October 11, 2011
In This Case, a Protest With Focus
“The buses?” said Javier Valdés. “I have 20, in total.”
He checked a list, then corrected himself.
“Sorry,” he said. “Twenty-one.”
On Wednesday morning, those buses will pick up about 1,000 people from Brooklyn, Staten Island and Queens and drop them at Cadman Plaza for a march across the Brooklyn Bridge. About half of the marchers are expected to come from two high schools.
Outside City Hall Park, there will be a few speeches. After the demonstration, the students will fan out and visit the offices of City Council members.
They have two purposes.
The first is to protest New York City’s practice of having the police stop and frisk hundreds of thousands of young people, mostly African-Americans and Latinos, an overwhelming majority of whom are charged with nothing.
The second is to do something about it.
Mr. Valdes is deputy director of Make the Road New York, an advocacy group for immigrants and low-income people. In a season of demonstrations that are like great bonfires, his group uses torches. That is intentional, said Oona Chatterjee, an executive director of the group.
“The dialogue opened on Wall Street is incredible, but there isn’t anything theoretical about this struggle,” Ms. Chatterjee said. “We focus on trying to develop concrete solutions to problems, and figuring out who in government will be our partners to help us solve it.”
Unlike the Occupy Wall Street approach, the tactics of Make the Road do not necessarily hold the promise of opening a global conversation about a tilted economy in which most wealth slides into the hands of a few.
Yet however short on dazzle and razzle Make the Road may be, it has clear, decisive wins that can be counted. Last year, members of the group lobbied the city to stop cooperating with federal authorities in the deportation of people arrested but not subsequently prosecuted. About 1,000 people walked to City Hall and met with council members.
The chain of march, protest and lobbying led to a bill sponsored by the council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, that, if passed, would change the city’s current practice, and an announcement last month that the Bloomberg administration would support it.
Another campaign — to get the developer of the Queens Center Mall, which received subsidies from the state and city governments, to require that living wages be paid to retail workers — has not made any gains.
“It would have been better if we had arranged this before the mall obtained all these tax breaks,” Mr. Valdes said.
At meetings over the summer and in September, the group discussed what it would take on this autumn. One possibility was enforcement of rent laws. But the stop-and-frisk practices of the New York Police Department “had intergenerational traction,” Mr. Valdes said.
The Police Department has maintained that officers legally question and frisk people when they suspect wrongdoing or have concern for safety, although some legal authorities say the department is misapplying United States Supreme Court decisions. Legal or not, it has become an unwelcome ritual of adolescent passage in the city’s low-income neighborhoods.
TWO [Make the Road NY] organizers, Jesus Gonzalez and Jose Lopez, met with students at the Bushwick School for Social Justice in Brooklyn and the Pan American International High School in Elmhurst, Queens.
“We have gone to three entire grades at two different schools,” Mr. Lopez said. “I can’t recall one classroom where I asked people if they had been stopped and frisked without at least half of the class raising their hands.”
Among those who plan to attend the rally on Wednesday is Romale Galbreith Johnson, 20, of Bedford-Stuyvesant,Brooklyn. He said he had been frisked about 20 times since the age of 15, most recently while he was standing against a wall on the platform of the Bedford Avenue stop of the L train. A plainclothes officer inspected his MetroCard — he was using a student card, as he was attending summer school — and then began to pat him down.
“I was asking him why he was stopping and frisking,” Mr. Galbreith Johnson said. “He said, ‘If you want to be smart, we can take y’all in.’ ”
A few days ago, Mr. Galbreith Johnson said, he attended an Occupy Wall Street rally with some friends. “I’m trying to remember one of the signs — it was banks and Wall Street,” he said. “Robbing the community, I guess.”
He has been frisked so often, Mr. Galbreith Johnson said, that he had not realized there were laws limiting it until he went to a meeting at Make the Road.
“I said, ‘Oh, so that’s what it is?’ ” he said.
So he is quite clear about why he will demonstrate on Wednesday:
“People abusing the law.”
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