Ongoing collection of photos, film, digital art and essays about the lives and communities enmeshed in the New Jim Crow: mass incarceration, and those fighting against it.
Meet the New Freedom Fighters
Defense Exhibits 1-19
On April 30th, I was part of the largest political trial in decades. We are a diverse group of 20 individuals found guilty of disorderly conduct--for blocking the doors of the 28th precinct in protest of the NYPD’s Stop and Frisk policy last October. But our message didn’t stop once we were arrested--our testimonies were a continuation of what took place on October 21st: people of all walks and backgrounds joining in to condemn the Stop and Frisk policy as immoral, unconstitutional and racist. We defended the actions we took on October 21st to sound the alarm—to send a powerful message to the community and police that this practice can no longer continue with a symbolic shutdown of the precinct. From April 30th to May 4th, 2012, while facing criminal charges of disorderly conduct, or acting to cause others inconvenience, annoyance or alarm, we put the Stop and Frisk policy on trial.
The defendants were a kaleidoscope of ages, professions, ethnicities, and perspectives whose diversity itself was testament to the pervasiveness of the issue of Stop & Frisk throughout society. Five rows deep, it was a cross section of New York that looked more like the uptown express train: teachers, activists, ministers, college students, and artists. East Harlem residents who have grown up with it as ‘a part of their culture’ joining in with students from the Upper East Side who have never seen it in their neighborhood, but who could not stand by idly while it is done in their name. Black mothers in Harlem shared how they have to teach sons about how to interact with the police; while mothers of NYPD officers spoke bitterness about how their family members hate the position this policy places them in. Each time a defendant took the stand, they struck a terminal blow to the legitimacy of the entire set up, with eruptions of laughter or chilling silence in their wake The atmosphere was one of celebration: During testimony the defendants shot up spirit fingers, smiled, and snapped. After taking the stand, defendants congratulated one another with hi-fives and solemn embraces. The sheer range of perspectives and detail presented by the defense rendered the prosecution's claims of "inconvenience, annoyance and alarm" one-dimensional and contrived.
In broad strokes, our testimonies painted the picture of a group of individuals ringing the alarm in an emergency situation that must not be allowed to continue. Stop & Frisk is the pipeline for a prison system that houses 2.4 million mostly black and latino youth who are broadly subject to brutality and harassment, branded guilty before proven innocent, if they can make it far enough in the system to prove their innocence. This is a system that now presents mass incarceration, and the genocidal logic that pervades it, as the New Jim Crow--the ultimate answer to a population of black and latino youth starved of resources and broadly criminalized. This isn’t just bad policing or the infringement of basic rights –it’s the feeding valve for a program headed in a genocidal trajectory that must urgently be stopped.
So in the end we were found guilty—but of what? The trial itself was a major political victory: despite attempts to neutralize it, it was widely reported as the largest political trial in decades. It was a transformative experience for all those involved, from the day we stepped out to become Freedom Fighters on October 21st to the trial: even the court officers, who first snarled at us, threw our supporters out of the courtroom, ended up addressing us by our names. A young lawyer, Bobby Constantino, even conducted civil disobedience in protest of the verdict inside of the courtroom and refused to leave. Since the actions taken last October, the level of mass resistance to this policy has dramatically risen: you can hardly turn on the news or open up the paper without hearing about the Stop & Frisk policy. Politicians are lining up left and right to defend, reform, limit, or scale back this fundamentally backward approach to policing.
If we are guilty of anything, then it is standing up to ignite a sparkplug of resistance against this policy—and that is a guilt I don’t intend on relinquishing.
On Facing Prison for Protesting Stop & Frisk
Beginning Tuesday October 23, I will be on trial along with Carl Dix, who, with Cornel West, initiated the 2011 campaign of nonviolent protest to stop Stop-and-Frisk. We are facing up to a year in jail for non-violent protest at the NYPD 103rd precinct in Jamaica, Queens last year.
The stakes are undoubtedly high: this is the second stop-and-frisk protest mass trial resulting from the culminating action of the civil disobedience campaign that sparked citywide resistance to the policy. The Queens District Attorney added a serious misdemeanor charge on us last month, and re-wrote our charges last week so that we're charged with 'acting in concert' rather than as individuals.
The action last November was the third such protest at New York City precincts with the most stop-and-frisks, this one taking place in the borough of Queens. We held a community rally and march through Jamaica, Queens, which ended at the 103rd Precinct. As our march arrived at the precinct, it was completely barricaded on all sides -- on lock-down in anticipation of the protest. After just minutes of chanting and singing outside of the precinct steps, 20 of us were arrested, quite quickly, but held for hours late into the next day. For less than ten minutes of protesting stop-and-frisk outside of the doors 103rd precinct, which houses the NYPD officers who put fifty shots into Sean Bell, three co-defendants and I now find ourselves facing up to a year of jail time.
If anyone think this is just an empty threat, and they won't convict or send us to jail, let me reiterate -- the DA has twice bumped up the charges in the last month, and has made it very clear that the prosecutorial apparatus intends to place us behind bars. A year ago, those who had no first-hand experience of the humiliation of being illegally searched barely knew the practice occurred. Those who got stopped and frisked thought there was nothing one could do about it. Now, the stop-and-frisk policy and the horrors it inflicts are going viral in mainstream society. Copwatch and videos of NYPD stops garner thousands of views, and nearly every day there are articles or opinion pieces about stop-and-frisk. Potential mayoral candidates have even had to confront this, as politicians line up to claim their opposition to the policy, or express their desire to reform or modify it in the ongoing pursuit of public opinion.
In this watershed moment, when stop-and-frisk is opening a window into the daily plight of thousands, the very people who put their bodies on the line to put this issue into the spotlight and openly call out for its abolition are vigorously prosecuted and threatened with incarceration. I refuse to accept this. It's unthinkable that the Queens District Attorney, who couldn't make a case against the cops who murdered Sean Bell, is now throwing the book at nonviolent civil disobedience protesters. In this light, the intended effect of this prosecution is insidiously transparent: to send a chilling effect through the movement against mass incarceration, and dampen the spirit of resistance it has ignited. To put it quite simply: don't speak up, and certainly don't fight back.
Well, I'm speaking up. And not just as someone who is passionate about the issue. I speak as a target of police abuse, as a Fulbright Scholar whose scholarship was almost denied after being assaulted by Boston police while trying to leave a party. I speak to you as an artist and teacher whose work in New York City public schools has me witness the humiliation and degradation of the youth by the NYPD on a daily basis. I speak to you as a committed opponent of the New Jim Crow, a system of mass incarceration that has 2.4 million mostly black and Latino men warehoused in prisons across the nation, with stop-and-frisk as a major pipeline into that system.
Most of all, I speak to you as someone who has cast their lot with those at the bottom of society: with those thousands of youth who are brutalized, targeted, harassed, and shuffled off behind bars -- and is now facing years in prison for standing with them.
We fully intend to stop this railroading by bringing the political battle into the courtroom and putting Stop and Frisk on trial. If we are allowed to be convicted and jailed without a massive fight, then the battle against stop-and-frisk and the spirit of resistance it has engendered will be seriously dampened. On the other hand, if people stand with us in this legal battle -- if we meet and defeat their attempts to silence and punish us -- then the movement will gain further initiative and pull many more people into the struggle against mass incarceration.
This week, I am calling on you to stand with us. The fate of this policy and those thousands of youth crushed underfoot is bound up within this case, and cases like these. Join us at court in Queens and pack the courtroom, call in the DA's office and demand they drop the charges -- speak up and fight back.
Freedom Fighting is Not a Joke
I have spent the last few weeks on trial facing charges amounting up to a year in prison for protesting the NYPD's Stop and Frisk policy at the 103rd precinct in Jamaica, Queens last November. After enduring delays from Hurricane Sandy, a subway shutdown, a snowstorm, and the presidential election, we were ultimately found not guilty on the two misdemeanor counts of Obstruction of Government Administration, which carried a one year sentence each, but were found guilty of disorderly conduct. Now in the ironic position of being convicted on the violation of disorderly conduct for orderly, nonviolent protest, and possibly being sentenced to community service, for serving the community--I find myself reflecting on the absurdity of this month-long trial, and the enormous expenditure of resources devoted to our prosecution.
Assistant District Attorney Michael Vanunu somehwat mirrored this sentiment during his closing arguments. Pointing to us no less than a dozen times during his summation, he concluded: ''and look at the behavior of these defendants and their attorneys during trial, these four defendants treated the entire thing as nothing less than one big joke!''
I don't blame him: the proceedings of the trial were characterized by irony and controversy: after the fist few days of trial, a juror was questioned after wanting to wear 'her Obama shirt' which a court officer thought indicated she might be sympathetic with our protest. After the next appearance, that same juror was arrested and detained by courthouse officers after refusing to sign a returned property slip for an empty Ziploc bag that didn't contain her items. We spent the next day in court re-interrogating the entire panel, to find out how much they known, and to what degree they had heard about the conditions of her arrest. Another juror was removed because she admitted, it would be in the back of her mind while she deliberated the facts on this case. Now down to no alternate jurors, the prosecution, who had utterly failed at proving their case at that point, aggressively moved for a mistrial, in order to drag us through the entire ordeal again. After a sudden snowstorm, a juror couldn't appear because her son's school lacked heat, and she couldn't find childcare, extending the trial into its fourth week. We weathered through a hurricane, an MTA shutdown, a nor'easter, the frenzy of election season, and several attempts at mistrial; at certain points we didn't know how long the proceedings would go for, or what to expect when we walked in the courtroom that morning.
There was certainly a joke here, but it wasn't at the expense of the the defendants. The Queens DA's office threatened us with jail time for nonviolently protesting a policy that now everyone knows is illegitimate, illegal, unjust, and does immense harm to communities of color, while we risked arrest and bodily harm to bring it into focus. The same District Attorney's office who couldn't find a case against the police murder of Sean Bell assigned two neophyte prosecutors who lack even the expectation that they will have to offer any proof; and are coached along by the judge and assistant DA's to help further along their careers in incarceration, while I put my career in education at risk. Throughout a hurricane and unprecedented subway shutdown, our prosecution remained a priority; the courts devotes public resources to prosecute us an entire month for a nonviolent protest that took all of six minutes, all the while completely lacking any evidence that any wrongdoing occurred. We beat their charges back, and now, they seek to sentence us to community service-for actions we took in the most dire interests of the community-and we are the joke?
Stop and Frisk and the scourge of mass incarceration is not a joke-it is gravely serious. Freedom Fighting is not a hobby, a pet project, or a cause du jour, it is a moral obligation to bring an end the current racial caste system in the United States, The New Jim Crow. What brought us to trial these past few weeks, wasn't simply defending our right to protest--but acting with urgency to stop the continuous assault on black and brown youth. It would be inaccurate to describe the Black Liberation Movement of the 1960's by saying: "That was just was a certain section of people who were passionate about expressing their right to protest." The Freedom Fighters against the old Jim Crow, those who conducted the freedom rides and sit-ins, acted not only out of passion, but out of moral compulsion to challenge policy as a way of bringing an end an entire system of state-sanctioned racial oppression. Their actions, considered 'disorderly' by some, were highly organized and did not seek to inconvenience, annoy or alarm the public, but rather, to sound the the alarm that a severe injustice was taking place--and this is very serious business.
Now, we face a situation categorically worse--where now millions of youth have stories of living under the New Jim Crow, and thousands of black and latino communities that bear the scars of a system of mass incarceration whose effects are tantamount to a slow genocide. Two and a half million people languish behind bars, and are officially denied housing and voting rights after they've served their time, while hundreds of thousands are fed into this system through illegal stops and searches--and it goes on with the tacit support the general public. Yes, The terrain is beginning to shift around this deeply rooted social contradiction, but precisely because we spoke up against, and fomented resistance to, a conscious policy that concentrates a leading edge of the New Jim Crow, right at the doorstep of the NYPD. In the court's vigorous prosecution of us, they intended to send a message: if you raise your grievances with this policy, and dare to make a concerted effort to oppose it, we will put you in jail. In fighting these charges--and beating their attempts to imprison us--we can send the opposite message--that you can fight against injustice and beat it back, and win.
Together, we have won this legal battle, but we must work together give it meaning. Now is the time to carry forward this victory and draw others into the fight to continue exposing the horrors of Stop-and Frisk-and mass incarceration to those who do not yet know about it, and give renewed courage and conviction to those thousands of youth it affects.