by Dan Cantor
You’ve heard the story already. A young, unarmed black man was shot and killed, in a place he had every right to be. The tears of parents and friends flow.
But I’m not talking about the murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida. This story is closer to home.
A few weeks before Trayvon was killed, Ramarley Graham was killed in the Bronx. He was all of 18. The NYPD saw a black teenager “adjusting his waistband,” saw something that seemed to their eyes suspicious, and ended up chasing him into his own home. He was shot to death attempting to flush a bag of marijuana down the toilet. The police thought he had a gun. But like Trayvon Martin in Florida, Ramarley Graham was unarmed.
I’m a 56 year-old white man with a 20 year-old son. My son spent his high school years traveling around New York City at all hours, and never once was he stopped and frisked. He always wore hoodies. I always told him to “keep safe,” but if I’m telling the truth, it never occurred to me to worry that he might be stopped and questioned and frisked. I never thought for a second that he might fall victim to a police “mistake.” And I never gave him a lecture about how to be deferential to the police. Not so for black and brown parents. Every parent loves and wants to protect his children, but the ability to do so is not equal.
One of the reasons that we created the WFP was to tell the truth, as we saw it, about our society and economy. The truth is, Trayvon Martin’s death wasn’t an isolated act of vigilantism. And Ramarley Graham didn’t die because of a mistake. They died because we live in a nation where young men of color are stopped, and sometimes killed, because somebody decides they look suspicious. It is hardly news to say this, and of-color leaders and activists across the country are mobilizing with a sense of anger and righteousness that is entirely warranted. But what is new and welcome is that more and more white people are reminded or learning for the first time what the persistent existence of the color line means to millions of our fellow Americans.
It’s two different worlds. If a middle-class white teenager visiting his father were shot to death by an African- American “neighborhood watch” leader, would an arrest be likely? Or, as in Florida, would the shooter walk free and be allowed to keep his concealed carry permit?
Public safety is crucial to every community — black, white, Latino, Asian — and we need a vigilant, well-trained police force. But there is a law-and-order culture in our nation that has crossed the line. The dominant society is afraid of young of-color men, and instead of asking ourselves why and what might be done about it, we endorse policies that keep the problem under control. Until it isn’t.
In New York City, Police Commissioner Kelly defends his policies aggressively. He argues that “stop, question and frisk” has taken guns off the street. He says that it has helped reduced crime, and that communities of color are the main beneficiaries.
But Kelly’s line of argument is a dead-end. It’s a vision of a society that will never deal with racism – not just the individual prejudice and preconceptions of the Florida “watchman,” but the ingrained structures of a society in which life chances are determined at birth. It’s not Kelly’s fault; we ask the police to deal with problems the rest of us want to ignore. We have decided that there is no way for our society to create job opportunities, education and healthy families that will set young men down a promising path to adulthood, so we focus immense resources on policing and jailing them instead. We stop-and-frisk because we aren’t able to educate-and-employ.
There are a lot of young men growing up in tough circumstances, but – again, let’s tell the truth – it seems toughest in the black community. Deindustrialization. Residential segregation. The lure of the informal economy. A prison-industrial complex that requires ever more prisoners and lobbies for absurdly harsh sentencing laws. It’s a toxic combination, and the results are not surprising: there are now more African-American men in prison or on parole than were held as slaves. America’s “original sin” has not been expiated.
This is a serious challenge. At the Working Families Party, we spend much of our energy on the shared interests of people of all races. We ask working-class and middle-class people – white and of-color, citizen and immigrant – to unite and work together. We want a society in which all people have a chance at a decent, productive life. That means excellent schools, jobs that pay living wages, parents with the time and inner resources to raise healthy children, taxes that stop the obscene selfishness that now characterizes American society. But we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t acknowledge the serious and exceptional problems faced by of-color Americans.
New York City Council Members Jumaane Williams, Melissa Mark Viverito and Brad Lander have concrete proposals to reform stop-and-frisk that deserve support. And it may sound utopian, but Mayor Bloomberg should convene public hearings in which young people, beat cops, social scientists, employers, unions and elected leaders come and testify about their experience and their ideas on ways to reduce crime and increase opportunity. It won’t be perfect, but it can be a step forward.
The killings of Trayvon Martin and Ramarley Graham and too many others to name are a stain on our nation’s honor. Let’s learn from it, and act on it.
Dan Cantor is the Executive Director of the Working Families Party.