A New Era of “Stop & Frisk”: Racist Law Enforcement Mutates Under COVID-19

The concrete jungle of New York City (NYC) has been ravaged by coronavirus (COVID-19), with 17,000 deaths of 24,000 statewide. Although the streets are emptier and schools are closed, for the New York Police Department (NYPD) it is “business as usual,” holding true to their status as an occupying army in working class neighborhoods, with a specialized focus on working people of color. COVID-19 is not alone in suffocating NYC’s working class; the NYPD is COVID-19’s ally, helping to criminalize those not stricken by the disease through the new “stop and frisk” of social distancing enforcement. As this article goes to press, following the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department, the NYPD has shown they are in full brute force mode, making illegal arrests and even breaking batons on demonstrators.

Social distancing enforcement screams racial profiling. Data released by the NYPD showed that of the 374 summons issued for “unlawful gatherings and requiring social distance,” 304 (81%) of those summons went to black and Latino residents. This is in stark contrast to the 51 summons (13.6%) for white residents and 19 summons (3.7%) for Asian residents. The racial disparity and targeting is further highlighted when we take into account that black residents account for 22% of the city’s population in comparison to 32% for whites.

A particularly horrifying incident occurred when a mother was tackled and arrested by NYPD brutes for her failure to wear a mask, all while her child watched. The spectacle forced NYC Mayor and Democrat Bill de Blasio to state on May 15 that NYPD would stop social distancing enforcement. Yet de Blasio was quick to balance this by stating that NYPD officers should still be “part of the equation.” Democratic Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, a 2016 and 2020 Bernie supporter, correctly captured the difference in policing of communities of color: “We see one community getting talked to, if anything at all, and another community getting punched in the face or thrown to the ground.”

Social distancing enforcement mirrors NYC’s ugly history with stop and frisk, which began in the 1990s under Republican Mayor Rudy Guiliani and his then-Police Commissioner William Bratton. Continued under billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in 2011 alone, a shocking 685,724 people were stopped and frisked by the NYPD. 88 percent were innocent of any crime, and 87 percent were either black or Latino (NYCLU). At the time, NYC’s residents were 55% white or Asian. Disgustingly, supposed “progressive” de Blasio re-hired William Brattan as Police Commissioner, although de Blasio began to unwind the expansive use of stop and frisk.

The similar racial enforcement of stop and frisk and social distancing illuminates the story of who is targeted by the police. Mayor Bill de Blasio claims that “saving lives in this pandemic is job one,” and NYPD summons and arrests help do that. Yet this is the delusional thinking of a mayor who has done little to dismantle oppressive policing in working class neighborhoods. When NYPD officers turned their backs on de Blasio in 2014, the mayor was clearly frightened about losing control of his force. Cowed, de Blasio has since then refused to “rock the boat” politically. 

Law enforcement is tied to capitalism, rooted in protecting the profits, power, and prestige of the political and economic establishment. For mainstream corporate politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, it plays a vital role in the consolidation of political power, by shaping societal issues around criminality in our communities, while avoiding the social, health, and economic issues, produced by capitalism, that plague lower-income communities. That is why, in the midst of COVID-19, politicians have been quick to call for the suspension of “peaceful protest.” 

Norman Siegel, former Executive Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and radical civil rights activist made mention of the importance of peaceful protesting, stating his concerns on NYC’s handling of the matter: “Without peaceful protest and the right to free speech, the people who are powerless will not have the vehicle to bring about the kind of change that we have brought about incrementally over the last 75 years in America.” Norman Siegel is spot-on with his concern for our right to organize, protest, and speak out against injustice. However, peaceful protesting on critical matters of race has historically been made impossible by the violent and barbaric responses by those sworn to “protect and serve,” who, in the interest of the ruling elite, are willing to frontally attack peacefully demonstrating working people. We have seen this again throughout the country with George Floyd protests.

Building A Movement Against Law Enforcement Terror

Police tensions in working class communities across the nation have been reaching a boiling point for many years. It is clear among working people that corporate politicians seem to just play political lip service, while we continue to get killed, beaten, and constantly reminded of how disposable we are under a system that values profit above all. We have seen successful social movements emerge across the country against law enforcement terror and policing budgets. A good example is Atlanta’s City Council vote to shut down the Atlanta City Detention Center last year and repurposing money to residents’ social needs. In Philadelphia, organizers with the “Close the Creek” campaign won on the closure of a local correctional facility. After pretrial reforms brought jail populations down in Los Angeles County, social justice organizations successfully blocked the construction of 2 new jails. And in Seattle, where Socialist Alternative City Council Member Kshama Sawant has relentlessly called out police injustice, our movement defeated a proposed $160 million police bunker in 2016, and instead allocated funding to build 1,000 affordable housing units for the working people of Seattle. Clearly when we fight, we win.

In the era of COVID-19 — with 100,000 U.S. dead, and a battered capitalist economy at the threshold of a New Great Depression — we can anticipate an uptick in law enforcement in NYC. The police have a budget of $5.6 billion, an astronomical sum, at the time Mayor de Blasio has decided to cancel summer youth employment opportunities for low-income black and brown youth. As social and economic instabilities grow, police departments here and across the country will continue to obediently use repressive laws to maintain social control of the working class and communities of color and violate our democratic and human rights. 

In the words of Malcolm X, “We are not outnumbered, we are out organized” — and we must be vigilant and organize an all-encompassing working class, multi-racial grassroots movement armed with a political program, which calls for ideas like community control of law enforcement. As the visionary Black Panther Fred Hampton said, “We’re going to fight racism not with racism, we’re going to fight it with solidarity. We say we’re not going to fight capitalism with Black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism.” Working people in our neighborhoods can no longer afford to be mere photo-ops and bodies for Democratic politicians’ press conferences that don’t speak to our need to defeat law enforcement terror and the shock doctrine agenda of Wall Street. We ask that you apply to join Socialist Alternative in the fight for a better tomorrow: a socialist world of racial and economic justice.