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Take it from an activist who was there: Stop and frisk cost New Yorkers their lives

Bloomberg’s history with the racist policy is more troubling than you know.

stop and frisk rally
Opponents of NYPD’s controversial “stop and frisk” policy rally on January 27, 2012 in the Bronx.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Throw them up against a wall and frisk ‘em.” —Mike Bloomberg

Some people were shocked to hear those comments, which went viral this week, made by the former mayor about how police should treat Black and Brown communities in New York City. But if you were one of the people victimized by the more than 5 million NYPD stops during his time as mayor, you are probably more shocked that Bloomberg is even being considered a contender for president.

Since announcing his presidential run in November, the billionaire has outspent every candidate — $200 million in the first quarter of his campaign — and has peaked as high as fourth in national polling averages. Many outside of New York City who are not familiar with the former mayor might be dazzled with his polished “I can beat Trump” message, in which only another billionaire is enough of a heavyweight to go toe-to-toe with the president. But while his campaign is hoping to drown out the truth about his record and policies with money and ads, the truth keeps coming out anyway.

On Monday, podcaster Benjamin Dixon recirculated a 2015 speech by Bloomberg that was impossible to misinterpret. “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. That’s true in New York, that’s true in virtually every city,” Bloomberg said.

For those of us who suffered this profiling, who watched our family and community members fall victim to relentless harassment — and folks like me who, as a member of the Communities United for Police Reform, have been fighting on the front lines for justice for more than a decade — the audio was a clear reminder of the racism of the Bloomberg administration. And it was a sign that we need to sound the alarm for the rest of the county. We are the canaries in the coal mine, and Bloomberg’s toxic policies must be contained and dismantled.

In New York City, stop, question, and frisk, or “stop and frisk,” is the police practice of detaining, questioning, and searching people throughout the city. According to Bloomberg, the purpose of these stops were to keep communities safe and free from weapons and contraband. However, according to data collected by the New York attorney general, less than 0.1 percent of stops lead to weapons possession, and less than 0.1 percent resulted in a violent crime conviction. During one year of his administration, nearly 700,000 people were stopped by police — with Black and Brown New Yorkers nine times more likely to be stopped than whites. In 2011, there were more stops of Black men 14 to 24 years old than the number of young Black men who lived in New York City, according to census data.

Stop and frisk exploded under Bloomberg, increasing by 600 percent from his first year in office, in 2002, to 2012. As activists and Black people, we knew from experience that police stops were not only a form of racial profiling that cause emotional and psychological trauma, missed school days, and lost jobs — they could also be deadly. Studies show that increased police interaction for Black people means an increased risk of injury or death. The case of Sean Bell, a young man killed by police in a hail of 50 bullets a year into Bloomberg’s second term, remains fresh in our memories.

For a dozen years, no one in the Black community went untouched by Bloomberg’s stop and frisk — there was anxiety, fear, the hyperpolicing of young Black men and women, and the destabilizing disruption of daily life. So, true to our city’s culture, we took action. Activists from more than 60 organizations throughout the city came together as part of Communities United for Police Reform to figure out how to keep our communities healthy and safe. Through a multi-pronged campaign of community organizing, litigation, and legislation, we addressed Bloomberg’s cornerstone policing policy head-on.

Our organizations, which grew to more than 100 at our campaign’s height, were Black, Latinx, Queer, Asian, and Muslim. We were homeless organizations, labor unions, litigation and policy shops. We collected footage, stories, and data to surface the strangling realities of daily life under never-ending police stops. Videos, articles, and murals told our truth. CopWatch patrols and Know Your Rights workshops emerged in neighborhoods all over the city. We came together to win justice for our communities and to end Bloomberg’s racist policing policies and practices.

Yet Boomberg continued to fight us. So we filed a federal class-action lawsuit, Floyd v. the City of New York, to expose stop and frisk as racial profiling and challenge the city’s practices as unconstitutional. For nine weeks, our coalition packed the courtroom. The plaintiffs in Floyd were our friends, family, and fellow organizers, and their experiences represented the realities of millions of New Yorkers. Black and Brown people had disproportionate encounters with the police because of our race. Full stop. The data proved it, and in 2013, a federal judge agreed, ruling stop and frisk unconstitutional.

Still, Bloomberg did not listen. He immediately filed an unsuccessful appeal that delayed progress for more than a year.

For further protections, we introduced and passed the Community Safety Act in the city council in 2013, including a law that prohibited racial profiling and discriminatory policing. Here was another opportunity for former Mayor Bloomberg to take stock and reflect on the realities of millions of New Yorkers and the hundreds of people who packed city hall throughout the campaign. Instead, he vetoed the law, forcing our coalition and city council sponsors to eventually defeat him with a historic veto override.

Apologies must be timely and not opportunistic. The convenience of Bloomberg’s apology in November, right before declaring his presidential campaign — along with his failure to work to stop and repair the ongoing harm — violates every rule of atonement.

We still have a long way to go in New York City to end police brutality, even under a new mayor. But New Yorkers will never forget that for 12 years, Bloomberg escalated, systematized, and defended police racial profiling. He used his outsize resources and the power of his office to throw New Yorkers like me up against a wall, but we fought back. Now, he is using his money to expand his power nationally. And we will not be silent. We will fight back again and again.

Monifa Bandele is a native Brooklynite, sits on the steering committee of Communities United for Police Reform, and is a leader in the Movement for Black Lives. The views in this piece are her own.