I Got Stopped by a NY Cop—’It’s Always a Good Day When You Can Bag a Sand N—–!’
“Is there a problem, Officer?”
My voice strains with politeness, the tone I might use if I were a sommelier recommending a pinot grigio to a patron at a high-end restaurant. It is a well-practiced voice, one intended to dampen confrontation. Until that encounter, it never occurred to me how deeply problematic it is that some of us must scrutinize our tone and gestures for fear of repercussion when it comes to dealing with authority.
“License and registration. Now!” The cop, Murphy, whose name, badge number, and visage are forever branded into my mind, dispenses with the pleasantries and takes a cursory glance at my identification. I try to press my university ID card into his hand as well.
“What the fuck is this? Your lawyer?”
“No, Officer.” I falter, trying to compose myself. My cousin looks on from the passenger’s side. “It’s where I work. I’m a professor in Connecticut, sir, and I’m just trying to get home to my family.”
“Care where you work?” Murphy grumbles. “Out boozing, were we?”
I shake my head “no,” but he orders me out of the car to perform a field sobriety test. I touch my nose with my pinky, balance on one foot and then the other, then walk the length of the sidewalk heel to toe. During this time, three other police cruisers pull up behind us. New York City, even at this hour, a little before midnight, strums with vibrancy, the air electric with nights out just beginning for some and ending for others. I could see crowds of people out of the corner of my eye, some glancing at us with mild interest, but most oblivious, heading steadfastly to their destination. I go through the paces in the shadow of Herald Square, where the bronze hands of the clock holding Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and warfare, turn too slowly for an eye to follow.
“Look pretty steady on your feet, but I got one more test for you.” Murphy looks slightly bemused, the corner of his mouth wrinkling into a jagged smirk. “The Breathalyzer!”
The whole exchange has begun to irritate me now, but because this is not my first dance, I’m careful not to reveal any displeasure. Still, my inner core burns hot. All of his findings will be invalidated or buttressed by the final test—the one that could have been administered from the beginning to save us from our mutual entertainment on the sidewalks of Manhattan. Though I had drunk two margaritas three hours ago and had been sipping water ever since, the weasels of fear nonetheless begin to gnaw away at the back of my brain. How many drinks does it take to tint the blood past the wrong threshold?
“Do I have a choice? Can I call someone?”
“Yeah, you got a choice.” Murphy gestures forcefully, and I comply. “Either blow, or we haul you down to the station.” I close my eyes and blow.
What happens after that is in some respects a blur, and in other respects etched with a chisel onto the tablet of my mind. Murphy has retreated to the cruisers behind us, and I can see him conferring with one of his partners. A police van has pulled up behind the cruisers. Murphy returns to me with a grin he can barely hide.
“Good news, Professor,” he says, holding out his hand as if to congratulate me, “you passed the Breathalyzer.” He skips an extra beat like a comic onstage. “But there’s bad news too.” The hand which has been extended reaches suddenly for my wrist, twisting it sharply behind my back. “There’s a warrant out for your arrest.” Murphy mashes my cheek against the metal grate of the storefront in front of us, before slapping cold handcuffs on me.
“The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population but nearly 25 percent of the world’s prisoners; more than China, Iran, Russia, and North Korea. ”
“What are you talking about? What did I do? Please!”
My head spins with stars of puzzlement. But my protests land on deaf ears as the gears have been sprung into motion and more officers approach. One barks at me to “stay quiet and walk.” Another blue uniform marches me past the cruisers to the police van, palming my head like a basketball to shove me into the back. Yet another is on his walkie-talkie, buzzing with voices in the static. Murphy, an Irishman with a squat face, someone whose own family might have emigrated to America during the Great Famine, can’t unblink the mixture of joy and disdain from his eyes. His is the face I can call up on demand whenever I want to curdle my blood and smash something.
“Well,” he says, turning to his partner, hocking a stringy loogie out onto the asphalt. “It’s always a good day when you can bag a sand n—-r!” Those are the last words I would hear before the van doors clapped shut. The last time, besides in my dreams, that I would ever see Officer Murphy again.
According to Daniel Bergner in the Atlantic, between 2004 and June 2012, 83 percent of the NYPD’s stop and frisk policy targeted blacks or Hispanics. Under Mayor Bloomberg, those numbers increased exponentially until, in 2010, the police recorded 686,000 stops, out of which only about 12 percent ended in arrest or summons. Donna Lieberman, the head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, has estimated that between 2002 and 2013, “innocent people were subjected to this by-no-means-minor intrusion more than 4.4 million times.” You do the math. My larger question is, what does being stigmatized as a criminal do to someone who is innocent? I can only speak my own answer, but I can’t help but wonder how, in the twenty-first century, this level of blatant racism still occurs in plain sight and what effect it might have on our collective health?
Stop and frisk is not just bigoted; it is sloppy police work. In 1999, after the shooting of the unarmed Amadou Diallo, the New York State Attorney General’s office released a statistical analysis of the reported number of stops perpetuated by the infamous NYPD Street Crime Unit, which was disbanded in 2002. The study showed that the SCU stopped sixteen African Americans for every arrest made. In 2003, and again in 2017, the city settled further class action suits for their racist profiling policies. If it were the NYPD being arraigned, it might be subject to the penalty enhancement of being a persistent offender.
But the larger calculus has more to do with the question of what it does to a statistically significant portion of the American population to be prejudged as criminal a priori, before a member of this population has even done one damn thing, and what effect that might have on larger sociopolitical, interpersonal, and economic conditions. Michelle Alexander lays out the facts in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and some of what she reveals should have us out protesting in the streets.
“How did America, land of the free, become the world’s leader in incarceration, and how did jails become so racialized?”
The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population but nearly 25 percent of the world’s prisoners; more than China, Iran, Russia, and North Korea. There are more black men in prison, on probation, or on parole than there were slaves during the Civil War. From the 1970s to now, there has been an exponential increase in the prison population—much of this explosion due to drug arrests, a figure disproportionately skewed toward African Americans and Hispanic Americans. According to the Sentencing Project report on racial disparities in the United States criminal justice system, which was presented to the United Nations in 2013, “one of every three black American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime.”
That’s the living, breathing legacy of the civil rights movement? One in three?
As James Baldwin put it in a radio conversation with Studs Terkel in 1961, “all you are ever told in this country about being black is that it is a terrible, terrible thing to be. Now, in order to survive this, you have to really dig down into yourself and recreate yourself, really, according to no image which yet exists in America. You have to impose, in fact—this may sound very strange—you have to decide who you are, and force the world to deal with you, not with its idea of you.” How few of us are blessed with Baldwin’s wisdom. I’m not. Far from it. In fact, it’s become clear to me over time that my own reactions, both conscious and impulsive, have been largely foolish and ill-advised. Yet I can no longer pretend that I am not complicit in the prison-industrial complex, having benefitted from its institutional racism for many more decades than I would come to suffer its punishments.
How did America, land of the free, become the world’s leader in incarceration, and how did jails become so racialized? Early Puritanical society banished criminals into the wilderness and meted out sanguinary punishments as public spectacles, where the brandings, maiming, whippings, and executions were meant to be witnessed by the community as deterrents to aberrant behavior. There was no distinction between what was considered criminal and what was deemed sinful, and the law conflated the division between Church and State, considering all acts of deviance the work of the devil. It was not until the Quaker Reformers of the early nineteenth-century, the political left-wing of their time, that jails began to proliferate as a more civilized alternative to the barbarism of an earlier time. The Quakers thought that criminals could be redeemed and transformed through penance, religion, and labor. That early zeal for shaming and punishment never left the scene, but became institutionalized in these isolated, secret, surveilled spaces which the public could not access.
Enter the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which, as documentary filmmaker Ava Duvernay argues, contains within its very language of liberation a justification for what was to come: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
That’s the ultimate get-out clause, a way for the disgruntled former plantation owners in America’s deep South to supplement the abolished institution of slavery with another that would replace the lost free labor. Each convict represented for the State a chance to make money, and so the convict lease system was born, an easy way to help rebuild a war-ravaged economy. Freed slaves could be criminalized under the “black codes,” ambiguous vagrancy or apprentice laws, where out of work men could be arrested, and where blacks needed to obtain a license from whites to practice their trade, else face a fine. The inability to pay this fine would conscript them again into servitude and allow their bodies to be loaned out to other states to work. These practices disenfranchised and denied African Americans equal protection under the law, restricted their movements, and prevented them from owning land or exercising their constitutional right to public education.
It’s no coincidence, then, that the next explosion of the prison population came a century later, right on the heels of the Civil Rights movement. At the end of Jim Crow and segregation, what better way to re-inscribe racist policies but to start a “war on drugs” that disproportionately affected populations of color. Just as the left-wing Quakers of their era exacerbated certain social problems, so too did the “liberal” Democrats of the 1990s. Bill Clinton’s omnibus crime bill of 1994, signed into effect even as he was deregulating the financial industry, increased and further racialized the prison population by introducing such concepts as “super-predators,” “mandatory minimums,” “truth in sentencing,” and the federal “three strikes” policy. This led to the growth of privatized prisons and the notorious 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine users, all of which delivered up more bodies of color for, in the words of Angela Davis, “profitable punishment.” Indeed, in Hillary Clinton’s own words, they had inmates, “African-American men in their thirties,” work as unpaid servants in the Governor’s Mansion in Arkansas in order to “keep down costs.”
“The effect on me was not readily apparent, but, in time, I would discover that a nameless fear had imperceptibly unhinged me. ”
I’m not Black, even though there was little nuance or sophistication in Officer Murphy’s appraisal and arrest of me that evening. For him, dark skin was dark skin. He didn’t need much more than that to pull me over on the flimsiest of pretexts. But, as a matter of fact, as an Asian-American, I am part of the most successful demographic group in America (though even that monolithic notion lumps together communities such as Cambodian-, Laotian-, Bangladeshi-. Nepalese- and Burmese-Americans, who fall well below the median household income of all Americans). Likewise, there’s no question that the racialization and policing of our communities has been vastly different from that of African-American communities. In the past, Asian immigrants have been excluded from gaining entry into the U.S. and becoming citizens. They have even lost their personal property and been sent to internment camps, as Japanese-Americans were during World War II. But that’s vastly different from the history of segregation, police brutality, and systematic discrimination that African-Americans have endured for centuries.
Still, I don’t need to be Black to parse the Supreme Court’s decision in the 1968 case of Terry v. Ohio: “In justifying the particular intrusion, the police officer must be able to point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant that intrusion … good faith on the part of the arresting officer is not enough.” Yet on the police reports made public about stop-and-frisk encounters, NYPD officers needed merely to check a box labeled “furtive movements,” “suspicious bulge,” or one implausibly labeled “other” to justify a frisking.
I’m not Black, but, after that traffic stop, I understood just a tiny bit better what it was like to be so in America.
I sued the city for racial discrimination and police misconduct, winning a modest settlement. But I had been slurred a “sand n—-r” and wrongfully detained on an erroneous warrant in a city I once considered home. The effect on me was not readily apparent, but, in time, I would discover that a nameless fear had imperceptibly unhinged me. The next time I was arrested, I was not guiltless.
From the memoir Correctional by Ravi Shankar, which will be published on Jan. 4, 2022. Reprinted by permission of the University of Wisconsin Press. © by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved.
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