Every mother and father wants their children to be safe. Every resident of a community wants their neighborhood to be secure. Every politician wants his or her district to be safe, and so on, and so on, and so on.
But what is safety? What is security?
Is safety being assured that your child will not be snatched up or that your mother will not be knocked on the head? Is safety believing that your daughters can come home late at night without the risk of assault? Is safety knowing that statistics show crime is down?
Or is safety knowing that your son, husband, father, brother or friend is safe as he comes home each night?
These are the questions we ask of ourselves as a community every day, and some of these concerns weigh on other communities as well. But we must ask other questions as a people: What is the cost of safety? And do the means justify the cost?
Here in New York City, a local government-sanctioned policy, stop-and-frisk, is at an all-time high. In 2011, over 685,000 people were stopped and frisked by the NYPD. Of them, 53 percent were Black and 34 percent were Hispanic. What is particularly disturbing is that 88 percent were totally innocent.
For so many of us, the question of safety is not about criminals and crime, it is about the police treatment of us and our community. When the police believe we need to be stopped and frisked at every turn and that our young people have targets on them because they are Black and young, we have a problem.
In the case of Trayvon Martin, it was not a police officer but someone who had supposedly aligned himself with law enforcement as part of a community watch. Who were he and possibly some of his cohorts really watching out for? It seems in the case of George Zimmerman, it was anyone Black.
In our city, only 9 percent of stop and frisks involve whites. People of color face this humiliation at a rate nearly 10 times higher. And yet, at the end of this exercise each year, the percentage of people who are totally innocent hovers in the range of 87-90 percent.
How is it that spending all this time stopping hundreds of thousands of innocent people to find that small guilty percentage makes such searches worthwhile?
The manpower alone could be used in other ways to make sure our communities are safe and we, as community members, feel welcome on our own front steps.
There is a problem here in America, and that problem is racism. Many have tried to say that we are post-racial. Many have said the race problem is a thing of the past–but how can those words be justified when 87 percent of the mostly innocent stop-and-frisk victims are people of color?
There still is a color line, and our young men see it every day. There is no safety for young Black men in this country, whether in the classroom, the playground or the workplace. The idea of safety has less to do with crime than it does the threat of being stopped and judged by authority.
When will the time come when the freedom to walk down a street, to drive in a car, to walk into one’s home without threat of arrest is equal for people of all colors? Indeed, when?