Fifty years ago this week, in August 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. profoundly addressed the nation to demand justice and equality for racial minorities. Despite the huge changes that have occurred since then, people of color still face discrimination and prejudice in many ways, including with the New York City Police Department’s implementation of drug laws.
New York City is the marijuana arrest capital of the world – with almost half a million people being arrested for marijuana possession since New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg assumed office in 2002. The vast majority of these arrests - 87 percent - were of Black and Latino, despite data indicating that people of color and white people have a similar rate of marijuana use.
Dr. King asserted that "we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." Last week, the New York City Council helped those waters flow. Mayor Bloomberg’s veto of the Community Safety Act was successfully overturned.
This piece of legislation is comprised of two important progressive changes. It prevents discriminatory profiling by the NYPD – particularly relating to the stop-and-frisk program, and provides oversight for the police department being allocated to the independent Department of Investigation.
Prior to last week’s vote, an inspiring press conference and rally were staged at City Hall, where progressive advocates from a range of backgrounds voiced their support for change.
Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said we must ensure that “New York City is a place where our youth of colour can walk the streets,” and that it is time to end stop-and-frisk, which she defined as a “racial profiling program.”
Bloomberg and his allies have claimed that the legislation prevents violent crime by allowing police to get weapons off the streets. But statistics refute this. There has been little change in either the number of shooting victims, or the number of homicides since 2002, despite this period seeing the annual number of stop-and-frisks increasing seven-fold.
If effectively implemented, this new legislation will significantly decrease marijuana arrests and police discrimination against people of colour. The Council’s decision is a great success for civil liberties, as well as a victory in the fight against the drug war.
Perhaps this will set a national precedent. Benjamin Todd Jealous, the president of the NAACP, declared on the steps of City Hall, “What happens in New York City has consequences for the nation.”
It still needs a lot of work, but Dr. King’s dream lives on.
Avinash Tharoor is a freelance journalist. Follow Avinash on Twitter: @AvinashTharoor