The Gropes of Wrath

The NYPD loves touching black men—writer Nicholas Powers on being a stop-and-frisk virgin

For black men, being stopped and frisked by the police is a rite of passage. But I've never been touched by a cop. I'm a virgin.

Knowing this, I play a risky game of tease by trying not to look safe. Instead of a corporate fade cut, four-foot-long dreads flap around me. Yet somehow I've eluded this state-sanctioned groping. A stop-and-frisk is hands feeling up and down your body, fingering pockets and cupping armpits. It's a physical act poorly translated by statistics.

The New York Civil Liberties Union analyzed police data and reported that half a million of us were stopped and frisked by the NYPD in 2006, but only 50,000 were issued summonses or arrested. Of that half million, 85.7 percent were black or Latino. The NYPD is fondling our bodies.

It made me look at the men in my life. Who's been touched? I ask my roommate Ese Ovueraye if he's a virgin. "My first time," he recalls, "I was buying loosies from the bodega. When I left, two cops rushed me. The female cop warned me her partner had a gun. I was like, 'What are you going to do, shoot me?' "

I imagine police handprints on Ese's arms, shoulders, and thighs. Can you feel safe in your body after someone handles it against your will? I ask Ese why no cop has ever stopped me. He smiles. "Take off your glasses and wear a hoodie. You'll get all the love you want."

I call Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League and a former mayor of New Orleans, and ask if he's ever been frisked. He remembers driving home after a football game 30 years ago. Police lights flash in the mirror. He and his friend pull over. The cop orders them out and frisks them. "I felt violated," Morial says. As he drove home, the question rang in his head: What was that for? We weren't doing anything. "I never told my parents," he said. "I didn't want them to think I had done something wrong."

"Policing is not just the police," Morial adds, "but the relationship with the community. If people don't trust you, if they don't show up to juries, if no one offers information, then police can't solve crimes." He says stop-and-frisks create fear and resentment. I hummed agreement, remembering last summer and the "Stop Snitchin' " T-shirts young men wore like a shield.

Morial says that growing up, school was a safe haven. I feel him, having gone from high school to college to graduate school to learn new dialects of English. I realized quickly that black men have to be multi-lingual, to speak hard-heeled English and sneaker-soft slang. If you are ambitious, you radiate the signal that you are not dangerous. Sometimes it's a choice made so long ago it's now unconscious. Sometimes it's a choice we remake every day, not knowing if it's right.

Wendell Pierce is a black actor who plays Detective William"Bunk" Moreland on the HBO series The Wire. I met him in New Orleans and call him to ask if he's ever been frisked. "Not frisked," he says, "but some close encounters."

Pierce was at Penn Station in Baltimore in 1986. After a dispute with a cabbie, the taxi lurched at him, running over his bags. He yelled for help and witnesses called the police. A white officer asked Pierce to "calm down." "Officer," Pierce tried to explain, "this guy tried to run me over!" The cop baited him, "So what you want to do?" Pierce didn't get it: "I want to press charges." The cop fingered his gun, stood nose to nose. "Now, what you going to do?" Pierce felt the unspoken threat. "Oh, now I get it-—I'm on the next train to New York." The cop backed up. "Now you get it." The irony, Pierce says, "is now I play a Baltimore detective on TV."

I call ex–Black Panther and current city councilman Charles Barron and ask if he's ever been frisked. "I won't allow it," he asserts. "If a cop tries to stop-and-frisk me and I haven't committed a crime, we're going to rumble." Barron admits he's not a good example, being a city councilman, and before that a political celebrity. Still, the irony. One of the most militant voices in New York is a virgin.

Yet Barron spent 45 days in jail for a 1987 protest, so maybe he's a Virgin In Name Only. Often he rides around East New York providing a knightly service, policing the police. "If I see someone's pulled over, I get out of my car and tell the cop they're violating constitutional rights." Barron sees stop-and-frisks as racist: "We have a right to move freely. Being a black man in the 'hood is not probable cause." Barron doesn't mince words about which side he's on. "If I see brothers on the corner in hip-hop clothing," he says, "and on the other corner rookie white cops with guns, I'm walking by the brothers."

"There is a conspiracy of silence in black communities," says Bill Fletcher, former president of TransAfrica Forum. "People want to say, 'I want the cops here—because we are more often victimized by crime.' But we don't, because when it's said aloud it gets folded in with a right-wing attack on black men."

Of course, I ask him the question. "My first time, I was in college. A man in a leather jacket came up to me and screamed, 'Up against the wall! You fit the description!' I was freaking out. I was an activist and rationally prepared for being stopped, but not emotionally."

He sees profiling trickle down within black neighborhoods. Men who are bitter and hungry, and who don't have the money to settle the question of their manhood, target the weakest among us. His words make me look at myself. Not only has no police officer ever touched me, neither has any criminal. Hassled for money, yes, but never mugged.

"It's all related," says Noel Leader, co-founder of 100 Black Men in Law Enforcement Who Care. "I am a black man and a black police officer, and I can tell you the ramifications of being humiliated are that you feel powerless." He remembers walking home from a shift at McDonald's in 1975. The job was to help his mom out so she wouldn't have to pay for his clothing. Two cops drove up and shoved him against the wall. He stood there, hearing them laugh. As he waited on the wall, the officers drove away—with no apology. "I cried as I walked home," he says. "Police humiliation adds to anger, and the men take it out on their wives, kids, or next person who comes along."

Every brother I know has a story. Even at SUNY Old Westbury where I work, the school president, Reverend Calvin Butts, has been caught out there. "I was 17 years old," he says. "On a date with my girlfriend in Greenwich Village. Was carrying a cane, you know, trying to be cool. A police officer stopped me, takes my cane, and begins yelling at me."

He sighs as if deflating an old memory, "I felt chumped. My girl standing there looking at me. And you know the point of it is to embarrass you. I wanted to explode." How long, I ask, before the rage faded? "The anger never left," he says. "It's why I can still tell you about it today."

He has more stories—everyone I ask has more. I'm just not able to hear them. They remind me of how available our bodies are to any cop who's bored or angry. Someday that body will be mine. My precious virginity will be taken and it won't be a choice.

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