Young Men's Initiative: The White Mayor's Burden

Bloomberg aims to help the young black and Latino men he has been throwing in jail for a decade

Young Men's Initiative: The White Mayor's Burden
Rickard Blommengren

Shortly before he first ran for office, Michael Bloomberg was asked by New York magazine if he had ever smoked marijuana.

"You bet I did. And I enjoyed it," he answered bluntly.

The quote would become the basis of an ad campaign by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, but it would never have any effect on Bloomberg's own practice of aggressively (and, some say, illegally) arresting people for the possession of even meager amounts of pot once he became mayor.

Bloomberg’s annual average of low-level pot arrests is greater than all of Koch’s, Dinkins’s, and the first two years of Giuliani’s—combined.
Drug Policy Alliance and Harry Levine/
Bloomberg’s annual average of low-level pot arrests is greater than all of Koch’s, Dinkins’s, and the first two years of Giuliani’s—combined.
Drug Policy Alliance and Harry Levine/

"In 1977, small amounts of marijuana were decriminalized in the New York State Legislature," says Kassandra Frederique of the Drug Policy Alliance. "So you can have up to 25 grams, which is seven-eighths of an ounce, on your person, and that would be a violation similar to jaywalking or traffic tickets." It's something that could carry a $100 fine, she explains, and is only an "arrestable offense . . . if it's in plain view or if it's burning."

And yet, try explaining that to the NYPD. Their boss might have admitted to having smoked weed himself, as did Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance (and nearly every candidate running for his job in 2009). But Mayor Bloomberg has not only forced New York City's finest to match his predecessor in marijuana arrests, he has also made Rudy "Broken Windows" Giuliani look like Dr. Timothy Leary by comparison.

Consider that, according to a study by Professor Harry Levine of Queens College, Giuliani "only" averaged arresting 24,487 people a year for marijuana. By 2008, Bloomberg was averaging 36,069 pot arrests annually.

In 2010, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, he arrested 50,383 people—"more than capacity seating in Yankee Stadium."

In 2011, he's on track to arrest more than 60,000 by year's end.

Now, while you're still sober, take a wild guess: What color and gender were most of those arrestees?

Frederique says about 3,000 of them were in Brownsville. Were 3,000 black people—about 80 a day—really walking around all lit up on the street?

"If 3,000 people were smoking marijuana in public, there would be a large cloud," Frederique says with a laugh. "The air quality would be different. People couldn't drive buses because the bus drivers would be getting contact highs."

Frederique is making a hyperbolic joke, but she maintains that the prospect that "young men of color, who are hyper-policed in this city" are actually walking around in large groups smoking pot in open view is absurd. So is the notion that poor black males smoke pot more than richer, paler men and women. But still, they get disproportionately arrested because, under Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, the NYPD uses controversial UF-250s—"stop-and-frisks"—on them at a record-setting pace.

"I'm a police officer, I come up to you," Frederique explains as if she were a cop approaching a young man in East New York. "'What are you doing? What's in your pockets? Pull it out.' Once you pull it out, it becomes 'marijuana in plain view.'

"And that's when they arrest you."

According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, more than 600,000 New Yorkers were stopped and frisked last year. Of them, 317,642 were black (53 percent), and 190,491 were Latino (32 percent). Just 55,083 (9 percent) were white. About 70 percent of them were under 30.

And they are inexplicably, lopsidedly male. As NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman notes: "Ninety percent of the people arrested for misdemeanors [for pot] are male. Ninety percent. There is no such gender breakdown for marijuana."

And now it has come out that the most overpoliced, harassed, questionably searched, often illegally arrested New Yorkers are exactly the citizens the mayor suddenly wants to "help."

His Young Men's Initiative, which Bloomberg announced last month to great fanfare, will lavish $127 million of public and private funds on young black and Latino men over the final years of the mayor's tenure.

This is utterly befuddling to his critics, who have fought him over the past decade as he has suspended young black and Latino males in schools, stopped and frisked them on the streets, and locked them up in record numbers.

The initiative focuses a lot on jobs. But, obstinately challenging the federal government's four-decade-old attempt to force the FDNY to comply with the Civil Rights Act, Bloomberg has historically fought affirmative action for black and brown men. That's the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

And, Dennis Walcott aside, Bloomberg's inner circle at City Hall and Bloomberg LLP is about as diverse as a Mad Men-era golf club.

So what is Bloomberg doing announcing that he now wants to throw $127 million—including $30 million from his own pocket—at black and brown men, just as he's getting ready to ride off into the sunset? Is he smoking some of that really good stuff only a billionaire could afford?

Or is it just, as Gabriel Sayegh of the Drug Policy Alliance puts it, that "at the end of the day, the mayor has essentially fucked poor black people and poor Latinos in this city—to an extraordinary degree. This is a fairly significant maneuver at the end of his term to try to bolster his legacy."

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