Sunday, December 18, 2011

NYT Editorial: Police Harassment Through the Eyes of a Young Black Man (updated)

In their Sunday edition today, the New York Times published an op-ed written by 23 year-old Nicholas K. Peart who is a student at Borough of Manhattan Community College.

When I was 14, my mother told me not to panic if a police officer stopped me. And she cautioned me to carry ID and never run away from the police or I could be shot. In the nine years since my mother gave me this advice, I have had numerous occasions to consider her wisdom.

Peart goes on to describe 4 different incidents when he's been harassed by law enforcement for no reason. It takes a toll.

These experiences changed the way I felt about the police. After the third incident I worried when police cars drove by; I was afraid I would be stopped and searched or that something worse would happen. I dress better if I go downtown. I don’t hang out with friends outside my neighborhood in Harlem as much as I used to. Essentially, I incorporated into my daily life the sense that I might find myself up against a wall or on the ground with an officer’s gun at my head. For a black man in his 20s like me, it’s just a fact of life in New York...

We need change. When I was young I thought cops were cool. They had a respectable and honorable job to keep people safe and fight crime. Now, I think their tactics are unfair and they abuse their authority. The police should consider the consequences of a generation of young people who want nothing to do with them — distrust, alienation and more crime...

For young people in my neighborhood, getting stopped and frisked is a rite of passage. We expect the police to jump us at any moment. We know the rules: don’t run and don’t try to explain, because speaking up for yourself might get you arrested or worse. And we all feel the same way — degraded, harassed, violated and criminalized because we’re black or Latino. Have I been stopped more than the average young black person? I don’t know, but I look like a zillion other people on the street. And we’re all just trying to live our lives.

As a middle-aged white woman I can say that this is something I've never experienced. So my choice is to either ignore what Peart is saying, assume he's exaggerating, or take a minute to think about what its like to grow up like that. How might my world view be different if I had shared this experience (hint: attempting to do that is what we call empathy). Until folks like me take just a minute to try and walk in those shoes, we'll never understand the meaning of racism in our culture today. As far as I can see, its this kind of thing - and the results - that are the crux of the problem.

Based on my experience of talking to young black men, Peart's experience is not unique to him or to NYC. I suspect that most African American readers will see this article and say "So yeah, what's new?" How I see it, this editorial wasn't written for them. It was written (and published) for folks like me. We need to know that this is a fact of life in this country for young black men like Peart. So thanks to him for writing it and to the NYT for giving the words of a 23 year-old student such prominence on your pages. Perhaps a few more people like me will start to understand.

UPDATE: Young men like Peart and Dahlak are trying to tell us something...perhaps its time we listened.


  1. Hi Smartypants...this is on the minds of a lot of people today. I blogged it as well...I quipped...Will Gene Marks post a blog titled, "If I Was a Racially Profiled Black or Latino Guy, I Would Google the Constitution."

  2. I just finished reading your post on this. I'm really glad its getting some attention! And yes, this is the PERFECT retort to Mr. Marks' inanity.

  3. Wow...that is a great update. I'm going to share to FB!

  4. The video brought tears to my eyes! The truth was profound! With 8 g/sons (one is student in Tx!) each living this experience on a daily basis. I caution them: be careful, never run, dont talk back, dont have any kind of threatening demeanor and maybe, just maybe they wont hurt you.

    What a terrible truth America can not, will not face! As PBO said "if I try to get a cab, I am just a Black man, not a Harvard trained lawyer!"

    American of every color, ethnicity, gender, etc. we have so much work to do!

    SP thank you so much for your consciousness!

  5. My husband and I were talking about this day before yesterday when I mentioned that on the NJ turnpike we used to see a lot of Latinos and black pulled over with their hands up in the air or on top of the cops’ cars. That for the most is not seen anymore and that is because the cops shot two young black men that were on their way to try out for some sports team in NC or SC (don’t remember the details of the sports part). We still however see it happening in the streets and it is upsetting to see whole families being harassed by authorities that supposed to be there to protect us from harm of any kind.

    About 15-20 years ago, I was speeding on the NJ Turnpike for some strange reason that they there was no traffic and this middle-age guy and I (he in his car and I in mine) were just enjoying the freedom of no traffic going north! So this cop tells me to pullover and there I was calculating how much the ticket was going to be and the car insurance going up then the point on my license. Well the other person decided that he was not going to have any of that and off he drove and the cop after him and me after them!!! Why would I want to go after them you may ask? I am brown and for sure was not going to take a chance of being screwed buy the cop for ignoring him. The guy finally stopped and I behind the cop. The cop dealt with the white guy and then come to me and before he asked me anything I apologized for chasing them and told him that he had told me to stop and did not want to have problems with the law. The cop looked confused but went ahead and asked questions but I mislead him by insinuating that I worked for the turnpike, not intentionally, my English back then was worse than now so he gave me a written warning and off to work I went after chasing a bad guy and a cop. Amen!

    (sorry for the anonymous thing, my wordpress is not taking)
    I am Mariza.

  6. Anyone who thinks that racial profiling of any form is justifiable should listen to that young man's poem.

  7. As a middle aged white guy who grew up in, and has always lived in one large city or another ... I know that this is all true. I know that people of color, especially black people, NEVER seem to get the benefit of the doubt and almost ALWAYS seem get the short end of the stick. I've grown up and lived my whole life watching it happen and so have countless other white people just like myself.
    We know it happens and we know it's wrong.

    But, here's the main point I want to make. We know it ... we don't like it ... we know it's wrong ... we want to have empathy and we wish things were different. Maybe if we keep working, someday we can make this country a different place. But meanwhile as white people, we can NEVER pretend to know what it feels like to have to live that way.

    So although we'd like to, we actually just can't feel the same feelings as the people who suffer this. It's just not possible for us because we're automatically excused from it whether we want to be or not.


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