2012-04-13 / Columnists

School Scope

The Trayvon Trigger And Educational Stop And Frisk
Commentary By Norman Scott

It was a late weekday summer night on the sweltering streets of Philadelphia – early summer, around 2004. I was attending an educational technology conference and had touched base with an old acquaintance who had just gotten her master’s from Wharton, one of the top grad schools in the nation. I was escorting her back to her apartment after dinner. It was her last night in town and she had to be out of the apartment the next day.

I had been told that Wharton is located in an iffy neighborhood but then again people told me all of Philly is in an iffy neighborhood, so my antennae were up. But my friend, in her late 20s, very blond and very white, did not seem concerned. As we turned the corner to her block I noticed a group of black men down at the other end. As we got closer I could see they were drinking beer and seemed to be celebrating something. They appeared to be in their 20s and my level of concern went up two notches. But my friend just kept walking and I followed. As we approached they all broke into smiles, as she went up and hugged them all, congratulating them on having gotten their Wharton master’s or Ph.D. degrees that day. Well, I learned an important lesson about checking my own racial attitudes at the door. Too bad George Zimmerman did not check his own racial attitudes at the door.

While I do think people have to exercise caution in certain situations, there has to be a balance. I had some interesting interactions with black teens in the late 80s-early 90s when I was hanging out with the Van Arsdale HS basketball team for the four years one of my former sixth-grade students was a star on the team. What a mix of kids. The experience was generally so positive and affected my views of black teens.

Many people are having Trayvon Martin moments, some honest attempts to understand the implications of what happened in Florida despite the Rupert Murdoch media (NY Post and FOX) attempts to smear him.

Any info coming out of them should be termed as FOX FACTS. In an example of this bias, the NY Post ran a front-page photo of three black lawmakers in Albany who had worn hoodies, depicting them as “race hustlers” despite the fact that there were also white lawmakers who had worn hoodies in support of the Trayvon Martin family. Fair and balanced FOX FACTS.

Though Zimmerman was not officially part of law enforcement, the stop and frisk blitz here in NYC has led to some thoughts on the subject, with a particularly noteworthy NY Times April 10, 2012 column by Michael Powell who points out the growth in S&F from 2002 when police stopped and questioned 97,296 to the 685,724 New Yorkers stopped in 2011, a vast majority black or Latino men, sometimes at gunpoint and with their faces pressed to the pavement with 88 percent of them innocent.

Powell points out more New Yorkers were stopped than the entire population of Boston.

Some may think the 2 percent gun recovery makes it all worth it. I don’t agree.

If it were young white men being stopped time and again there would be an outcry.

Powell says “the unbridled use of stops leaves a deep bruise of unfairness, particularly around the issue of race.” He asked eight black male students who attend the Borough of Manhattan Community College how many times they have been stopped. “Cumulatively, they said they had been stopped 92 times. They spoke with surprisingly little rancor. But they wonder at the casual humiliations.

The police stopped Mario Brown, who dreams of a career in theater arts, and forced him to take off his sneakers in the subway. (“It’s kind of ridiculous; I don’t see any Caucasian kids doing this.”) They forced Jamel Gordon-Mayfield, 18, the son of a police detective and a doctor, out of his parents’ S.U.V. one afternoon and demanded he take a Breathalyzer. (He passed.) Then they searched him and the car. Jasheem Smiley, 19, sweet and soft-spoken with a neat goatee, lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with his uncle. Two months ago, he says, a van drove up on the sidewalk and a man jumped out. “I’m a cop!” the man yelled. “Get down on the sidewalk!” Mr. Smiley complied but feared he was being robbed and asked to see a badge. The officer, he said, responded by putting his shoe to his face and pressing it to the pavement. Mr. Smiley’s tone is matter of fact. He speaks mainly of his humiliation at lying on the sidewalk as hipsters gawked. What, I ask, is his aspiration? He smiles, rueful. “I’m a first-year criminal justice major,” he says. “I’d like to be an investigator, but sometimes I wonder about that.” Do your own poll. Ask 8 white college kids how many times they have been stopped.

Former police captain and Molloy College professor John A. Eterno, whose brother James fought a valiant battle as chapter leader of the soon to be closed Jamaica HS which came under assault by the DOE, “sees a place for stop-and-frisk tactics. Gangbangers dominate the courtyard of public houses. Put them through the wringer. But to apply the tactic so broadly is a disaster in a democratic society,” Eterno says, pointing out that, “Crime has dropped 80 percent…. yet there are 700,000 suspects in the streets?” He charged that the police are viewed as “an army of occupation” within some of the very communities they are there to protect.

Throughout the years I taught elementary school, I was not really conscious of what my male students would be going through as they grew into adulthood.

As someone who believed in teaching the whole child, I should have been. This failure was starkly brought home to me when I went to see a one-man play performed by actor/-comedian Ernie Silva, my former fourth-grade student (1983).

Ernie was one of the really good kids and top students, so in my mind, compared to other students I had whom I expected might get into trouble, I didn’t think he would face stop and frisk situations. Ernie would laugh at my naïveté.

Ernie’s play, “Heavy Light the Weight of a Flame,” depicts his years growing up in the projects in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn and his journey through his young adult years, culminating in a master’s degree from USC.

In one of the most vivid scenes, Ernie and his friends are coming home from an audition when the scene described by Jasheem Smiley is enacted: a police van pulls up and 5 cops come out with guns drawn. Twelve-year-old Ernie had just been handed an ice cream cone bought at the bodega and, startled, dropped it. He acts out the profound disrespect, verbal abuse and dripping sarcasm pointed at him and his friends. It ends with the cop giving him a littering citation for dropping the cone. Whether it happened exactly that way or is allegorical is beside the point. It demonstrates the state of mind that exists even in our finest black and latino students.

While I don’t have room in this column to expand on the idea, I published an essay on my blog (April 8) titled “Educational Stop and Frisk Infects School,” in which the author extended the idea of S&F into the corporate school culture established by Bloomberg.

Here are just a few points made:

Corporatism is the new racism. The common theme among the corporatists is that minority communities have nothing to offer, should have no voice in their education and need direction from outsiders in order to live properly.

This fact is proven every day in all of New York City’s schools.

The battle against corporate school reform does not stop at standardized testing and school closings.

It must also include the fight against a top-down, dictatorial manner of running each school building.

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