Police make life hell for youth of color

Gus Rugley, like Sean Bell, was executed in a hail of bullets while sitting in his car, innocent and unarmed. He was hit by 36 bullets, six of them in his head, shot by SFPD officers on June 29, 2004, in a major intersection at 6:30 p.m. When his mother arrived on the scene, police handcuffed her and forced her to sit on the curb next to his car.

by Kathy Durkin 

Going to the grocery store, visiting a friend and walking home from work or school are all ordinary, everyday occurrences. But not so for hundreds of thousands of people, mostly from African-American and Latin@ communities, who are stopped, questioned, asked for their I.D., searched and often arrested here in New York — and around the country. It happens to many youth and even to children.

At a time when more white people appear to be rejecting racism at the polls, racial profiling by police departments and other state agencies is on the rise. It is systemic and deeply entrenched in the “criminal justice system” nationwide.

Statistics given in new studies and reports starkly bear this out. But the statistics cannot convey the intimidation, anxiety and anger that so many people, especially Black and Latin@ youth, must live with on a daily basis, nor the effect this can have throughout their lives on them and their families.

In the first quarter of this year, New York City police, by their own report, stopped, questioned and/or searched 145,098 people, more than half of them African Americans. At this alarming rate, a record 600,000 people will be stopped this year.

In the last two years, nearly 1 million New Yorkers were harassed by police in this manner — 90 percent of them people of color. That’s 1,300 a day. And it’s legally allowed.

These operations, just in the past two years, have put more than 1 million innocent people, mostly African-American and Latin@, into the huge police database. They are subject to future criminal investigations merely by their inclusion there.

The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) is challenging the legality of these apparently discriminatory practices and demanding information on the database kept by the NYPD — which the department refuses to turn over. It contains personal information on everyone stopped by police, though the vast majority — 90 percent — have not been charged with any crimes.

The NYCLU is also demanding full disclosure from the NYPD about police shootings in this city. The full story of this horror is not known. 

In addition to the terrible, tragic and totally unjustified killings of unarmed individuals like Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Ousmane Zongo and Patrick Dorismund, countless other people of color have been shot. Yet the NYPD refuses to reveal what proportion of those shot over the last 10 years have been members of oppressed nationalities. In the two years prior to that, NYCLU reports it was 90 percent.

Another aspect of the NYPD’s racial profiling scheme is the campaign of terror targeting youth for possessing miniscule amounts of marijuana. This, too, usually happens in communities of color, even though social studies show a higher rate of marijuana use among white youth, according to NYCLU. In 2007 alone, police arrested more than 100 people per day, or 39,700 in total, for this so-called crime.

The NYCLU has just issued a report entitled “The Marijuana Arrest Crusade in New York City: Racial Bias in Police Policy 1997-2007” by Prof. Harry G. Levin and Deborah Peterson Small. It describes the NYPD’s campaign against oppressed youth. Of the nearly 400,000 people arrested in that 10-year period, 205,000 were African Americans and 122,000 were Latin@s. This represented a tenfold increase over the previous 10-year period.

Since decriminalization in 1977, the possession of a small amount of marijuana has not constituted a “crime” in New York City — as long as it is not shown in public. Possession since then has been merely a “violation,” such as speeding and other traffic infractions.

However, the police frequently stop Black and Latin@ youth and then arrest them on the charge of misdemeanor possession — when, most of the time, this is not the case. High school students are kept in jail overnight until they go to court. Then they are pressured into a plea bargain, usually with an overworked, court-appointed attorney representing them.

In a city where police can gun down a young man like Sean Bell just hours before his wedding and get off with not even a slap on the wrist, youth stopped by cops never know what might happen to them.

These youth are then labeled with criminal records, which will follow them for the rest of their lives and can create future obstacles for them in higher education, employment and housing. They’re also driven into the “criminal justice” system — their fingerprints and photographs go into the NYPD database — when they’ve done nothing wrong.

It is well known that there is serious drug abuse in many high-pressure professions in this city, yet the police don’t occupy financial centers or carry out random searches in wealthy neighborhoods.

Rafael Mutis, coordinator of 7 Neighborhood Action Partnership Network, which works to repeal the draconian New York State Rockefeller drug laws, explains that “drug use” has become a pretext for stop-and-frisk searches in low-income neighborhoods. “They don’t go after people on Wall Street,” he said, “where there’s a daily snowstorm” of cocaine use, according to highbridgehorizon.com.

It is no coincidence that police repression has increased even as billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his Wall Street cronies are trying to make New York City a haven for the super-rich, and the real-estate tycoons are gentrifying working-class neighborhoods as fast as they can. “Law enforcement” agencies are helping them out by stepping up the intimidation of low-income and oppressed people and to suppress opposition and try to drive them further out of the city.

All progressive people need to show solidarity with the oppressed communities, especially the youth, in this struggle against police repression.

© 2008 Workers World. This story was originally published May 16, 2008, by Workers World, 55 W. 17th St., New York NY 10011, ww@workers.org, www.workers.org.