The R-Word


If Rudolph Giuliani’s enemies have their way, the wave of outrage over police brutality will roll right on through next year’s senatorial campaign. The groundwork for that strategy is now being laid by Eliot Spitzer, the state attorney general. This week, Spitzer plans to subpoena some of the city’s top police brass, the Voice has learned. In addition, Spitzer is forming a special task force to investigate police procedures in the city. High on its agenda will be the apparently common practice of singling out young black and Latino men for frisking. (Spitzer’s office would not comment on an ongoing investigation, except to note that its civil rights bureau is investigating complaints against the police.)

Though the police department insists that officers are explicitly warned against stopping people based on their race, activists claim there is a tacit understanding that targets blacks and Latinos for “tossing,” the police slang for patting a suspect down. The numbers would seem to support the activists’ claim. The city says some 45,000 New Yorkers were searched on the street during the past two years, leading to some 9500 arrests. That ratio has often been used to justify the practice. But in an interview with WNYC last week, Spitzer estimated that the number of people frisked may be more like hundreds of thousands. Spitzer says officers have told him that, when they toss people and find nothing, they rarely fill out the required forms— “in which case, the ratio [of searches to arrests] would become that much more overwhelming.” As for the race of people frisked, the Daily News provided some sense of that last week when it polled 100 black and Latino youths. Eighty-one of them reported being stopped by the police.

In these communities, “frisking is as common as breathing,” says Sergeant DeLacy Davis, a 14-year veteran of the East Orange, New Jersey, police force and an activist against police brutality. As for keeping accurate records, Davis notes, “Law enforcement doesn’t like paperwork, and that’s especially true for men who do the yahoo stuff, like the Street Crime Unit.” Last week, Police Commissioner Howard Safir announced that 50 white officers in this elite unit will be replaced by blacks and Latinos, but the department refuses to divulge the current racial makeup of the Street Crime squad, whose motto is “We own the night.” Davis says it is “virtually all white.”

As the media uncover the true extent of abuse by the police, the city is being forced to face a profoundly unsettling fact. Until brutality becomes so extreme that it cannot be ignored, the police can subject an entire class of citizens to special treatment without being held to account. Prominent African Americans can object to no avail. And the mayor can refuse to meet with black leaders who are likely to raise this issue, without political consequences. The rationale for this studied indifference is the tacit belief that repressing blacks and Latinos deters crime. Never mind that criminologists disagree about why the crime rate has fallen so dramatically. In those anxious enclaves of New York one might call White Ethnica, the belief that all blacks are potential criminals has become a staple of politics, one Giuliani plays like a violin.

“What if a less aggressive police force seized fewer guns and caught fewer criminals?” John Tierney pondered in The New York Times last week. “Would a small increase in crime be acceptable to spare a large number of innocent people the indignity of being searched?” The catch here is Tierney’s assumption that being stopped and frisked is merely an “indignity.” That may seem true to white pundits, who seldom hear of people in their own circles being frisked, but psychologists who have studied this phenomenon tell a different tale.

“This is a visceral, gut-wrenching experience that brings the reality of racism home,” says John Dovidio, a professor of psychology at Colgate University and the coeditor of Prejudice, Discrimination and Racism. “It telescopes hundreds of years of history into one moment in which someone is brought from having a sense of some control to being reminded of their utter helplessness, and so it has a very significant effect.” This is especially true for young men, who are dealing with issues of power and autonomy to begin with. “Teenagers will be particularly sensitive to this kind of thing,” says Dovidio, “and they are most likely to assert their power by behaving in ways that intensify the conflict between themselves and the police.”

In other words, even if aggressive policing does reduce crime in the short term, it also reinforces the culture of violence. Today’s police practices are producing tomorrow’s criminals. “The personality this creates is someone with a great deal of distrust in whites,” Dovidio explains, “because if you can’t trust the police, then you can’t trust America. This perception is a psychological wound that can last a lifetime. It’s the kind of injury that will lead blacks to bond with other blacks who share their experience, so that what it creates is this strong barrier along strictly racial lines.”

Even for young men who aren’t headed for the gangsta life, a single hostile encounter with the police can alter one’s destiny. Consider the story of Nelson (who asked that his real name not be used), a young EMS worker who grew up dreaming of becoming a cop. Ever since he was forced to walk a roundabout route home from school to dodge local gangs, Nelson has had an image of himself as a strong, protective man making the neighborhood safe. He joined the police auxiliary as soon as he could, working in East Harlem while he studied at John Jay College in preparation for applying to the Police Academy.

But one night Nelson encountered what Times editorial writers call “the unpleasant side” of policing. He was stopped and grilled, and when he protested that he was an auxiliary cop, Nelson was forced onto the ground and roughed up. When it was over, he had a charge of resisting arrest. His grandmother helped him file a complaint with the Civilian Complaint Review Board, but it took them 10 months to respond. By that time, “we were fed up,” Nelson’s grandmother says. And by then Nelson had given up his dream of becoming a cop. “He got a taste of what they’re like up here,” says his grandmother. “They changed his life that night.”

Alvin Poussaint, the renowned Harvard psychiatrist, grew up in East Harlem, and he has his own horror stories to relate. As a teenager in the 1950s, Poussaint was stopped by police in Central Park while walking a white woman to the subway. After excoriating the woman for running with “niggers,” one cop knocked Poussaint against a tree, snarling, “I’ll bet you’re coming in your pants, you son of a bitch.”

Things have changed in one respect: police no longer feel entitled to accost interracial couples. But the more common practice Poussaint vividly recalls— moving black kids along— has been revived by Giuliani as part of his quality-of-life campaign. In the Village, for example, police cruise blocks where young blacks and Latinos congregate, shouting through loudspeakers, “Get off the street.” Kids who resist this order are liable to be lined up against the nearest wall.

The intense feelings of helplessness such incidents provoke are the real reason why they occur so frequently. Frisking an entire population lets them know who’s boss. These days, that point is being pounded home with a special desperation, and not just because of crime. Whites are already a minority in New York City, and soon they will be a minority at the ballot box. The citizens of White Ethnica won’t be able to combine their numbers with the assets of the corporate elite to elect a mayor who honors their fears. Unless people of color allow themselves to be divided and conquered, they will prevail— and it will be their fears that get expressed at the polls. As white resentment of this new majority reaches a fever pitch, the polarization of political life in the city will grow even more extreme.

It hardly helps to indict four cops for cutting down a black man in cold blood. That’s like putting foot soldiers on trial at Nuremberg while leaving the commandants free to run for higher office. The only way to stem the tide of racism is to call those who loose it what they are. After all, what would we have called a Jim Crow sheriff whose police stopped black men on the street as a matter of course? Or a top cop who broke up a black rally by sending helicopters swooping down on the crowd while police charged the stage? What would we call a mayor who consistently failed to appoint blacks to his administration and refused to meet with black leaders?

Why can’t white people apply the R-word to one of their own? “I think it has to do with the unwillingness of those who name to be named,” says Maurice Berger, author of the just-
published memoir White Lies. “It’s almost a conspiracy of self-protection.” Given the power of this reflex, it’s impossible for anyone in the mainstream media to call Giuliani a racist, though he has a long record of disregard for African Americans, stemming back to his days as a U.S. attorney whose office initiated few civil rights cases and lagged in minority hiring. All his political life, Giuliani has dodged the R-word, even as he threw it at critical blacks, accusing Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, for example, of putting “a race overlay” on everything. Giuliani has never had to fear that what goes around will come around.

In a more candid time, we might acknowledge the real reason for Rudy’s success. His singular achievement has been to preserve the power imbalance that denies the real vitality of New York. He made the trains run on time— and “the colored” run for their lives.

Research: Steph Watts