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

Steven Thrasher

published: September 21, 2011

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.

"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."

Now to be fair, there are certain things the mayor has had within his control in terms of poverty in general and the plight of men of color specifically. But there are plenty that are beyond his reach.

If you think about the hell most young men of color in this city face as three concentric, Dante-style circles, Bloomberg has nothing to do with one, something to do with the second, and a lot to do with the third.

The first circle of hell involves social problems so overwhelming, so tragically ingrained in these communities, it's hard to lay them at the mayor's feet. We're talking about communities where 54 percent of black New York children are growing up in homes without a father, where Latino children are four times more likely than white kids to have a mom without a high school degree, and where the census shows that across the country, three black men live in prison for each one who lives in a college dorm.

The second circle is largely a circle of economic hell, and there are reasonable arguments why the mayor's actions have or have not affected the lives of black and Latino men in this realm. It is indisputable that poverty increased devastatingly during the mayor's tenure, with some 3.1 million New Yorkers currently living below the official poverty line, an amount not seen since 1998. Although black and brown New Yorkers have faced an especially harsh fate during this time frame, Bloomberg's own personal wealth more than quadrupled. Meanwhile, the mayor has consistently supported keeping taxes low on Wall Street firms, or, he's always warning us, they will flee to New Jersey. At the same time, he has axed social programs that aid the most vulnerable from the city budget; and while homelessness increased 45 percent in his first two terms, Bloomberg not only tried to cut homeless funding, but he also supported (as Councilwoman Tish James points out) Atlantic Yard's eminent domain, which shuttered a homeless shelter for women in downtown Brooklyn.

Still, the national economy has not fared much better recently, nor have the nation's minorities during the first three years of the first African-American presidency. Bloomberg can't be blamed for all of this.

But then there is a third circle of hell that black and brown men face in New York, and that's the criminal justice system. Here, the mayor has had very specific levers at his disposal. And here, he clearly has made life much worse for the city's young black and brown males.

Riding into City Hall as a reformer who prided himself on thinking outside the box, it is here where Bloomberg could have done something bold 10 years ago to greatly alleviate this certain kind of hell. It is here where the self-proclaimed independent could have stopped shoving so many young black and brown boys into the meat grinder.

It is in this realm of hell where Bloomberg became the kind of typical "devil" a pre-Mecca Malcolm X would have fought so hard against were he still the face of the city's angry black voice (and not Bloomberg's BFF, Al Sharpton).

Sayegh says that after he heard about the Young Men's Initiative, he had to "give the mayor credit. There is something really good about all of this—and unusual. I'm not aware of an instance in a major city where there has been a call by the executive to examine disparities across every agency."

Sayegh hopes that "there's room for some actual positive stuff to come out of it." And yet, he's alarmed that the initiative doesn't even mention policing or drug arrests.

"Nobody paying attention," Sayegh adds, "whether you're left or right, is looking at stop-and-frisk and marijuana arrests and suggesting that if you end the marijuana arrests or you stop stop-and-frisks or the way that they're conducted, that you're going to solve the problems of black and Latino men in this city. Nobody is saying that. But to not address it is ridiculous. And it's frankly offensive."

So just what does this Young Men's Initiative actually say?

"Mayor Bloomberg, in calling attention to this crisis and charging his administration with developing a concrete plan that produces better outcomes, has exercised true leadership," states the self-congratulatory Report to the Mayor from the Chairs of the Young Men's Initiative.

"Mayor Bloomberg is nationally known for his use of data to inform City policy and to evaluate the efficacy of City services," the report immodestly continues. "We encourage the mayor to bring this same critical eye to the collection and evaluation of data when it comes to monitoring the progress of young men of color in New York City."

The trouble is, the committee leaves gaping holes when it comes to the problems facing black and Latino men that City Hall could actually do something about.

A reading of the report (available at villagevoice.com) reveals four truths:

1. It's big on puffing up the mayor. The authors of the study are not about to embarrass the man who appointed them in 2010 with a charge to investigate this problem with black and brown youngsters. Nor will they call out any of his beloved data that shows how his police department terrorizes the same people he wants to help.

2. It avoids the hard questions (and even the hard words). Despite claiming to be a critical, unflinching take on the state of young men of color in New York City, you will not find the terms "drugs," "marijuana," or "stop-and-frisk" within it.

3. Bloomberg likes to throw money at things. This is his way, and the $127 million public-private partnership is not a new technique for him, philanthropically. What is somewhat unusual, though, is that he's now putting money into line items (like the Summer Youth Employment Program) that, as recently as last year, Bloomberg's budget attempted to gut. Also, it's noteworthy that he got George Soros's Open Society to match Bloomberg Philanthropies' $30 million donation. (Soros also funds much bolder criminal justice reform efforts, such as the Drug Policy Alliance.)

4. Bloomberg is content to reform the disparate number of black and brown boys in the criminal justice system only after they have been sucked into it. The report specifically calls to "reform the pipeline that incarcerates young men of color"—but only deals with recidivism and reforming parole. The mayor was reportedly appalled that three of four people leaving Rikers will return; correspondingly, the initiative will beef up and branch out its parole efforts. But it's light on keeping young black and brown kids out of detention in the first place.

This last point is perhaps the most disturbing to those advocates who have routinely sued Bloomberg over the years to get the most accurate data on black and brown young men in the criminal justice system (and who were not invited to be on the committee).

"The recidivism focus, which is a rightful one but shouldn't be the only one, presupposes a legitimacy of all those arrests and incarcerations," says Kyung Ji Kate Rhee of the Institute of Juvenile Justice Reform and Alternatives. "And what we are saying is, they're not."

Simply dealing with recidivism and not with the policing that starts the problem is, according to Lieberman, "sort of like pouring kerosene on an area and then saying 'We're going to deal with the problem of forest fires! I am going to get you more firemen!'"

Speaking of firefighters, the FDNY is the perfect crucible to show how obdurate Bloomberg has previously been when it comes to hiring black and Latino men within a city agency.

In the Young Men's Initiative, Bloomberg will make a big push for jobs for young men of color. He'll augment occupational help for parolees, vocational training, and mentoring programs. Most concretely, he'll ban city agencies from taking arrests into account in the first round of interviews for municipal jobs.

These are all worthy goals.

But they're all absurdly ironic, given how far Bloomberg has previously gone to avoid engaging in any kind of affirmative action with the FDNY.

Today, the fire department is still more than 90 percent white, even though non-Hispanic white people account for about 35 percent of the city. The federal government has been suing the city for more than 40 years over this disparity, which has compelled it to comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and create a force that is more reflective of New York's population.

During Bloomberg's tenure, a federal judge ruled that the city still engages in discriminatory hiring processes. When the last firefighter entrance exam was given, more blacks and Hispanics actually passed it than ever before. Yet the judge still found their percentage too low, ultimately ordering that a new test be written.

In the interim, a "limbo" class of would-be firefighters who had aced the exam sat in purgatory for years.

A popular misconception is that federal judge Nicholas Garaufis said that this class could not be hired. But almost the exact opposite is true. Garaufis gave Bloomberg five different options, all with a variation of some or all of these candidates getting the job. However, they had to be hired with assurances that the decades of underrepresentation by black and Latino firefighters would be addressed in some way.

Rather than concede to any form of affirmative action—even one mandated for public employees by a nearly half-century-old federal law—Bloomberg said no to all five options. So no brown or black (or white or yellow) candidates were hired. Everyone who aced the last test will have to take the new one this January.

And now, bizarrely, he wants to give a special hand to ex-cons.

When asked about the Young Men's Initiative, FDNY captain Paul Washington says, "My initial thought was that the biggest thing that you can do to help blacks and Latinos in poverty is to help them to get a good job."

Washington is a member of the Vulcan Society, the fraternity of black firefighters that has battled the FDNY's hiring practices for decades.

"If he had followed the judge's guidelines off of the current list, [Bloomberg] would have been giving hundreds of young black and Latino men the best job in the city," Washington says. "All he had to do was to follow the judge's guidelines."

It would not have been a terribly controversial move; many people on all sides of the affirmative action issue wanted to see that limbo class hired in some way.

Instead, Washington says, Bloomberg did "more to fight against blacks obtaining this job than anyone else." He fought the Vulcan's effort to lower the exam fee and resisted their demand that the city advertise the job on the radio. (He lost on both counts.) He has even been at odds with diversification efforts publicly supported by his own FDNY commissioner, Sal Cassano.

"Far too many of our young men are not fully sharing in the promise of the American Dream," Mayor Bloomberg said when he announced the Young Men's Initiative. Washington describes a job with the FDNY as a ladder to that dream by saying, "As soon as you get sworn in, you're middle class for life.

"He'd have done a lot more good in just not keeping blacks from getting this great job than he can do in helping us to get other jobs in this so-called 'initiative,'" Washington says.

Plus, he adds, "When the mayor is so happy to give felony convictions through these stop-and-frisks, your chances of getting this job are even slimmer."

If you're not yet too woozy from the vicarious elation off whatever's in the mayor's pipe, let's take a closer look at that stop-and-frisk policy.

Put aside for a moment the constitutionality of stopping more than a half million innocent people a year and take for granted (as most New Yorkers of all hues do) that stop-and-frisk is a given. Shouldn't black and brown citizens have to pay the price if they're caught breaking the law by the police, just like anyone else?

The problem is that, statistically speaking, under Mayor Bloomberg, it's only black and Latino men who are being stopped and frisked. Wielded so disproportionately, stop-and-frisk has become a kind of assault he uses against them. Not examining this in his desire to "help" these men is as crazy as if the governor of Iowa wanted to wage war on obesity without examining the role of high-fructose corn syrup.

Now, let's accept that a criminal conviction—any conviction—makes it far less likely that you'll get hired as a New York City firefighter, a city clerk, or in any job in the private sector. Even the Young Men's Initiative bluntly acknowledges this.

What it doesn't admit is that for the city's black and brown young men, stop-and-frisk is often the first step on the road to a first conviction.

According to the NYCLU, stop-and-frisks result in no arrest nearly 90 percent of the time. But the raw numbers are so high, and the percentage is so asymmetrically black and Latino, that you still end up with more than 50,000 drug arrests a year of young brown and black men.

In terms of carrying narcotics on their person, it's not like white guys wouldn't face a similar fate if they were subjected to stop-and-frisks.

"Marijuana along racial lines is pretty even," says Sayegh. "However, under 30, white men smoke at higher rates. That's not our numbers, that's the government numbers," he says, citing a report from the Department of Health and Human Services.

When it comes to concealing contraband overall (including illegal guns, a cause close to the mayor's heart), white people are slightly guiltier. As a report from the Center for Constitutional Rights points out, "The rate of contraband yield from stops made by the NYPD have stayed level and at a minuscule percentage across racial groups." Of all New Yorkers stopped, 1.8 percent had illegal guns in 2005, 1.4 percent in 2006, and 2 percent in 2007 and the first half of 2008.

However, the report goes on: "While the percentages are low throughout racial groups, Whites demonstrate slightly higher rates of contraband yield. In 2005, 2.3 percent of Whites stopped resulted in a contraband yield compared to 1.8 percent for Latinos and Blacks; in 2006, the percentage for Whites was 1.9 percent compared to 1.4 percent for Latinos and Blacks; in 2007, the percentage for Whites was 2.4 percent versus 1.9 percent for Latinos and Blacks; and, in the first half of 2008 the percentage for Whites was 2.1 percent versus 1.8 percent for Latinos and Blacks."

Bloomberg is a numbers guy, and he says he wants to help black and Latino young men. So, shouldn't he start by simply policing darker-skinned male citizens as "hard" as he does white ones (who actually seem, by his own data, to be breaking the law at a higher rate)?

Let's look at drug arrests in Bloomberg's neighborhood. The 19th Precinct, where Bloomberg lives, has the lowest marijuana arrests in the city, Sayegh says. "We think the Upper East Side has an excellent marijuana arrest policy," he continues, namely that if "the whole city had the same policy that the mayor's precinct has, it would be great. Maybe there would still be abuses, but what's happening in all likelihood [is that] the people that are getting arrested up there probably are smoking weed in public. Because there's, like, 19 of them."

"It's white folks who tend to smoke marijuana within the community anywhere they are," Sayegh adds. It's a completely different story for young black and brown men, he maintains, because they think, 'I'm certainly not going to smoke weed in public because I'm being watched constantly.'"

But the weed they carry (at a lower rate than whites) becomes "in public view" when they're stopped and frisked.

Sayegh gives Bloomberg credit for backing up Thomas Frieden (Bloomberg's former health commissioner and current head of the Centers for Disease Control) when there was a controversy over a city publication promoting safer needle practices. But when it comes to marijuana arrests, it disappoints Sayegh that the mayor can't see the discrepancies between neighborhoods and ethnicities.

Innocuous as a marijuana infraction might seem to white people—especially those who never fear reprimand for pot, even when they announce they've used it while running for public office—it is still, Sayegh says, "the single biggest point of contact" with the criminal justice system, a "process that leads to a criminal record in this city for young black and brown men."

'You're either a part of the problem or a part of the solution," says Lieberman. But when it comes to young men of color, she says, "Mayor Bloomberg wants to be a part of both."

From her office overlooking New York Harbor on a gray day, Lieberman says that she understands how stop-and-frisk "sets up so many young black and Latino men for failure." (Indeed, the NYCLU has sponsored much of the major research on this topic.)

But she's emphatic that, when describing how Bloomberg misses the chance to interrupt the "cradle-to-prison pipeline" for young men of color with his initiative, "You have to look at the schools."

School safety, as it is in New York City, moved from the control of the Board of Education to the NYPD in 1998. The Giuliani administration, Lieberman says, "withheld the numbers that year. As it turns out, violent crime was on the decline. As there has been a decline in violent school crime ever since then, paralleling the decline in crime rates all over the country."

And yet, Lieberman says, once Giuliani's NYPD took over school safety, it created a "kind of 'Broken Windows' policing for kids—'Broken Windows, Junior.'" But even with Giuliani's zeal for school discipline, Lieberman says, there have been "massive increases in suspensions during the Bloomberg years."

Looking at the first full year when the "Education Mayor" was in charge, Lieberman says there were 31,879 suspensions that year. In 2009, there were 73,943.

The rate more than doubled in eight years.

"And who gets suspended?" Lieberman asks.

Surprise, surprise: Fifty-three percent of kids are black, 35 percent are Latino, 8 percent are white, and 4 percent are Asian.

Now, surely, there must be some merit to "getting the few bad apples out of the class," right? In covering education for the Voice, it has become apparent that the bane of most teachers' experience is the few students who keep everyone from learning.

But Bloomberg's "zero tolerance" approach to discipline has led to an environment where School Safety Agents can (and do) haul a five-year-old in handcuffs off to a psych ward for having a temper tantrum.

This overreliance on police, metal detectors, and suspensions has not come without consequences. And it disproportionately affects the young men Bloomberg now wants to help.

Lieberman refers to a recent report from the American Psychological Association about "zero tolerance" safety policies at schools. It found that, "Although there have been increased calls for the use of school security technology and school resource officers in the wake of publicized incidents of school homicide in the late 1990s, there is as [of] yet virtually no empirical data examining the extent to which such programs result in safer schools or more satisfactory school climate."

Lieberman says the study shows a correlation between school suspensions and the criminal justice system, and that "kids suspended for disciplinary infractions are more likely to be arrested in the criminal justice system than kids who are not suspended for the same behavior."

At the same time, a recent report from the Council of State Governments Justice Center points out that "educational outcomes in schools that resort to suspensions were no better than schools that did not resort to suspensions," according to Lieberman.

"When I first heard [this]," Lieberman says, "I said, there's no educational improvement when you suspend kids. This means that it doesn't hurt. Then I thought, holy shit! The kids who are suspended are put at much greater risk." And, it makes nothing safer.

"So if Michael Bloomberg is 'Just the facts, ma'am,' he's got to grapple with that," Lieberman says.

Beyond suspensions, the general state of security in New York's schools creates an environment, Lieberman believes, where "the message to kids when they can't get to school without going through a metal detector or through some gauntlet of cops, is that 'We don't trust you.' It's the police approach; it's how the police treat people in Brownsville. 'You could be committing a crime . . . You'll never amount to anything.'"

In the schools, "there are over 5,000 cops," Lieberman says, far more than there are guidance counselors. Despite that "the number of students has gone down under the Bloomberg administration by about 100,000," she notes, "it's the only department which hasn't been cut in size and budget in the recent round of budget cuts."

Just how big is the force of School Safety Agents? If they made up a stand-alone police department, Lieberman says, they'd comprise "the fifth-largest in the nation . . . There are more School Safety Agents than there are cops on the streets of Baltimore, Newark, Detroit, Boston, [or] Washington, D.C."

To put in perspective how absurd their power is, how zero tolerance can go awry, and how out-of-touch the mayor is regarding the effect this has on boys of color, Lieberman tells the story of a student named Biko Edwards.

Biko was a student at Samuel J. Tilden High School, which Lieberman characterizes as "the worst school on the list. It was an educational disaster."

"Biko and his mom came in because he was beaten and arrested for being late to class," Lieberman says. "He was staying late to talk to his math teacher, and he didn't get a pass, and he was running to chem lab. And he got nabbed, beat up, Maced," by a School Safety Agent, Lieberman describes. "He was arrested, sent to central booking, and then suspended for four days. And his grades went from decent to plummet."

Lieberman says she found out Biko was a good soccer player, and said to him: "'Look, how do you feel about this school? Are you comfortable going back to school?' And he said, 'I'm scared.' And we arranged for him to look at other schools, and he ultimately transferred to MLK, which has the premier soccer team in the city."

Biko, she says, "was a star player on the team. He's in college now . . . and he played on the farm team for the MetroStars," the New York region's professional soccer club (now the Metro Red Bulls).

While still in high school, Biko had the chance to go to Gracie Mansion the year MLK won the championships.

There's a picture of the team posing with the mayor there. Bloomberg is kneeling, surrounded by handsome young black and brown boys. He grins awkwardly like Daddy Warbucks, an oblivious great white hope enveloped by people he wouldn't normally hang with (but whom his white man's burden would, years later, compel him to aid).

And standing right next to him, smiling just as awkwardly, is Biko.

"The mayor has no idea that his school 'safety' policies put this kid in jail overnight and left him battered and forced out of his high school," Lieberman says quietly.

There is a lot exciting in the Young Men's Initiative. But judging from what it leaves out, it seems that Bloomberg is still just as oblivious about how his policies harm the very population he now wants to help as he was when he was grinning next to Biko.

sthrasher@villagevoice.com