My big brother gave me "the talk" when I was 12 years old.
Only he didn't mention the birds or the bees, and he didn't show me how to put a condom on a cucumber. The talk he gave was different. He was teaching me how to avoid getting shot by the police.
"Always keep your hands in plain sight," he said. "If they ask for ID, tell them which pocket it's in before you reach for it. Avoid sudden motion. Move very, very slowly."
It's troubling that we're compelled to have this conversation with black children like it's a normal part of growing up. But as American history can attest, it's a necessary lesson in self-preservation.
My brother's wisdom was put to the test within two short years. At age 14, I was standing down the block from a video store that had just been robbed. I watched the cops pull up and draw guns on another black kid in the parking lot. They cuffed him and threw him in the back of their prowler.
Then they saw me. One officer hustled up the block in my direction, hand on his holstered weapon. "Hey, you!" he shouted. "Sit the f*ck down."
Butt to the curb, hands deliberately in plain sight, I sat for 15 minutes as the policeman shouted, cursed, and threatened me with jail time if I didn't tell him "the truth" about what had happened here. I was tall for my age, but he terrified me. People with handguns and government backing have a way of doing that.
I repeatedly denied involvement in the robbery, and avoided being taken into custody. When the cop finally left me alone, I recall glancing resentfully at the crowd of (mainly white) people who'd gathered outside the store. Most had witnessed the robbery. None said a word in my defense.
Part of me is willing to attribute this incident to an honest mistake. But the NYPD's notorious "stop and frisk" policies take it to another level.
For years now, these laws have been used to justifty random stops, interrogations, and full-body searches of innocent New Yorkers. Unsurprisingly, between 2002 and 2011, 90% of these were black or Latino. Now that stop and frisk victims are filing lawsuits against the NYPD, it's important to clarify some of the facts:
According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, no research has ever proven the effectiveness of these policies. Guns have been found in less than 0.2% of all stops, while 88% of those searched have been innocent of any crime. In Park Slope (Brooklyn) alone, blacks and Latinos made up 24% of the population, but constituted 79% of all stop and frisks in 2011.
Civil rights attorneys argue that these policies exist in violation of our constitutional rights. Additionally, stop and frisk demonstrates the racial inequalities inherent to NYPD conceptions of suspected criminality.
The truth is undeniable: these measures are invasive, embarrassing, racially biased, and counterproductive. I tell you from personal experience: being treated as a criminal by those who are meant to "protect" you puts you in a tenuous and puzzling social position, especially as a kid.
If the NYPD has any desire to repair it's damaged relationship with black and Latino residents, and New Yorkers in general, it must immediately do away with stop and frisk.
But odds are they won't. That's part of why we don't trust them.