New York as a Jim Crow Disgrace


The minority report of the Mayor’s Task Force on Police/Community Relations has a section called ”Myths About Police Misconduct.” It says:

”With stunning predictability, mayors and police commissioners have insisted that police brutality is a rare occurrence. But facts belie this assertion… Between 1994 and 1996, this city’s citizens filed almost 10,000 allegations of excessive force against New York City police officers.

”Police brutality is no aberration.”

You may remember that since our mayor and police commissioner had to say something after the brutalization of Abner Louima that was heard around the world, they did indeed assure us that police brutality is rare in this city.

But on April 10, Alice McQuillan reported in the Daily News that ”brutality complaints against police soared 24 per cent during the first quarter of 1998, apparently because the high-profile Abner Louima cop torture case has prompted more accusers to come forward….

”Despite an 8 per cent fall in crime, there were 264 more complaints against cops during the first three months of 1998 than in the corresponding period last year.”

Meanwhile, the mayor sometimes seemed puzzled–a momentary condition on his part–by the hostility toward him from some segments of the black community. If you don’t venerate the mayor, there’s something wrong with you.

One reason for this lack of adoration for Giuliani is the perception by many black adults–of all classes–that they’re in danger from the NYPD. The cops can pounce if you’re driving your own fairly expensive car, or even beat you on the street, especially if you’re stopped in the ”wrong” neighborhood at the ”wrong” time and ask to see their badges.

How this affects blacks’ ”quality of life”–to use a favorite Giuliani phrase–is reflected in how they try to protect their children from New York’s Finest.

On October 23, 1997, a very instructive New York Times article by Felicia R. Lee was headed: ”Young and in Fear of the Police/Parents Teach Children How To Deal With Officers’ Bias.”

You will notice there are no comparable articles on how white parents must educate their children in how to deal with policeofficers’ bias.

Felicia Lee tells of a black Citibank banker who’s thinking of buying a good car for his 17-year-old son. ”Dad,” his son says, ”I know I’m going to be stopped.” The crime: DWB. Driving While Black. The two decide the son will carry his father’s business card and tell the police they can call the banker’s number.

I hope it works, but it’s not impossible that a cop will say, ”Did you steal the card, too?”

Felicia Lee continues: ”In black and Hispanic homes across New York, from the hardscrabble tenements of the South Bronx to the genteel row houses in Harlem, mistrust, even fear, of the police is a fact of life….

”Black and Hispanic parents say they talk to their children about dealing with the police. It is just a matter of time, they tell them, before [their children] encounter a police officer who sees dark skin as synonymous with crime.

”They coach them how to behave: don’t hang out in crowds, be polite, don’t make any sudden moves, carry identification, ask to make a phone call, refuse to answer incriminating questions.

”Though the details may vary, the litany was familiar to every one of dozens of parents interviewed across lines of class and political persuasion. Most said they began the lessons when their children were nine or 10, as part of a conversation about differences and prejudice….It is a way to cushion the emotional trauma that comes with discrimination.”

I knew a jazz trumpet player from Florida who grew up in a rural Jim Crow town in the 1930s where parents offered their children similar strategies for surviving the police. There was one very significant difference: in that town, anyone black on the street after dark had to have a pass from a white man.

Passes for blacks are not required by law in New York City in 1998, but the worry that black and Hispanic parents have about police contact with their children makes Giuliani’s New York a Jim Crow disgrace. The mayor and the police commissioner have made constitutional rights seem meaningless. They are indifferent to the fact that these parents and their children live in constant apprehension of armed police, many of whom see only the color of those they encounter.

Imagine yourself the mayor of New York. How would you react to these attitudes toward the police by black parents?

Giuliani’s radio and television speeches about how we’ve got to get along won’t do. Real, basic changes in police accountability would be a beginning, and the way to start is to say loud and clear that police cannot investigate the police. Change can come only through an independent prosecutor with his or her own staff of investigators–someone to whom black parents could realistically report cops who treat blacks as second- and third-class citizens.

As it is now, one black parent told Felicia Lee, ”When the cops stop you [because you’re black], they have the gun, they have the power.”

The reporter cites ”a New York Times poll, which found that 82 per cent of blacks and 71 per cent of Hispanics felt the police did not treat white and black New Yorkers with equal fairness.”

Lee also describes Harlem’s Neighborhood Defender Service, a public service law office, which ”offers a ten-class curriculum in the schools called ‘Conflict With the Cops’ to help young people handle street encounters with the police. It discusses the concept of probable cause and shows videotaped improvisations of encounters with officers, among other things.”

If you’re black in Giuliani’s New York and want to emerge unscathed from encounters with the cops when you haven’t done anything wrong, you’d be smart to take a survival course.

By the way, Giuliani once assured me that the Fourth Amendment doesn’t say you need ”probable cause” to search someone. I told him to look it up. He was a United States Attorney at the time!