Know Your Rights! Advocates Take on Stop-and-Frisk In Bronx Mural

March 9, 2012
Sam Levin
Village Voice

Activists speaking out against the New York Police Department's controversial stop-and-frisk policy are unveiling a new weapon: art!

Last month, we reported on the formation of a coalition called Communities United for Police Reform, or CPR, which has brought together dozens of groups under a unified campaign to push for increased police accountability (and to make stop-and-frisk and police reform important topics in the upcoming mayoral election).

The group has a broad agenda that includes hosting training sessions for New Yorkers and pushing legislation designed to improve police-community relations and increase the accountability around stop-and-frisk incidents.

Runnin' Scared chatted with one of the coalition's organizers this morning about the group's latest effort -- a colorful mural in the Bronx aimed at teaching passersby their rights.

The mural -- which spans three walls in Hunts Point near Lafayette Ave. and is being finished by artist Sharon De La Cruz this week -- says "Know Your Rights" in large bubble letters on one side. On another side, it reads, "If you are harassed by the police...write down the officer's badge, car number, name, or other identifying info!" And on the third side, next to the figure of a person filming, yellow letters say: "Learn how to create a cop watch in your community," and, "You have the right to observe, photograph, record, and film police activity."

The idea is to teach people their rights in a way that is more meaningful, said Yul-san Liem, a member of an organization called the Justice Committee, which is one of the steering committees of CPR.
(The mural is a CPR project, and one of the groups -- Peoples' Justice for Community Control and Police Accountability -- is leading this art initiative).

"A big mural communicates this kind of information in a different way than if you just read it," Liem said. "We want this to be a form of education that is maybe something that will stick with the person more readily than if they just read it or heard it once." The basic message this mural promotes, she said, is that individuals being stopped by the police do have rights, and New Yorkers shouldn't be afraid to take down a cop's information or record an incident if they see others in their neighborhood being stopped.

"If communities are looking out for each other and precincts are aware that communities are aware of their rights...that's going to help police officers and precincts understand that these communities are not going to stand for this anymore," she said.

The practice of stop-and-frisk -- which critics say disproportionately targets minorities and does very little to actually make the streets safer -- is especially prominent in parts of the Bronx and other lower-income neighborhoods throughout the city.

"In the neighborhoods...and precincts in the Bronx, you see some of the highest levels of stop-and-frisk, and you also see anecdotally...that many people, particularly, young people, have a lot of difficult, embarrassing, and sometimes even violent experiences with the police," she said.

In addition to the rights outlined in the mural, Liem said that New Yorkers should be aware that cops can't hold them on the street unless they have "reasonable suspicion," and "an officer's biases [based on] what you look like is not reasonable suspicion." If an individual is detained in the context of a stop-and-frisk, they have the right to remain silent, she added. Additionally, cops can only search individuals on the street if, during the frisk -- the basic pat down -- the officers feel something that might actually be a weapon. Otherwise, you have a right to not consent to a search, she said. (One part of the legislation being pushed by City Council member Jumaane Williams, a frequent critic of the NYPD, is that cops would be required to inform those they are stopping that they have a right to refuse consent to a search when the officers don't have a warrant or "probable cause").

She expects that people passing by the mural who have experienced stop-and-frisks will take something away from the artwork, Liem said.

"I would hope it's empowering. It lets people know that they are not alone in that experience," she said, "And it also lets them know there's something they can do."