The recent and rapid elevation of Michael Bloomberg‘s Presidential campaign into the national discourse is reminiscent, in many ways, of his original mayoral run in New York City in 2002. Forgoing fundraising from the public, he has nonetheless outspent his opponents multiple times over, having made FEC filings detailing $460 million in expenditures since announcing his bid in November of 2019. Both then and now, the largesse-via-electioneering nullified the opportunity for many opposing candidates to be comparably competitive or resonant as they were drowned out by a blank check and name recognition. Bloomberg’s presidential campaign has also resurfaced three words that leave an acrid taste in the majority of New Yorkers’ mouths — stop-and-frisk. A longstanding policing practice that disproportionately targeted Black and Brown communities in NYC, stop-and-frisk was defended by Bloomberg’s administration during — and well after — his departure from office.
The phraseology behind the policy has taken on many forms as the decades have progressed, shapeshifting in language as administrations have waded in and out of Gracie Mansion. When former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani lorded over the five boroughs with former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton flanking him, the terminology that was used was known as broken windows policing. But New Yorkers’ lips have also formed other words over the years that trigger responses that are just as polarizing: Terry stops, stop-question-and-frisk, and the shorthand stop-and-frisk itself. Imagine, for example, the daily fanfare for “New York’s Finest,” and consider the protracted dissonance felt within communities of color after the tragic events of September 11. Spending night after night expressing gratitude for a group of men and women who, at a moment’s notice, could exact unspeakable horrors on the communities they were praised for protecting. The incidents that did make it into the national consciousness — Amadou Diallo, Eric Garner, and Kalief Browder — may have shocked the country, but it simply laid bare wounds that New Yorkers had been carrying for years. Those traumas have been pulled back into the foreground with the fear of a competitive Bloomberg campaign. As it was recently written in an impassioned open letter to communities of color by New York organizers and officials in advance of Super Tuesday, “the extent of harm, humiliation and terror that the Bloomberg administration’s daily racial profiling and police violence caused in Black, Latinx and other communities of color cannot be overstated.”
The figures have been parsed through ad-nauseam in recent years, proving the failure of the program to successfully meet its stated objectives throughout Bloomberg’s mayoral tenure. An exegesis of the program, however, will show that it was actually quite successful, and worked exactly as designed. With every stop, New York’s gilded class was able to imprint a painful reminder that no matter how hard you may fight, the city does not — and will never — actually belong to you. You can see it in nearly every tweet that cascades down the #mybloombergstory hashtag which, as described by Dr. Jacob Remes of New York University, is “filled with stories of harassment and worse from Muslim, Black, and Brown New Yorkers who lived through Bloomberg’s racist authoritarianism.”
In speaking to fellow New Yorkers who lived through the Bloomberg era, it’s apparent that this pain is still very much tangible for many of us, with deep, multigenerational harms that we are still recovering from and enduring. It has laid waste to our siblings, our friends and ourselves.
It was in early 2002 when I was politicized and became more aware of differences in our communities. My parents grew up in the projects and my dad got a union gig, and we were able to move in a small home in Richmond Hill. I went to public school in a low-income neighborhood for elementary and junior high, but went to a private Catholic High School in Fresh Meadows in an entirely different neighborhood. That is where I could see the jarring different signs on what neighborhood looks like, and specifically what overpoliced neighborhoods look like as opposed to other neighborhoods. My best friends were constantly getting harassed or roughed up by the police, or had police officers in school and getting suspended. There’s a palpable difference to walking into a school where people feel free to move, free to exist, and don’t have those kinds of other stressors in their life.
When you look at places where we’re overpoliced and over surveilled, what we’re also talking about is a lack of resources to allow people to deal with their trauma and heal. So, trauma begets change, which begets instability, which begets violence. We’re quick to draw these surface-level conclusions about what happens in certain neighborhoods and not talk about what the root causes of violence are, and how we can tie that to trauma caused by state-sanctioned violence.
[As a public defender] you also see an overwhelming amount of young Black and brown men. But when we pick up those cases, you know who’s sitting in the courtroom? It’s the girlfriends and their wives and their children, and that disrupts and affects their lives in very significant ways. Whether it’s people that are scrounging up their last dollars for bail, people that are risking losing their housing or their job. A lot of times when we’re dealing with cases, people think that our biggest concern or fear is like, “Oh, God, I gotta make sure that I don’t end up with criminal records on this case,” or “I want the best legal outcome.” When, in reality, the lawyers are doing more social work or other services. Because the real purpose of the person that’s directly affected is something else that has to do with their living situation or their family, in terms of how destabilizing the arrest and the court appearances are for their lives.
I had a client who was charged with a misdemeanor, and he had been arrested a handful of times. So, the prosecutor was offering jail or probation on this misdemeanor sentence. We had this very real conversation where [the client] was like, “Ms. Caban, I don’t know. I think I might take the 45 days in jail because I will never last on probation, because these same cops are roughing me up every other day.”
It still happens every single day. A really easy place to see it happening is here in Queens with the loitering for the purpose of prostitution. Predominantly trans women of color are being stopped and arrested for existing and walking down the street. That is another iteration of stop-and-frisk. Nobody has ruled that statute unconstitutional, because we’re talking about people who are on the margins of the margin. Unfortunately, there is not enough political will behind it to have the organizing and movement that it took to get to where we were on stop-and-frisk, and being able to get it to the courts and have it ruled unconstitutional.
We have consistently taken these stances without centering or allowing survivors or victims to lead, and instead said, “Hey, we’re going to do these really harmful things to our Black and brown communities that create the optics of safety for white wealthy folks, at the expense of actual safety of the hands of state-sanctioned violence for Black and brown people.”
Until this day — whether I’m driving or whether I’m walking — when I see a NYPD officer my heart specifically skips a beat. I’m terrified. I usually move over and brake, no matter how fast I’m going.
The presence wasn’t as there as much where I grew up. But when I would go to 40 Projects [South Jamaica Houses] or certain parts…when you’re playing basketball, and the cops will just roll into the park and put everybody up against the fence and start asking you questions.
We were walking down Jamaica Avenue [once] — this was senior year of high school. I was walking back from work. I would go to McDonald’s and then come home after work. Walking down the avenue myself — maybe two blocks away from Jamaica — two cops stopped me and asked me “where I was going.” “Sir, I just left work. I’m headed to the bus station. I’m headed home.” “Well, we’ve heard that there’s been some noises and some issues in the area. So we want to just check to make sure that you’re good.” They pushed me up against the wall and proceeded to search and, of course, I don’t have anything on me. The worst part about it is that there’s never an apology. You have to take it or you know what happens if you kick back. That’s when you end up going to holding [detention center], that’s when you may end up being folded — even if you are 100% clean.
It’s scary to say but I’ve hit double digits [in stops] — I’ll leave it at that.
When you think about Harlem and Bedford–Stuyvesant, gentrification is clearly occurring in these areas. but you still see a semblance of the culture. Whereas like Bushwick, the culture was ate up within the span of that police presence. Just use the Puerto Rican Day parade as an example. It would go on until maybe 10, 11 [PM]. Now you won’t even hear nothing. Like, you will hear one horn beep. Block parties are not the same.
One of my close friends’ son was born one day, and we went to celebrate around the corner at this Chinese restaurant-bar. There was a group of girls that my friend knew from the block…he’s just saying, “What up” or whatever. The cops come out — they’ve been tailing them — and then just start pressing us. They push all of us against the wall, start frisking us. One of the cops is like, shook. I can see he’s scared. I’m like, “This is how shit happens.” This guy has his hand on his gun, and they’re trying to tell them to leave the young girls alone. We were there for like, 20, 30 minutes.
[I’ve been in] uncomfortable situations where it’s me by myself being pressed by five cops. I’m late to go somewhere…and the line of question is like, they’re asking me about shit in the Bronx, even though I’m deep in Brooklyn. They took my ID, walked off for 20 minutes, and just seemed like they were trying to place me somewhere.
I actually went to the same [high school] Bernie Sanders went to — [James] Madison. Madison was the kind of school where people came from all over. I was coming from Flatbush; my boyfriend at the time was coming from Canarsie; people were coming from East New York. So there’s this bus stop where the B7 and the B82 meet. We would all hang out and congregate right there. We would take the bus to like Utica-ish — where like the Wendy’s and the McDonald’s was — or we would take the B6 to the Junction.
One time we were coming from Madison and we ended up near Midwood High School. These cops — I don’t know if they were NYPD cops or if they were school safety agents because they wore the same uniforms — stopped us, and I was the only girl. There was like six of us. Then the cop was like, “Oh, can I see your student ID?” and we’re what — 15,16. This was before my understanding that interactions like that could become deadly. So, I was like, very bratty and very, you know, “I know my rights, my momma’s gonna call my lawyer.” In my mind, I’m thinking that I’m good, but the guys around me were kind of shook. Eventually, we showed the ID, and the cop was like, “You guys just match the description of someone we’re looking for.”
Multiple things are happening at once with the uptick of stop and frisk. That happens at the same time as major landscape changes for socializing for Black and brown youth. Empire [rolling rink in Brooklyn] doesn’t exist anymore, the movie theater at Kings Plaza doesn’t exist anymore. There are very few places where Black children can go and not be policed. What stop-and-frisk did to us over time, was it helped people to see groups of Black children out and wonder, “What y’all doin’?”…the places where we would go are being demolished, resold…our owners are being bought out. There are so many spaces that meant a lot to me as a teenager that don’t exist anymore.
[Ending stop-and-frisk?] That’s like asking people who were enslaved before and after the proclamation went out. Like, it’s not on the books anymore, but if we were to carry that analogy, people are still sharecropping. There’s still a disproportionate force of oppression on Black and brown communities. People say that stop-and-frisk ended as an official policy in 2017. I don’t feel a difference. If I feel a difference it’s because neighborhoods are changing.
My hope, is that we can really get to a place where all Black lives matter, and we don’t negotiate or sacrifice the most vulnerable among us. Because once we surrender and sacrifice someone, then the logic just becomes open, and it’s just a matter of time before it gets to you. So, just because you don’t have somebody who’s locked up doesn’t mean that you should not care.
[In the Early 2000s] cops stopping kids who were not in school for “truancy” was still a thing…I was absent a lot from school — pretty much most of my academic life for a variety of reasons like taking care of my younger siblings if we couldn’t get a babysitter, helping my mom do shit, or just because I didn’t want to go to school. My mom was like, “Fine, whatever, your grades are good, I don’t have to worry about that.” So if I had to go to the store or something it was very much like, “I’m going to run down to the store real quick and come back up fast, because if a cop stops you they have the right to come up to you.”…my sense was just like, “I don’t really want to come across cops. They stop kids for being truants and they’ll stick you in the back of a van.”
It must have been ’04, ’05. We had this, like, big bulky Hewlett-Packard computer and it had a virus. A [Puerto Rican] friend of mine from church was like, “Yeah, bring it over to my house. I’ll wipe it clean, delete the hard drive whatever, reinstall it fresh.” I was like, “Cool.” So I put it in a trash bag and just took it over to him…by J Hood Wright Park…like West of Broadway, a little bit past Fort Washington which, if you’re born or raised in the Heights, that’s the white people side of the Heights.
A couple days go by, I go get it. I must have made it like a block and a half…I noticed this like, pudgy, middle-aged, nondescript white guy. Then I hear, “Oh, what’s that?” and I’m so caught off on the question that I answered it. The next thing I know, he catches up to me and goes like, “Police, stop right there” and shoved me up against the wall. I’m so thrown off by everything that’s happening that I dropped the computer and it lands on my foot a little bit. I had some form of ID — eventually, he was like, “It’s just, you know, we’ve got reports of people stealing computers around here,” and then he walks away.
It was just terrifying, fast as hell. And it just made me just be like, “I got to be on guard for all types of motherfuckers,” because this guy was dressed regularly and he wasn’t dressed like a cop or anything. If I see [cops] somewhere I’m clocking where they are and paying attention to where they’re moving to, because I don’t want to be near them. I don’t want them to be near me.
There are still people that are being stopped, questioned and then frisked. So it affects my actual job [as a public defender] immensely. Several of my clients — the reason that they have criminal charges — are based on stop-and-frisk type interactions.
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Shamira Ibrahim is a Brooklyn-based writer by way of Harlem, Canada, and East Africa who comments on culture, identity, and politics. Her work has been featured in Teen Vogue, NYMag, and The Root. You can follow her comings and goings on Twitter at @_Shamgod.
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