A Tale of Two Cities: Elected Officials, Community Members, Moms, Faith Leaders Rally at One Police Plaza to End Illegal Arrests and Racist Police Practices

Press Release May 11, 2012
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gabriel sayegh 646-335-2264 or Jeremy Saunders 917-676-8041 or Kyung Ji Rhee 347-712-0259</p>

NEW YORK: Today — the day before Mother’s Day – over 150 moms, community groups, artists and faith leaders joined with City and state elected officials to demand an end to biased policing practices dividing New York City. The group marched from Foley Square to One Police Plaza, rallying to highlight racially biased policing practices, like stop-and-frisk and low-level marijuana arrests: young whites use marijuana at higher rates, yet about 85 percent of the people arrested for marijuana possession are Black and Latino, most are under 30 years old, and most are illegally searched and falsely charged – all at a cost of $75 million to taxpayers every year. At the end of the rally, about a dozen young white people committed an act of nonviolent civil disobedience, blocking the entrance to One Police Plaza to disrupt unjust, biased policing practices.

Evoking Charles Dickens’ famous novel, the marchers declared that biased policing practices under Bloomberg and Kelly were creating a modern-day Tale of Two CitiesOne New York City is for white people, where marijuana possession was decriminalized in 1977, people are seldom stopped and frisked, and mothers do not fear that their young will be unlawfully rounded up by the police. The other New York City is for people of color, where hundreds of thousands of people are stopped even though most were entirely innocent of any wrongdoing; tens of thousands are illegally searched, falsely charged, arrested and incarcerated for marijuana possession (even though it’s not a crime in New York); and mothers live in fear of the police unlawfully snatching their young people off the streets.

New York State decriminalized private possession of small amounts of marijuana in 1977 in order to preserve scarce police resources and prevent needless criminalization. But Mayor Bloomberg, who during the 2001 mayoral election said that he smoked marijuana and “enjoyed it,” now presides over the largest initiative in the country to arrest young men of color on false marijuana possession charges—an outcome of the controversial stop-and-frisk practices conducted by NYPD. Among cities and counties in the U.S., New York City, Buffalo and Syracuse rank among the highest in terms of racial disparities associated with arrests for possessing small amounts of marijuana.

"The disproportionate number of Black and Latino youth arrested for possessing small quantities of marijuana is proof of a shameful double standard within the NYPD,” said New York State Assembly Member Hakeem Jeffries. “These arrests are not happening on the Upper West Side or in the Village, they are happening in communities of color like those in central Brooklyn where people are struggling the most. Either the possession of small quantities of marijuana is criminal or it's not. But it cannot be criminal behavior for one group of people and socially acceptable behavior for another group of people, when the dividing line is race." Assm. Jeffries, a Brooklyn Democrat, has joined with Buffalo-based Republican State Senator Mark Grisanti to introduce legislation that would standardize penalties for marijuana possession in New York, aligning police practice with the original legislative intent of the 1977 law. The bill, S.5187/A.7620, has numerous cosponsors from across New York.

“Stop-and-frisk is a community destroying strategy, not a community building strategy. The numbers clearly indicate this practice blatantly profiles and abuses the liberties of people of color. Low level marijuana arrests are part of this racial abuse,” said Rev. Robert B. Coleman, Chief Program Minister and Minister of Mission and Social Justice at The Riverside Church. “Our Church has long stood with those who are oppressed, abused, marginalized and disenfranchised. We call on Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly to overhaul their policing strategies so they may create positive, safe, secure communities.”

Research finds that most people arrested for marijuana possession did not have it in public view (a misdemeanor), but had a small amount in a pocket and were either tricked by the police to reveal it – or, worse, many people are illegally searched, as evidenced in a recent report about the practice. These individuals are then falsely charged for possessing marijuana in public view, and arrested. In the last five years under Bloomberg, the NYPD made more marijuana arrests than in the twenty-four years under Mayors Giuliani, Dinkins and Koch combined.

“Far too many innocent New Yorkers are stopped, frisked and arrested in communities of color every day for small-time marijuana possession. Our young people are forced to endure a traumatic and humiliating experience which scars and embitters them,” said New York City Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito said. “Even though marijuana was decriminalized in the 1970s, a loophole allows the police to continue arresting young people for small amounts of marijuana. That loophole must be closed, and we demand action at the State level to do so.  This demeaning treatment of our youth would never be tolerated in well-to-do white neighborhoods, where studies show marijuana use is at least as prevalent as in communities of color. The Police Department needs to re-direct the tens of millions of dollars spent in enforcing small-time marijuana possession elsewhere. Arresting young Black and Latino New Yorkers for small bags of marijuana does not make our city safer.”

CM Viverito and her colleagues have introduced City Council Resolution 0986-2011, which calls for an end to the practice of unlawful marijuana arrests, and requesting the New York State Legislature take action to reform the law.

In 2011, there were 50,684 marijuana possession arrests, the top arrest in New York City history, despite Police Commissioner Kelly’s directive last year reminding the police department of the 1977 law and ordering an end to such arrests. These arrests cost taxpayers over $75 million a year, even while Bloomberg proposes cuts to after school programs and essential human services. Community groups and City Council Members have said that the money currently spent on arresting young people of color for marijuana possession could be more effectively and wisely used, by investing in job training, prevention and education programs for young people.

“NYPD’s misguided stop-and-frisk policy has significantly increased under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg tenure, encouraging racial profiling," said New York Council Member Letitia James, a co-sponsor of the Council resolution. "We must reevaluate how the NYPD assess  our young men and women of color before they are 'stopped-and-frisked' and we must question whether this policy is an effective crime-fighting tool.”

“Last fall, many of us applauded Commissioner Ray Kelly for issuing an internal order to stop arresting New Yorkers for small quantities of marijuana if it wasn’t in plain view,” said CM Annabel Palma of the Bronx and a co-sponsor of the Council resolution. “However, the number of arrests for low-level possession last year indicates that this directive is not providing the necessary level of protection for New Yorkers of color, who have been disproportionately affected by these arrests. It’s time for the NYPD to stop discriminating and to end the practice of illegally arresting New Yorkers for low-level possession.”

As part of the rally, nearly a dozen white people used their bodies to block the entrance to NYPD headquarters, using nonviolent civil disobedience and exposing themselves to arrest by police. A statement from the group denounced racially biased marijuana arrests and police practices: “With our arrests, we are drawing attention to the over 400,000 illegal, costly, and racist marijuana arrests during the tenure of Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly. These arrests divide the City into two: one for Black and Latino folks under constant suspicion and another inhabited by white folks who don't have to worry. We know benefits of not getting arrested well: we do not get taken to jail after an illegal search and false arrest; our jobs, medical treatments, and educations aren't interrupted;  the custody of our children isn't put at risk; and we aren’t risking deportation.  These racist marijuana arrests further demonstrate the New Jim Crow that criminalizes low income people of color and perpetuates racialized poverty. We don't want a divided City and so we stand united. We block the entrance to One Police Plaza to disrupt these unjust practices and policies.”

In a moment ripe with its own symbolism, the police refused to arrest the white protestors, perhaps because City Council members stood by to observe the action. The irony wasn’t lost on the crowd: as tens of thousands of young men of color are unlawfully arrested every year in NYC, police refused to arrest the white allies as they committed an unlawful act — obstructing government operations at NYPD to disrupt business as usual and bring attention to racially biased practices.

"Stop and frisk and racial profiling are issues we as Americans of all backgrounds must deal with immediately,” said Kevin Powell, an activist, writer, weekly blogger for The Guardian. “When any segment of our population feels as if it is being unfairly targeted, none of us can say we are living in a completely fair and just society. So I pledge my on-going commitment to working in coalition with all groups seeking to end this practice that hurts us all."

"I've been a victim of the racist practices of the NYPD since I was first illegally arrested for marijuana possession at the age of 14 and sent to a juvenile detention, changing the course of my life forever," said Alfredo Carrasquillo, organizer at VOCAL New York, "But I don't believe racism exists in the heart of New Yorkers.  It exists in the outcomes of programs and policies – like the practices carried out by Commissioner Kelly's police department and these failed policies which Mayor Bloomberg continues to support."

"Current police practices don't just affect individuals caught with small amounts of marijuana, they hurt entire communities," said ColorOfChange Executive Director Rashad Robinson. "With police mostly targeting Black and Latino neighborhoods for random stop and frisk searches, harassment is a daily reality for many young people of color. Thousands of New York City ColorOfChange members have demanded an end to racially discriminatory policing, and we'll continue to push for NYPD to follow the law that's on the books — for all New Yorkers."

“The truth of the matter is that NYPD officers are arresting and charging people with a misdemeanor when they should be giving a ticket for a violation, which is not a crime,” said Kyung Ji Rhee, juvenile justice project director at the Center for NuLeadership.  “What is even more unconscionable is that these marijuana arrests are happening as a result of racially biased and illegal searches. Marijuana possession is the highest arrest charge for 16-17 year olds in NYC. That amounts to over five thousand black and brown 16-17 year olds being arrested and put through the system for possessing small amounts of marijuana. Racialized criminalization is not an effective drug education strategy. What message is the mayor sending NYC’s youth of color? He might want to listen to what they have to say.”

“We can no longer accept the price we are paying for a racially biased policing system, said Kassandra Frederique, policy coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance. “We can no longer allow our tax dollars to be used to criminalize young people of color — there are better ways to teach our young people to not use marijuana. Today we are demanding that our elected officials fight for a united New York.  Telling public officials that their silence speaks volumes and so do our votes.  Let’s all work towards one New York where we are all treated with respect.”

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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