the police, not the police’s perception of the public…) further stated that, “Policing in a free society is dependent on the consent of the people … It is important that they perceive that they are being enforced in a fair and impartial manner”. But warned that this can be difficult: “Immigrants” may have a history of negative interactions with the police from their home country. “Ethnic groups” may have a history of negative interactions with the police from here.
People’s learned distrust based on historic and present police brutality and terror, turned into baggage. Undermined and delegitimized.
Shea continued to school us with regard to ‘Policing in a Multicultural Society’, which immediately evoked talk of “foreign nationals”, immigration regulations, and “people with limited English”. Showing how the policing of borders has been incorporated (sometimes literally) into domestic practice as part of the ‘war on terror’. And how only Some folks have a race, ethnicity, culture.
An all-American whiteness was the unspoken norm of this courtroom-cum-classroom. A rule to be obeyed and defended.
As role-played in the three-day post-graduate ‘Multicultural Immersion Training: Advancing Community Trust Together’: ‘A white woman and a black man are walking down the street past two uniformed members of the NYPD. He is asking her out on a date – trying to convince her that he is a good person, that he has a good job, and so forth. She is responding with caution. Three plain-clothed officers suddenly approach, grab, and frisk him. They then receive a radio call saying that a person who fits the description they have been looking for has been found, and leave. The man complains that he has been racially profiled.’
The explicit lesson? That both the three frisk-y plain-clothed officers and the two watch-y uniformed ones broke NYPD protocol around ‘disengagement’. They should have explained to the man why he was stopped.
The implicit lesson? That the criminal justice system is designed to protect the ‘purity’ of whiteness. The reproduction of racial stereotypes and policing of racial hierarchies enacted in this role-play, are repulsive in their Jim-Crow-esque repetitions. Even more disturbing is that this was one out of a “whole bank of scenarios” that the defense chose to proudly detail today.
CCR’s cross-examination focused on the distinction between a Level II and a Level III (or ‘Terry’) stop – which is, as Shea emphasized, “when a reasonable person does not feel free to leave”. Thereby becoming the ‘stop’ of ‘stop & frisk’. Thereby having to meet legal standards of reasonable suspicion, police documentation, and the Fourth Amendment.
Yet last year thousands and thousands of NYPD officers took a refresher course instructing them to “ask accusatory questions that would lead a person to believe the police consider him a suspect”, “place your hands on a holstered firearm”, “draw and conceal your weapon”, and “forcibly remove” someone’s hands from their pockets, during their supposedly inquisitive, benevolent Level II stops. Stops that are legally defined by a reasonable person feeling free to leave.
As Judge Sheindlin said to Shea, “I guess if we were having a conversation outside of the courtroom over a coffee I would say to you that people don’t feel free to leave”. And then I (in this dreamy chat) would jump out from my pot-plant disguise and add what I also saw written on the lesson plan today: “Any false, inconsistent, or evasive answers may trigger a Level III stop”. Free to leave yet if we do so we may no longer be?
And then, according to the trappings of the law, to realize this is to be unreasonable??
The definition of ‘force’ urgently, urgently needs a rethink. Especially given that we live in a militarized police state. One that transforms the ongoing violence of rational, elite spaces into the threat and surveillance of Others. An alchemical warfare that turns expertise into irrationality, whiteness into goodness, blackness into suspicion, students into criminals, schools into prisons, dissent into discipline, creativity into conformity.
Bags into bombs. The girl at the supermarket told me on my way home that it was ‘a bomb threat’ at the school across the road this morning; I later found out it was ‘a suspicious package’.
And, “people into police officers” – Shea’s description of the overarching goal of the Police Academy…
Day 27, Tuesday April 30th
This is my last blog post because on Thursday I am heading to Santiago for a gathering of scholar-activists from around the world who do psychology and want to talk critical theory and social change. Testimony to life-spirals (and my privilege) it was at this same meeting in Thessaloniki two years ago when I first witnessed police brutality. Walking alone back to the hostel one night, a line of floating white orbs had slowly come into view across my path. A little closer and I realized they were the helmets of a riot squad framing a midnight protest against the neoliberal-itizing of the Greek government. Not quite knowing what was happening, but feeling strongly that I was on The Wrong Side of this embodied-justice-border, I froze.
Then darted between bulletproof vests, batons and full-body shields, streetlights, shadows and buildings, to sprint through the high-beams of a row of (revving) motorbikes and join the rally. Moving between these spaces and bodies, I was suddenly aware that there was no human interaction. ‘They’ were all machine. ‘We’ were all animal. (‘I’ was a stray). Creating an affective hierarchy of rationality; fertile for the emergence of violence. One that I was to experience again and again and again in New York City two months later when Zucotti Park was (re)Occupied.
Just a few blocks away from 500 Pearl Street.
Brooklyn activists and allies around stop & frisk packed the court today – many representing East Flatbush. Their presence was poignant given that Inspector Lehr was on the stand. Red and shiny and spectacled face, this white male in his forties and a crisp NYPD uniform spoke from his high-ranking position at the 67th precinct. The same precinct where 16yo Kimani Grey was killed by police officers in March this year.
10,000 250s were filed in the 67th during 2012; more than 25 recorded stops a day. The “quality” of which were described as only with regard to whether or not they are “addressing the crime condition”. Spinning people into data points, the interaction itself (once again) ignored. Although Lehr had to admit that the low rate of summons and arrests emerging from these stops (less than 1percent and 3.5 percent respectively) raises concerns about whether or not they were based on reasonable suspicion. Not enough, however, for him to have ever talked with anyone about it.
Lehr also spoke at length about the Performance Monitoring Program, whereby officers who have had three or more CCRB complaints due to their use of force, abuse of authority or discourtesy are subjected to their own year of surveillance and correction. When introducing officers to the Program, Lehr asks about their aspirations within the NYPD and reminds them that their performance will impact their promotion opportunities.
Held accountable to their careers, not their communities.
And from a person who proudly spoke about the relationship that his precinct has with the people of 67th precinct – 90 percent of whom are black. While community meetings bring concerns from people about how and why they are stopped, Lehr was adamant that he had never received a complaint about racial profiling. Including during his times with Council member Juumane Williams, an “outspoken critic” of stop & frisk as a practice that pushes racism. Instead we heard that Williams, “always prefaces his comments … with a compliment to the 67th precinct”.
Even the Judge laughed.
Lehr’s remarkable ability to not hear racism continued in his depiction of the Kimani Grey vigils and demonstrations as “some anti-police stuff”. Only when the lawyer from the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) pushed him about how people’s chants and banners spoke of the NYPD’s racist practices did he oh-so-reluctantly agree that this could be seen as a complaint about racial profiling.
Such refusal to see that which is not ‘officially’ documented was also illustrated in today’s testimony by Detective Hawkins. A black woman in her forties and a suit, Hawkins had done a no-show yesterday for her involvement in Kristiana Acevedo’s stop. Come today and she altogether denied the yell & chase & grab & push & shake & hold & frisk & search & threaten & demean; describing “just a friendly encounter” with Acevedo whereby she spent “90 seconds” identifying herself as an NYPD officer in the hope of “gathering some intelligence”.
Hence why Hawkins never did the documentation required for a stop & frisk. A written statement from Detective Albino and oral testimony from Sergeant Dengler likewise implied – vis-à-vis missing 250s and memo books – that the stops of Ourlicht, Clarkson, Peart, and Floyd did not happen.
Wrapped around policing, the absence and presence of paperwork works to obscure people’s experiences with the NYPD. Sergeant Marino was “not concerned” that one of the officers under his command came top-of-the-stops in 2009 – 127 over three months, 90 percent involving black people despite that only 43 percent of the precinct’s population can be categorized as such. Indeed in his quarterly evaluation, Marino proudly described this “self-motivated” officer as one who “gets along well with his supervisors, peers, and the general public” and “an aggressive police officer who performs all duties with little or no supervision”.
Marino further described his own ‘Policing in a Multicultural Society’ training as learning “how to deal with different communities” and going on field trips including the Jewish History Museum, the African History Museum, Ellis Island, and… the Statue of Liberty. The uncanny whiteness of these examples aside, it was their objectification that made me squint; people tossed into homogeneous categories of Other that need to be “dealt with”.
What about listened to? When asked by the NYPD’s team if he was concerned about “over-policing in majority-minority neighborhoods” Lehr replied, “No … more than any other complaint is people saying there’s not enough … they want added police presence”. A seemingly contradictory knot tied by NYPD practices that spread fear, distrust, and violence – not safety. Stop & frisk is working in cahoots with a silencing of people’s actual needs.
Perhaps the NYPD could resuscitate its values with a move toward community-driven – rather than data- (or race-) – policing. Prioritizing the learning opportunities of collective voice and action over the Statue of Liberty. Then again, representing nationalist propaganda and made of concrete, Libby is conveniently less complex, angry, emotional…
It is perverse and telling that we live in a country where protest is terror-ized. The NYPD used militant tactics at (un)Occupy actions, Homeland Security is directly involved in the upheaval of these struggles, the USA Patriot Act enables protestors to be detained on suspicion of terrorism.
And, to be completely inside-out, watching Floyd has definitely made me worried that They are watching me. Not helped when just after 8am yesterday morning, I walked out of The CUNY Graduate Center to find half a dozen NYPD with sub-machine guns patrolling the front steps and sidewalk. Reminding me of my conversation with a protesting psychologist in Thessaloniki: she told me that educational spaces in Greece have historically had asylum status – no military or police allowed; I told her about what was happening over here; she had been confused and shocked – asking, “How can you have a free society if you can’t have freedom of thought?”
The occupation of our cities-cum-psyches. I finally had a nightmare about the NYPD. After pretending to be plumbers, three large white men returned to my apartment and broke down the front door when I was in the bathroom. The drugs on my coffee table becoming the goat for my activism against the police; they were aggressive and thrilled. Time slowed right down as I turned the doorknob to enter where these plain-clothed cops were waiting for me – guns pointed.
Not my most creative of dreams, I’ll admit. But perhaps this was it’s message; not everyone gets to wake up at this point. Yet we must continue to know that this is possible.
I am leaving Floyd with the poetics and politics of Audre Lorde, Franz Fanon, Kelly Oliver, Ignacio Martin-Baro dancing maniacally in my head; imagination is critical to the decolonization of our souls, lives, worlds.
Post-Script, Monday May 20th
I was flicking through an anthology by Audre Lorde the other day and found this poem. It’s called A Meeting of Minds, she wrote it in 1986, and it made me think of 15C – its silences and its seductions.
In a dream
she is not allowed
the agent of control is a zoning bee
her lips are wired to explode
at the slightest conversation
in a crystal
other women are chatting
the walls are written in honey
in the dream
she is not allowed
to kiss her own mother
the agent of control
is a white pencil
Her words joined me for the closing arguments of Floyd today. The grand finale of an epic show, I was looking forward to seeing the whole cast of characters – judge, lawyers, plaintiffs, witnesses, press, bouncers, spectators – return to this crystal-stage for one last collective cancan. I donned my pearls and monocle, jumped on my bike, and headed over Williamsburg Bridge for my last romantic ride-montage. Manhattan misty-ing, police patrolling, flags flying, security scanning…
And courtrooms overflowing. I made it in, just. The turnout was incredible and sustained throughout the day. As I overheard someone say, this trial is History-making. Floyd has the potential to affect, protect, save the lives of millions of New Yorkers otherwise terrorized by the NYPD.
At least, that’s the hope.
The defense counsel opened with a reminder that NYC is "still a big city”. Their point, you (rightfully) ask? It’s hard to maintain safety, and the NYPD are doing their best. Meanwhile the “confused” and “arrogant” plaintiffs have been indignantly finding police-speak “liability-inducing”: racial profiling is “more fiction than reality” – the actual “struggle” is “between management and employees about getting the work done”; “quotas” are not “performance goals” – the latter are about addressing the crime condition.
And just because a black person makes a complaint against the NYPD does not mean it’s about race. Indeed this assumption, they continued, is “inherently offensive” (at which point we spectators made a collective hard-to-describe incredulous-sound– there is Something So Off about hearing this proclamation that they are the ones arguing against racism).
The defense went on to attack the 19 stops described by the 12 witnesses over the past ten weeks – working hard to undermine people’s credibility (bad memories, bad agendas) and validate the officers’ reasonable suspicion (bad areas, bad times, bad descriptions). And/or argue that the testimonies were not actually about Terry stops as people were “free to leave” and therefore “voluntarily chose” to interact with the police.
As the Center for Constitutional Rights’ (CCR’s) lawyer argued in their own closing arguments, this latter point is “patently ridiculous”. These interactions are soaked in not only power imbalances, but past, present, and future experiences of police brutality.
And with regard to the penultimate point, as Judge Scheindlin argued, “if your reasonable suspicion is wrong 90 percent of the time, that’s a lot of misjudgment of suspicion”. In response, the defense claimed that stops’ outcomes do not erase the validity of officers’ initial suspicion. This is true. But it still does not take into account that the police-lens is historically, politically, professionally, statistically constructed in such a way as to, in the Judge's words, “add race in as a reasonable suspicion variable”.
Or, in CCR's words, relentlessly deployed justifications like ‘suspect description’ and ‘high crime area’ are “nothing more than smoke and mirrors”; NYPD policy is "stop first, invent reasons later”. It is race that has become "a proxy for reasonable suspicion”.
And then, CCR continued, the NYPD have taken a "head in the sand approach" to the effects of these racist practices. Disavowing the possibility of racism following years of complaints about police harassment from almost exclusively brown and black communities is not only “disingenuous”, but “evidence itself of deliberate indifference”.
Like their switch to the phrase 'racially motivated', CCR's use of the word 'deliberate' here made me uneasy. I realize these terms are more palatable to the Western (imperial, neoliberal, colonial) courthouse, yet they also contribute to its bracketed ideologies. Those same ones that move with/in the defense's emphasis that none of the stops involved comments about race, and their recurring insinuation that racism could only come from white bodies.
All of which allude to a dubious and dangerous understanding of race and racism as nouns. As much as conservative and liberal agendas might wish otherwise, these are not entities (whether attitudes, or melanin) that reside in an individual. More like some sort of co-produced verbs, we do not have them, we do them; they do not exist, they become; we should speak not of intention, but of effect…
While thankfully the Judge did question if racial comments and slurs were really the only indicators of racism, my colleague María Elena Torre from the Morris Justice Project reminded me that beyond Pearl Street there is no shortage of this evidence. The verbal racism that people experience from police is so violent, explicit, and everyday that this section of their participatory survey with folks from the Bronx was often initially left blank. A loud silence (NB: not an absence) that perhaps also echoes in why – as the defense gleefully pointed out today – CCR were ‘only’ able to get 12 witnesses to testify against the police. Both provide further proof of police brutality as terror-fying and constant.
A collision (collusion) fertile for the calculation of distrust and serious wonderings if things could ever be any different.
Which brings me to remedies. The defense boasted the NYPD’s “self-initiated organic efforts” – arguing that the organization is “a big ship but slowly turning”. It follows, apparently, that no changes are necessary. In fact these will be “burdensome” and “expensive”, “fatally undermine the chain of demand”, and obstruct their ability to police ‘properly’.
CCR on the other hand, argued that history has shown us to be “guilty of trusting the NYPD to address issues on their own”. They have not fulfilled the Daniels’ recommendations nor even the supervision process outlined by high-ranking NYPD officials in this trial. Instead they suggest, ahem:
- a new 250, with sections for stops' constitutionality and any witnessing officers, and a carbon-copy for the person stopped that inclines details of the main officer involved and how to make a complaint;
- getting rid of Operations Order 52, which authorizes the pressure on officers to meet ‘performance standards’;
- holding supervisors accountable for bad stops, including with regard to their documentation and review;
- a joint remedy process with input from community members and other stakeholders, and facilitation by an external person with experience in mediation and police reform; and
- an external monitor with sufficient power to make sure that these changes actually happen.
And then there was the Judge’s (((alarming))) suggestion of body-worn cameras…
Slavoj Zizek argues that the art of politics is to make demands that are at once thoroughly realistic and de facto impossible. That is, ones that are doable yet disturb the very core of the hegemonic ideology. It was not until the final five minutes that I saw a possible opening for this disturbance. A tangent for some, a line of flight for me, CCR’s closing closing lawyer mentioned 9/11 for (at least as far as I can recall) the first time. In the same breath as a reference to Mayor Bloomberg’s recent speech about the need for stop & frisk to deter gun violence and therefore deaths – pushing fear and a shift to view the police as no longer “first responders” but “first preventers”, CCR's arguments started to move ever so gently towards the affective and material (un)limits of anticipatory policing.
Although soon interrupted by a flummoxed defense after a puppeteer in the spectator area loudly hissed at the lead counsel to object, that this movement was made explicit in this space is critical. If we do not witness how stop & frisk – and the regime of militant, racist policing from which it emerges – circulates with/in (inter)national politics of terror – our lips remain wired and the bee continues to separate us.
…To keep with Lorde's imagery…
Propelled through surveillance, fear is what stings. It is what Brian Massumi argues is the ‘affective fact’ of securitization, what Patricia Clough and Craig Willse argue provides the ‘rhetoric of motive’ for neoliberalism. And what poisons our capacity for connectivities and creativity. It is in our social relations – the defiance of divide and conquer, the meeting of minds for diverse imaginings – that lies radical emancipatory potential.
Revolution demands techniques that interrupt the circulation of fear alongside a dream-space of shared stories, histories, possibilities, and a rainbow-pile of colored pencils.
I hope that Floyd has helped to arouse public awareness and outrage, yet we cannot be seduced by the honey-illusion that a court decision will be enough. As Zizek argues, “It is the people who have the answers. They just do [(may)] not know [(they know)] the questions to which they have (or, rather, are) the answer”.