I took an emotional ride on the time machine Saturday night in the city, a flashback to the days when New York’s ghetto life pulsed with anger, resentment and a feeling that change was in the air. The event that stirred up the old memories honored the late author and poet Piri Thomas at el Museo Del Barrio. Piri died last year in California after a long career that took him from hard-core, thug in prison for shooting a cop to redemption and eventually prestige as the first, best chronicler of Spanish Harlem from the inside out.
El Museo is an impressive institution at the upper end of Museum Mile on 5th Avenue, and on Saturday it was packed with a sold-out crowd of young, mostly Latinos eager to hear poetry and reminiscences about a man they had learned about in school. I wasn’t on the panel, but because I knew Piri and his work from back in the day, I wanted to be there. The occasion was the 45th anniversary of the publication of “Down These Mean Streets,” Piri’s searing, best-selling account of his life as a black Latino in Spanish Harlem. Banned in some schools across the country as just too down and dirty, it is celebrated in others; required reading for anyone seeking to understand the challenges young men face in the bleak and harrowing cityscape of the 1960’s, and to a lesser extent, today.
For me, reading the book represented a personal milestone. It had the effect of focusing and intensifying my life as a store front lawyer. By the time I read it, I was in my third and last year of Brooklyn Law School and interning at a store front legal services operation called “Harlem Assertion of Rights”. Working as a legal aide representing the indigent in places like landlord/tenant court, it was like being on an assembly line. The work was challenging, infuriating and exhausting. My mood and attitude can best be described as melancholy, and I found taking the train up to Harlem to face the endless supply of hyper-needy clients only occasionally, rewarding.
I read Piri’s “Mean Streets” at that otherwise incendiary time in America, 1968-69; cities were burning, the MLK and Bobby Kennedy assassinations dulled the optimism of the civil rights movement; the Vietnam War was raging, and kids like me were worried more about being drafted than about doing the right thing.
The book accelerated my path to urban militancy. It made me angry about injustice that I previously took for granted, almost part of the scenery. Although ghetto was all around me, from my apartment in Alphabet City in the Lower East Side to the store front law office on 116th Street and 8th Avenue, Piri’s grim portrait of thug life was my “Autobiography of Malcolm X.” It was an inspirational manifesto which made clear I had to use my law license to attack the status quo and fight for clients, not merely represent them.
For the next couple of years, I became a crusader against the institutional abuse suffered by the indigent and voiceless. With a Pancho Villa mustache and shoulder-length hair suddenly I became a familiar figure in court and out representing activists and the impoverished, standing between cops and demonstrators on picket lines and in the 1969-1971 era version of the Occupy movement.
The Piri Thomas event at el Museo reminded me of that man 45th years ago. Especially when one of my former clients Felipe Luciano who co-founded New York’s Young Lord’s Party took the stage to compare New York City’s current ‘Stop and Frisk’ policy to the dread days of the Brown Shirts in early Nazi Germany. As always with sloppy Nazi analogies I shook my head and whispered ‘don’t go there’. But forgiving Felipe the hyperbole, his condemnation of ‘Stop and Frisk’ was eloquent and out-raged, and at the end there was no doubt that the Geraldo of 1969 would have opposed the Stop and Frisk policy with the last fiber of my body; even though the Geraldo of 2012 supports them.
What happened? Have I sold my soul to the establishment?
The statistics on Stop and Frisk clearly show a policy that has at its core racial profiling, whether or not intentional. 684,330 people were stopped in 2011, 87% of them either black or Hispanic; just 9% were whites. When you factor in that only 12% of those stopped received summonses or were arrested, and that only 819 guns were recovered, it means vast numbers of minority kids in New York City are being stopped for no reason other than an individual cop’s suspicion that “criminal activity is afoot.”
And yet there is another statistic, just as dramatic. There have been 5,628 fewer homicides in the ten years the policy has been in effect than in the previous ten years. That is a lot of dead kids presumably saved because guns are less prevalent down on these mean streets than they were back in the day.
I thought when I began this essay that at the end I would announce that the Old Geraldo has returned to announce the New Geraldo was wrong and state firmly that Stop and Frisk is wrong. But I can’t. Not yet. I want to talk to more mothers from places like Bushwick Brooklyn and the South Bronx and ask them which policy they think keeps their sons safer.
Geraldo Rivera is a senior columnist for Fox News Latino.