It was a busy weekend for civil rights marchers. Here in Maine, a gorgeous Saturday allowed for a festive crowd to celebrate LGBT Pride Month in full force. The ACLU of Maine was thrilled to be part of the parade, complete with staffers, board members, and supporters all sporting flashy new t-shirts. And with polls continuing to show growing support for marriage fairness, there was plenty of reason to be optimistic that 2012 will prove to be a watershed year for civil rights here in Maine.
In New York City, however, the weekend featured a civil rights march with a much more somber mood. In protest of stop-and-frisk policies that target racial minorities, thousands of New Yorkers gathered on Sunday for a “silent march” down the streets of Manhattan. The demonstrators’ purpose was clear: bring attention to the stark and undeniable bias in police stops, and force the authorities to consider the serious privacy concerns that such actions raise.
A little background is necessary: In 1968, the Supreme Court ruled in Terry v. Ohio that police may stop a person if the have “reasonable suspicion” that a crime either has been or is about to be committed. Additionally, police may frisk the suspect for weapons so long as they have reasonable suspicion that the suspect might be armed. The decision in Terry was not universally praised, even in 1968. In fact, the ACLU was so concerned about the case at the time that our attorneys represented Terry and filed briefs with the Supreme Court arguing against the “reasonable suspicion” standard – though unfortunately we were not victorious.
While Terry may allow police to “stop-and-frisk” citizens without probable cause, it certainly does not permit them to do so based on race or any other stereotype. And that brings us back to yesterday’s silent march in New York City, which comes amid a growing backlash against police practices that unfairly target racial minorities, particularly young black males. The numbers, as collected by the New York Civil Liberties Union, paint a disturbing picture: Of those who were stopped by police last year, 87 percent were black or Latino, compared to just 9 percent who were white. More than half were aged 14-24. And a whopping 89 percent turned out to be totally innocent. If that doesn’t warrant a protest march, I don’t know what does.
New York may be uniquely diverse in some ways, but these statistics are not an aberration. Racial profiling is a very real problem all around the country, and it can often rear its ugly head in subtle ways – like a police stop that doesn’t result in an arrest, or an unnecessary frisk initiated because a suspect was said to be acting “suspiciously.” We can’t ignore this form of profiling, for its results can be extremely damaging not just to the individuals stopped, but also to our communities at large. Kudos to the marchers this weekend who brought attention to this issue, and big props to the New York Civil Liberties Union for keeping “stop-and-frisk” abuse atop their radar. Let’s hope that the police stop and listen to these very important concerns and make meaningful changes to eliminate racial profiling during law enforcement stops.