Stop and Frisk Apologies Prove that the Mic Must be Passed to People Most Affected by the Police
National Review, the influential right-wing magazine, recently raised eyebrows for its public mea culpa on being wrong about New York City’s Stop and Frisk program, which peaked at nearly 700,000 police stops in 2012 but has reportedly declined dramatically since. The magazine, like most conservative media (and even Democratic strategists), predicted gloom and doom if the police department’s methods were scaled back. They were wrong — New York ended 2017 with record low crime numbers even as the number of reported stops have plummeted.
The problem with National Review’s Stop and Frisk apology, however, isn’t simply that they were wrong. The problem is that hundreds of thousands of Black and Latino New Yorkers were harassed, frisked, embarrassed (or worse) for years while the establishment media rarely listened to their voices — and no one being held accountable. Even now, the National Review isn’t being held to account. In fact, National Review has received pats on the back from its critics, and after years of criminal justice punditry, the media power dynamics that allowed racist fear-mongering to be passed off as one side of a debate remain largely intact.
Clearly, editors and writers at National Review won’t face any consequences for their baseless hysteria. Nor will the editorial boards of the New York Daily News and New York Post, who spewed similarly apocalyptic warnings about a city bathed in blood if people weren’t frisked en masse. There’s no obvious wave of accountability (through firings, for example) bearing down on them like there’s not one for police who steamroll people’s rights. Ditto for city officials who defended dragnet-style policing in their official capacity, like former mayor Mike Bloomberg, who flirted with a presidential run, and ex police commissioner Ray Kelly, who almost became Homeland Security chief.
Unfortunately, without accountability, the truth remains elusive. The story of Stop and Frisk, for example, is more complicated than what National Reviewconcedes — and what many liberals take at face value. The official tale of the tape from the police department is that cops have gifted to us a fabulously safe big city while willingly scaling back Stop and Frisk. The new administration of Bill de Blasio credits itself with curtailing the excesses of its predecessors even though reported stops began to decline in 2013, a year before de Blasio took over and court-ordered reforms were in place. Few reform or media voices have challenged the Stop and Frisk reduction narrative even though stops are self-reported by cops and a federal monitor has (again) noted that police are undercounting them.
Have we replaced the false rhetoric of right-wing media with the illusion that the NYPD has reformed its frisky ways? With little scrutiny to the official version of events, who knows. If police control the data they may as well control the debate.
So what if instead of arguing over data, we worked to do something much more fundamental? Rather than relying on predictable media battle lines shaped by number-crunchers, professional commentators and authorities unlikely to have any experience actually being patted down on the street, we should hand over the proverbial mic to people who have first-hand knowledge of police harassment. A recent New York Times op-ed suggests that we study the psychological effects of Stop and Frisk on communities of color but even that misses the mark. Why dole out research grants to academics instead of simply listening to people already speaking out?
The life and activism of the late Erica Garner, daughter of the late Eric Garner, who was murdered by NYPD detective Daniel Pantaleo, offers some wisdom. Erica consistently slammed Mayor de Blasio (who to this day refuses to fire her father’s killer) and a slew of other establishment Democrats. She walked out of an ABC News event with Barack Obama when she said producers broke their promise to allow her to directly ask questions of the then-president. She was direct, blunt and she controlled her own mic. As such, she spoke with a voice much more attuned to the urgency of affected communities and instilled fear in establishment liberals (see Hillary Clinton fiasco) perhaps most of all.
Even after Erica’s untimely death on December 30, her Twitter account, reportedly controlled by her political advisor and friend Reggie Harris, continued to stir the pot by demanding that media requests not be made “if the journalist is not Black,” setting off a backlash, predictably, from some white journalists. The Washington Post’s Christine Emba sharply noted how “for a brief moment, Garner’s team sought to seize a narrow slice of power gained through tragedy to advance minority representation, to promote the voices of those who, like Garner, might not get the chance to speak. The outraged response shows how unwelcome such a shift in control was.”
The controversy of such an ask is only part of a bigger story. Often quoted in the press, either through interviews or through tweets, Erica was not only a powerful public voice that was vigilant about justice for her father, she also authored or co-authored numerous Huffington Post pieces that indicted politicians, police union officials and the criminal justice system more broadly as well as a well-received opinion article in The Guardian. She wrote passionately and often, but who was listening? Liberals courageous enough to thumb their noses at conservative media should read her words. Many will be uncomfortable — and that’s a good thing.
True accountability for the myths spread about Stop and Frisk is to listen to people on the ground instead of the entrenched voices on the right (and left) — and also in the Mayor’s office. The truth is that Black and Latino people can tell their own stories and will do more to hold power accountable than pundits or a professional press corps. If a generation of young people of color can, like Erica, control their own mic and unrelentingly question the system, there might be hope for accountability and, more importantly, real justice.