Bloomberg bequeathes mixed legacy to New Yorkers
Mayor’s stop-and-frisk policy a delicate issue for would-be successors
Opponents of the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy join members of the New York City Council at a news conference on the steps of City Hall. Photograph: Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times
Judge Shira Scheindlin’s ruling this week that New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy is tantamount to racial profiling has whipped up much debate. But only the opinions of candidates in the campaign to succeed Michael Bloomberg as mayor will stick.
For the next would-be leader of Gotham it is a delicate issue.
The plummeting crime rates have transformed the city. In July, for instance, one of the most traditionally crime-addled sections of Brooklyn reached 363 days without a shooting or killing. The achievement was reported by Jim Dwyer, a city columnist for the New York Times, who chronicled the efforts of the Man Up initiative, in which senior residents mentor young men in the community.
The initiative sits at the opposite end of the spectrum from the indiscriminate, sweeping nature of the stop-and-frisk practice of the NYPD. But it was also heartening evidence of the potential for a more peaceful existence for all citizens of the city.
When you listen even to relatively privileged New Yorkers who had the gumption to live in the city during the broiling decades of the 1970s and 1980s, it is difficult to imagine they are talking about the same place. They can regale you with fantastical tales of the long line of customers outside the Lower East Side apartments waiting for the tin suspended from a rope to be lowered to street level where cash was inserted, the tin whisked heavenwards and then lowered with the prescribed order of narcotics.
They talk about the commonplace violence, the low-grade fear and the fact that entire sections of Manhattan were off limits.
In 1991, the English writer Jonathan Raban wrote Hunting Mister Heartbreak, an account of a journey where he set off from Liverpool to the New World. The book includes a chapter that reduces New York to two distinct societies – the Street People, who are the dispossessed and wretched, and the fabulously wealthy, whom he labelled the Air People.
“Large portions of their day was spent waiting for and travelling in the elevators that were as fundamental for the middle-class culture of New York as gondolas had been to Venice in the Renaissance.”
Manhattan today is all blossoms and wine bars. The parks are so well tended that it is a surprise to see a wilting plant. Once-abandoned sections of the city have been reinvented as prime real estate and its streets teem with restaurants and boutiques. The bewildered and the homeless move invisibly through the perfumed army marching up and down the avenues. And New York has a “safe” feel about it. That the stop-and-frisk policy has played a central role in this is mayor Bloomberg’s chief argument.
When thousands took to the streets on the evening that George Zimmerman was found not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin, the movement gradually – and instinctively –made its way north to Harlem towards midnight. There were several dozen white protesters among a predominantly African-American march, walking with impunity through streets that white New Yorkers steadfastly avoided 20 years ago.
The stop-and-frisk issue featured strongly in the slogans and conversations of the night. Most of the African-American and Latinos on the march had either first- or second-hand experience of the policy: it is hardly surprising given the statistic that from 2002 to 2012, some 4.4 million “stops” have been conducted in the boroughs.
The city’s defence was that 83 per cent of all known suspects and about 90 per cent of all violent crime suspects were black and Hispanic. Whether this is true or not the policy, when put into practice, treats entire communities as suspected criminals. For many white people, it is an abomination in an abstract sense in that they don’t expect to be stopped and searched when they are walking home. For Latinos and African-Americans – and in particular for the young males who, in the phrasing of the “UF 250” forms which the NYPD is required to fill out, “fit description”, it is a frequent infringement.
Against all that, there is the ominous warning from Bloomberg that these persistent stops are the thumb in the dyke; that they are the difference between the safety many New Yorkers take for granted now and a return to the strung-out, violent city that long-term residents recall.