On Friday, May 4, Judge Robert M. Mandelbaum, in one of the biggest political protest trials in New York’s recent history, found 20 activists guilty of disorderly conduct, an offense classified as a violation, not a crime.
During a nonviolent protest on Oct. 21 these individuals formed a human chain outside the NYPD’s 28th Precinct headquarters in Harlem to protest the more than 8,700 stops and frisks conducted by the precinct in 2011.
Those arrested included Cornel West, Princeton University professor and civil rights activist; the Rev. Stephen Phelps, senior minister of the Riverside Church in Harlem; Rev. Earl Kooperkamp, rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Harlem; professor Jim Vrettos of John Jay College of Criminal Justice; and Debra Sweet, director of World Can’t Wait, among many other prominent community members.
Nineteen of the protesters were sentenced to time served, which is the period of time they already spent in jail after being arrested. One defendant who got into a heated exchange with prosecutors while on the stand was sentenced to two days of community service.
Before entering court on April 30, Ari Brochin, a lawyer for the group, said they were planning on using a justification defense that actions that otherwise may be illegal are not criminal if they are justified by preventing a greater harm, in this case the harm caused by stop-and-frisk incidents. But after the first day of the trial, the judge barred lawyers from using that argument.
According to the American Civil liberties Union of New York State, last year 685,724 New Yorkers were stopped by the police. Of those, 53 percent were Black, 34 percent were Latino, and 51 percent were aged 14-24. Of the stops, 88 percent of the people were found to be innocent of any crime.
On May 3, the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP) also released a collection of quotes from present and former NYPD officers “that demonstrate, in their own words, the illegal tactics and racially biased attitudes that are endemic to the daily operations of the department,” according to PROP.
In the collection, one NYPD officer is quoted as saying, “Our primary job is not to help anybody, our primary job is not to assist anybody; our primary job is to get those numbers and come back with them.”
While police are being encouraged to meet quotas, the New York Civil Liberties Union released new figures this week demonstrating the decreasing effectiveness of stop-and-frisk tactics: In 2003, the NYPD stopped 266 New Yorkers for every gun recovered, while in 2011, the department had to stop 879 New Yorkers for every gun recovered.
Before the trial, Carl Dix, a founding member of the Revolutionary Communist Party and one of the 20 people detained, said, “We say that there is a criminal conspiracy here, but the head of that criminal conspiracy is Ray Kelly of the NYPD. He has his police force carrying out the revocation of the right to be secure against unreasonable search and seizure if you happen to be Black or Latino. His main co-conspirator is [Mayor] Michael Bloomberg.”
Other community members agree that the fight to end or reduce stop-and-frisk incidents begins with Bloomberg. On Wednesday, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio announced a new campaign to reform the broken stop-and-frisk policy, beginning with a call on Bloomberg to issue an executive order dramatically reducing the number of unwarranted stops.
“We cannot wait until the mayor leaves office to change this broken policy. Stop-and-frisk is a valid police tool, but it is being misused thousands of times each day. Every unwarranted stop widens the gap between police and the communities they protect–making us all less safe,” de Blasio said. “The mayor needs to exercise leadership and direct the NYPD to reduce unwarranted stops. If he doesn’t, we will show him the way.”
De Blasio was joined by Assemblymen Micah Kellner and Nick Perry, Council Members Leroy Comrie, Daniel Dromm, Julissa Ferreras, Robert Jackson, Melissa Mark-Viverito and Jumaane Williams; the National Action Network, the New York Civil Liberties Union, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, Make the Road NY, Life Camp, and Highbridge Community Center at a press conference on Wednesday to announce this plan to reduce the number of stop-and-frisks in the city. The campaign will mobilize 100,000 New Yorkers through an online hub at
www.BloombergActNow.com, on-street organizing and resolutions passed through community boards and civic groups.
The protesters found guilty last week have also vowed to continue fighting stop-and-frisk.
“What part of the Fourth Amendment do we not understand? It says the right of the people, to be secure in their persons and in their effects from unreasonable search, shall not be violated. That is really, really easy to understand,” Phelps said before entering the trial. “The right of the people must be protected. We are here to protect the city, because the city is not protecting itself.”