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We Fought the Law and—We Won!
Interview by Johane Celestin, Chantel Morel, and Crystal Yeung
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A few years ago, something surprising happened in Bushwick.

The cops arrested more than 30 young people who were on their way to attend a friend’s funeral. They said they feared the procession of young mourners could erupt into gang violence. Many of those arrested were charged with unlawful assembly and disorderly conduct, even though there was no evidence that they had broken any laws.

If things went the way they normally do in Bushwick (or any other poor neighborhood), the young men would probably have copped a plea and been let go with probation or community service. But—and here’s the surprising part—that’s not what these kids did.

They knew their rights and they knew they hadn’t broken any laws. With the support of parents, teachers, eyewitnesses, and several community organizations, the arrested young men fought the charges. Amazingly, they won. Not only were the charges dropped, but in a civil suit the students initiated later, 16 of the arrested got a $257,000 settlement from the NYPD.

The fact that kids from Bushwick organized against the NYPD and won was, to many, a landmark victory for black and Latino teen boys everywhere. The young men, who called themselves the “Bushwick 32,” credited much of their success to their school, Bushwick Community HS.

Bushwick Community is a second-chance alternative school for 17- to 21-year olds that focuses on social justice and the empowerment of African-American and Latino communities. Along with reading, writing, and arithmetic, students learn about the struggle against slavery and oppression. They practice community activism and responsible leadership and, in the process, they also learn what their rights are when dealing with police.

Brian Favors, a Bushwick Community teacher who taught some of those arrested, and his former student Quincy Garner, now a student at Long Island University and an activist himself, explained to NYC how it all went down, and how education and activism shaped the outcome.

Brian Favors: A kid was murdered in Bushwick. He didn’t go to our school but he was really popular and some of our kids were friends with him; people were crying in the hallways. The funeral was in Coney Island and a lot of people didn’t know how to get there, so they planned to meet up in the park and go together. They had notes from their teachers and the school. Close to 50 people met at the park, including some parents. They were on their way to the train station when they got swooped on by police vans and even a helicopter.

The cops tried to say the kids were gang-affiliated and that’s why they were being arrested, but if you grew up in that neighborhood, whether or not you’re in a gang, you’re affiliated. Your cousin, your brother, your neighbor, or people you hang out with might be in a gang, so you’re almost guilty by association.

When the police started arresting them, they complied. They did everything they were supposed to do. The police took all the young people to booking, where they let the minors and the females go with summonses, but they locked up the males for almost two days. They didn’t eat for the first 24 hours.

They called the teachers on the second day, and that’s when we went to the courthouse and brought City Councilman Charles Barron, and a number of political figures and attorneys, to advocate for the young people. When the police figured out the kids had support from the community, they said the kids had been jumping on cars, which wasn’t the case. In fact, Trymaine Lee, a New York Times reporter, interviewed several witnesses who said, basically, “Wow, these kids were just walking across the street.”

This kind of thing—getting stopped by the police for nothing—is common in our communities, and this time the kids were fed up with it. The reality is, if you are black or brown in Bushwick or Bed-Stuy, and especially if you’re a 16- to 25-year-old male, you’re going to get stopped and searched by the police. This is something that goes on every day in New York and across the country and it’s called racial profiling. In economically disadvantaged minority communities, we get stopped and frisked so much that many of us don’t know our rights are being violated.

Quincy Garner: At the time I was living in Brownsville, and being stopped frequently by police wasn’t nothing new to me. It was like taking out the trash. If you’re outside past 10 p.m., you’re going to get stopped. I became desensitized. It was like, “OK, lemme just get checked.” I didn’t know anything before I went to Bushwick Community HS.

Brian Favors: At our school, we’ve brought in Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, a community organization that works to empower African Americans, to do workshops on knowing your rights. We want our students to know that when they’re pulled over, there are ways to handle it that will put them in a position of power as opposed to being taken advantage of.

So, our kids did know their rights and after they were arrested, we started organizing. We had a press conference, we started having roundtables, community organizations started helping out. I think we got a big reaction because people were surprised to see young people standing up, young people who actually had something to say.

But the conversation didn’t stay on police brutality, it also spread to, “Why are we being so violent to one another? The police are disrespecting us, we know that, but at the same time, we’re killing each other.” So it was about both standing up against the police, and also cultivating some love amongst ourselves.

Quincy Garner: Helping organize the response to the arrests was the first time I felt power and strength in my identity. A lot of times in our high schools, we don’t learn anything that’s relevant to us. But this time I thought, “OK, Imma take what I learned from the Know Your Rights workshop and use it.” We discussed how to talk to people on phone calls, how to send out professional e-mails, how to present ourselves. It was the first time I felt like I was getting a real education.

Brian Favors: It was great because the kids who were leading weren’t the usual dreadlocked, fight-the-power kids, or the nerds. They were the hood kids. At Bushwick Community HS, you’re not a nerd for being smart. Because you’re learning about Malcolm X, about people who had street credibility but who were brilliant, there’s no contradiction between being a bookworm and being an African American or Latino man.

image by Froylan Garcia

Quincy Garner: The lesson here was that there’s strength in numbers. This wouldn’t have been possible without the people who came out and all the nonprofit organizations who helped.

Brian Favors: This happens to thousands of people every day. The difference between the Bushwick 32 and any other case of wrongful arrest is that we were part of a community. We were connected to the struggle that really is a part of our whole existence here. The Bushwick 32 stuck together and made a plan and we learned that community is everything.


Know Your Rights

If you’re stopped by the police:

• Stay calm and be cool.
• Don’t physically resist.
• Don’t run!
• Give your name and address, but you don’t have to give any other information.
• Try to remember the badge number, name, and a physical description of the cop(s) who stopped or arrested you.
• When cops stop you, ask bystanders to stand at a discreet distance and observe the police without interfering.

If you’re arrested:

• Once you are told you are under arrest, give your name and address; give your parents and/or employer’s name, address, and telephone number. (This information is needed in setting bail.)
• You have the right to remain silent. Besides giving the above information, only say, “I want to talk to a lawyer.”
• Don’t talk to the police, on videotape, or to a District Attorney about anything that has to do with the crime you are arrested for. Do not sign anything.
• Do not talk to inmates in jail about your case.

If you are 16 or younger:

• Cops can stop you if you are hanging out during school time or if they suspect that you are a runaway. That means any time they want to.
• Always carry ID, otherwise the cops will use your lack of identification as an excuse to take you in.
• If the police arrest you, they must notify your parents!
• If you are arrested, you have the right to make one call to your family or lawyer.

Provided by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. For more information go to mxgm.org or call the New York chapter at 718-254-8800.


Guilty Until Proven Innocent?

After many of their classmates were arrested in 2007, Quincy Garner and other Bushwick Community HS students researched the NYPD’s practice of stopping and frisking people on the street. They learned that, according to police records, the NYPD stopped 508,540 pedestrians in 2006 for questioning or frisking. The vast majority of those who were stopped were black or Latino, and 90% of those stopped weren’t found to be doing anything wrong. (The police only arrested or ticketed 10% of the thousands of people they stopped.)

In Bushwick, the numbers were even more damning: 88% of those stopped were black or Latino, and 94% were neither arrested nor issued summonses. When they question or frisk someone, officers must record a reason for the stop. In Bushwick, the five most common reasons officers gave were: the area has a high crime incidence (in other words, you can be stopped just for walking through a bad neighborhood); suspect exhibits furtive movements; suspect is casing a victim or location (i.e. looking at someone or something); time of day fits crime incidence (i.e. it’s nighttime); and suspect changes direction at sight of officer.

Despite criticism of the NYPD’s stop and frisk activities, officers are actually stopping more New Yorkers than ever. Last year, a record 575,304 people were stopped by the police. As with previous years, few were found to be doing anything wrong. And, as usual, the vast majority of those stopped were black or Latino.

In 2009, the police reported that they stopped 575,304 “suspicious” people on the street. The vast majority were black and Latino.

black (54%)
Latino (31%)
White (9%)
other (4%)

Of those stopped in 2009, most were let go without being ticketed or arrested.
88% let go, no evidence of wrongdoing
6% given summonses or other
6% arrested

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(NYC-2010-05-18)