Standing While Black in NYC

The Police Only Saw He Was Black

"Students at Rice High School in Harlem, the only Catholic high School in Harlem, who are engaged in no wrongdoing, are frequently stopped and frisked.... Damarr McBean, a 15-year-old honors student, said of his encounters with the police: 'It just makes you feel low, like you don’t stand for anything. You just feel violated.'"
Bob Herbert, The New York Times, July 25

I am sometimes asked by out-of-state reporters and talk-show hosts whether our mayor can beat the "first lady," so-called, who came close to being an unindicted co-conspirator.

He can, I answer, if he can stop snarling long enough. Otherwise, he will make her a victim again, and she thrives as Tammy Wynette.

"But what's New York like with Giuliani as mayor?" I am then asked. It depends, I say, on who you are, and I tell the story that Felicia R. Lee wrote in The New York Times(October 23, 1997).

In all five boroughs, she interviewed black parents-poor and middle-class and beyond-and their common concern was how to teach their kids ways to avoid being harassed, or worse, by the police. Lee says that many white folks tell her she must be exaggerating. But talking with people in black neighborhoods and with lawyers to whom they go for redress of grievances, I find nothing hyperbolic about her findings.

I was told, for instance, about a black high-level assistant to then police commissioner William Bratton, who, when in plainclothes, was occasionally stopped by police after work because he was driving a car they thought was too expensive for his color.

There are journalists who do tell what it's like to be black while living in New York, but they are few. Peter Noel of the Voice, Jim Dwyer of the Daily News, Michael Meyers of the New York Post, and not many more. A columnist who stays on the subject persistently is Bob Herbert of the Times.

In a July 25 piece, Herbert challenged the press-print, radio, television, cable, and Internet-to illuminate the reality of Giuliani's New York. Herbert wrote:

"Why this is not a larger news story I don't know. An enormous segment of the city's population is being subject to routine humiliation by the police. But unless a cop takes a cylinder and shoves it deep into someone's rectum, or unloads an insane volley of bullets into an innocent man, it's not considered a big story....

"Perhaps this is because so many in the media are as guilty as the police of promoting stereotypes and denying the humanity of certain people."

One story about this all-too-characteristic police stereotyping was recently covered-but that's because the violated New Yorker is a star on Broadway.

On July 16, police were sent to 935 St. Nicholas Avenue. According to Marilyn Mode, Howard Safir's spokeswoman, the cops were looking for a pair of armed drug dealers who had run into the building.

As the cops arrived, four black men were about to leave the building. They did not fit the description of the suspects given to the police. One of the black men was Alton Fitzgerald White, who plays Coalhouse Walker Jr. in the Broadway musical Ragtime.

White, standing in the vestibule of the building, opened the door for the police. They must be coming, he thought, to help somebody.

In real life, not on stage, White was immediately handcuffed, put in a cell, forced to squat, strip - searched, and not allowed to make a phone call for two hours.

Meanwhile, the cops had arrested two Hispanic men at that building and charged them with criminal drug possession. A kilogram of cocaine had manifested itself in the lobby. But the police had also busted, at the same time, the four black men there.

As Bob Herbert reported, "Neighbors tried to tell the arresting officers they were making a mistake, that Mr. White was a straight arrow, a good and talented man, an actor in a starring role on Broadway."

But all the police saw was a blackman.

Alton Fitzgerald White told Jayson Blair of The New York Times that all he could think was: "You don't care if I am homeless or if I am starring on Broadway. The second time they pulled me out for questioning, all I could do is sit there and cry out of frustration."

To Susan Rabinowitz of the New York Post, White said: "I could have been a bum on the street or a Broadway star-I was a black man."

The Post added that Safir's flack, Marilyn Mode, "insisted that cops acted properly." (Emphasis added.)

But eventually the NYPD apologized, sort of. Through the New York Civil Liberties Union, White is filing a lawsuit against the city for false arrest, illegal imprisonment, and racial discrimination. He's asking for $750,000 in damages.

The NYPD told White he was unfortunately in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"I was where I live," he said.

Much of the time, the editorial writers of this city's newspapers do not come anywhere near the passionate concern for simple justice emphasized by Bob Herbert, Peter Noel, Jim Dwyer, and Michael Meyers. An exception was a September 2, 1998, editorial in the Daily News.

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