Silence is golden. A proverbial saying, often used in circumstances where it is thought that saying nothing is preferable to speaking. Several thousand protestors in New York hope their silence June 17 speaks volumes in the war against racial profiling.
"There was a great power in the silence and diversity of groups who turned out in the tens of thousands," said Paul Russell, the communications director of Judson Memorial Church in New York City. The church, affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the American Baptist Church, counted a dozen members as part of the throng of New Yorkers marching silently down Manhattan's Fifth Avenue from lower Harlem to the Upper East Side, protesting the New York Police Department's controversial stop-and-frisk policy.
The policy, which New York Mayor Bloomberg and NYPD brass defend as a tool used to take guns off the streets, is seen as oppressive and racist. The police deny that race or quotas motivate stops and say they are stopping anyone considered suspicious.
"Something fundamental about our social contract has shifted for the worse, and under the guise of "security," our fears have curdled and corrupted into a spiritual sickness with severe political ramifications," said the Rev. Michael Ellick, Judson minister. "Under the teachings of the Gospel, it is God who is being stopped and frisked, Jesus himself who is being racially profiled, and letting this go unchallenged was never an option."
Ellick pointed to statistics that cite a massive rise in street stops since Mayor Bloomberg took office, with more than 4 million people stopped under his administration. "No gun is retrieved in 99.9 percent of the stops, the number of gun seizures has fallen sharply overall, and nine out of 10 people stopped are totally innocent –– neither arrested or ticketed," he said. "This leads to an atmosphere of fear and distrust between the NYPD and New York citizens which, far from keeping our city safe, breaks down trust within our communities. In such an environment, what can communities of faith do other than speak truth to power, and represent our calling to prophecy?"
Mayor Bloomberg said the stop and frisk program is critical, especially in high crime neighborhoods. To address the concerns about stop and frisk, the mayor said new training videos and precinct-level audits by commanding officers, who will now be held accountable by their superiors will be implemented.
Ellick said that the city is ripe for some kind of change. "You can not live in NYC and not have friends impacted by these policies," he said. "This is part of why the turnout for the Silent March was so overwhelming –– faith communities on the ground have been seeing this for years now, and this gave them an opportunity to express their frustration with these oppressive and racist conditions."
Civil rights leaders the Rev. Al Sharpton and NAACP President Benjamin Jealous joined the march with U.S. Representative Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), union and civil liberty leaders. They met with the mayor to discuss the problem, and agreed to keep talking about the stop and frisk issue.
"The real victory of Sunday was the amazing turn-out of community members: it showed just how much true grassroots momentum there is on this issue, and I left feeling heartened that so many New Yorkers were willing to stand and not speak out [a reference to the silent march] on this issue," Ellick said.