Arrested While Grieving
By BOB HERBERT
No one is paying much attention, but parts of New York City are like a police state for young men, women and children who happen to be black or Hispanic. They are routinely stopped, searched, harassed, intimidated, humiliated and, in many cases, arrested for no good reason.
Most black elected officials have joined their white colleagues and the media in turning a blind eye to this continuing outrage. And many black cops have joined their white colleagues in the systematic mistreatment.
Last Monday in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, about three dozen grieving young people on their way to a wake for a teenage friend who had been murdered were surrounded by the police, cursed at, handcuffed and ordered into paddy wagons. They were taken to the 83rd precinct stationhouse, where several were thrown into jail.
Leana Matia, an 18-year-old student at John Jay College, was one of those taken into custody. “We were walking toward the train station to take the L train when all these cops just swooped in on us,” she said. “They cursed us out and pushed the guys. And then they handcuffed us. We kept asking, ‘What are you doing?’ ”
Children as young as 13 were among those swept up by the cops. Two of them, including 16-year-old Lamel Carter, were the children of police officers. Some of the youngsters were carrying notes from school saying that they were allowed to be absent to attend the wake. There is no evidence that I’ve been able to find — other than uncorroborated statements by the police — that the teenagers were misbehaving in any way.
Everyone was searched, but nothing unlawful was found — no weapons, no marijuana or other drugs. Some of the kids were told at the scene that they were being seized because they had assembled unlawfully. “I didn’t know what unlawful assembly was,” said Kumar Singh, 18, who was among those arrested.
According to the police, the youngsters at the scene were on a rampage, yelling and blocking traffic. That does not seem to be the truth.
I spoke individually to several of the youngsters, to the principal of Bushwick Community High School (where a number of the kids are students), to a parent who was at the scene, and others. Nowhere was there even a hint of the chaos described by the police. Every account that I was able to find described a large group of youngsters, very sad and downcast about the loss of their friend, walking peacefully toward the station.
Kathleen Williams, whose son and two nieces were rounded up, was at the scene. She said there was no disturbance at all, and that when she tried to ask the police why the kids were being picked up, she was told to be quiet or she would be arrested, too.
Capt. Scott Henderson of the 83rd Precinct told me that the police had developed a “plan” to deal with youngsters going to the wake because they suspected that the murder was gang-related and there had already been some retaliation. He said he had personally witnessed the youngsters in Bushwick behaving badly and gave the order to arrest them.
Many of the kids were wearing white T-shirts with a picture of the dead teenager and the letters “R.I.P.” on them. The cops cited the T-shirts as evidence of gang membership.
Thirty-two of the youngsters were arrested. Most were charged with unlawful assembly and disorderly conduct. Several were held in jail overnight.
Police Commissioner Ray Kelly did not exactly give the arrests a ringing endorsement. He said, in a prepared statement, “A police captain who witnessed the activity made a good-faith judgment in ordering the arrests.”
A spokesman for the Brooklyn district attorney, Charles Hynes, said, “It wouldn’t be unusual for a lot of this stuff to get dismissed.”
The principal of Bushwick Community High, Tira Randall, said, “My kids come in here on a daily basis with stories about harassment by the police. They’re not making these stories up.”
New York City cops stopped and, in many cases, searched individuals more than a half million times last year. Those stops are not happening on Park Avenue or Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Thousands upon thousands of them amount to simple harassment of young black and Hispanic males and females who have done absolutely nothing wrong, but feel helpless to object.
It is long past time for this harassment of ethnic minorities by the police to cease. Why it has been tolerated this long, I have no idea.