By JOY FREEMAN-COULBARY
The expression “driving while black” (DWB) was coined to reflect the criminalization of black drivers through racial profiling that has led in the last few decades to numerous Department of Justice (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 allegedly by George Zimmerman, 28, a self-appointed vigilante and neighborhood watchman, will lead to much-needed and long overdue DOJ consent decrees prohibiting the law enforcement tactic targeting “walking while black” (WWB) — the criminalization of the too young, too urban, too old, too suspicious, too rowdy, too hood, but most definitely the too brown and too black to be freely walking the streets unmolested by unwarranted law enforcement intrusion.
In the crime-stopping mind of Zimmerman, nearly a decade older and 100 pounds heavier than the young teen, Trayvon’s act of WWB, conducted so cavalierly and slowly during a jaunt with skittles and iced tea, was criminal because Trayvon was a young black male wearing a hoodie in a Sanford, Fla., gated community.
It appears that Zimmerman’s stalking and shooting of Trayvon was fueled by unjust and misguided stereotypes—too often guised as legitimate police practices and crime fighting tools—used in determining who belongs and who doesn’t, who’s a villain and who’s law abiding, and ultimately who deserves due process and the benefit of the doubt versus who warrants swift and immediate justice.
A federal and state prohibition against the controversial “stop and frisk” police practice, also known as “Terry” stops, which disproportionately affect low-income minorities 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, the self-appointed neighborhood watchman, to deem Trayvon as “suspicious” and worthy of a stop, plays out in major cities across the nation in the form of stop-and-frisk police activity.
According to the New York Civil Liberties Union’s (NYCLU) website:
“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 grassroots and advocacy organizations, have protested 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 were innocent.
However, law enforcement officers, whether policemen or neighborhood watchmen, who conduct detentions and searches in a discriminatory manner have robbed not only the wrongfully stopped, stereotyped “suspects” of their dignity, but have also undermined our collective sense of humanity and justice. What happened to Trayvon Martin because of prejudicial and unsound community policing tactics, which up until now has gone unprosecuted, indicates 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?