Civil Rights, New York

Dante and democracy

(A version of this post first appeared at Latino Rebels.)

It’s all Dante’s fault.

Were it not for his son, Bill de Blasio would probably not have won New York City’s Democratic primary, let alone the mayoralty. And the mess that boiled over last week between the mayor and the NYPD would’ve never happened.

Dante—or rather, the political ad featuring him—was a hit with New Yorkers because of his massive afro, his likeability, and his message on a controversial police tactic.

“He’s the only one who will end the stop-and-frisk era that unf airly targets people of color,” he said in the ad, echoing his father’s unflinching stance on discriminatory policing.

The ad was a smash because it not only captured de Blasio’s policies within the context of family life, but also because Dante looked like many of the thousands of minority youths who were subject to suspicionless stop-and-frisk tactics during the Michael Bloomberg years. When New Yorkers saw Dante, they saw themselves.

Today, police unions and a subset of the NYPD have gone to war with Bill de Blasio over Dante. They have other grievances, too, but they specifically felt the mayor threw them under the bus when he decided to bring up “the talk”—that uncomfortable but necessary conversation nearly every parent or father figure to a young man of color has had over potential dealings with police.

Dante is “a good young man, a law-abiding young man, who would never think to do anything wrong,” said de Blasio at a news conference following the non-indictment in the case of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who died in a chokehold banned by NYPD policy.

“And yet,” the mayor said, “because of a history that still hangs over us, the dangers he may face—we’ve had to literally train him, as families have all over this city for decades, in how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers who are there to protect him.”

These were not fighting words; they were never meant to be. They were simply a candid acknowledgment of a painful reality for many New Yorkers of color, at a moment they needed to hear their lives mattered—and that leaders, institutions, and the rule of law were not out of touch with their suffering.

The speech was a mere repeat of Dante’s ad message: how to roll in a city where it seems the law somehow treats minorities unfairly. De Blasio merely repackaged it live, raw, and uncut. It was the message that won him a majority of the votes and the mayoralty.

But it hit a raw nerve with police unions. They took de Blasio’s personal narrative and distorted it as an attack on police—a “broad brush” that, in the words of Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association president Patrick Lynch, “laid on the shoulders” of the NYPD the weight of a history of racism.

Of course, de Blasio’s remarks did none of that. He was speaking to his constituents—the same New Yorkers who identified with Dante and are still grappling with the legacy of stop-and-frisk, “broken windows” policing, and a non-indictment that, even to police supporters, seemed unwarranted. That’s what political actors do in times of crisis.

Lynch missed out on all of this, or at least pretended to miss out on it; he’s also a political actor. The big difference is that he’s not beholden to the Constitution or the interests of the public, but to his own and those of the officers he represents. To Lynch, any crisis is an opportunity—to score points, to secure a contract, to win reelection. He’s as much a politician and a public-relations expert as anything else.

And because he’s those two things, Lynch won’t say if he was the one behind a group of rank-and-file officers who turned their backs on de Blasio at officer Rafael Ramos’ funeral. But his specter remains. And it seems his campaign is working: the NYPD appears to have staged a quasi-walkout, refusing to keep law and order “unless absolutely necessary,” whatever that means.

At this juncture, the only question left for New York City as it heads into 2015—and by extension, America—is whether this is the caliber of men and women it wants enforcing its laws. Because police took an oath to defend the Constitution and to serve and protect people like Dante. And voters gave Bill de Blasio a clear mandate to do just that.

If police find democracy so inconvenient that it’s worth turning their backs on it, they’ve renounced their oath. They have no business bearing an arm and a shield given to them by the people.

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Civil Rights, Supreme Court

Latinos and Ferguson

A survey by Pew Research during the height of the Ferguson protests revealed that Latinos were not as interested as blacks and whites in the news surrounding the death of Michael Brown.

Of those surveyed, a mere 18 percent said to be following the events “very closely”—lower than blacks and whites at 54 and 25 percent, respectively.

Pew did not explain the gulf, but a few interrelated factors come to mind: limited news coverage by Spanish-language outlets; little journalistic presence on Twitter, where a number of reporters have been providing live updates; and the fact that Pew conducted the survey by phone, which may or may not be at odds with a conflict that has largely played out on social media.

Another factor stands out. According to U.S. Census figures, only 2.7 percent of St. Louis County, which encompasses Ferguson, is Latino. And Latinos only make up 1.2 percent of Ferguson itself. The absence of Latino faces in the protests may have contributed to this apparent apathy.

Independent of the numbers, what happened in Ferguson and the Latino reality in the United States are part of a shared history of discrimination. For decades, both blacks and Latinos have had much in common as targets of government-sanctioned abuse and inequality; Ferguson is only a page off the same book.

American jurisprudence provides an example. In May, the landmark Brown v. Board of Education, the historic equal-protection case, turned 60. What most people don’t know is that almost a decade prior to Brown, the courts had to intervene in a case where Latino children were suffering the same kind of discrimination as blacks in public education.

In Mendez v. Westminster, decided in 1946, a federal court in California declared that the segregation of children of Mexican descent “foster[s] antagonisms in the children and suggest[s] inferiority among them where none exists,” and that such  action by the state “manifests a clear purpose to arbitrarily discriminate against the pupils of Mexican ancestry and to deny to them the equal protection of the laws.”

Does that sound familiar?

Mendez was only one link in a long chain of segregation in California and the Southwest, where it wasn’t uncommon to find “Mexican seats” or “Mexican days” in places of public accommodation—the same separate-but-equal treatment experienced by blacks in the South.

But Mendez never made it to the Supreme Court, and thus it went largely unnoticed. It wasn’t until Hernandez v. Texas, decided two weeks prior to Brown, that the high court, for the first time, acknowledged that the Constitution guarantees equal protection of the laws to all, not just to blacks and whites. For the first time, Latinos had a legal weapon with a Hispanic name to call their own.

The weapon, it turned out, was of little use. With the passage of time, the Hernandez breakthrough all but vanished.

It is evident in today’s criminalization and stigmatization of a person’s immigration status. In the mass deportations of people without a criminal record. In the rampant use of force by border patrol agents. In the lack of protections for unskilled migrant workers. In the elimination of affirmative action in states such as Michigan and Florida. In laws that hinder the right to vote. In the gross application of stop-and-frisk tactics in New York and Philadelphia. In the high number  of Latinos in federal and state custody. In the dearth of economic opportunities stemming from some or all of the above.

It is for those reasons that Ferguson’s problem is also a Latino problem. The protests of the past few weeks are rooted in a shared legacy of discrimination and discontent.

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