(The Root) — On a Sunday that started out with blustery winds and slightly overcast conditions, several thousand New Yorkers gathered in upper Manhattan and marched down Fifth Avenue from 110th Street in a remarkably silent protest of the city's stop-and-frisk police policy.
Today's march — led by a coalition of organizations and prominent public figures including Rev. Al Sharpton, NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous and New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman — was aimed at drawing attention to NYPD's controversial practice of stopping and questioning residents who seem suspicious.
The tactic — which some say unfairly targets blacks and Latinos — has been defended by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other members of his administration.
Many of those who participated described situations in which they often felt like they received special negative attention from police.
Harlem resident Randy Chavis, 48, said he has been stopped but never frisked. "It's sad but it almost comes to the point that if you're careful then you almost think it's the way things just are. And it shouldn't be," he explained to The Root. "That's why I'm out here supporting this. No one should be unjustly stopped and frisked for no justifiable cause."
Jose Hernandez, 31, of the Bronx, said he regularly sees cops stopping other members of his community. Despite being confined to a wheelchair, he joined the protest to show solidarity with New Yorkers who have faced police scrutiny.
"It tends to happen more to people who are walking," Hernandez admitted. "But I don't think it matters. It's a racial profiling thing … just because you look a certain way, you shouldn't be outright targeted because of the color of your skin."
Fellow Bronx resident Anthony Cerrino, who was walking beside Hernandez, concurred. "Usually it's with no probable cause. [The police are like,] 'Come here, where are you going, what are you doing, what's your name, do you have anything in your pockets?' " he said. "It's become so commonplace that people like myself, we tend not to say anything anymore."
Last year, 87 percent of the 685,000 (pdf) people stopped by police officers in New York City were black or Latino, and 88 percent of people stopped were innocent of any crime, according to NYCLU reports.
Mayor Bloomberg, however, has argued that stop and frisk helps reduce the number of guns on the street and deters crime. He has defended the practice, claiming that it only needs to be amended and that the tactic may be scaled back in the face of protests from residents.
According to reports, Mayor Bloomberg was not in the vicinity of the march, which ended near his home on 79th Street. Instead he spoke at an African-American church in Brooklyn, defending stop and frisk and conceding that police could improve their relations with residents. "If you've done nothing wrong, you deserve nothing but respect and courtesy from the police," he said, according to the New York Times. "Police Commissioner Kelly and I both believe we can do a better job in this area — and he's instituted a number of reforms to do that."
As the procession made its way down Fifth Avenue, what was notable was not only the size of the crowd but its diversity, as well. There were marchers of varying ethnic backgrounds, age groups and sexual orientations. Families, students, members of labor unions, elected officials, the NAACP, comic and activist Dick Gregory, the families of slain teens Trayvon Martin and Ramarley Graham, J.D. Williams (who played "Bodie" on the fictional series The Wire) and even a group of Quakers walked the route. In total, nearly 300 organizations supported the march.
Yetta Kurland, 44, a civil rights attorney who lives in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, told The Root that as a member of the LGBT community, she found solidarity with people of color who are most affected by stop and frisk. "I represent people who have been targeted … I see it in the transgender community," she said. "The pattern and practice has created a situation where our communities actually fear the police instead of as [seeing them as] a part of our government that's supposed to protect and serve us."
Others, like Gregory Watts, 61, of Brooklyn, decided it was a great way to spend Father's Day with his wife and two sons. He claimed that blacks have been targeted by police for years in the city but recently it has become more overt. "It's sophisticated racial profiling," he told The Root, which continues because "the court system endorses it."
Watts also pointed out that there is some added significance that Rodney King — whose beating at the hands of the Los Angeles police symbolized unfair treatment by law enforcement two decades ago — died on the same day as the march. "It's ironic, and it's sad, too," Watts said.
Despite that grim reminder, the march was a largely peaceful event. There were a few reports via Twitter of negative encounters with police, and there were also reports of scuffles. The police were seen making a few arrests. The exact number was not known at press time.
The NYCLU's Lieberman was mostly satisfied with how the silent protest concluded. "Thousands took to the streets in a dignified silent protest against the NYPD abuse," she told The Root. "What's wonderful about this march is that this march is the face of New York — people of all races, nationalities, colors — and we have a common message: that the police department that protects us is not the one we want to be afraid of."
Brett Johnson is The Root's associate editor.