Tenured Radical is currently out of the country. Today we turn this space over to Rachel Jane Liebert, a Ph.D. candidate in critical social/personality psychology at the Graduate Center, and member of CUNY’s Public Science Project. Below, Liebert is reports on day 2 of Floyd v. City of New York (notes from day 1 are here.) This trial that may determine whether the New York City police department can continue its policy of stopping and frisking young men without probably cause.
After the crowds of yesterday, I arrived at the courtroom embarrassingly early this morning and spent an hour or so smitten with the view out of the fifteenth floor windows of 500 Pearl Street. Wearing a hat of mist, the scattered snow-scene of downtown Manhattan was beautiful and meditative. It seemed twisted that I could find peace in the phallus of a system that pours people into cages. Perhaps likely not not because I was gazing from the body of what can at least pass for a young, white, upwardly-mobile, able-bodied woman. This place is designed to protect people like me…
My privilege and I eventually wandered into the empty courtroom. It turned out that it was supposed to be locked, but before being kicked out I had the honor of connecting with three shiny people. Dion Dennis – an African American man in his forties who was a witness for the plaintiff and would continue testifying today on his experiences with stop & frisk; Officer Serrano – a Latino man who was also a witness for the plaintiff and would be testifying on his experiences in the NYPD; and Lillian – a 93yo white woman who had been “watching stop & frisk for years” from her home in the LES.
Why were we, this motley crew, all here? Because we believed that things were wrong, and they needed to change.
And we were joined in struggle by the notable number of ghosts in the room today. The trial for the shooting of Ramarley Graham – an 18yo black male who was killed, unarmed, by an NYPD officer in the bathroom of his grandmother’s apartment last winter – was occurring simultaneously in the Bronx. The black priest from Queens who was sitting next to me spoke of the passing of his wife last Christmas and how he was learning to balance his activism and community work with being a single father. And Nicholas Pert, who also took the stand as a plaintiff’s witness on his experiences with stop & frisk, was introduced as a 23yo African American man and an after-school facilitator and the legal guardian of his three young siblings following the passing of his mother from cancer several years ago.
Maybe it was the presence of so many diverse and determined souls that made the courtroom feel so charged today. As “spectators” we watched the cross-examination of David Floyd, and then the full examination of Dennis and Pert. It was startling (but, again, not surprising) to see the interactions between members of the defense team and the witnesses. Three young white lawyers desperately, aggressively trying to undermine the accounts of three black men. Firing bullet-questions that shattered their experiences into binary yes/no categories. (And yet having a good giggle together during the breaks; it was obvious who was not carrying the stakes of this trial.)
First up, the defense team was trying hard to imply that the witnesses had bung memories by making people repeat and stumble over excruciatingly minute details, thereby suggesting their accounts were not trustworthy. A seemingly obvious tactic, yet any difficulties people had seemed moreso to illustrate how prolific, inconsistent, and confusing these stop & frisks were. Even Judge Scheindlin herself said that by the end of his testimony, she had “lost count” of all the stops that Pert had experienced.
Second, they implied that there was no, or limited, threat and force in people’s interactions with the NYPD such that they had some sort of freedom. Their wave of the neoliberal wand thereby making the witnessesmagically accountable for what they experienced. Yet, as Floyd said, “in reality it wouldn’t have been smart for me to not follow directions.” Being “free” to question, to refuse, or to leave doesn’t sound quite so all-American when, as he continued, “the interaction could escalate into something violent and possibly something deadly”.
Third, was the implication that people’s beliefs that their blackness contributed to the stops were false, if not, in the case of Pert, based on his supposed intentions to, as the defense put it, “get the NYPD into trouble.” This tactic smelled particularly ironic. Are these lawyers trying to argue against the “reasonable suspicion” of racism? Post-Terry, officer “intuition” has become accepted for stopping people. Yet the embodied expertise of people whose communities have experienced decades of harassment and abuse by the police conveniently does not count as “evidence”.
Continue to follow the proceedings here.