Melissa Harris Perry
updated 3/17/2013 1:47:54 AM ET 2013-03-17T05:47:54

Why does protecting African American communities always seem to require members of those communities to surrender their civil rights?

Last Saturday at 11:30 p.m. in Brooklyn, New York, 16-year old Kimani Gray was shot seven times by two plainclothes NYPD officers. The details of the deadly altercation seem to come from a template: The police claim Gray had a weapon, while an eyewitness says the teen was definitely unarmed. Accounts of the killing varied widely, and the medical examiner’s report concluded that three shots hit Gray in the back but could not determine whether he was shot in the back before or after the other four bullets hit him.

Gray’s family, friends, and hundreds of others have taken to the streets throughout the past week for vigils, marches, and protests, some of which escalated into confrontations with police and resulted in dozens of arrests. Tensions in the Brooklyn neighborhood of East Flatbush remain high, and conversations have begun about what to do with the anger felt by other young people in the community. Police allegations that Gray had a gun and his reported gang membership could make him appear a less sympathetic victim than Trayvon Martin or Ramarley Graham. But it remains true that another young man is dead in a community with a history of problems with the police. As his mother, Carol Gray, put it in a Thursday statement, “He’s not the public’s angel, but he’s my angel…he was slaughtered and I want to know why.”

A week after the shooting tragedy, a panel of guests on Melissa Harris-Perry discussed whether it is possible to balance civil rights against the need to stop violent crime, and how policies like the New York Police Department’s controversial stop-and-frisk could lead to stories similar to that of Gray’s tragic death.

“The outrage and the tension that is happening in communities now is not new,” said Vince Warren of the Center for Constitutional Rights. “That there is even a question about whether Gray may have deserved his grisly end because of his alleged affiliations, is, like the fact that 87% of the people stopped-and-frisked by the police are either black or Hispanic, a reminder that non-white Americans, and non-white men in particular, are criminalized and stereotyped throughout their lives.” As New York State Sen. Eric Adams put it Saturday, “No innocent child should be approached by a person with a gun. It doesn’t matter if that person is wearing blue jeans or a blue uniform. The problem is that it’s an oxymoron for some to say black child and innocent in the same sentence.”

The city’s own statistics suggest the answer to Carol Gray’s question of why her son’s life was taken cannot be separated from the NYPD’s policies and heavy presence in the neighborhood. Mayor Bloomberg recently announced that the NYPD had stopped and frisked 5 million people. As the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday, the 67th Precinct saw almost 94% of its stop-and-frisks end without any charges, the second-highest rate in the city. This is also the second time in less than a year that protests have broken out in the wake of a police shooting in the neighborhood. In June of last year, 23-year-old Shantel Davis was killed by a police officer after a car chase.

On Thursday, the fourth night of protest, community representatives such as City Councilman Jumaane Williams met at a local church while a small group of youths and activists marched to the 67th Precinct. Williams criticized “adults from OUTSIDE the community” in a tweet late Tuesday night, suggesting that the young people involved in clashes with the police were incited by agitators, although he did not specify who these outside agitators might be. There is still no consensus on how to quell the rage behind the protests. Warren, on MSNBC Saturday, suggested a possible way forward. “Police officers need to police in a way that protects the communities,” he said, “and not police the communities themselves.”

Video: Role of the police and community in protecting urban areas

  1. Closed captioning of: Role of the police and community in protecting urban areas

    >>> the shooting death of a 6-month-old comes on the heels of what had been encouraging signs that the epidemic of gun violence in chicago was on the decline. feb's homicide rate was half of what it was a year ago and the lowest monthly level since 1957 . some have attributed this to renewed focus on public safety and yet concerns remain about the collateral damage done by ramping up policing in any of our nation's cities. just last weekend two undercover new york police officers shot and killed a 16-year-old boy in brooklyn. according to the nypd the officers were forced to shoot because the teen pointed a gun in their direction. but some witnesses say the young man was simply adjusting his belt when the officers opened fire. in response members of the community have gathered in memory and protest of the slain teen each night this week. the conduct in handling demonstrators has also been called into question. many claim excessive force is being used which speaks to larger concerns about the policing in our urban communities. representing the flat bush section of brooklyn addressed this very issue in a statement about the demonstrator this is week saying, quote, this action that some are calling an up rising spoke to the overwhelming frustration that people are living through day after day . this frustration and its life and death consequences is all too common in our cities and towns across the country. vince warren is joining us now. and right next to him is eric adams , a former new york state police officer and state senator. and with us, nancy giles and michael scolding, the director of hip hop director russell simmons . thank you all for being here.

    >> thank you.

    >> this is a situation that presents the fundamental tension in what we want in urban communities. you guys sitting next to each other is ideal. because on one hand we're so outraged when we see a kat like janila watkins. whether or not it's gang related is tragic. we're outraged when we see an innocent bystander shot to death because a gang member was looking for someone. it was mistaken identity. at the same time the urban communities are saying to the police , get in there and do something about it. but when police go in, the way they respond, the more force that is used, we're not happy with that either. you're saying stop and frisk is not the way to find the balance.

    >> the most important thing is what any community wants is they want the police to police in a way that gets guns off the street. that targets the criminals. the problem is the increased police presence that we're seeing in new york as well is they're policing entire communities where everybody in the black or brown community becomes suspect. last how you see these situations. this is the classic narrative. we don't all know what happened. but this goes back to the harlem uprising in 1964 where a young black teenager was shot. a young man was shot for having a wallet. the police narrative is we shot him because had had a gun. the community narrative is he did not have a gun and the police shot him in cold blood . and the outrage and the tension that's happening in the communities now, this is not new. this didn't happen last weekend. this has been flooes a 50-year cycle that we've been in. the point is that police officers need to police guns. they need to police in a way that protects the community and not to police the communities themselves.

    >> senator eric, talk about that a little bit. the police officers wrn will say you want us to get rid of the gang problem. you don't want us stopping people who may look too much like a gang member . is it damned if you do and damned if you don't?

    >> i'm a visual person. violent crime in our communities are the berries. civil rights are the grapes. you can hate the berries and still want grapes. and so a young mother called me, she's a nurse. she said that's terrible what they did to this young man who may not have had a gun. why are innocent brooklynites or new yorkers or americans no longer trusting police ? not because of a particular incident. it's what happened leading up to the incident. when you're disrespected throughout the entire time in a particular community , then you're going to start no not only dislike the berries, you're going to dislike the people there to protect you against the berries.

    >> i want to read a few statistics. i think it's pretty shocking when you look at the results of ston and frisk and how it impacts people in the communities. looking at the nypd stop and frisk policy. we have a stat about the people being stopped. 88% of those stopped were innocent of any crime, according to statistics. 87% were african-american or latino. we don't have evidence that these people are committing any crimes.

    >> but instead, 780 guns were taken off the street in 2009 because of stop and frisk . that's 0.19%. we would have a better job if we had random checks. this is a 40-year problem or 50-year problem. this goes back to the war on drugs. we started a war against our own people. it simply did not work. we decembimated black and brown communities. the police job is to protect and serve.

    >> i know. i remember when i was growing up in queens. a young man named clifford governor was killed in the '70s. we're both from queens. i didn't know that. represent. but it's very layered. there are all kinds of questions that i always had. you're a former cop. why does it seem the police are trained to shoot to kill and not just disarm, maim, shoot someone in the leg?

    >> that's not possible. i'm going to explain it to you.

    >> please.

    >> no innocent child should be approached by a person with a gun. doesn't matter if they're wearing blue jeans or a blue june form. it's an oxymoron to some to say black child and innocent in the same sentence.

    >> and i think about the patrick morris case. you had undercover police in a lot of ways people felt were terrorizing the black community . he said he didn't have any. we don't know what happened but he was shot and killed. so we're worried about, yes, we do want people not shooting randomly. but police don't seem to have developed an approach to young black men in the communities that they don't feel threatened by the cops.

    >> you're hitting the nail on the head. he was shot for nothing more than being black , standing in front of his building and having a wallet, which the police thought was a gun. this was an undercover group that was randomly stopping and frisking folks. we settled that case. the unit was disbanded and the police promised they would never do that again. and here we are from 2002 to 2011 , 600% increase in stop and frisks. the numbers we're talking about, 685,000 people were stopped in 2011 . 500,000 stopped in 20 # 12. 87% black . here's the thing. it's not about the number of stop and frisks. they're not stopping the people.

    >> the police are not shooting white people . tham one white person who they killed.

    >> and we were just talking before the show you don't have the police going after emo looking white men trying to stop massacres, even though the profile would suggest that. we're going to have much more on this. the question is the new york city police department in violation of 5 million people's civil rights ?


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