Dealing with Authority When You Have No Authority: A Brush with Stop-and-Frisk

November 18, 2013

Composer and sound artist Matana Roberts shares her brush with the New York police tactic known as “stop-and-frisk,” which civil rights advocates have denounced as a form of racial profiling.

CODE (2013), a short film directed by Laura Hanna, featuring the image and voice of sound artist Matana Roberts.
Music: Matana Roberts, “vanhorne park midnight.”

From the Editors:

As the composer, saxophone player and sound artist Matana Roberts walked across the Williamsburg Bridge one night in May, she asked herself a familiar question: “How am I going to survive as an artist in this town?” It was too enchanting an evening for her concern to spiral into despair. Roberts looked at a wall lined with graffiti tags and told herself, “Don’t worry about that, Matana, it’s a beautiful night, and you live in New York City!” Her thoughts were abruptly interrupted as she felt her body pushed up against a fence and a police officer grabbed her bag.

Frightened, Roberts initially told the officer that he was harassing her, but soon found herself thanking him for doing his job. She immediately regretted her polite words, a tried-and-true strategy of “dealing with authority when you have no authority” that pointed to a long legacy of racial and gender discrimination, as she later told artist Laura Hanna.

Roberts’s encounter with the New York Police Department (NYPD) represents one of millions of police stops over the last decade, close to 90 percent of which have targeted New York’s black and Latino residents. Stop-and-frisk, a tactic ostensibly aimed at halting violent crime before it happens by confiscating illegal weapons, has soared by more than 600 percent since Mayor Bloomberg and the current police commissioner, Ray Kelly, came to power and expanded the practice in 2002. During their tenure, 88 percent of people stopped were innocent of any crime. These figures have led a wide range of civil rights advocates and politicians to label the police searches ineffective and racially discriminatory.

New York City mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, who defeated his Republican opponent by a landslide 49-point margin, campaigned on a promise to restrain the NYPD’s use of stop-and-frisk and replace Commissioner Kelly, at the same time as the practice came under fire in city courts. In August, U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin ruled that stop-and-frisk amounted to a “policy of indirect racial profiling” and called for the NYPD to institute reforms that would be overseen by a federal monitor. But in a controversial move, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit decided last month that Judge Scheindlin had “compromised the appearance of impartiality” by addressing stop-and-frisk publicly while the case was pending.

As the Bloomberg administration pushes for a permanent reversal of Scheindlin’s decision, stop-and-frisk is suspended in a state of legal limbo. The task of dropping the city’s appeal will fall to de Blasio, who must use his mandate to select a commissioner to replace Ray Kelly and press for reform.