No Place in Pittsburgh for Stop and Frisk*
By Mik Pappas
Before there was George Floyd, there was Amadou Diallo, the 23 year old Guinean immigrant who was gunned down 23 years ago by four plainclothes NYPD officers. When the officers exited their vehicle to stop-and-frisk Diallo, they mistook his wallet for a handgun and riddled his body with 19 of the 41 bullets that they shot at him. This was while Diallo, who spoke five languages and aspired to attend college, was just standing in front of his apartment building unarmed.
Diallo’s tragic death not only sparked a movement to end stop-and-frisk in New York and elsewhere, it also marked a turning point in the centuries-long struggle against racial capitalism and caste in the United States. Similar to the brutal murder of Emmit Till in 1955, Diallo’s killing introduced a new generation of freedom fighters to the through-line between antebellum slavery and modern conditions.
In 1955 those conditions were Jim Crow segregation. In 1999 they were Mass Incarceration and the War on Drugs. In 2020 they were, and continue to be, the growth and emboldening of pro-authoritarian, white supremacist militancy.
This is why many of us are so deeply hurt, and quite frankly incensed, by recent demands for stop-and-frisk in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, as a purported policy solution to our current and ongoing urban gun violence crisis. We see these demands as law and order rhetorical ploys that promote a false, racially discriminatory solution that has been proven ineffective at reducing gun violence.
Systematic civil rights violations will not make us safer. Stop-and-frisk leads to costly class action lawsuits against cities, damages police-community relations, and aggravates the intense grief and trauma that afflicts those most directly affected by urban gun violence. Diallo’s killing was not an isolated incident, but a direct result of stop-and-frisk.
Moreover, and although this probably will make some of us uncomfortable, these recent demands for stop-and-frisk are textbook racial dog whistling, drawn from a law and order rhetoric that includes terms like “tough on crime,” the endorsement of false solutions like three strikes laws, cash bail, and mandatory minimum prison sentences, and the use of Willie Horton-style attacks against public figures.
We understand these rhetorical devices to be strategically coded racial appeals that may appear harmless on their face, but actually reinforce negative racial prejudices and stereotypes such as Black criminality. While their proponents may not be card-carrying members of organized hate groups, they do strategically manipulate the racial hatred of others to serve their own self-interests.
For example, in the context of framing criminal legal system responses to urban gun violence, law and order rhetoric fueled a devastating era of racialized mass incarceration. It thereby paved the way to a more than ten-fold increase in American prison populations between 1970 and 2008. Young Black Americans were maligned with dehumanizing terms like “superpredator,” and the federal government shifted hundreds of millions from their housing and healthcare to their policing and imprisonment.
They responded by pioneering Hip Hop Culture, which as a testament to the ingenuity and resilience of its young creators, has become a transnational movement and universal language for social justice struggles worldwide.
From South Africa to India, Hip Hop artists hold steadfast at the vanguard of resistance to authoritarianism. In response to the killing of Amadou Diallo, 41 Hip Hop artists (representing 41 shots at Diallo) collaborated to raise awareness and speak out through an album entitled “Hip Hop for Respect.” Hip Hop artists have become reliable electoral influencers, consistently helping to engage and turnout disenfranchised voters.
Yet and still, but predictably I suppose, law and order rhetoric has always attempted to counter and suppress the truth-telling, life-affirming, and complex messages of Hip Hop Culture, by, among other things, treating its artistic works as good for nothing but trial evidence. In stride with recent demands for stop-and-frisk in Pittsburgh, some even went so far as to suggest that rap music causes urban gun violence.
There has been a massive resurgence in law and order-rhetoric over the past several years. This has accompanied refusals to condemn violent white supremacists and overt racial derogations. Whereas in the past this rhetoric fueled an era of racialized state neglect and repression, its recent resurgence fuels the growth of a powerful, extremist political movement that at best turns a blind eye to racial terror.
This makes demands for stop-and-frisk wildly irresponsible. Rather than default to demonizing young people of color and their cultures, we should begin by fostering safe spaces to listen, learn, and build trusting relationships with them. They are the most directly affected and traumatized by urban gun violence. Their civic empowerment, collective insights and culture will provide the solutions, not their systematic repression through policies like stop-and-frisk.
Mik Pappas is an attorney and Magisterial District Judge in Pittsburgh, PA.
*This essay was originally published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on August 10, 2022.