Sure It's Unconstitutional & Bloomberg Is Out, But the Subject Proves Unavoidable Even in the Galapagos Islands
The best part about Ecuador is when I forget myself. I am in a gondola high above the Mashpi Reserve when that happens. We have just completed a three-kilometer hike through the rainforest, down a steep slope toward a waterfall, then on through the shin-high current of the river for another kilometer or so.
My companions and our guide are spread out before me. But there’s enough distance between us that I see them against the towering green landscape. Man in proportion to nature. The clean clear river encircling my feet, eddying around smooth wet stones, splashing against my Wellies. A few hundred steps above the river, we board the gondola and travel the long distance between the cloud forest and the rainforest. The air is alive with the songs of Mashpi’s native birds, the high-pitched call of its frogs and the rushing river far below. You cannot get to know God unless you’re not there –is a quote I’ve seen on a refrigerator magnet. Now I begin to sense what that means. There is more to life than me.
This is not the kind of realization you can sustain while traveling. There are planes and buses, schedules and a National Geographic cruise through the Galapagos Islands still to come. But once you know what it feels like, it comes back to you. A very nice place to be. The only response is gratitude.
The next-best part is being cut off from the 24/7 news cycle and my social-media accounts. Before boarding the cruise ship, I worried a little about missing the Democratic presidential debate before the New Hampshire primary. But I got over that soon enough. It was edifying and nurturing to focus on natural selection, adaptive radiation, and Charles Darwin as I hiked endemic habitats and cruised coves that were home to giant tortoises, sea lions, blue-footed boobies, red-throated frigate birds, and the centerpiece of Darwin’s breakthrough contribution to science—his beloved finches.
As the end of my two-week journey to Ecuador drew to a close, however, I allowed myself to read a copy of the ship’s daily news summary to prepare myself for the return to so-called reality. That’s when I came across an Op-ed in the New York Times, penned by Shira A. Sheindlin, the federal judge who ruled in 2013 that New York’s stop-and-frisk policy was unconstitutional. The piece pointed out that stop-and-frisk began under Rudy Giuliani but escalated significantly under Bloomberg:
“While Michael Bloomberg was mayor of New York, black and Latino people were disproportionately stopped, and often frisked, millions of times, peaking at 690,000 in 2011. After my ruling, the number of stops plummeted to 11,000 in 2018. And crime did not rise. Despite this, Mayor Bloomberg continued to zealously defend stop-and-frisk, including in eyebrow-raising comments at the Aspen Institute in 2015 which recently resurfaced.”
The policy was a mistake, Judge Sheindlin said. Bloomberg has a pure heart but an empty head. He is not a racist. Just look at the many good things he’s done for people of color since leaving office. The WeCare movement, for example, which provided jobs for low-income people. The citywide antipoverty program. The building-trades agreement, which ensured construction job opportunities for women and minority-owned businesses. The Corporate Alliance Program, which significantly increased the value of public contracts to minorities and women.
All of this sounds good. But the argument is hollow. It says, “Here’s some money. Forget that I have demeaned you. And not only demeaned you but deprived you of both your human and constitutional rights. But don’t worry about that. With these financial opportunities, you can buy a new car, live in a good neighborhood, send your kids to decent schools, get out of poverty. All you have to do is develop a little amnesia. Let bygones be bygones.”
What this rationale leaves out is the fact that middle-class black folks still get stopped for driving while black. I certainly have. When I was a college student in Riverdale, New York, I was stopped by white police officers because I “fit the description” of someone who’d been breaking into cars. If my white dorm mates hadn’t happened along at the time, I might have been hauled off to jail. It was only because they said, “He’s one of us,” that I was allowed to go free.
So here I am on a cruise ship in the Galapagos Islands reading this Op-ed and fuming inside. A few days earlier, a fellow passenger who lives in Boston told me the same story almost word-for-word about a black student in the METCO program, Boston's oldest voluntary desegregation plan. He’d been sponsored by one of her friends in the upscale Wellesley community and was stopped because he “fit the description.” It was only because his white sponsor appeared at the crucial moment and said, “Hey, he’s with us,” that the boy was released. The only difference between this Boston story and mine is that they occurred decades apart.
These incidents are mild compared to the long list of black people killed by gun-happy white police officers during similar episodes. Then there’s the viral incident in New York City that showed a swarm of police officers beating an unarmed black man for smoking pot. Can there be any doubt that many similar incidents occur all the time without making headlines?
Michael Bloomberg will not be president of the United States, and stop-and-frisk is no longer a matter of policy. But as the New York Times reported, new evidence has emerged of the harms created by the stop-and-frisk strategy. "We now know that students heavily exposed to stop-and-frisk were more likely to struggle in school, that young men were more likely to experience symptoms of anxiety and depression, that this exposure fostered cynicism in policing and government writ large, and that it made residents more likely to retreat from civic life."
After I left Ecuador, I watched the presidential debate that aired prior to the South Carolina primary and Super Tuesday. Bloomberg defended himself by pointing to his apology and taking responsibility for allowing stop-and-frisk to “get out of hand.” He echoed the work he’s done since his time as mayor.
How much better it would have been, though, if he'd been able to say from the get-go that this humiliating and racist policy, begun under Rudy Giuliani, has no place in a Bloomberg administration, and I am abolishing it the day I take office.
Like the judge who penned that Op-ed in the Times, Mayor Bloomberg really seems to believe that he is not a racist. But he failed to convince the handful of African-Americans who stood and turned their backs on him when he spoke during a church service a few days later on the 55th anniversary of Selma’s Bloody Sunday.
The heart of the matter is this: After all this time, African-Americans can never really be sure that equal protection under the law applies to us. Even after Bloomberg’s post-mayoral financial programs, the election of a black president, and five decades of Civil Rights, we are always black until proven innocent.
No wonder it felt great to tour the Mashpi rainforest and Ecuador's Galapagos Islands. For a while, it really is possible to forget yourself. To see humanity against the broad natural landscape. When it happens, you try never to forget it. Because in the end, you’re neither black nor white in the eyes of God. Just a soul journeying through time, trying to get it right.
For Further Reading:
Viral Post: "Taking a Black Walk in a White Neighborhood"
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