Early on in the Occupy Philadelphia protests, I wondered if the movement had ventured too far afield when it rallied against the so-called "stop and frisk" policies of the Philadelphia police department. I'm wondering that a lot less after this op-ed in the New York Times this weekend:
These experiences changed the way I felt about the police. After the third incident I worried when police cars drove by; I was afraid I would be stopped and searched or that something worse would happen. I dress better if I go downtown. I don't hang out with friends outside my neighborhood in Harlem as much as I used to. Essentially, I incorporated into my daily life the sense that I might find myself up against a wall or on the ground with an officer's gun at my head. For a black man in his 20s like me, it's just a fact of life in New York.
Here are a few other facts: last year, the N.Y.P.D. recorded more than 600,000 stops; 84 percent of those stopped were blacks or Latinos. Police are far more likely to use force when stopping blacks or Latinos than whites. In half the stops police cite the vague "furtive movements" as the reason for the stop. Maybe black and brown people just look more furtive, whatever that means. These stops are part of a larger, more widespread problem — a racially discriminatory system of stop-and-frisk in the N.Y.P.D. The police use the excuse that they're fighting crime to continue the practice, but no one has ever actually proved that it reduces crime or makes the city safer. Those of us who live in the neighborhoods where stop-and-frisks are a basic fact of daily life don't feel safer as a result.
The Philadelphia experience has been very similar to what the author, a young man named Nicholas K. Peart (pictured above), has lived through in New York:
In 2009, police stopped 253,333 pedestrians, 72 percent of whom were African American, the suit said. Only 8 percent of the stops led to an arrest, often for "criminal conduct that was entirely independent from the supposed reason for the stop," according to the suit.
There's no doubt that crime continues to make life difficult for residents of Philadelphia's poor and working-class neighborhoods in a way that calls for aggressive responses -- but "aggressive" responses can also be "smart." In the 1990s I recall a lot of fascination with intelligent-yet-constitutional urban crime-fighting; but since 9/11, it's all about who can out-Draco Draco.
There's been so much talk the last few years about "American exceptionalism" and that is what I would love to see: not the right-wing vision of American infallibility as a God-given right but rather a nation with exceptional laws and civil liberties. Every time a young and innocent black man cannot walk down a Philadelphia street freely, our exceptionalism fades into the ozone.