Mackenley Zamilus, 23, a maintenance worker from Brooklyn, was having a smoke outside a 24-hour deli in his Brooklyn, NY neighborhood earlier this month, when he was approached and questioned by a police officer.
It was 4 am, and Zamilus told the officer he was waiting for his sandwich to be made. But that didn’t satisfy the cop, who told him 20 minutes was “too long” to wait for a sandwich.
Within seconds, Zamilus found himself stretched against the wall, as the officer quickly frisked him and then let him go.
“The more you go through it, the more you get used to it,” he said later. “They look for the ones with the braids or the baggy jeans, tattoos, and they judge us for going down the block because we’re the wrong skin color.”
Zamilus has been routinely stopped and frisked since he was a teenager. He now says he’s accepted it as a part of life.
But that hasn’t prevented Zamilus, a member of Sunrise Drop-In Center, which provides recreational space and services to homeless youth in the Bronx, from speaking out.
Zamilus and his peers vented their outrage with the New York Police Department (NYPD) stop-and-frisk policies at an event called “Youth Open Mic & Speak-Out Against Police Brutality and Gender Violence” held last month.
Their voices are starting to be heard.
Last week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed legislation that would ease penalties for possession of small quantities of marijuana. The current law, which makes “open” use of marijuana a misdemeanor,has been used frequently by police during stop-and-frisk searches to charge young people who, after being told to empty their pockets, reveal visible amounts of pot—which critics say has tarnished thousands of minority youth with a criminal record.
The proposal, since backed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray W. Kelly, would reduce the penalty for carrying less than 25 grams of marijuana in plain sight from a misdemeanor to a violation
“It’s a step forward— not a big step—but a step forward,” said Kendall Jackman, housing campaign leader for Picture the Homeless, who participated in the Youth Speak-Out event.
“Zeroing on marijuana during stop-and-frisk is a way to target our community, even though we don’t smoke as much as other communities.”
She added that although the proposed legislation “won’t stop (police) from giving our men problems, it sends a message that you have to arrest people for the right reasons.”
Picture the Homeless, a grassroots organization that focuses on social justices aimed at homeless people, was one of the sponsors of the May 25 event.
The organization has thrown several “open-mic” events, but this was the first one centered on the issue of police brutality and the first one directed solely towards the youth.
“We do a lot of workshops about knowing your rights against police brutality, and we found that most youths were excited to get involved because of their own personal experiences,” said LaMont OyeWale’ Badru, youth organizer for Picture the Homeless.
About 50 young people turned out for the evening event at The Point, an inner-city youth and community development center in New York’s borough of The Bronx.
After a litany of stories from the community activists, rappers, homeless people, college graduates, and high school students—and parents, one thing was clear.
Just as hip-hop music, fitted baseball caps, slangs and tattoos have become a part of urban culture, so have policing tactics such as stop-and-frisk.
“I used to get upset, but now that I’m older and have a daughter, I learned the law and I’ll tell the police they can’t stop me because I know my rights,” said Zamilus, a co-host of the meeting.
“It’s partially our fault, society portrays us as a certain way… our backs are always against the wall…we kill our own people, and we get into everything but knowing the law.”
The event also drew some high-profile speakers, such as Harlem musician Ben Love, Bronx poet Drew Speakeasy, and Dannette Chavis, the mother of Gregory Chavis, 19, who was fatally shot on October 9, 2004.
Dannette Chavis’ story brought members of the audience to tears.
Shot in the Back
Her son was shot in the back during a Bronx altercation with two unidentified males. He was unarmed.
When his friends picked him up and tried to carry him to nearby Lincoln Hospital, NYPD officers stopped them. The friends refused, insisting he need emergency help.
According to the friends’ account, the officers drew their guns and forced them to put Gregory’s body down and wait for an ambulance—even though the hospital was only a block away.
Rashaad Conyers, one of the friends, filed an affidavit that said they had been waiting 30 minutes for an ambulance, but according to NYPD and emergency dispatch records, the ambulance was on the scene within five minutes. But Chavis was pronounced dead when the ambulance arrived.
Although the incident was unrelated to NYPD stop-and-frisk policies, participants said it reflected the larger problem of mistrust between police and minority youth.
Whatever the merits of the dispute, it underlines the deep suspicions felt by young New Yorkers of color towards law enforcement authorities. Many are painfully aware of the risks they run in encounters with the police that in more affluent neighborhoods might have different outcomes.
At last month’s event, speakers referred to Sean Bell, 23, who died after plain-clothes officers fired 50 shots at him (on the mistaken suspicion that he had a gun and was about to use it) in Jamaica, Queens on the morning of his wedding day in 2006.
Another name mentioned was Ramarley Graham, an unarmed 18-year-old who was fatally shot in the chest in his grandmother’s bathroom in the Bronx, as he attempted to flush a bag of marijuana down the toilet in February.
The officer who shot Graham, Richard Haste, was in plainclothes and believed that Graham was about to draw a gun. Haste was stripped of his badge and gun, and placed on restrictive duty.
Reason to Hope
Despite what many young African Americans and Latinos charge as unchecked police discrimination against minorities, the recent proposal by Gov. Cuomo has given them reason to hope that more attention will be paid.
Just as significantly, the courts are now set to weigh in on the constitutionality of stop-and-frisk policies.
In May, Federal Judge Shira A. Scheindlin approved a petition to allow a class-action four-year-old lawsuit to proceed against Commissioner Kelly, Mayor Bloomberg, and NYPD officers. The suit claims that New York authorities have acted unlawfully in thousands of stop-and-frisk cases.
“Defendants’ cavalier attitude towards the prospect of a ‘widespread practice of suspicionless stops’ displays a deeply troubling apathy towards New Yorkers’ most fundamental constitutional rights,” Judge Scheindlin said in her 57-page ruling. .
In 2011, in the high-crime neighborhood of East New York in Brooklyn, where the population is more than 50 percent black, there were over 31,000 stop and frisks.
In the Brooklyn, NY neighborhood of Greenpoint, which is more than 50 percent white, there were less than 2,100 stops in the same year.
In the first three months of 2012, approximately 203,000 New Yorkers were stopped and frisked—of whom 89 percent of them were not charged with any offense, according to figures compiled by the NYCLU.
Nevertheless, authorities continue to defend the practice, claiming that it is responsible for the city’s sharp drop in crime over the past decade.
“This year we’re on pace to have the lowest number of murders in recorded history, and not just by a little, but by a lot,” Bloomberg said at a May press conference, noting that stop-and-frisk has been an “essential” part of the NYPD’s work and has removed more than 6,000 guns from the streets in the past eight years.
“We are not going to do anything that undermines that trend, or threatens public safety. We are the safest big city in the country, and we are determined to keep it that way.”
Nevertheless, in response to the complaints, Kelly has ordered a review of police management and oversight strategies governing the use of stop-and-frisk.
“We have republished the Department order that specifically prohibits racial profiling and are including it our unit level training sessions in June,” he wrote in a letter to Christine Quinn, Speaker of the New York City Council on May 16, 2012.
He plans to have executive officers closely review all instances of stop-and-frisk and plans to “develop a quantitative mechanism to identify officers who receive a baseline number of stop-related civilian complaints.”
Critics, however, say these measures are insufficient.
“The mayor and commissioner need to give up the spin and recognize that the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program is fundamentally broken,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman in a press release.
“The NYPD is out of control, and the culture and practices of the Department need a full-scale overhaul so that the fundamental rights of all New Yorkers are respected and all communities can trust and respect the police.”