These are small incidents, but they are accumulating by the tens of thousands, and someday New Yorkers are going to be shocked by the power of the anger that these seemingly insignificant incidents have generated.
The principal of Bushwick Community High School in Brooklyn (who Make the Road by Walking works with regularly) told me about a student who was gratuitously insulted by a police officer at a subway station the other day. The girl had lost her MetroCard and was carrying a note on the school’s letterhead asking that she be allowed to ride the train. This was fine with the token clerk, but the clerk told the girl to show the note to a cop on duty at the station.
The cop, in front of several onlookers, told the girl she was the oldest-looking high school student he had ever seen. He demanded that she tell him the square root of 12. He loudly declared that she was stupid and refused to let her board a train.
The girl left the station devastated and in tears. No big deal. Certainly not newsworthy. Just another case of cops being cops.
Several students from Bushwick Community High were among the three dozen or so who were swept up by the cops last week as they were walking toward a subway station on their way to a wake for a teenage friend who had been murdered. For black and Hispanic youngsters, grieving can be a criminal offense.
One of those arrested was 16-year-old Lamel Carter, the son of a police detective. I interviewed him after he had spent a night in jail.
"It was pretty nasty," he said. "There were five of us in each cell. One of my friends was throwing up, and another had an asthma attack. The police said they got us for unlawful assembly."
[I asked the police captain who ordered the arrests, Scott Henderson, to explain the offense of unlawful assembly. He couldn’t. "If you would like the exact definition," he said, "I would have to look that up."]
Fifteen minutes after I interviewed Lamel, he was stopped again by two police officers. They asked him where he was going, ordered him to spread-eagle himself against a patrol car, searched him and then him let go.
He was just another black kid (now with a brand-new arrest record) on the streets of Brooklyn. No big deal. Just one of hundreds of similar stops each day.
One of the youngsters arrested while trying to attend the wake was Aliek Robinson, a 17-year-old who had come up from Baltimore. He had known the slain youth, Donnell McFarland, whose nickname was Freshh, since he was 6 years old. When I interviewed him, Aliek told me how one of the cops had gone out of his way to mock his dead friend.
"After we got arrested, the cops were questioning us one by one," he said. "This one cop had a smile on his face and he said, ‘Your man, Freshh, he was babbling like a little girl when he died.’ And then he started giggling. I don’t know why he said that. He didn’t have to say that."
Just cops being cops.
The important thing to remember here is that this behavior, in neighborhoods where the majority of the residents are black and Hispanic, is often the norm. This is not unusual police behavior. There is a huge percentage of cops on patrol whose knee-jerk approach to policing is to treat all young blacks and Hispanics as potential criminals.
All high-ranking public officials in the city are aware of what is going on. I asked a black official, who asked not to be identified, why more minority officeholders aren’t objecting publicly to the way minority youth are treated by the police. He said no one wants to be responsible for challenging the cops and then being blamed if crime statistics start to go back up.
The two individuals most responsible for this sorry state of affairs are Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. All it would take is a directive from them to bring the ugly harassment under control.
A big gang problem has quietly developed in New York, and there are fears in the neighborhoods of a troubled summer. The response to this very serious situation should not be to treat all kids like criminals, which is both wrong and self-defeating.
The police need the confidence and cooperation of law-abiding young people. Systematically demeaning them is hardly the way to achieve that.