Following Judge Robert Mandelbaum's ruling yesterday that all twenty were guilty of disorderly conduct, defendants in the "stop and frisk" trial conveyed to the court that regardless of the decision, they knew that what they did was right.
At trial's end, the diverse group, which included ministers, teachers and professors, and community activists of various ethnic and social backgrounds held an impromptu press conference on the courthouse steps. The group was spirited and united in their commitment to continue the struggle, blending frank discussion with humor--and even song--in a strong display of friendship and solidarity. A supporter in the crowd held up an open copy of the U.S. Constitution throughout.
"It was a political trial," explained Nellie Bailey, defendant and long-time Harlem activist, "not only stop-and-frisk was on trial but most importantly our 1st Amendment rights, our freedom of speech, the right to assemble, and what constitutes 'disorderly conduct' -- whether or not the police can arbitrarily rule from its point of view outside of the legal framework."
Carl Dix, co-initiator along with Cornel West, of the campaign, called it "a very high stakes battle," explaining that it should come as no surprise that such a challenge to the system would not be treated lightly. "We targeted a policy that is pretty fundamental to the way they keep things under control here in New York City, criminalizing Black and Latino youth, treating them like they're guilty until proven innocent--if they can survive to prove their innocence." The silence had to be broken, he said. "We did that on October 21st. We continued. We carried it into the courtroom."
Defendant Reverend Phelps of Riverside Church, reiterated the Ecumenical, or interfaith community's opposition to stop-and-frisk on the basis of its concern for the rule of law. "That extraordinary statement of the 4th Amendment for the right of the people to be secure in their persons, in their bodies, from unreasonable searches shall not be violated. Mostly men, mostly men of color are being violated." He called the fear generated as a result of stop-and-frisk a form of terrorism. The conviction, Rev. Phelps conveyed, was successful in raising the consciousness of many people on this issue, but continuing pressure was still needed.
Social comedian Randy Credico, who on the witness stand had testified that had he been Black, he "would have spent most of the 1980s in prison," drew attention not to his trial but to what he observed in Manhattan Criminal Court: "While we were here all five days, what we saw constantly and what really is depressing is so many Black and Latino young children being escorted in in handcuffs, on minor pot charges, traffic violations, whatever, all small crimes, being escorted in by stop-and-frisk units." He expressed outrage over the fact that time and again, the public is presented with evidence that NYPD officers themselves are breaking the law, and yet they are rarely held accountable, even in cases of murder.
For John Hector, a young Black navy veteran, experience with stop-and-frisk is deeply personal: "I'm speaking for all those Black and Latino men out there who get stopped and frisked everyday and can say nothing about it," he stated. "I'm a Navy veteran. I know that's supposed to be held in high regard in this society, but obviously, if you're a Black U.S. Navy veteran, it's held to no regard in this society. ... We need to do something to change this whole situation because it's an outrage."
Seeing young boys on the train and knowing that they're going to have to face the same kind of police terror that he continues to face disturbed him deeply, he said. "I could go home right now and get stopped and frisked on my way home, coming from a case about stop-and-frisk!" He spoke as well about the reality that Black men like himself are being shot and killed by the police, but don't get convicted. He ended by echoing defendant Dr. Cornel West's description of his own conviction as a "good" guilty. "If you want to say I'm 'guilty' for stepping up for justice, yes I am," drawing strong approval from the crowd.
In contrast to others, some of whom had decades of experience with political activism, defendant Jose LaSalle said he had never engaged in political protest until the October 21st rally. What drew him, he said, was his desire "to get a photograph of himself with Cornel West." He explained that he didn't know stop-and-frisk had a name; it seemed normal to him, a part of his culture. "It was something that a Puerto Rican kid, living here in New York City, in East Harlem would have to go through. Something that was supposed to happen. I had no idea that I could stand up against something like this." Now, though, there is no place he won't go to continue to fight for justice.
This article originally appeared on StopMassIncarceration.org on May 5, 2012.