Dear America,

I was stopped and frisked in Bloomberg’s New York. I’d just stepped out for a slice of pizza. I was walking back into my apartment building on Bainbridge Avenue in the Bronx. Two beefy dudes in gray hoodies slipped in behind me, thrusting their bodies through the crack in the door.

The last time that had happened, I was thrown in a headlock and relieved of all the money in my wallet.

But these guys were flashing badges. “We’re only keeping the neighborhood safe,” they promised. I didn’t feel safe as they groped every inch of my waistband, searching my bare thighs for contraband. Their clammy thumbs and the stairwell’s wintry draft sure had me wishing I’d worn underpants that day.

They asked if I’d ever been arrested. I asked if they remembered the 2004 Republican Convention.

~

I was one of 1,806 protesters arrested, back when Mayor Bloomberg played ass-kissing host to George W. Bush. “Don’t forget that the war started not very many blocks from here,” he brandished the memory of 9/11 to give his party a well-timed bump in the polls.

I was 17 years old. I spent 41 hours in custody. We slept on oil-slick concrete floors at Pier 57, a defunct bus depot that became known overnight as “Guantanamo on the Hudson.” From there, we were transferred to central booking, whose edifice has boasted an even more ominous nickname dating back before the Civil War: “The Tombs.” Legally, the city was required to charge or release everyone arrested within 24 hours. They held us much longer, allegedly to keep us from joining another protest.

I was imprecise when I wrote that 1,806 “protesters” were arrested. The police also swept up quite a few journalists, legal observers, and uninvolved bystanders. Just imagine dolphins getting tangled up in the tuna fish nets. In jail, a deli employee told his story. He had been toting $200 worth of gourmet food when he saw the police dispersing a crowd. He asked an officer how he should proceed. He heard the officer conferring with a colleague. “Get him. He’s got food.” They were pulling double and triple shifts to process all the arrests. No time to stop for donuts; they ate what they confiscated.

We weren’t the only ones who spent the night inside a dungeon. I had some friends who were working as dominatrixes at the time. They were pleased to report that business was never better than when the warmongering religious-right came to town.

~

New Yorkers were stopped and frisked more than five million times when Bloomberg was mayor. In 2011, black men between the ages of 14 and 24 were stopped 168,126 times, even though only 158,406 black men of that age lived in the city. That means the average young black man was stopped at least once that year. Perhaps not at all if you lived in a white neighborhood. Perhaps constantly if you lived in a targeted neighborhood. My downstairs neighbors in Bed-Stuy liked to say they couldn’t go out for groceries without getting felt up.

That’s what makes my case unusual: I’m white, and only 10 percent of people frisked were white.

As mayor, Bloomberg’s motto was “In God we trust. Everyone else, bring data.” And yet, when he defended stop-and-frisk at the Aspen Institute in 2015 (two years after the practice was declared unconstitutional), he claimed, “Ninety-five percent of your murders—murderers and murder victims—fit one M.O. You can just take the description, Xerox it, and pass it out to all the cops. They are male, minorities, 16 to 25.” This statistic has no relation to any existing data or reality. The only God he truly trusted was his own bias. And that was the God who meted out justice when Bloomberg was mayor.

~

As long as we’re profiling here, why not Xerox my white face, my tie-dyed t-shirt, my pungent odor and ass-length hair, and fax it to every precinct in the city: This dude smokes reefer!

That would never happen. Even a smelly hippie has rights a white man is bound to respect. When those plainclothes officers asked me for ID, they were in for a surprise. Even more of a surprise than when they exposed my lacking undergarments. “Wait. You go to Columbia University?”

Now all of us were uncomfortable. They weren’t just testing some scroungy kid’s white privilege, but a whole buttload of class privilege, too.

“What are you doing in this neighborhood?” He sounded upset, like I had played a trick on him.

“I live on the fifth floor,” I retorted with a patronizing, Captain Obvious tone. After all, this was Bloomberg’s New York. Where else was I going to find rent under $500?

They tried to part on friendly terms. “That good pizza? Where you get it?”

Of course it was good pizza. Bloomberg hadn’t managed to ruin that about my city. But by now the cheese was frigid. I walked up the five flights. My roommate had just called her dealer. “The streets are hot,” I warned her. “Call him back and tell him to stay home.”

~

I can’t be the one to tell you about the psychic effects of stop and frisk policy. How it breaks your mind, like a brick through a window, when the city you live in decides you are dangerous. When your own damn mayor sics a blue army on your ass, then handles your body like it’s a grenade.

Once, my mother parked outside my building on Bainbridge Avenue. Cops were throwing kids against cars and spreading their legs. She was shocked, shocked, even after 30 years living in New York, to see unassuming pedestrians treated that way. Because white people were never meant to see how our comfort depends on black trauma. How we teach black men from an early age that the world sees them as criminals, and their own damn mayor thinks they’re criminal, too. But that prick of a mayor, he’s sorry now, and he’s asking for their vote.

A week before Michael Bloomberg announced he was running for president, he took to the pulpit of a black church in Brooklyn and expressed contrition for stop and frisk. He later referred to its “unintended pain.” “Unintended” is a devious, weaselly word, the kind of word that would escape the mouth of a billionaire who’s never actually had to apologize for anything.

A decade after the 2004 Republican Convention, the mostly-white arrestees won an $18 million class action lawsuit, the largest protest settlement in history. Without a doubt, the police abused their power that week. But what about the people they abused every day for 12 years? They get nothing but a belated, disingenuous, and self-serving apology.

Individual RNC arrestees were awarded up to $6,000 in cash. Multiply that by five million stops, and you get half of Bloomberg’s net worth. Talk, as they say, is cheap.

~

I just got a tooth pulled. A pesky molar that three separate dentists told me had to go. It only took a minute of yanking, but during a good chunk of that minute, a Bloomberg for President advertisement played on the dentist’s television. (A statistically probable occurrence given how much money he’s dumped on those ads). I couldn’t look away, because a pair of dental pliers was clamped on my tooth. So I will forever associate his ad with the sound—like snapping twigs—that echoed in the center of my skull while the root of my molar was being ripped out of its socket. Unfortunately, novocaine doesn’t numb the seething apoplectic rage that results from living through 12 years of his mayoralty.

Painfully Yours,

Richard

 

 

Richard PrinsRichard Prins is a New Yorker who received his MFA degree in poetry from New York University. His work appears in publications like Gulf Coast, jubilat, Ploughshares, Rattle, and Witness, and has been listed as a “Notable Essay” in Best American Essays 2014.
 
Read other Letters to America in Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy, published by Terrain.org and Trinity University Press.
 
Read “Teach Me How to Fight,” an essay by Richard Prins appearing in Terrain.org.

Header photo by Mihai_Andritoiu, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Richard Prins by Isha Racho.

 

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