It is hard to believe that free-spirited art could be forged in a place so oppressive you can’t even walk down the street without getting stopped, questioned, and searched by the cops because of the color of your skin or the style of your clothes. Even as the NYPD’s stop-and-frisks literally hundreds of thousands of people every year, the vast majority of whom are young black and Latino males, a youth-driven hip-hop renaissance is happening at the same time in the more black, and thus more heavily policed, neighborhoods of New York.
One of the most important touchstones for what’s been dubbed the New New York Movement has been Flatbush, Brooklyn, which is home to prodigious rappers Joey Bada$$ and Pro Era crew, the Flatbush Zombies, and the Underachievers. These rappers are loosely united under the Beast Coast moniker and share the kind of world-weary perspective you acquire when you spend your youth dealing with the realities of urban life. Although they are rising rap stars, it’s not hard to imagine any of these guys being one of the 685,000 people who were stopped and frisked in New York in 2011.
Although these MCs have managed to rise up out of Flatbush, not everyone is so lucky. The neighborhood was also the home of Kimani Gray, the 16-year-old who was fatally shot seven times by two police officers on March 9 after they initiated a stop-and-frisk on the teen. The officers, who have a history of making unlawful stops, claim Kimani pulled a revolver on them, but Kimani’s family, a large portion of the community, and activists from around the tristate area who have good reason not to trust the cops when it comes to these matters, believe the teen was not armed. They have been demanding an investigation into the shooting and an end to stop-and-frisk.
After witnessing the fervor over Kimani’s shooting at protest rallies in East Flatbush (and considering the legal battles going on right now over the constitutionality of stop-and-frisk), I decided to seek some firsthand insight. Even though I’m black and have lived in New York for two years, I’ve never had the displeasure of being stopped and frisked, probably because I traded in my Jordans in for Common Projects years ago, and I spend most of my time in heavily gentrified and more casually policed neighborhoods.
To understand what it’s like dealing with stop-and-frisk as a young man, I called up Issa Dash and Ak from the Underachievers, who are natives of Flatbush and put out one of my favorite mixtapes of the last five years, Indigoism. Their music is rife with knowledge of self and demands young people think critically and take their lives into their own hands. Our conversation on stop-and-frisk especially hit home when Dash revealed that he was, in fact, distantly related to Kimani Gray through marriage. They also showed surprising empathy for the cops who police their neighborhood and were much more focused on the ways in which young black men could better themselves than they were interested in the unlikely prospect of reforming the NYPD.
VICE: Have you guys even been stopped and frisked growing up?
AK: Hundreds of thousands of times.
What’s it like?
Dash: I don’t believe that racism is as prevalent today as a lot of people think. But stop-and-frisk is very real. Basically if you walk down the street in an impoverished neighborhood and you’re black and you seem “incriminating,” then you’re probably going to get stopped for absolutely no reason.
AK: It’s fucked up, but it’s part of life. I’ve been in white neighborhoods where they’ll find a bag of weed on you and give it back to you. In the hood, they’ll take you in overnight. It’s crazy.
Obviously it disproportionately targets blacks, do you think it was systematically set up to get more blacks in the system?
Dash:No. I believe that impoverished neighborhoods have a lot of violence, so they put more police there to help stop crime. Chances are if you stop one of those people on the street, they’re more likely to be a criminal.
AK: Yeah, but not all of them are serious criminals. They may just have a little bag of weed or something, like I was saying before.
Do you think that the policy has made New York safer?
Dash: There are shootings everywhere in other big cities. There are shootings in New York, too. But we don’t have all of the crazy weapons here.
AK: You see those kids in Chicago, walking around with the crazy long choppers? You’re not going to find that in New York.
Dash: In the 90s, before Giuliani came into power and turned things up with the police, even Times Square was covered with prostitutes and robberies. New York was a mecca of crime. So I’m sure that all of the overpowering cop presence has impacted crime in some ways.
Do you think stop-and-frisk’s arguable crime-stopping potential is worth the rights that it violates and the lost lives of the kids that end up doing time for petty crimes like having a little weed?
Dash: No way. There are other factors that go into it. I don’t want to bring up racism, but it definitely comes into play.
What do you think of the cops on the street?
Dash: I’ve spoken to cops before and they tell me, “We might get a dispatch saying ‘tall black male with white tee and white sneakers.’ And they’ll look out their window and there are 35 tall black males with white tees and white sneakers. At the end of the day, a lot of the cops are doing their jobs and just trying to fish out who’s really a criminal. But I think there should be more thought put into choosing cops in our community. Unfortunately, there’s no way to stop the discrimination aspect of stop-and-frisk. We all have premeditated thoughts about each other.
Dash: Yeah, you might see a thug on the street, and you will think he’s a criminal. He might not even be a real thug, he could just have baggy jeans and a big hoodie on. This is a reality of the world we live and the way people are. Why would cops be any different?
How do we fix that?
Dash: We can’t fix the police, but we can work within our community. We have to come together and raise ourselves up. We can’t expect other people to help. We need to stop looking to the outside and build a stronger unit. The problem is not the cops, it’s not the government, it’s not the justice system. There may be discrimination, but what really holds us back is the fact that we as a people are still separated.
AK: You see, so many of these problems we have go back to slavery. But we have to get beyond that and come together. That’s it. We can’t blame anyone else anymore. The time for that is over.
What do you think people need to understand about Flatbush and the relationship that young black men there have with the police?
Dash: Honestly, a lot of people in the hood don’t know how to act. AK and I are used to diversity, we know how to intermingle with cops. But for people who might not be as eloquent as we are or might not know how to interact with other people, things can get terrible, really terrible. The police go so hard in hoods against our kids. I don’t want to say it’s black versus white or the kids versus the cops, but this kind of stuff is something that we see in our everyday lives.
Why do you think the police are so quick to resort to violence when they are dealing with young black men?
Dash: The way I see it is that a lot of the cops are pussy dudes wearing a badge and a suit. Many of them aren’t strong men, so they get scared real quick. They’re going to shoot because they’re scared. They’re not all out there trying to kill little black kids. They’re scared for their lives when they are in the projects. To be honest, we get scared in the projects. If there’s a cop there who isn’t scared, he’s kind of out of his mind, you know? There’s always two sides to the coin.
Can you tell me about a situation where you were stopped and frisked?
AK: There was one time that I almost I don’t blame them for stopping me because I was dressed like a hoodlum. [laughs] But I wasn’t doing anything. I was just walking down the Brooklyn College block and the officer was like, “Can I speak to you for a second?” That turned into them patting me down. They told me they got a call in for somebody wearing what I was wearing.
AK: Yeah, it’s something that we have had to get used to. We’ve gotten used to it, but we shouldn’t be used to it. But that’s just how it is. You can’t even have a fancy car in the hood. If you do that you’re automatically getting pulled over.
Are you guys afraid of the police?
Dash: I am petrified of the cops. They have completely succeeded in making me petrified. I hate seeing the cops, it’s a complete fear type of thing. They have everyone in the hood scared of them, it’s sick.
What do you think of the protests that are happening in Flatbush for Kimani Gray, who some feel was a victim of a wrongful shooting as a result of stop-and-frisk?
Dash: Pointless, man. You don’t get anything from protesting or marches. We have to change on the inside. If you could make a difference protesting and marching, they wouldn’t allow you to do it. You think you can change what goes down inside the police department? Maybe the demonstrations will help unite some people in Flatbush, but nothing’s going to come out of it. No one even hears about those things unless the college kids come out, and they still don’t make a difference since they have no power. Maybe something will happen if they get some celebrities out there, maybe. I’m not totally knocking it, though, because 90 percent of the people out there are my friends. But in this system, it just isn’t effective.
“The Mahdi” has lyrics about losing friends in the struggle. It makes me think of Kimani Gray. Can you tell me what it’s like to be as young as you guys are and lose people who are close to you? It’s a hard concept for a lot of other young people to understand.
AK: That’s just a part of coming up in Flatbush. Growing up and growing older, we’ve lost mad friends. It’s terrible, but you just learn from it. It’s life. It’s something that you have to accept. We put the pain that we feel from losing our friends into our music. But we’re not just talking about people dying only, we’ve lost friends to the struggle, the lifestyle that goes with being from an impoverished neighborhood.
Dash, I know the Kimani shooting is particularly touchy for you. Can you tell me how you feel about?
Dash: It’s fucked up. I knew him and his older brother growing up. My cousin just lost her older brother, so it’s a very rough situation for everyone in my family. That’s why I don’t really want to talk about it, because it hits home. My family would kill me for saying too much. You know my perspective is not “fuck the cops, let’s go protest.” But the shooting is really… it is really fucked up.
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