Bloomberg was out of office in 2015 when he appeared before 400 people at a conference in Aspen, Colo. It has been reported that Bloomberg’s representatives asked the Aspen Institute not to distribute video footage of his program there. Nonetheless, audio from the program has been sitting on YouTube for years. The language is jarring.
“Ninety-five percent of your murders and murderers and murder victims fit one M.O. You can just take the description, Xerox it and pass it out to all the cops. They are male minorities, 15 to 25,” Bloomberg said. “So one of the unintended consequences is people say, ‘Oh my God, you are arresting kids for marijuana that are all minorities.’ Yes, that’s true. Why? Because we put all the cops in the minority neighborhoods. Yes, that’s true. Why do we do it? Because that is where all the crime is. … And the way you get the guns out of kids’ hands is to throw them up against the wall and frisk them.”
Throw them up against the wall. It is impossible for me to imagine that those words would have rolled off Bloomberg’s tongue had he been speaking to a room full of young black and brown men. Or, if people who looked like members of his own family faced that kind of scrutiny as they moved about their communities.
This is where the world cleaves into different camps. For some people, those are just words. For others, they speak to a very real fear or a very real memory of being thrown against a building, splayed across the hood of police car or forced to kneel on the pavement, hands clasped behind their head.
I know there will be readers who wonder why people who had nothing to hide would bristle at being stopped by police who are there to protect and serve. Imagine being stopped not once, but perhaps a dozen times. Might that try your patience or change your view of law enforcement, alter the way you viewed yourself or your place in the world?
And Bloomberg was not just talking about stopping someone on the street corner to ask what they were up to. He was casually describing an act of violence. And reinforcing the idea that black and brown men need to be restrained by any means necessary.
The thing about stop-and-frisk and all the other “hot zone” policing programs that use the same tactics is that they all rely on racial profiling. To catch those who are up to no good, a large universe of people are placed under suspicion supposedly for the greater good.
Now that Bloomberg is running for president, there is good reason for voters, especially black voters, to turn and flee unless he can turn this millstone into a building block of trust. Just before he launched his presidential bid, Bloomberg apologized for his longtime support of stop-and-frisk. He now says that the program was a mistake and that he had an epiphany of sorts when people he respected explained the program’s harmful legacy.
Polls show that he is attracting large numbers of black voters in places where he has been spending millions in TV ads. But those voters tend to be older; can he win over the younger voters who are more likely to flick away his candidacy the way Jay-Z brushes dirt off his shoulder?
That is a big lift. Younger black voters are showing stronger support for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) than Bloomberg, and it is not clear that they will ever migrate toward a billionaire whose wealth and past party affiliation with the GOP make him suspect. Two weeks ago, when Bloomberg was approaching a viability threshold, I argued that he needed to figure out how to strengthen his apology around stop-and-frisk. It is clear he still does not understand that this is an existential threat to his candidacy.
In order for people to unfold their arms, he is going to have to face the wall of justified anger and absorb it at full blast as those most affected by stop-and-frisk — the young men and the people who love them — explain how the policy created emotional and, in some cases, actual scars.
He has to be willing to talk about race and racism, not once or twice but with consistency and courage at a fractured moment in America. That means staring down advisers who caution against leaning into that powder keg.
He has to be willing to address the mind-set that created stop-and-frisk and keeps some version of it alive. And that means bringing cops to the table and pushing the leadership and the rank-and-file in blue to interrogate the social and racial factors that lead to disproportionate levels of scrutiny aimed at black and brown men. That will not be easy.
But it is worth the risk. A leader who can create a pathway toward a model of policing that seeks justice, while facing up to historical injustice, would be doing a great thing for all of America.