Reclaiming Our Way promoting the well-being of African American children & families


Q&A with Angela Rye, Executive Director, Congressional Black Caucus

I caught this interview a few weeks ago on C-SPAN, and wanted to be sure and share it. There are some interesting dynamics that play out during the interview, and throughout Angela does a great job covering a range of issues and subjects with directness as well as the style and grace that I can only imagine serves the Congressional Black Caucus well. It's a little more than an hour (watch or listen with the video playing in the background), and you get a real sense of her passion for family, for the key people who have influenced her development, the role of spirituality in her life and her commitment to improving the well-being of - and opportunities for - African American children, families and communities.

A great example for students interested in a career in public policy, law and other fields requiring strong communication skills.  Also great for developing, even senior level, professionals. Be sure and share with others.


C-SPAN Q&A Description:  Angela Rye talked about her role in developing legislative and political strategy for the Congressional Black Caucus, which she said is often referred to as the "conscience of the Congress," and that it advances the causes of people that don't have a voice. Angela Rye has been with the Congressional Black Caucus since January of 2011. Prior to that she was counsel to the House Committee on Homeland Security. She is a graduate of the University of Washington and the Seattle University School of Law.



Remembering Michael Jackson’s Musical Brilliance – A Video Marathon






George Zimmerman’s ‘Reenactment’

Here's an extended version of the video we're all pretty familiar with now (courtesy of WESH-TV via YouTube). This is George Zimmerman recounting the moments leading up to, during and immediately following his tragic encounter with and killing of Trayvon Martin. While the substance is questionable, the tone of his 'reenactment' is even more problematic for me. This is the very next day, mind you.



I'm with Ta-Nehisi Coates on this one. He sums it up nicely...


I didn't know Trayvon Martin. Maybe that's exactly how it happened. I don't have much problem believing the two really did get into a fight, one in which Martin was prevailing. But the notion that teenager, with no history of violence, would effectively attempt to injure and then kill someone, without any real provocation strikes me as much less likely.


While I have my own biases (always willing to acknowledge), I still try to work through the scenarios that could possibly be consistent with Zimmerman's account.  Just doesn't add up for me.  Never did, actually, but less and less the more I hear and see...



Gregory Porter’s ‘Be Good’ (Lion’s Song) – Video by Pierre Bennu

A really great song and video...



Gregory Porter - Be Good (Lion's Song) Official Video from pierre bennu on Vimeo.



Remembering Dr. Betty Shabazz & My Mother’s Message About Her Sons

Something powerful just happened as I was listening to Gregory Porter's absolutely beautiful song, Be Good, last night. I can't quite retrace the mental pathway that got me here, but somehow as I listened I began reflecting on an exchange I had with my mother via voice mail quite a few years ago. Given the substance of the exchange, I remember vividly that it was right around the time of Dr. Betty Shabazz's passing.

As I thought about it more, I kept wondering what year that was. Naturally, I went straight to the internet, and what I learned just blew me away. It was 1997, almost 15 years ago to this very day when all of this happened. This isn't the first time I've had one of these recollections, only to find out it was an anniversary of sorts of the event or occasion I was thinking about. This one, like the others, is really special...



Tomorrow will mark the fifteenth anniversary of Dr. Betty Shabazz's transition from this physical life.  It was a Monday, June 23, 1997, to be exact. Many of us remember Dr. Shabazz as the wife of Malcolm X. For those who knew her, or at least were familiar with her professional career as a nurse, as an esteemed educator and administrator at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, New York, as well as her involvement and civic engagement as a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., we know she was quite a remarkable woman in her own right. I didn't know her personally, although I did have the occasion to meet her once, and have a brief conversation with her. It wasn't a long conversation, but long enough to feel her genuine, gentle, generous and compassionate spirit. I was with one of my best friends at a retreat that had been organized for a lot of the "veterans" of the civil rights movement.

I was very nervous when I met her, because of the tremendous amount of respect and admiration I had (and it continues to grow) for her late husband, Malcolm X. You could feel his spirit in her presence, which complimented the grace, integrity and dignity that was Dr. Shabazz. I remember that time vividly. I was still in graduate school at Howard University studying developmental psychology, and also worked as an independent living counselor at a program for older adolescents transitioning to "independence" from the foster care and juvenile justice systems in Maryland.

When I first learned of the tragic incident that left Dr. Shabazz with severe burns, I remember being overcome with this really painful feeling in the pit of my stomach. I continued to hear the periodic updates about her condition during the following several weeks. When news ultimately spread about Dr. Shabazz's passing, I remember feeling extremely sad, and crying for quite a while. I was trying to understand how something like that could have happened. I wondered how the daughters were doing and how the grandson was doing.

The next day, as a small gesture to honor Dr. Shabazz's memory, and as a way to prompt others to do the same, I recorded the following outgoing message on my home phone answering system...


For those of you who may not have heard, Dr. Betty Shabazz, the wife of our great leader Malcolm X, just passed away. In recognition of her life and passing, I ask that you to take a moment and pray for the family during this difficult time. I also ask that you take a moment and reflect on the following question about life: 'What is it that gives your life meaning... and if you haven't thought about it, then how do you know your life is worth living?'


I was deeply moved by the remarkable life Dr. Betty Shabazz lived, her example of courage, honor and dignity, and the wonderful person that she was. It was also a period of time when I was hyper-critical of the seemingly apolitical, apathetic and 'get mine at any cost' attitude of so many Black students and young professionals, seemingly disinterested in and disconnected from the continuing struggle for justice for African people here and abroad. As you might imagine, I got all sorts of reactions to the outgoing message - from my friends, from my boss at the time (an older white woman), and from others after they heard the greeting. Some people made fun of the message, while others acknowledged that it really made them pause and reflect.

It was my mother's reply, however, that brought me to tears. I'm actually tearing up now, as I type these words, thinking about mom and her beautiful ways of being and saying things, of pushing and correcting when necessary and also complimenting and celebrating when deserved. After the beep on the answering service, my mother, without a pause, said...


Hi. This is your mom. Just calling to check on you.  And my answer to the question you just asked is -- 'You. From the first time I saw you both, you and your brother have always given my life meaning. You are both what I live for every day. You know we love you so much and we're really proud of you! Take care, son. And keep up your great work!  Talk to you soon.


I remember my body kind of going numb when I heard the message. I started to tear up and replayed the message over and over. It took me a little while before I pulled it back together. I couldn't do anything for a while after hearing the message. As my brother, Khari, and I were growing up, mom and dad weren't the kind of parents that always said 'I Love You'. They were not the kind of hovering parents we see so much of today, constantly worried about our self-esteem and whether our feelings were ok. We always knew we were loved, and there was never any question about it given the way they raised us and cared for us. But ours was like so many other families, they mostly let the demonstration of love speak for itself, it didn't always have to be said in words. It was definitely said from time to time, but it wasn't all about saying the words.

The point is that they were always about being and doing and providing and modeling and demonstrating, and not as much about saying and repeating and insisting and convincing. I didn't think twice about it when I was younger, and I appreciate it's significance even more now that I'm older and have two wonderful children of my own. Children see and feel our spirit, and they model the cumulative effect of what they see. And indeed they recognize the contradictions - even if they don't say it - when what we say is inconsistent with what they see and feel from us.

Please join me, on this day and during this time of year, in celebrating the example and enduring spirit of determination embodied in both my mother, also a proud and active member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., whose presence I value more and more every moment of every day, and Dr. Betty Shabazz, whose example of courage and honor and dignity and honesty and intellect and leadership remains with us, indeed through her own words and works, as well as through those whose lives she touched.

It is in our elders, and in our ancestors, that we can continue to find our exemplars.

Indeed, we stand on solid ground!



A Brief Clip of Dr. Betty Shabazz, In Her Own Words...
On One's Life Purpose, Ethos and Medgar Evers College



For further reading about the remarkable life of Dr. Betty Shabazz...







Our Response to Dr. Conrad Murray Says A Lot About Us

Rarely would I be inclined to weigh in on something like the affairs and conditions of someone like Dr. Conrad Murray.  Admittedly, however, I've been following some of the news coverage and public discussion over the last few days, stemming from Dr. Murray's complaints about the conditions he's reportedly experiencing in jail, and his request to be transferred to prison, of all places, to serve out the remainder of his sentence.  A lot of what I've heard in the public discussion about this most recent episode in the Conrad Murray chronicles is pretty alarming.

For most of us, Dr. Conrad Murray became a household name because of his relationship with Michael Jackson, and his role in the pop superstar's death on June 25, 2009.  Dr. Murray had been Michael's physician during the period leading up to his death, providing Michael with some pretty strong meds to help him sleep, among other types.  Murray was convicted in November 2011 of involuntary manslaughter for his actions, actions which were found to have greatly contributed to the circumstances resulting in Michael's death.  Approximately three weeks later, Murray was sentenced to 4 years in prison, and is expected to serve approximately two years of that sentence in the Los Angeles County Jail because of severe overcrowding in California's prison system.  Murray is approximately seven months into the sentence.

Murray made headlines again this week because of his complaints about the conditions he says he's experiencing in jail, and his seemingly unusual request to be transferred to one of the state's prisons to serve out the remainder of his sentence.  Murray is complaining, specifically, that he is not getting adequate (or even the minimum required) outdoor access, is only getting clean underwear once a week, and has been suffering from a nagging headache for the last couple of weeks (which he says is uncharacteristic for him), with little responsiveness from jail officials to his request for medical attention.  He has speculated that the headache could be from an undetected tumor, and that if things don't change he is worried he might actually die before he gets out.

Jail officials don't seem to be disputing Murray's general description of the conditions in jail, but have said they believe Murray's treatment is appropriate given their normal operating procedures, his status (as a high-profile inmate) and his identified medical needs.  Murray made the prison request, thinking he would experience more favorable conditions in an actual prison setting than what he is experiencing in the LA County Jail.

So what's the big deal here you may ask?  What is most alarming to me is that most of the public discussion I've heard thus far has really been about how foul of a person Dr. Murray is, and the general sentiment that he deserves whatever comes his way while he's in jail.  The public sentiment seems to be that 'he did the crime', so he needs to stop complaining and just 'do the time'.

Now I don't know much about Dr. Murray, certainly no more than what has been in the media since he was initially suspected of involvement with Michael Jackson's tragic death.  But there are two things that I do know: 1) Dr. Murray is still a human being, and still has the rights of humane treatment shared by anyone else convicted of a crime in this country; and 2) what Dr. Murray is complaining of is not a new phenomenon, and speaks to a fundamental and very real dynamic about our nation's correctional system that has it recognized among the world's most troubling.

To be clear, there are many hundreds of thousands of inmates who are locked up in facilities throughout this country and who are experiencing conditions as bad or worse than what Conrad Murray is complaining of.  Seemingly, most of us either have no idea about these very real conditions in our nation's correctional institutions, or worse, we don't see incarcerated citizens as being worthy of the basic protections and treatment that countries throughout the world have agreed should be minimally afforded inmates.

This is a far bigger issue than Conrad Murray, yet our response to him says something pretty damning about this nation's collective conscience.  We're either so fixated on Conrad Murray because of our supposed affection for Michael Jackson (although society's treatment of Michael when he was alive would suggest otherwise), or we've lost so much in terms of our collective ability to see the humanity in people who have been convicted of crimes.  Perhaps both are true.

So what does the incarcerated population look like in this country?  The following, obtained from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, provides a brief snapshot of our nation's correctional population:

  •  On December 31, 2010, state and federal correctional authorities had jurisdiction over 1,612,395 prisoners throughout the United States.
  • The 2010 imprisonment rate for the nation was 500 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents, which is 1 in 200 residents.
  • In 2009, the most recent data available, 53% of state prison inmates were serving time for violent offenses, 19% for property, 18% for drug, and 9% for public order offenses.
  • About half (51%) of federal inmates in 2010 were serving time for drug offenses, 35% for public-order offenses (largely weapons and immigration), and less than 10% each for violent and property offenses.
  • States held 2,295 inmates under age 18 in custody at midyear 2010, down from 2,779 at midyear 2009.
  • A reported 95,977 non citizens were held in state custody at midyear 2010, down from 97,133 at midyear 2009.
  • Males had an imprisonment rate of 943 per 100,000 male U. S. residents, 14 times higher than the rate for females (67 per 100,000 female U.S. residents).
  • At yearend 2010, black non-Hispanic males had an imprisonment rate (3,074 per 100,000 U.S. black male residents) that was nearly 7 times higher than white non-Hispanic males (459 per 100,000).
  • Black non-Hispanic females (133 per 100,000 U.S. black female residents) had an imprisonment rate nearly 3 times that of white non-Hispanic females (47 per 100,000).
  • An estimated 7.3% of black males ages 30-34 were in state or federal prison.

In case you aren't familiar with the conditions experienced by our incarcerated brothers and sisters, below is a sample of what has been documented most recently.

Discussing the conditions observed in many of our nation's local, state and federal corrections facilities, Human Rights Watch describes the conditions thusly...


Prisoners and detainees in many local, state and federal facilities, including those run by private contractors, confront conditions that are abusive, degrading and dangerous. Soaring prison populations due to harsh sentencing laws—which legislators have been reluctant to change—and immigrant detention policies coupled with tight budgets have left governments unwilling to make the investments in staff and resources necessary to ensure safe and humane conditions of confinement. Such failures violate the human rights of all persons deprived of their liberty to be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, and to be free from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.


More specific to Los Angeles County in California, a 2010 report issued by the American Civil Liberties Union describes the conditions of the Los Angeles County Jail in similarly alarming terms.  The May 5, 2010 report released by the ACLU describes the L.A. County Jail as follows...


Unsanitary and downright hazardous living conditions within the Men‘s Central Jail, where prisoners are housed in windowless cells and dorms plagued by poor ventilation, plumbing leakages and stoppages, and extreme temperatures, are also examined in this report. Many detainees report that their shower times are frequently cut short or skipped altogether for unspecified reasons. In addition, the space provided per prisoner in the jail falls shockingly short of nationally recognized standards. Some dormitories contain more than 140 prisoners, with tiered bunk beds that are jammed so closely together that it‘s almost impossible to move between the rows of beds.


In total, the conditions at the Los Angeles County Jail have been consistently criticized because of dynamics related to violence and retaliation against prisoners, inadequate mental health care, as well as unsafe and unsanitary facilities, among other noted concerns.

What I'm trying to point out here is that there's a long history of concerns being raised about jails and prisons throughout this country, very similar to what Dr. Conrad Murray is describing.  I'm not arguing that he deserves any special treatment.  My concern is that we have such strong negative opinions about Conrad Murray because of his connection to Michael Jackson's death, that we are missing yet another opportunity to spread awareness and understanding of the plight of hundreds of thousands of inmates throughout this country (women and men) whose human rights are being violated, who don't have the basic protections and services that should be guaranteed, who don't have the basic educational and recreational resources needed to promote well-being and rehabilitation, and who you and I have the ability to make change for.

The inmates I speak of are not strangers to us.  They are a part of our communities.  They are disproportionately poor.  They are disproportionately Black and brown brothers and sisters.  They are our brothers and sisters, our aunts and uncles, our parents, our grandparents, our friends, our spouses, our children, our grandchildren.  They are we, and we are they!

We owe it to them to advocate, just as much as we would want them to advocate for us if the situation were reversed.

We can do better than this!  We must do better than this!

The future of this country, our children's future, depends on it!



Remembering the Soweto Uprisings – June 16, 1976

On this day in 1976 the students in the South Western Townships (Soweto) near Johannesburg, South Africa took to the streets to protest the racist Apartheid policies of the South African government.  That day would mark a turning point in the Apartheid struggle, in South Africa and throughout the world.

I've developed this post, and some of the resources and clips contained within, as a tribute to the children and youth involved, and their influence on our understanding of racism and resistance in Africa and throughout the diaspora, especially the indispensable role of our youth.

Our struggle is one struggle...


Remembering the Soweto Uprisings - Background

The following is from the description written by Lucille Davie, accessible on SouthAfrica.Info.

It is a day violently etched on the South African collective conscience. Commemorated over 30 years later as Youth Day, an official holiday, it is the day that honours the deaths of hundreds of Soweto schoolchildren, a day that changed the course of the country's history: 16 June 1976.

On that day the government and the police were caught off guard, when the simmering bubble of anger of schoolchildren finally burst, releasing an intensity of emotion that the police controlled in the only manner they knew how: with ruthless aggression. SA History Online puts the number of dead at 200, far higher than the official figure of 23.

Bantu education was introduced by the National Party in 1954. Before that blacks either didn't go to school or were educated in missionary schools, which fell away with the new system. Many more children were enrolled and the existing schools became extremely overcrowded – with class sizes of some 60 children – and the quality of the education declined.

Fewer than 10% of black teachers had a matric certificate in 1961, according to Philip Bonner and Lauren Segal in Soweto, A History. The schools were poorly equipped, with no science laboratories or sports fields, and often no library. Many children dropped out of school.

Introduction of Afrikaans

In 1976 the government introduced the compulsory use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction from Grade 7 – then Standard 5. Circuit inspectors and principals received the directive: "It has been decided that for the sake of uniformity English and Afrikaans will be used as media of instruction in our schools on a 50-50 basis."

What this meant was that maths and social studies were to be taught in Afrikaans, while general science and practical subjects such as housecraft and woodwork would be taught in English.

Bonner and Segal say one of the reasons for this ruling was that television was to be introduced to South Africa in 1976, and "Afrikaans-speaking conservatives feared that it would strengthen the position and status of English in the country".

It was also felt that black school children were becoming too assertive and "forcing them to learn in Afrikaans would be a useful form of discipline". Besides, the government argued, it paid for black education, so it could determine the language of instruction.

This was not strictly true. White children had free schooling, but black parents had to pay R51 – about half a month's salary – a year for each child, in addition to buying textbooks and stationery and contributing to the costs of building schools. The disparity in the government subsidy was telling: R644 was spent on each white child, but only R42 on each black child.

Pupils, teachers and principals opposed the ruling on Afrikaans, for more or less the same reasons: teachers were ill-equipped to teach in the language, which was for most a third language.

January 1976

When schools reopened in January 1976, parents and principals were unhappy – some applied for an exemption from teaching Afrikaans, saying their teachers were not qualified. The World newspaper of March 5 reported: "Although most of the school boards have capitulated to the medium of instruction directive from the Department of Bantu Education, the teachers and principals are very dissatisfied."

Tensions over Afrikaans simmered in the following months. By June mid-year exams were approaching and pupils were getting restless. At a meeting called by student leaders on 13 June nearly 400 pupils turned up, and were addressed by 19-year-old Tsietsi Mashinini, "an extremely powerful speaker".

He suggested that the following Wednesday – June 16 – pupils gather in a mass demonstration against Afrikaans. The students decided not to tell their parents, for fear of them upsetting the plan.

One pupil, Teboho Mohapi, told Bonner and Segal that there was much anticipation for 16 June: "They would just see us walking out of class and would try to stop us, and we would tell them, 'Wait, this is our day.'"

16 June 1976

It was cold and overcast as pupils gathered at schools across Soweto on 16 June. At an agreed time, they set off for Orlando West Secondary School in Vilakazi Street, with thousands streaming in from all directions. The planned to march from the school to the Orlando Stadium.

"By 10.30am, over 5 000 students had gathered on Vilakazi Street and more were arriving every minute," say Bonner and Segal. In total, "over 15 000 uniformed students between the ages of 10 and 20 [were] marching that day".

Once at the stadium, the plan was to agree on a list of grievances, and then possibly to march to the offices of the Transvaal department of education in Booysens, in Johannesburg's southern suburbs.

But this didn't happen. Police formed a wall facing the pupils, warning them to disperse – an order met with resistance. Teargas was fired into the crowd and police dogs released. In the chaos, children ran back and forth, throwing stones at the police – who fired more teargas.

Bonner and Segal quote a student leading the march, Jon-Jon Mkhonza: "Students were scattered, running up and down ... coming back, running ... coming back. It was some kind of game because they were running away, coming back, taking stones, throwing them at the police ... It was chaos. Whenever the police shot teargas, we jumped the wall to the churchyard and then came back and started discussing again."

The first shot

Then came the first shot – straight into the crowd, without warning. Other policemen took up the signal and more shots were fired. Twelve-year-old Hector Pieterson fell to the ground, fatally wounded. He was picked up by Mbuyisa Makhubo, a fellow student, who ran with him towards the Phefeni Clinic, with Pieterson's crying sister Antoinette running alongside.

The World photographer Sam Nzima was there to record Pieterson's last moments. "I saw a child fall down," he says. "Under a shower of bullets I rushed forward and went for the picture."

The photo went around the world and Pieterson came to symbolise the uprising, giving the world an in-your-face view of the brutality of apartheid.

Then all hell broke loose. Students targeted apartheid symbols: administrative offices, government buses and vehicles and municipal beer halls, which were first looted and then set alight. By the end of the day thick clouds of black smoke hung over the township, and the streets were littered with upturned vehicles, stones and rocks.

Anti-riot vehicles poured into Soweto, roadblocks were erected at all entrances, the army was placed on alert and helicopters hovered overhead, dropping teargas canisters and shooting.

The injured pupils were taken to Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, some dying in its corridors, some dying at its gates before they could be admitted, according to Bonner and Segal.

As night fell, the unlit township became even more terrifying: blinded by the night, police simply fired into the blackness. The students returned the fire with their own weapons: bottles and stones. The looted liquor was taking effect – people wandered the streets intoxicated, in a celebratory mood, raising clenched fists and shouting "Amandla!" (power).

The next day revealed the carnage: dead bodies and burnt-out shops and vehicles. The clashes continued, between police and students, joined by street gangs. Violence spread to another volatile Johannesburg township, Alexandra, and then across South Africa. By 18 June, all schools in Soweto and Alexandra had been closed by the authorities.

Most of the victims were under 23, say Bonner and Segal, and shot in the back. Many others were left maimed or crippled. By the end of the year about 575 people had died across the country, 451 at the hands of police, according to SA History Online. The injured numbered 3 907, with the police responsible for 2 389 of them. About 5 980 people were arrested in the townships that year.

The aftermath

International solidarity movements were roused as an immediate consequence of the revolt. They soon gave their support to the pupils, putting pressure on the apartheid government to temper its repressive rule. This pressure was maintained throughout the 1980s, until resistance movements were finally unbanned in 1990.

School principals were almost immediately allowed to choose their own medium of instruction, a major victory for the pupils. More schools and a teacher training college were built in Soweto. Teachers were given in-service training and encouraged to upgrade their qualifications by being given study grants.

The most significant change, however, was that urban blacks were given permanent status as city dwellers. They ceased to be temporary sojourners in the cities, expected to return to the homelands, often inferior pieces of land far away from industrial centres and jobs, where they held permanent residence.

The law banning blacks from owning businesses in the townships was abolished. Doctors, lawyers and other professionals were now also allowed to practise in the townships.

But there was a sting in the tail of these measures: the police were given powers to detain people without trial. The result was the detention of hundreds of people in the coming months. They were subjected to torture in a desire to confirm the government's version of events: that the unrest was caused by a number of agitators.

And thousands of young people left the country, disillusioned with the government crackdown and harassed by the police. They never finished their education, choosing instead to go into military camps and receive training. Some were then infiltrated back into South Africa over the next decade, to perpetrate acts of sabotage. This was part of the steady onslaught against apartheid that finally broke its back towards the end of the 1980s.

Most of the exiles returned home in the early 1990s, to celebrate the birth of democracy in 1994.

Lest we forget the day, there is a museum to keep the memories fresh. The Hector Pieterson Museum, in Orlando West in Soweto, is just a few blocks from where students and police first began their violent confrontation.

Article first published on on 15 June 2006



Remembering the Soweto Uprisings in poem...
June 16th 1976 South Africa Amandla Ngawethu, Amandla Ngawet



Title track and video clip from the movie...
Sarafina - Leleti Khumalo, Whoopi Goldberg



The funeral song from the movie, Sarafina...
sarafina.the funeral song


The one and only Miriam Makeba, discussing Soweto Blues...
Miriam Makeba with Hugh Masekela- South Africa freedom song



The South African National Anthem - God Bless Africa...
N'Kosi Sikelel' iAfrica (Miriam Makeba, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Paul Simon) 



Our struggle is one struggle...



Melissa Harris-Perry Show on Stop and Frisk in New York City

Here's some of the excellent coverage of the NYPD Stop and Frisk Policy and Practice from the Melissa Harris-Perry Show (a.k.a Nerdland) on last Sunday, June 10, 2012...


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About Stop and Frisk Policy and Practice, Marijuana Arrests, and Racial Profiling in New York City

The Stop and Frisk policies of the New York Police Department have received increased attention in recent weeks.  From the New York Times, here's an overview of the controversy that's been receiving increased attention in New York City and around the world...

The term “stop and frisk’' is the shorthand for a police strategy in which officers seek to reduce crime in an area by stopping and searching people they consider suspicious. In New York City, the approach led to close to 700,000 stops in 2011 alone, and a rising debate.

Critics have argued that the police have unfairly targeted black and Hispanic young men, who have made up 85 percent of those stopped. The police department has strongly defended the tactic as helping to bring down crime, saying it is an effective way of getting illegal guns off the streets.

In May 2012, a federal judge said that the city’s own records showed that many of the stops did not meet the constitutional standards for searches. The law does not permit a search of pockets based simply on a police officer’s hunch or performance quota; an officer may pat someone down if there is reason to believe that a person is carrying an illegal weapon. To conduct a search of the pockets, or to order someone to empty their pockets, requires yet a higher standard involving probable cause that a weapon is present. The judge found that officers often relied on impermissibly vague grounds such as “furtive” movements.

To curb such arrests, Gov. Andrew Cuomo in June 2012 proposed changes to state law to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana in public view, a step that was endorsed by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

Administration officials said the governor would seek to downgrade the possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana in public view from a misdemeanor to a violation, with a maximum fine of $100 for first-time offenders.

Mr. Bloomberg, whose administration had previously defended low-level marijuana arrests as a way to deter more serious crime, said in a statement that the governor’s proposal “strikes the right balance” in part because it would still allow the police to arrest people who were smoking marijuana in public.

Mr. Bloomberg said that his administration would be scaling back the number of stops. As the number of stops steadily increased under Mr. Bloomberg, fewer of them yielded evidence of wrongdoing.

The mayor has noted that in September 2011, Mr. Kelly issued a memorandum to officers clarifying that they were not to arrest people who take small amounts of marijuana out of their pockets after being stopped by the police.

Critics of the Police Department’s marijuana-arrest policies have complained that Mr. Kelly’s memorandum has had little effect, citing data that showed only a modest decrease in low-level marijuana arrests after it was issued.


The increased attention to the city's controversial stop and frisk policy is closely tied to the revitalized efforts to amend New York State's severe drug sentencing laws.  Also from the New York Times (June 4, 2012)...

The New York Police Department, the mayor and the city’s top prosecutors on Monday endorsed a proposal to decriminalize the open possession of small amounts of marijuana, giving an unexpected lift to an effort by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to cut down on the number of people arrested as a result of police stops.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, whose Police Department made about 50,000 arrests last year for low-level marijuana possession, said the governor’s proposal “strikes the right balance” in part because it would still allow the police to arrest people who smoke marijuana in public.

The marijuana arrests are a byproduct of the Police Department’s increasingly controversial stop-and-frisk practice. Mr. Bloomberg and police officials say the practice has made the city safer, but, because most of those stopped are black or Hispanic, the practice has been criticized as racially biased by advocates for minority communities.


From Lee Bailey's Electronic Urban Report (June 10, 2012)...

On the heels of the announcement by New York Governor Cuomo, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Police Commissioner Ray Kelly of their support for ending the practice of arresting individuals for possessing small amounts of marijuana in public view, a major coalition of local and national organizations is launching a massive effort in the final weeks of the legislative session to win reform.

Today, the coalition, which includes ColorOfChange, released an online advocacy campaign featuring powerful video testimonials from people who have been illegally searched and falsely charged for marijuana possession in New York City. Through email and social media outreach, the campaign is expected to reach an audience of hundreds of thousands in New York and beyond. At the conclusion of the video will be a petition to members of the New York State Legislature – including state senators and Senate President Dean Skelos — demanding that they support bi-partisan legislation, S.5187 (Grisanti) / A.7620 (Jeffries), that would standardize penalties for marijuana possession, ending tens of thousands of racially biased and unlawful arrests for marijuana possession every year.


The video testimonials mentioned above can be found online at  One of the videos, shown just below, features Dr. Harry Levine, one of the country's leading researchers on marijuana arrests.  His first report, co-authored with Deborah Peterson Smalls, Marijuana Arrests Crusade: Racial Bias and Policy 1997-2007, sheds light on what have been concluded to be illegal and racist marijuana arrests. His second report, NYC Marijuana Arrest Crusade Continues, and third report, $75 Million a Year: The Costs of NYC Marijuana Possession Arrests, explain how policing practices exploit a "loophole" in the law.


More to come, and more perspectives to share, as this continues to unfold...


Ground Rules – Part 4: Accept and expect non-closure!

The fourth and final principle, or guideline, offered by the team that developed Knowing Who You Are is to “accept and expect non-closure”.  This is also one that I think can guide our discussions in this space.

For me, one part of this principle speaks to the idea that this work of understanding the fundamental role of race and culture in shaping who we are, how we think and how we live is continuous and developmental.  There’s also a part of this principle that speaks to the fact that we don’t always have to be and think the same way, or agree on every point, in order to move forward in a productive way.  This is true of us as individuals, groups we belong to and the institutions and systems many of us work within.

I remember my freshman year at Howard University.  There was a group of us that loved to discuss (and often times debate) issues relating to African American history and culture, and the continuing reality of racism in this country.  Sometimes these debates started in the dorm and continued in our classes, and sometimes they started in our classes and spilled over into the dorm.  Many of us – perhaps most at some time or another - used to stay up at all hours of the night trying to prove whatever point we were trying to make.  Some of the arguments got heated, some not as much.  But that’s what we did.  Those were some interesting discussions, too.

Contrary to many people’s impressions or assumptions, Howard was not the kind of place where everybody shared the same ideas and perspectives about history, race and culture.  For sure, Howard attracted (and continues to attract) some of the smartest and talented brothers and sisters in the world (literally – from throughout the African diaspora).  And it was that diversity of backgrounds that created the range of analyses and perspectives about the role and impact of race and racism in shaping the contemporary realities of Black folks in this country and throughout the world.  The discussion and debates were the opportunities for us to explore each of our assumptions and ideas about the world – based on each of our experiences and the information we were exposed to that helped us make sense of them.

By the end of freshman year, it became clear that those were not arguments you would always necessarily “win”.  Even with all of the “facts” and “evidence” you would try to stack on your side, you still couldn’t necessarily “win” a lot of the arguments.  What was really great, though, is that we got to learn how other people viewed the world, and the kinds of experiences and information that went into shaping each of us.  Everyone’s worldview is shaped in a fundamental way by the information and experiences we have been exposed to over time.  It doesn’t change completely as a result of one conversation.  Each conversation, if we’re open, however, can help us challenge our own prior assumptions and ideas.

Another one of the big ideas we appreciated by the end of those undergraduate years was that this work of understanding the world we live in, including our own individual and collective places in it, never ends.  Every single day we get exposed to new information, we have new experiences, we develop new relationships, and all of these contribute to our continuous learning, growth and development.  All of this helps us to rethink our assumptions, our prior conclusions, and our attitudes about people, about history, and about life.  That’s what human growth and development is about.  That’s what being human is about.

A big challenge for all of us is to appreciate that this same developmental process must also apply to our professional lives.  We have to remain open to new ideas about child development, about family dynamics, even about our roles, and recognize that people and groups think, speak and live in ways that are informed by our history and culture.  This is true for all of us.

So much of this world’s, including this country’s, history has been shaped by the pathology, violence and oppression resulting from the construction and imposition of race as a social construct, and racism as a primary organizing principle for understanding and thus controlling people and (access to) resources.  The lived experience of individuals and groups of people continue to be shaped by the legacy of this historical tragedy.  Each of us has a responsibility to think critically about how we have likewise been affected – shaped even – by these dynamics, both in the personal and professional aspects of our lives.

Institutions have likewise been affected by this history – especially human service institutions and other organizations that touch the lives of children, youth and families (education, juvenile justice, criminal justice, etc.).  Institutions are made up of people, and have been developed as a result of the conscious decisions people have made about their mission, their role and function, their policies and their operational practices.  We have to continuously investigate these, and challenge them so that they are relevant and responsive to (so they do justice to) present day needs and realities.

The point I’m trying to highlight here is that we share a collective challenge of acknowledging and genuinely appreciating that we each have our own experiences, which shape how and what we think about issues, about people, about circumstances, etc.  As a result, we naturally enter the work of child welfare, human services, education, mental health, etc. with our own perspectives, our own analyses, our own sense of what makes sense, our own sense of what is normal and healthy – i.e. our own biases.

We have a responsibility to remind ourselves of this, and to remain open to continued learning and growth.  We also have the responsibility of not imposing our own ideas and perspectives, shaped by our own experiences, on others in the name of “science” or “objectivity” or claims of “universalism”.

Most importantly, we have a responsibility to learn and grow through our shared experiences and relationships with one another.  We must continue to share ideas, perspectives, different and sometimes new ways of thinking about things, and experiences with one another.  In that sense, there is no end-point to this work.  We have to accept and expect non-closure!

Our continuous test and marker of whether we’re moving in the right direction, however, is whether our children, families and communities are getting healthier and stronger.  The unfortunate reality, however, is that in recent years the quality of life experiences and the life outcomes for too many of our children and families have been trending in the wrong direction.

We’ve got a lot of work to do!  And it’s all of ours to do!