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Stop-and-Frisk in New York and the Politics of Crime in America Print E-mail
Written by James Vrettos   
ImageThere are a series of relatively unpublicized trials presently going on in New York City that seem to represent attempts to settle civil disobedience efforts and nonviolent protests that challenged the New York Police Department’s increasingly unpopular stop-and-frisk policies and the way a whole generation of young people of color is being condemned to lives of criminalization, marginalization, brutality and the spirit-crushing, human-wasting confinement of the largest prison system in the world.

These trials involve Carl Dix who, along with Union Theological Seminary professor Cornel West, was the co-initiator of the “Stop Stop-and-Frisk” protests. He and several other activists in the movement are facing charges of disorderly conduct and obstruction of governmental administration which could result in two to four-plus years of jail time for them.

Stop and frisk practices have been increasingly put on the defensive by academic research which has shown the racist nature of the policy—85 percent of those stopped and frisked are Black and Hispanic and police are significantly more likely to use force when they stop them than when they stop whites. Most academic scholars concerned with the issue have conclusively argued that the proportion of gun seizures to stops has fallen sharply and the policy has not been a major factor behind lowered crime rates.

Furthermore, the policy has been stymied by various lawsuits including the granting of a federal class-action status by a federal judge, discussion of the creation of an Inspector General’s Office to monitor various police policies and practices—including stop and frisk, and the Bronx district attorney’s office decision to no longer prosecute people who were stopped at public housing projects and arrested for trespassing unless the arresting officer is interviewed.

Equally damaging has been the exposing of “policing by the numbers” management policy—a code for quotas in which crimes are being downgraded and police commanders are pitted against one another to match or exceed previous figures. Religious leaders, cultural figures, and politicians have been vigorously speaking out against the political and spiritual immorality of the practice as well.

The mayor and police commissioner seem to be fighting back and using these trials as an opportunity to punish these activists for questioning and challenging the policy. On the other hand, these trials potentially have the power to raise public consciousness about the New York City criminal justice system, which is increasingly based on a fear-based, surveillance-directed policing system. There is also the possibility that these trials could help formulate an alternative narrative which communicates the linkages of that system to the larger political, economic, and spiritual ethos of the culture in what West has warned are the “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism” identified by Martin Luther King Jr. a year before his death.

For this alternative narrative to become viable and the links understood it should be recognized first that the American criminal justice system has generally not seen itself as an ideologically driven, politically class-based vehicle through which collective justice and punishment is meted out. Nor are attempts to change or resist the “system” by individuals or groups alike seen as part of a larger, justified “political or cultural social movement” designed to redress economic, political, racial, and/or moral grievances.

Instead our criminal justice system has been largely rooted in a tri-part philosophical base of science and the scientific method, classical criminology and deterrence, and a Judaic/Christian religious historical tradition. This has largely led to seeing the “problem” of crime as an individual or group “failing” and the solution as rooted in a trust of scientific, technocratic expertise, and policy manifested by established authority and the police.

Struggles to politically transform or question the system by ordinary individuals or protesting groups are seen as an invitation to chaos, unjustified questioning of legitimate and expert authority. Indeed, these struggles are seen as attempts to recklessly change a finely tuned mechanism that is allegedly working well and soundly rooted in tradition, scientific research, and moral fairness agreed to by general consensus in a free and open democracy.

It has become clear that we need a dialogue that is true to our democratic roots. We need more community participation to solve our common fears and needs for justice and security. It is this common humanity that should unite us, and the realization from those in power that they gain their mandate from ordinary people in those communities. When that is understood and that conversation begins, the hurt and violence of the system can begin to decrease on all sides.

This alternative narrative from the Judaic/Christian and secular American prophetic and progressive tradition of Martin Luther King Jr., Eugene Debs, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Dorothy Day, George McGovern, Pete Seeger, Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer and countless other Americans—one that speaks truth to power—would focus on our common humanity and is capable of understanding the hurt in those communities as well as the abuse and exploitation of the police.

To deny that race and class do not matter in contemporary America and its criminal justice system is to deny the most obvious political, scientific, and moral reality of our society. To say that you are the president of the country (or the mayor, or the police chief of all the people of New York City) and then to carry out the political and economic policies that fundamentally benefit the interests of the 1 percent of the city or to promote criminal justice policies that overwhelmingly impact the city’s poorest communities of color is to deny the “political” nature of crime and the possible response to it—including political resistance to those policies and attempts to change them through broad-based nonviolent political and social movements.

The activists now on trial in New York have educated us to the class and racial nature of policies like stop-and-frisk—policies which are now hotly contested in the city and in the courts. In that sense, they have helped us understand a system that has taken our common humanity away from us all. They have furthered the sort of Judaic/Christian/secular narrative we need to have to help bring about the common healing and public safety we all desperately need and want. These freedom fighters need to be supported. Their charges need to be dropped. And the policy of stop-and-frisk needs to end (not be reformed) so that this more honest “political and spiritual” conversation can go forward.

James S. Vrettos has taught sociology, criminology, and criminal justice at John Jay College–City University of New York for twenty years. He coauthored the critically acclaimed text The Elementary Forms of Statistical Reason and has facilitated New York City's Tikkun Community organizing group. Professor James Vrettos was involved in an Oct. 21, 2011, Harlem civil disobedience action and subsequent trial protesting stop-and-frisk polices


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