7 People Discuss Their Experiences With Stop-and-Frisk
Photo by Saskia de Borchgrave; photo by Corey Torpie; photo via Frederick Joseph
Life

6 People Describe Being Stopped and Frisked When Bloomberg Was Mayor of NYC

“We heard someone scream, ‘Hey!’ I didn’t turn around, but one of my friends did—thank God, because the person yelling was a cop with his gun drawn on us.”
February 21, 2020, 3:57pm
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A series in which people across the U.S. offer firsthand perspectives about how social issues impact their real lives.

The "stop-and-frisk" policing policy—wherein police could stop, question, and detain pedestrians if they have suspicion that the person is committing or did commit a crime—was expanded by Michael Bloomberg during his tenure as New York City’s mayor. From 2002 to 2013, police stopped and questioned people more than five million times, a 605 percent increase in the use of stop-and-frisk. The vast majority of those stopped were Black or brown, and innocent of any crimes.

In his recent apologies for the policy, it’s clear that Bloomberg is trying to frame stop-and-frisk as a thing of the past—and one that was only minimally harmful. He was still defending the policy up to a week before he announced his run for president. Even now, when he expresses some modicum of regret, he has touted misleading statistics about how he decreased the use of the policy by 95 percent. This did happen, but only after the huge increase for 10 years of his tenure, during which he argued that minorities were not actually targeted enough.

Neither the NYPD nor Bloomberg never really confronted the harm they were causing and continue to perpetuate—and stop-and-frisk is still in place, though it's used less frequently. VICE asked seven Black and brown people about their experiences with police in New York City during Bloomberg’s tenure as mayor at the height of the stop-and-frisk era to reflect on that policy today. Here is what they had to say about the lasting effects of those interactions.

Answers edited for length and clarity.

Marcus Harley, 22, The Bronx

It was the day before Thanksgiving. I was 13, walking home from an after-school football game. A group of cops pulled up on me, holding me and another man against the wall of a bank right below the train station. They frisked me and the man, looked through my schoolbag, pockets—everything—asking me, "Where's the gun?" I was a nerdy, unassuming middle schooler being frisked with a grown-ass man I didn't know.

They didn't find anything, and we were thrown in a paddywagon, where I was questioned about a high school where a shooting had allegedly taken place. They thought I was a student there, even when I started crying when they drove past my middle school campus. I was brought to the precinct and was placed in a cell alone, handcuffed to a steel bench for several hours until the cops figured out that I wasn't who they were looking for and drove me to my building.

The whole incident made me keen to my racialized identity. I still find it traumatizing to this day. Another arrest later in life exposed some of the anxieties I face when interacting with police. These days, I walk around skeptic of policies surrounding policing in lower-income hoods. The contrast of how shit goes down in the more affluent parts of the city baffles me. Folks are missing how these policies disproportionately target literal children of color. I can't really trust political and authoritative figures at all at this point, honestly.

Jamaal Bowman, 43, The Bronx

In the early 2000s, I was a young teacher, and Bloomberg was mayor. Stop-and-frisk was a way of life, emboldening the police and perpetuating a culture of police harassment and brutality against the Black community. One day, as I drove home from work to pick up my son, I was pulled over on the Grand Concourse in the South Bronx by the cops. They said that I failed to use my turn signal to change lanes, but I knew that was bullshit. I knew I was pulled over for DWB: Driving While Black. I was taken out of my car, handcuffed, and arrested. I spent hours in a cell, before I was released without even seeing a judge. No charge. No explanation. No apology.

This was just one example of a terrifying, dehumanizing experience I have had with the police as a Black man in America. Some people are trying to downplay stop-and-frisk. They don’t think Bloomberg should be held responsible for championing and defending this blatant violation of constitutional rights, a policy that disproportionately impacted people of color. I ask those naysayers this: How can the Black community improve our academic, health, or economic outcomes while we’re living in perpetual terror?

Frederick Joseph, 31, Queens

I attended Hunter College on the Upper East Side. On this particular night, I stayed later than usual, studying for an exam at a local café. As I walked to the train around 11 p.m., a group of three officers came down the street. They asked me where I was headed and what I was doing around there. I explained that I went to college nearby, but they accused me of lying because the school wasn’t open that late. Despite my explanations, they decided to take my bag and frisk me. I realized that the police might kill me and had a panic attack. This irritated the officers and they shoved me against the wall while holding their gun holsters. They patted me down and emptied the contents of my bag on the ground—my laptop fell out along with my books. When they let me go, my laptop was broken. As I tried to tell them what they'd done, they walked away, telling me to call and complain.

As a Black person, I’ve always had a distrust of police. But this incident solidified my fear of police and my anxiety for myself and other Black people who are often powerless in situations when the police decide to make us a target. After that night, I developed severe mental health issues such as anxiety and panic attacks, which have been exacerbated by police murdering numerous Black men, such as Eric Garner and Akai Gurley.

People who dismiss the lasting impact of stop-and-frisk are a symptom of the scourge of white supremacy. There has been no accountability for the people we lost due to the trauma of stop-and-frisk, such as Kalief Browder, for the people who have lasting mental health issues such as myself, or for the people who fear the NYPD more than any criminals. People who want to move on are the same people who don't believe that Black lives matter. But we do matter.

Shaniyat Chowdhury, 27, Queens

I was 17 years old, walking home from Jamaica Muslim Center after a late-night prayer. I lived two blocks away from the mosque. Before I could turn onto my block, I was approached by two police officers. They questioned me about a home that was robbed. I knew there had been a few robberies that summer in the neighborhood. On top of that, mosques were being targeted for any terrorism affiliation. As a teen, wearing religious garb, I was the perfect suspect in their eyes. They asked me repeatedly if I had any knowledge about the robberies, and I kept saying no, but they insisted I fit their description. After searching my pockets, they eventually let me go. I cried when I got home. I stopped wearing my religious garb for a long time and went to the mosque less, out of fear something bad might happen to me.

I was stopped several times over the years after that, but nothing was traumatic as the first one. Now, I feel resentment towards an unjust system that continues to patrol communities of color. Every time I see or hear about an innocent person being killed by a police officer, I need a moment to be alone to gather myself. Sometimes I feel angry or sad, but want to channel that energy into making positive changes, which is why I’m running for office and want to demilitarize the police.

Stop-and-frisk never ended. Police officers can still stop someone to frisk them and ask questions if they have reasonable suspicion that a person poses a threat. Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, Sandra Bland, and Sean Bell all seemed like threats to the police. We cannot get over it. It is a national epidemic.

Andrew J. Padilla, 30, Manhattan

I've only been stopped and frisked once, but each time I hear a Bloomberg ad, I remember it… so, 15 times a day. One night, my friends and I—who were 17 or 18 at the time—were hanging out by Riverside Park, next to Columbia University, when we heard someone scream,"Hey!" I didn't turn around, but one of my friends did—thank God, because the person yelling was a cop with his gun drawn on us. I quickly raised my hands, so did my boy. My other boy did not raise his hands. He began reaching into his pockets for his ID. The cop held his gun to my friend's spine, screaming, "Put your hands in the air!”

We all knew one wrong move, and we could be killed. "The hospital is only a couple of blocks away," the officer told my friend as he began to frisk him. He ran our IDs to see if we had priors. We did not. I asked the officer why he'd stopped us, and he told us, "You guys fit the description." I'd have laughed if I wasn't so scared. I just remember feeling so powerless, so impotent. I remember praying to my ancestors that I get out of this mess and not join them early.

It wasn't until I was older that I admitted to my parents that I was stopped and frisked. I will never forget the fear and anger in their faces. They knew my life could have ended that night. My parents also knew we were lucky this was our only time being stopped and frisked. I had darker-skinned friends who had been stopped and frisked 13 times by the time they were 15 years old. Being stopped and frisked, and seeing it happen to my neighbors and friends throughout my childhood, reminded me that segregation still existed in the U.S. Stop-and-frisk wasn't ramped up in Bloomberg's neighborhood. Mike's kids weren't getting thrown up against a wall, over a car or held up at gunpoint because of the color of their skin.

Sadly, in NYC, stop-and-frisks actually increased 22 percent in 2019. This policy is still in place throughout communities of color under the same narrative that it protects against gun crime. It doesn’t matter that barely anyone stopped and frisked during Bloomberg’s time as mayor were even found with weapons.

James Richardson, 54, The Bronx

I was last stopped and frisked by the NYPD in August of 2011. I went to go check on my mother who lives in Harlem. Since it was a beautiful New York summer night, I rode my bicycle. After a wonderful visit, I headed out on my bike for the long ride home downtown, through Central Park.

Near 86th Street, the lights on a police cruiser went off, and the car pulled out in front of me, forcing me to almost crash my bike on the side of the park drive. Two cops got out and told me to get off my bike. One cop kept his hand on his gun as I emptied the contents of my fanny pack to get my ID out. As I searched for my driver’s license, the lead cop noticed the CUNY faculty ID in my wallet and sarcastically asked if it was real. I assured the officers that it was. I handed them both my driver’s license and CUNY ID and one cop walked back to the cruiser to run my ID through the system. They asked if I was carrying any drugs or weapons. I was only wearing shorts, a sweaty T-shirt, and had already emptied the contents of my fanny pack out in front of them, but the case of Abner Louima popped into my head, and I decided that it was best to shut the hell up unless I wanted to risk a cavity search.

Since then, I’ve become extremely anxious any time my son and daughter leave the house without me. My son is a tall young man, and my daughter is just as much of a smart ass as I was at her age and doesn’t suffer fools lightly. I worry that these cops won’t see my children in the same way as they see their own. I worry that in a moment, the people that I love and cherish most in the world could be ripped from me in a heartbeat because of a systemic racist policy and a public that is willing to look the other way when Black children are murdered by agents of the state.

Please understand why all of this "Bloomberg isn't so bad" talk is so difficult for me to even hear. I can say without question that there is no way I could even entertain voting for someone who stated, on audio and video multiple times, that we should unilaterally target any group of people for state sanctioned harassment. Racism towards Black people is so ingrained in the DNA of this country. There is a toxic lack of empathy for Black people in America by nearly every group. Everyone is so worried about what Trump might do to curtail individual freedoms that what they fail to realize is that Bloomberg has already done it, defended it, and would do it again.

Follow Reina Sultan on Twitter.

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