Police Everywhere: The National Security State as a Daily Presence in Our Streets, Schools, and UniversitiesEvery morning before 6 AM, to beat the traffic, I drive from my home in Park Slope, Brooklyn, to Fordham’s Bronx campus. Even at that hour, I am hit with the realization that we are a lot more “policed” than we were 30 years ago.
As my route takes me to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway via Vanderbilt and Willoughby Avenues, I will always see a police car parked right outside Pratt, lights off, to catch motorists speeding. Sometimes I will also see a car on Vanderbilt. Then when I get to the Fordham campus, I am not only checked by security to make sure I have a valid parking permit, I notice a security vehicle driving up and down the rows of the parking garage, and at least two security cars driving up and down the roads of the campus as I walk the half mile to my office.
These Fordham security people are all in uniform. Should there be a fire drill or demonstration that day, I get to see the “:white shirts” — Fordham security supervisors- coordinating the University’s actions at the event, just as I would see the New York Police Department’s “white shirts” if there was a protest outside the University’s gates.
The same thing would prevail should I visit one of the Bronx schools I work with on my community history projects. At all elementary schools, I have to sign in with a security guard who sits at the main entrance to the school. In most high schools, I have to go through metal detectors manned by at least two security personnel, sometimes aided by someone from the NYPD carrying a gun.
Should I pass through Morrisania, the Bronx neighborhood where my research has been focused, I am likely to see a white police surveillance tower set up on one of that neighborhood’s blocks, including the historic block Lymon Place, where the great community activist Hetty Fox lives, and which was often home to Sunday jam sessions in the 50s bringing together the great jazz pianists Thelonious Monk and Elmo Hope.
Some of you may respond to these observations by saying “so what”, as this level of police and private surveillance has been your reality your entire life. But as a lifelong New Yorker, aged 65, there is still something jarring about feeling you are under surveillance in your neighborhood, in your workplace, and in any school that you visit. Having had numerous disturbing encounters with police — including being beaten up by NYPD in a station house in 1969 — the prospect of having police looking over my shoulder wherever I go makes me nervous. It is a gut reaction.
And if I feel that, I can only imagine how young people of color feel about this smothering police presence, especially as they are the ones this presence is often placed there for. When you have this many police and security, the temptation to use them for purposes of intimidation is well nigh overwhelming.
In the streets of the city, over 90,000 stop and frisk incidents took place last year, the overwhelming number of them targeting young people of color, the vast majority of them revealing no illegal activity. Most of those were done by police in twos and threes.
But what has also been taking place, at least in the Bronx, is police sweeps in groups of 15 or 20 on Bronx blocks where there has been drug activity, often resulting in mass searches of young people who are thrown on the ground or pushed against the wall, and with adults daring to intervene being targeted as well. Here, the police quite literally assume the character of an occupying army, a phenomenon hardly surprising under the auspices of a mayor who brags that the NYPD at his disposal is “:the eighth largest army in the world.”
And as for schools, the security presence, as Kathleen Nolan’s book Police in the Schools reveals and my own student’s research confirms, has taken the form of “zero tolerance” policies which see students suspended and sometimes arrested for minor acts of defiance that previously would have been ignored or handled by teachers and administrators.
And the situation is not much better at universities. At the City University, students have been repeatedly manhandled at protests by the combined presence of campus security and NYPD in numbers unimaginable 30 years ago, or for that matter any time before 9/11. While we haven’t yet had protests at Fordham as militant as those at CUNY, the security presence at student marches and rallies is far larger than it has ever been in the past.
Anyone who thinks this level of policing and surveillance is consistent with democratic traditions hasn’t been paying attention to what policies have accompanied this enlargement of a police presence. The overwhelming concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, the shrinking of the middle class, the compression of wages for the working class, and the transformation of our great universities, and our great cities, into centers of privilege for global elites, have created levels of economic inequality unimaginable in the 50s, 60s and 70s, and has shattered hopes of economic mobility for a growing percentage of the American population.
As more and more people in this country see the wealth of others paraded in their face, with little hope of attaining it, their response, whether it be individual or collective, illegal enterprise or political action, has to be contained lest the smooth operation of the economic and educational system that concentrates wealth at the top be disturbed.
The result: A police surveillance state that regularly intimidates, terrorizes and incarcerates the children of the working class and the poor, and is now fully prepared to apply its full force against the displaced children of the middle class if they decide to protests against their impending marginalization.
With A Brooklyn Accent