My friend Antonia was 85 years old when her purse was snatched in Brooklyn. She had a few dollars inside. A senior citizen cell phone. You know. The kind with a green and black screen and no Internet access. Some identification cards. Keys.
The kid who grabbed it was about 13. It was in the afternoon. After school. Broad daylight. She wasn’t hurt.
This is a true story.
The police were very kind and attentive to her. They drove her around in a police car to look at dozens of children who they had pressed up against walls at various locations. Every black male between the ages of 10-20 had been rounded up for her to view from the safety of the police car. None of the kids was wearing the jacket she had described. Many of them looked nothing like the child she had described to the police in terms of height or weight or hair. The only thing they had in common was that they were all young black males. So they “fit the description.”
Antonia thanked the police for all of their time and effort. But she politely told them that they had just angered and traumatized many innocent children.
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I have personally witnessed literally hundreds of stop and frisks over the past two decades. The Giuliani years and the Bloomberg years. In my heavily Latinx neighborhood, day laborers are extremely vulnerable. But so are well-dressed young men heading to a party on a Saturday night. Transfolks are treated with shocking brutality as they migrate between the neighborhood’s gay bars.
But nothing disturbs me more than the children.
It was during the Giuliani years that I witnessed an incident at the 74th St Roosevelt station. It was probably about 3 PM. Kids were taking the train home from school. It wasn’t a random thing, like most of the stops out on Roosevelt Ave after dark. The police were clearly looking for something.
They started pulling children off the trains. 11, 12, 13 years old. Boys and girls. The children were not handcuffed. But the officers dragged most of them to a central area in bowels of the train station while holding their hands behind their backs. They then threw the children on the floor. The dirty floor. Their school backpacks were unceremoniously opened, and the contents were spilled on the ground. School books. Pencils with heart-shaped erasers. Math worksheets were crumpled. As more and more children arrived, the contents of their backpacks became hopelessly intermingled. Dozens more were arrived. They wore jeans, or different colored uniforms from different schools.
I stood and watched. There weren’t cell phone cameras back then. So I just watched. A white woman, in business attire, traveling from a meeting back to my office. One cop told me to “move along.” I rambled something about being a “community advocate witnessing the arrest process.” He said “OK. But you need to stand THERE.”
“Is here OK?” I asked. “No. THERE,” the cop demanded. I took a few steps. “OK. Thank you officer.”
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More kids arrived. Some were weeping. Most of the girls were crying. Some of the boys too.
An elderly woman lunged towards the cops. She was screaming in Spanish that they were just children. Three cops tackled her to the ground. I exercised my white privilege, and just stood there. As three cops dragged the screaming old woman away, another cop came up to me and told me, firmly but politely, to take 5 steps back. I did.
I stood there just under an hour. At a certain point they started directing some of the children to collect their possessions and go. They seemed to select random girls first.
The tear-streaked little girls picked up their backpacks and approached the piles of intermingled school supplies. It was daunting. Literally hundreds of school books and notebooks and pencils and pens in a huge, chaotic pile on the dirty dirty subway station floor. Pads of yellow stickies with names of boys inside of hearts. Hair ties. Trading cards. I saw a couple of feminine hygiene pads in a plastic bag. Some of the girls rummaged through the piles. Some grabbed their backpacks and fled with them empty, without even attempting to locate their possessions. There were certainly worried (or angry) parents and grandparents and siblings a few train stations away, who were waiting for these kids to arrive.
The police never found whatever it was that they were looking for.
The images from that day are forever burned into my memory. It was a long time ago. Fifteen, maybe twenty years. Those kids are adults now. Many certainly have kids of their own. I know that all of them remember that day too.
New York’s stop and frisk policies have been ruled unconstitutional, in addition to being ineffective. (Please read data about the stop and frisk program here: https://justnomore.com/news/a-tale-of-two-joints-what-a-lot-of-white-folks-dont-understand-about-stop-and-frisk/ )
But the damage has been done. Permanent damage on the psyches of the many millions of New Yorkers who were subjected to the practice.
And it will take generations to heal the wounds.
All photos by Bruce Armstrong.