(The Root) — What happens when you put the Rev. Al Sharpton and New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly in the same room, in front of a mic? You get Sharpton making a joke: "We gonna bring Kelly on after I stop and frisk him in the back," referring to the controversial police practice that disproportionately detains black and brown men.
That was one of the first things Sharpton said as he opened his 15th Annual National Action Network convention in New York on Wednesday. The civil rights organization was founded by Sharpton 22 years ago, and he made a point of explaining that "even though we don't agree, I invited Ray Kelly to speak" on a gun-violence panel. The timing could not have been better on Sharpton's part.
The New York Police Department is in the middle of defending itself against a federal class action lawsuit alleging that the practice of stopping a person who an officer suspects has committed a crime, is committing a crime or is about to commit one is unconstitutional. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, in 2012 nearly nine in 10 people stopped by police were innocent, and a similar proportion were black or Latino.
Kelly began his remarks in front of 700 NAN members and others by quoting Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated 45 years ago on April 4, and then rattling off statistics about how blacks in low-income neighborhoods are more likely to die by gun violence than whites in higher-income neighborhoods. When he began speaking about stop and frisk, audible sighs could be heard in the audience. "I believe that this tactic is lifesaving. It is also lawful and constitutional," said Kelly. Last year there were just over 530,000 NYPD stops, which Kelly said resulted in the seizure of nearly 800 guns. Critics of the policy point out that is a very low success rate.
"We realize the sensitivity involved in every stop," said Kelly, who also told the audience that while complaints were down, "We know we can always do better." To that end, the department has been beefing up its ranks of black, Hispanic and Asian officers. When Kelly mentioned the appointment of a black officer, Philip Banks III, to chief of the department, the crowd applauded. It's been reported that Banks has said he was stopped and frisked growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and "didn't like it," but still supports the practice as a crime-fighting tool.
Despite his quip introducing Kelly, Sharpton made a point of explaining to the audience that even though he and Kelly have differences, they have worked together on issues before, such as gun-buyback programs.
During a Q&A with reporters after his address, Kelly said he's been having the same conversation with Sharpton over stop and frisk for about 35 years. "Obviously there are things that we don't agree on, and that's fine," said Kelly. Asked about the reception he got, which by the proverbial clap-o-meter was less than enthusiastic, Kelly again said that was "fine." It was Sharpton who got the last word, though, saying after Kelly left the stage, "We are still unequivocally opposed to stop and frisk in any form because of the racial-profiling aspect."
One person who spoke on the gun-violence panel who does agree with stop and frisk was Joe McFarlane. He is the father of Janay McFarlane, the 18-year-old who was shot and killed in Chicago after her sister attended President Barack Obama's gun-violence speech there on Feb. 15. McFarlane told The Root that as a youth in Chicago, he was always stopped and searched, and he believes that, done right, it is an effective crime-fighting tool. He went on to say that if the group that accompanied his daughter's killer had been stopped, Janay would possibly still be alive.
McFarlane is now dedicating his time to speaking about his daughter and gun violence. He told the audience that he wants to keep her alive in the hearts and minds of people. "I was thrown into this. It's the worst feeling in the world to identify your baby with a bullet in her head, so I will do whatever I can to make a difference," said McFarlane.
Janay's mother, Angela Blakely, who was also on the gun-violence panel, told the audience, "I feel ashamed of our race because we are killing off our own people." Now raising her daughter's 5-month-old son, she noted the climate of hostility that seems to have overtaken so many young people, who are shooting one another for the most ridiculous reasons.
That was a sentiment echoed by another mother on the panel who lost a daughter to gun violence, Cleo Cowley. Her daughter, 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, was killed in Chicago just days after attending President Obama's second inauguration in Washington, D.C. "Embrace the youth. You see someone who is troubled, don't walk away — help them," she encouraged listeners.
She said she sees gun violence as a symptom of a culture that takes what it wants and has not been taught that there is another way to live. Cowley told The Root that her daughter's death has motivated her in ways she never imagined. "This cannot be for naught; I have to make good on what happened," she said.
Both families are starting foundations in their daughters' names and hope to include community programs that address the roots of gun violence. One thing on which all the panelists agreed was that gun laws would not be enough to deter gun violence, which is the leading cause of death among black teens ages 15 to 19. Community programs that engage youths and adults are needed, too.
As Marcus Coleman, the president of the Atlanta chapter of NAN, put it, "If we don't get our hands dirty, it won't happen easily. We have to do more in our community. All the policies mean nothing if we don't do more with our youth."
Julie Walker is a New York-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter.