Last week, President Obama gave his first hint on a potential replacement for outgoing Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who’s leaving after three years to head the University of California system.
Also last week, George Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder charges against Trayvon Martin, in a hotly contested case that exemplified the atrocities that can result from racial profiling. Our president chimed in after the verdict, not contesting it but stating quite blatantly that 35 years ago “Trayvon could’ve been me.”
So when Obama suggested New York Police Department Commissioner Ray Kelly is “very well qualified for the [Secretary of Homeland Security] job,” and that if he’s interested in heading the DHS, “I'd want to know about it,” the reaction was head scratching. Why would our president, who in campaigning alleged that he would criminalize racial profiling on a federal level, seemingly offer up Napolitano’s still-warm seat to the ringleader of the largest police racial-profiling operation in the country?
Some necessary back story: The NYPD stops (and subsequently frisks) thousands of New Yorkers, mostly black and Latino men, for reasons as weak as not dressing appropriately for the weather, and for subjective “furtive movements.” The number of people stopped and frisked since 2002 has increased by 448%, but nine out of 10 people stopped were innocent — neither arrested nor ticketed.
Additionally, Kelly started up the NYPD’s “Demographics Unit” whose sole purpose is to spy on Muslims across the Eastern Seaboard — everything from rafting trips to university student groups. The unit’s work has not garnered a single lead, meaning they’re eons away from ever opening a case.
Now, this is where I could go on to point out how Kelly is a racist, or how hypocritical this makes Obama look, but there are plenty of other websites happy to do that. What I see with this theoretical appointment is that the government’s priorities have shifted. Federal safety, not civil liberties, has now become the American way.
A slew of politicians have praised Kelly as a top candidate for the job, with no mention of stop and frisk. It seems that they’re happy to overlook the program’s absolute failure and intrusiveness because they see he’s experienced in a wide array of issues — natural disasters, huge populations — that anyone heading the NSA would undoubtedly have to face. Perhaps they also see a hardworking New Yorker whose gritty attitude and intense tactics would strike down the terrorists.
There’s validity in this theory. But when security becomes policing, and the greater good for the country involves supremely violating a person’s privacy, something has obviously gone askew. America was founded on the ideas of personal liberty and sovereignty, and a multitude of constitutional amendments added throughout time solidify those core values. And if our president is seriously considering promoting someone who continually (though perhaps inadvertently) harms innocent Americans to a position whose job responsibilities involve protecting all of America, this constitutional scripture essentially means nothing.
The question is not whether Kelly’s a racist or even if New York’s stop and frisk program is legal, it’s whether or not our government cares enough about its own citizens to protect them above protecting the country as a whole. And the answer, as of now, is no.