My name is Lawrence Christopher Skufca. I am a civil rights advocate and community organizer in the Camden, New Jersey area. I hold a Juris Doctor from Rutgers School of Law; a B.A. in Political Science from Furman University; and an A.A. in the Humanities from Tri-County Technical College. I passed the New Jersey and Pennsylvania State Bar Examinations in 2011.
While attending Rutgers Law School, I was a strong vocal critic of the concentration of political and economic power which had coalesced in Camden, arguing that self-interested economic policies had created a perpetual recession for the City’s residents. I advocated for reform of the existing political patronage system which was pilfering public funds received from state and federal grants earmarked for the City’s economic recovery. I championed giving the residents a voice in the economic decisions affecting their daily lives and putting an end to the financially incestuous relationship between local powerbrokers, elected officials and Camden’s public institutions which served to obstruct the public interest.
Post-graduation I became active in local politics and organizing community information campaigns. I argued that local business leaders enriching themselves at the expense of the taxpayers, an evaporating tax base, a crumbling municipal infrastructure and the absence of economic opportunities had combined to create inhumane conditions for the City’s residents. I worked as a consultant for primary challengers seeking to change the existing political culture and assisted them in diagnosing the problems Camden faced. I became a thorn in the side of those seeking to exploit the financially vulnerable and stifle public dissent.
The last decade has been bittersweet. My own personal efforts have amounted to little more than being an annoying Gadfly which irritates the hides of those in power. But my persistent buzz introduced the idea that change was possible and encouraged others to join in the struggle. One can dare to hope that their buzz will create a persistent drone which further serves to erode the foundations of the established patronage system. One can dare to dream that the City Invincible will once again live up to its name.
An exclusive audio recording obtained by The Nation of a stop-and-frisk carried out by the New York City Police Department reveals the humiliation and degradation caused by broken windows policing strategies which are being implemented in urban areas throughout America.
The day after The Nation published this video, it sparked a heated debate during a meeting of the City Council’s public safety committee. Since then, the New York Police Department’s stop, question and frisk tactic gained national notoriety and became a major factor in the city’s 2013 mayoral race. Footage and audio from this video were incorporated into a PSA video by the artist Yasiin Bey, and, perhaps most significantly, and the video was mentioned in the August 2013 decision of the landmark federal case Floyd v. City of New York, which found stop and frisk to be unconstitutional and racially discriminatory.
On June 3, 2011, three plainclothes New York City Police officers stopped a Harlem teenager named Alvin and two of the officers questioned and frisked him while the third remained in their unmarked car. Alvin secretly captured the interaction on his cell phone, and the resulting audio is one of the only known recordings of stop-and-frisk in action.
In the course of the two-minute recording, the officers give no legally valid reason for the stop, use racially charged language and threatened Alvin with violence. Early in the stop, one of the officers asks, “You want me to smack you?” When Alvin asks why he is being threatened with arrest, the other officer responds, “For being a fucking mutt.”
Later in the stop, while holding Alvin’s arm behind his back, the first officer says, “Dude, I’m gonna break your fuckin’ arm, then I’m gonna punch you in the fuckin’ face.”
“He grabbed me by my bookbag and he started pushing me down. So I’m going backwards like down the hill and he just kept pushing me, pushing me, it looked like he we was going to hit me,” Alvin recounts. “I felt like they was trying to make me resist or fight back.”
Alvin’s treatment at the hands of the officers may be disturbing but it is not uncommon. According to their own stop-and-frisk data, the NYPD stops more than 1,800 New Yorkers a day. A New York Times analysis recently determined that more than 20 percent of those stops involve the use of force. And these are only the numbers that the Department records. Anecdotal evidence suggests both figures are much higher.
In this video, exclusive to TheNation.com, Alvin describes his experience of the stop, and working NYPD officers come forward to explain the damage stop-and-frisk has done to their profession and their relationship to the communities they serve. The emphasis on racking up stops has also hindered what many officers consider to be the real work they should be doing on the streets. The video sheds unprecedented light on a practice, cheered on by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, that has put the city’s young people of color in the department’s crosshairs.
Those who haven’t experienced the policy first-hand “have likened Stops to being stuck in an elevator, or in traffic,” says Darius Charney, senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “This is not merely an inconvenience, as the Department likes to describe it. This is men with guns surrounding you in the street late at night when you’re by yourself. You ask why and they curse you out and rough you up.”
“The tape brings to light what so many New Yorkers have experienced in the shadows at the hands of the NYPD,” says Ben Jealous, President of the NAACP. “It is time for Mayor Bloomberg to come to grips with the scale of the damage his policies have inflicted on our children and their families. No child should have to grow up fearing both the cops and the robbers.”
“This audio confirms what we’ve been hearing from communities of color, again and again,” says Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU. “They are repeatedly subjected to abusive and disrespectful treatment at the hands of the NYPD. This explains why so many young people don’t trust the police and won’t help the police,” she adds. “It’s not good for law enforcement and not good for the individuals who face this harassment.”
The audio also betrays the seeming arbitrariness of stops and the failure of some police officers to fully comprehend or be able to articulate a clear motivation for carrying out a practice they’re asked to repeat on a regular basis.
And, according to Charney, the only thing the police officers do with clarity during this stop is announce its unconstitutionality.
“We’ve long been claiming that, under this department’s administration, if you’re a young black or Latino kid, walking the street at night you’re automatically a suspicious person,” says Charney, who is leading a class-action lawsuit challenging the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practices. “The police deny those claims, when asked. ‘No, that’s not the reason we’re stopping them.’ But they’re actually admitting it here [on the audio recording]. The only reason they give is: ‘You were looking back at us…’ That does not rise to the level of reasonable suspicion, and there’s a clear racial animus when they call him a ‘mutt.’”
The audio was recently played at a meeting of The Morris Justice Project, a group of Bronx residents who have organized around the issue of stop-and-frisk and have been compiling data on people’s interactions with police. Jackie Robinson, mother of two boys, expected not to be surprised when told about the contents of the recording. “It’s stuff we’ve all heard before,” she said at the gathering. Yet Robinson visibly shuddered at one of the audio’s most violent passages. She had heard plenty about these encounters, but had never actually listened to one in action.
“As a mother, it bothers you,” says Robinson. “The police are the ones we’re supposed to turn to when something bad happens. Of all the things I have to worry about when my kids walk out the door, I don’t want to have to worry about them being harmed by the police. It makes you feel like you can’t protect your children. Something has to be done.”
Officers who carry out such belligerent stops face little accountability under the NYPD’s current structure. The department is one of New York City’s last agencies to operate without independent oversight, leaving officers with no safe place to file complaints about police practice and systemic problems.
“An independent inspector general would be in a position to review NYPD policies and practices—like the recorded stop-and-frisk shown here—to see whether the police are violating New Yorkers’ rights and whether the program is in fact yielding benefits,” says the Brennan Center’s Faiza Patel. “An inspector general would not hinder the NYPD’s ability to fight crime, but would help build a stronger, more effective force.”
NYPD spokespeople have said that stop-and-frisk is necessary to keep crime down and guns off the street. But those assertions are increasingly being contradicted by the department’s own officers, who are beginning to speak out about a pervasive culture of number-chasing.
Two officers from two different precincts in two separate boroughs spoke toThe Nation about the same types of pressures put on officers to meet numerical goals or face disciplinary action and retaliation. Most chillingly, both officers use the word “hunt” when describing the relentless quest for summonses, stops and arrests.
“The civilian population, they’re being hunted by us,” says an officer with more than ten years on the job. “Instead of being protected by us, they’re being hunted and we’re being hated.”
The focus on numbers, and the rewards for those who meet quotas has created an atmosphere, another veteran officer says, in which cops compete to see who can get the highest numbers, and it can lead to the kind of arbitrary stop that quickly became violent in this recording.
“It’s really bad,” says the officer after listening to the audio recording. “It’s not a good thing at all. But it’s really common, I’m sorry to say. It doesn’t have to be like that.”
Lieberman from the NYCLU agrees: “It’s time for the Mayor and the Police Commissioner to stop trying to scare New Yorkers into accepting this kind of abuse, and to recognize that there is a problem.”
The Target: Stop-and-Frisk’s Damaging Toll on Families and Communities
On August 12, a federal judge ruled the New York Police Department’s policy of “stop, question and frisk” unconstitutional and racially discriminatory. In her decision in the case of Floyd v. City of New York, Judge Shira A. Scheindlin validated many of the complaints coming from civil rights organizations, grassroots groups and politicians who have rallied against the policy and its destructive effects on low-income communities of color.
But more than a year before opening arguments began in the Floyd lawsuit, New York City Council members and community advocates were discussing their own policy ideas to address years of corruption in the department.
The result was two pieces of legislation, collectively known as the Community Safety Act, that the City Council began debating last year seeking to curb a range of abuses and address other NYPD policy problems before they escalate to the point of federal intervention.
The first piece would establish an independent inspector general to investigate and review police policy and practice and make non-binding recommendations to the mayor and police commissioner. The second would expand the categories of individuals protected from profiling and make enforceable an anti-profiling law that is already on the books.
Though the federal monitor imposed by Judge Scheindlin’s decision will seek to fix how the NYPD currently employs stop-and-frisk, it is these bills, councilmembers believe, that could have more impact on the long-term health of the department, and make it more accountable to the public.
The City Council voted on the two bills in June. And despite receiving the full endorsement of only one of the top New York City mayoral candidates (Bill de Blasio), and being denounced by Mayor Michael Bloomberg as “dangerous and irresponsible,” the council passed the bills by wide margins.
Their passage into law, however, is by no means assured. Mayor Bloomberg vetoed the legislation in July. And he, along with the city’s largest police union, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, has announced his determination to sway the outcome of a veto override vote scheduled in the City Council this Thursday.
“This is a fight to defend your life and your kids’ lives. You can rest assured that I will not give up for one minute,” Bloomberg said at a June press conference.
Though the margin of the council’s June vote on the bills was wide enough to beat a veto, they could go down to defeat if the anti-profiling bill loses just one vote, or if the inspector-general bill loses eight. But if the current majorities hold, the bills will be signed into law, and it would be the second rebuke in as many weeks of the policing tactics of an administration that prides itself on its crime-fighting prowess.
Despite the life-and-death rhetoric from the mayor, it is these personal stakes that the bills’ backers see as the main reason for the mayor’s increasingly acerbic public comments and outright misinformation on the subject in recent weeks.
“He’s afraid of someone saying ‘not everything you did in policing worked,’” says Councilmember Jumaane Williams, a co-sponsor of the legislation. “A real leader can say, ‘Look, we tried a couple things. They didn’t all work out. And the ones that didn’t work out we tried to fix and work with the community on how to fix it.’ But he just didn’t do that, which caused us to be where we are now.”
Indeed, at a post-verdict press conference last week, the mayor became angry and agitated when asked about the pending legislation. The mayor’s message is clear: any extra departmental oversight will prohibit officers from doing their jobs and innocent civilians and officers will die.
“It’s disappointing the amount of fear-mongering that I’ve seen among the mayor and [Police Commissioner Ray Kelly],” says Williams. “ ’The sky is going to fall. Everything bad is going to happen.’ What they’re saying is that we have to profile in order to continue to do police work, and that’s just not acceptable. Otherwise, why are you worried about a profiling bill that just says you can’t profile?”
Though the anti-profiling bill is most vulnerable to the veto, it’s the one seen as most important by many lawyers because of the allowance that civilians can bring claims of profiling before a state court, and a judge can order binding remedies. It is also the one being most misrepresented by opponents.
A PBA delegate reached by The Nation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the union, said that though he is against profiling, he’s also against the anti-profiling bill because he believes it would penalize individual officers.
Yet according to the bill’s language, officers will not be liable for monetary damages or subject to punishment by the judge.
For his part, Mayor Bloomberg has erroneously stated that the bill would bar officers from using descriptions of age or race when identifying a suspect.
“His staff had to tell him to stop saying that, because it isn’t true,” says Councilmember Brad Lander, a co-sponsor of the legislation. “It’s one thing for the New York Post, or the PBA to be saying this, but the mayor?”
The profiling bill is also one that gives hope to people who’ve been stopped and frisked wrongfully and regularly, like Keeshan Harley, an 18-year-old from Brooklyn who says he’s been stopped by the NYPD nearly 150 times.
“If they stop me without proper cause or without fair reasoning, if it’s just because I’m a young black male in Brooklyn, that’s the reason they stop me, then I have the right to bring them to court,” says the teen.
The fact that the mayor and the commissioner are not even open to a dialogue on the subject or attentive to citizens like Harley has frustrated Lander, who says the two have shown contempt for the City Council for merely doing its job of representing constituents’ concerns.
“And not only has the mayor been dismissive of the council, he’s shown a disregard for common sense,” exemplified, Lander said, when he madecomments on a recent radio talk show that whites (not blacks and Latinos) are the ones who are stopped too much.
Mayor Bloomberg also recently argued that the addition of an inspector general would result in too many layers of oversight. But according to Lander, “Inspectors general are present in every other major police department around the country and every federal law enforcement and intelligence agency. There is no example of an officer being confused about whose orders to follow.” The monitor will be focusing narrowly on stop-and-frisk, Lander said, while the inspector general would be “looking at the full array of programs and policies on the NYPD, including Muslim surveillance, quotas, statistics fixing, etc.”
“The history of law enforcement shows that a longer term legal framework for strong oversight and civil rights protection are what’s needed for effective and constitutional policing,” and that’s what these bills are intended to achieve, he says.
The big vote that will determine many upcoming issues revolving around the NYPD will come next month during the primaries for the next mayor—he or she will choose the next police commissioner, and decide whether to pursue Mayor Bloomberg’s appeal of the federal court’s decision in the Floyd case. And positions on public safety appear to be a priority for prospective voters, as the candidate who has distanced himself most from Mayor Bloomberg’s policies is now a serious contender to be the mayor’s successor: Public Advocate Bill de Blasio.
But in the meantime, this Thursday’s City Council vote on whether to override Bloomberg’s veto of the Community Safety Act bills is the one to watch, because the new mayor, whoever they may be, would be bound by this new legislation.
Racist stereotypes, at their root, come from quite a fundamental learning mechanism. Humans are able to learn and adapt so quickly because they are excellent at making generalisations about the world based on very limited experience. Take dogs, for example – a toddler might reasonably conclude after meeting just two or three that all dogs are furry, bark and have tails that should be treated with some caution.
On the whole, stereotypes are often right – dogs do normally bark and wag their tails. The difficulty arises when this learning mechanism is applied to groups of people. Race is an easy mental category to fit people into because skin colour is a salient visual feature.
Babies are not born believing that any group is better than another but they do attend to race surprisingly early. From about 9-months, babies show a general preference for what is familiar: they are quicker to recognise faces and facial expressions of their own race than of other races.
If we don’t have the opportunity to interact with individuals of a different race then the information we have to inform a racial category has to come from other sources such as the media or people’s opinions. As these can be biased in positive or negative ways, the stereotypes we form can also be biased and inaccurate. Depending how insistent and consistent these secondary sources are, they might even overwhelm our own personal experience.
This effect is compounded by some other low-level, unconscious biases. There is a strong tendency to favour our own group over other groups. It doesn’t really matter how the group is specified: children remember more positive things about members of their in-group and more negative things about members of the out-group, even if group membership is specified by something as superficial and transient as t-shirt colour.
We (as a species) also have a tendency to think of members of the out-group as being all much the same while members of our in-group are all unique snowflakes. This enables us to create coherent categories and make predictions but can also lead to vastly inaccurate and damaging sweeping generalizations.
Young children are particularly sensitive to the use of generics in language to learn about the world as quickly as possible. If you say ‘birds have wings’ they will generalise this information to all expectations of birds in a way that they won’t if you say ‘this bird has wings’. Of course, the same is then true if they hear phrases like ‘Arabs are violent.’
So, it is an embarrassing and oft repeated finding that while the majority of people in Western countries these days are egalitarian believers in a fair meritocracy, on tests of unconscious racial bias about 70% show a preference for their own race. The classic test is the Implicit Association Test, which measures how quickly you are able to categorize photos of members of your own race with positive characteristics (wonderful, glorious) and members of a minority race with negative characteristics (horrible, nasty).
This conflict between people’s dearly held explicit beliefs and their nasty little unconscious racial biases is troubling and has real-world consequences. For example, presented with identical, moderately good resumes attached to a picture of a white or black candidate, interviewers are significantly more likely to shortlist the white candidate for interview. This study was originally conducted in 1989 but the results were exactly the same when it was repeated in 2005.
The Roots of Racism
Explicit (conscious) racial biases start at about 5-years of age but, where they are not supported, tend to peter out from about 10-12 years. This is likely because children become more aware of principles of fairness and social justice that shape how they believe people should be treated. (If racial stereotypes are supported by the people around them then all bets are off. On the whole, garbage in, garbage out.)
Implicit (unconscious) racial biases, however, can develop as young as 3 years of age. Once established in the preschool years they are surprisingly resilient to change. While explicit racial prejudice drops off in most children, implicit racial biases usually remain consistent through to adulthood.
Changing Unconscious Racism
I was particularly taken then with a paper in this month’s Developmental Science, which shows that a very simple intervention can disrupt young children’s unconscious racial biases. Xaio and colleagues at Zheijiang Normal University in China repeated a common measure of implicit racial bias: the ‘angry=outgroup’ test. Here photos of faces were morphed so that it was ambiguous whether they were Chinese or African. Each face was presented twice, once looking angry and once looking happy, and respondents asked to decide what race the face was.
As in previous tests, Chinese adults and children tended to say that the happy faces were Chinese and the angry faces were African. This is the same pattern as for white American children and adults who tend to say that happy faces are white and angry faces are black.
The researchers then introduced a very quick intervention. Four, 5- and 6-year-olds were asked to discriminate between 5 African faces and had to remember what number went with each face before they could proceed to the next step. This task forced children to focus on the individual differences between the faces.
When the angry=outgroup test was repeated, the bias had disappeared. Children were just as likely to say that the angry faces were Chinese as African. This simple intervention seems to have disrupted what was previously considered a very deep rooted and difficult to change bias.
The study raises a lot more questions than it answers. Why does it work? How long do the effects last for? How do changes in implicit biases interact with explicit beliefs and behaviour?
But I like it for two reasons. First, it gets to the root of the issue of racist generalisations by tinkering with simple perceptual categorization. If racial prejudice is just a value judgment laid on top of unconscious perceptual and grouping biases then this seems a sensible level to work at.
I also like its simplicity. Very similar effects have been shown with adults but used hundreds of repetitions during the intervention stage. Xiao’s intervention took no more than 15 minutes yet had significant short-term effects. Such a procedure could easily be adapted to a game or an app that, played regularly, might support longer-term change.
Being aware of implicit racial prejudice is important. We need to know it’s there to guard against it influencing our behaviour and we need to shape society to minimise its effects. For instance, racial information is now excluded from job applications and kept confidential so as not to influence decisions at the shortlisting stage.
But tackling implicit racial bias is important too. Vigilance can only take us so far when battling against unconscious demons. Would you like to see how you fare on the Implicit Association Test? Have a go here but don’t despair if, like 70% of the population, you show an unwanted preference for your own race. Being aware of these biases can make a difference and help may be just around the corner.
This episode of Crash Course in Government and Politics provides a general overview of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. Discussed is the concept that the law should be applied equally to everyone and what this means in terms of our civil rights. As opposed to civil liberties, or our protections from the government, civil rights differ in that they involve how some groups or individuals are permitted to treat other groups or individuals (usually minorities) under existing laws. The video explains the process the Supreme Court follows in racial, ethnic and religious discrimination cases, known as “strict scrutiny,” and examines one landmark case, Brown v Board of Education, and its role in kick-starting the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
The 1960s was a turbulent decade in American history, fraught with political conflicts ranging from racial equality to the war in Vietnam. The Mexican American Civil Rights Movement, one of the least studied social movements of the 1960s, encompassed a broad cross section of issues—from restoration of land grants, to farm workers rights, to enhanced education, to voting and political rights. The video documentary Chicano! History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement, a four-part documentary series, corrects this oversight. Ground-breaking for the material it covers, the series is one of the few to address the history of Mexican Americans in general and that of the Chicano Movement in particular; it is an indispensable resource for scholars and students.
Part 4, “Fighting for Political Power,” discusses the creation of La Raza Unida Party as a third party force for Mexican-American political power which demanded social justice in the Latin American community. It culminates with the Raza Unida convention, the 1972 election and the fragmentation of the party at the height of its membership and recognition.
After America was attacked by Japan at Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 consigning 127,000 people of Japanese ancestry to internment camps. Fred Korematsu challenged the internment all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In “Korematsu v. United States” (1944), the Court sided with the government.
In 1988, Congress passed and President Ronald Reagan signed legislation which apologized for the internment on behalf of the U.S. government. The legislation said that government actions were based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership”. The U.S. government eventually disbursed more than $1.6 billion in reparations to Japanese Americans.
From the award-winning PBS series American Experience comes We Shall Remain, a provocative look at the historical relationship between Native Americans and the United States government. In 1973, American Indian Movement activists and members of the Lakota Indian tribe residing on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota occupied the town of Wounded Knee, demanding the removal of a corrupt tribal council leader and a redress of past grievances. The 71 day stand-off between approximately 200 American Indians and the U.S. Government brought national attention to the institutional assault against the cultural identity of American Indians and the poverty and corruption on Indian reservations. The courageous stand by the activists led to a groundswell of public support allowing thousands of assimilated Indians across the country to reaffirm their cultural pride.
Black In America is a multi-part series of documentaries hosted by reporter Soledad O’Brien on CNN. The series focuses on black culture in America and includes panel discussions on issues facing the black community. The fifth installment in the series, Who is Black in America? focuses on how skin tone and mixed ancestry affect racial identity. This episode questions whether being black is determined by the color of your skin, society’s perception, the dominant culture of your family, or self-identification? Soledad O’Brien follows the story of 2 young Philadelphia poets as they explore their racial identity through workshops conducted by their mentor, Perry “Vision” Divirgilio of Philly Youth Poetry Movement. Scholar Yaba Blay analyzes the influences skin color can have on racial identity and social opportunity.
Having been dormant for decades, the Ku Klux Klan reemerged in the U.S. after the 1954 Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision, gaining momentum in the U.S. as the civil rights movement grew. That the Klan would rise once again wasn’t surprising, but where the reincarnation took place was. North Carolina was long considered the most progressive southern state; its image was being burnished weekly on CBS by the enormously popular “The Andy Griffith Show.” In 1963, North Carolina salesman Bob Jones chartered what would become the largest Klan group in the country, which, under his leadership, grew to some ten thousand members. In the process, the group helped give the Tarheel State a new nickname: “Klansville, U.S.A.”