The expression “Driving While Black” (DWB) was coined to reflect the criminalization of black drivers through racial profiling that has led in the past few decades to numerous Justice Department (DOJ) consent decrees in major cities across the U.S. to monitor and stymie such prejudicial and arbitrary police practices.
Perhaps the federal investigation being launched to probe the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in central Florida will lead to long-overdue DOJ consent decrees prohibiting the law enforcement tactic targeting those caught Walking While Black (WWB).
It’s the criminalization of the too young, too urban, too old, too suspicious, too rowdy, too hood and too brown to be freely walking the streets unmolested by unwarranted intrusion.
In the crime-stopping mind of George Zimmerman, a self-appointed vigilante, Trayvon was a threat. It didn’t matter that Zimmerman, at 28, was a decade older and a hundred pounds heavier than the teen.
Trayvon carried skittles and iced tea, but Zimmerman saw a criminal because Trayvon was a young black male wearing a hoodie in a Sanford, Fla., gated community.
It appears to me that Zimmerman’s stalking and shooting of Trayvon was fueled by unjust and misguided stereotypes that are too often guised as legitimate police practices and crime-fighting tools. These tools are used to determine who belongs and who doesn’t, who’s a villain and who’s law-abiding, and ultimately who deserves due process.
A federal and state prohibition against the controversial stop-and-frisk police practice, also known as “Terry” stops, would send a strong message against the type of racial profiling that contributed to Trayvon’s death.
In this instance, Zimmerman was a police wannabe whose obsession with cops and robbers had fatal consequences. However, the type of discriminatory stereotyping that led Zimmerman to deem Trayvon as “suspicious” and worthy of a stop plays out every day in major cities.
According to the New York Civil Liberties Union’s (NYCLU) Web site:
The NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practices raise serious concerns over racial profiling, illegal stops and privacy rights. The Department’s own reports on its stop-and-frisk activity confirm what many people in communities of color across the city have long known: The police are stopping hundreds of thousands of law abiding New Yorkers every year, and the vast majority are black and Latino.
NYCLU and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, along with dozens of other grass-roots and advocacy organizations, have protested against the discretionary and often discriminatory practice of police stopping “suspicious persons”and frisking them without necessarily having probable cause.
Hip hop mogul Russell Simmons and former Princeton professor and civil rights activist Cornel West have also opposed the “stop-and-frisk” police practice. Quantitatively, racialized police practices do not impede crime. NYCLU has found that nine out of 10 New Yorkers stopped and frisked have been innocent.
However, law enforcement officers — and neighborhood watchmen — who conduct detentions and searches in a discriminatory manner have robbed the wrongfully stopped of their dignity and undermined our collective sense of humanity and justice.
What happened to Trayvon Martin because of prejudicial and unsound community policing tactics shows that “stops and frisks” and discriminatory law enforcement puts us all in jeopardy. Who knows when anyone of us could be wrongfully judged, mistaken and fatally stereotyped?
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