Waiting While Black in Philadelphia Can Get You Arrested

What happened in a Philadelphia Starbucks is another example of the indignities Black people face every day.

By Reggie Shuford, executive director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

(Image Via Twitter)

Late last week, two Black men in Philadelphia were doing what people do every day in this city — they waited in a coffee shop to meet an associate. While they were engaged in this mundane activity, they were removed from the Starbucks cafe at 18th and Spruce Streets in handcuffs by Philadelphia police officers.

This is another example of the kind of daily indignities that African-Americans face every day in Philadelphia and around the country. We can’t even wait in a coffee shop for a friend without the possibility that someone will call the police. Two days after the news broke of the incident, I’m angrier now than I was when I first heard about it.

The neighborhood where this incident occurred is known as Rittenhouse Square. For those not familiar with Philadelphia, it’s a tony neighborhood of beautiful townhouses and high-end apartment buildings.

It’s also the neighborhood with the highest rates of racial disparities in stops and frisks by police in all of Philadelphia. In 2010, the ACLU of Pennsylvania sued the city because the Philadelphia Police Department’s use of stop-and-frisk was discriminatory. Our data showed that African-Americans were far more likely to be stopped and frisked than their white counterparts. Making matters worse, those stops were often without any justifiable cause.

A year later, the city agreed to a consent decree to settle the case. That agreement requires the city to collect data on the PPD’s use of stop-and-frisk — including the demographic information of people who are stopped and the reasons why they were stopped — as well as to train officers to eliminate bias-based policing.

The police service area where the Starbucks is located has a Black population of just 3 percent. But 67 percent of the stops that occurred there in the first half of 2017 were of African-Americans. The two other police service areas in this district — known as District 9 — show similar lopsided disparities. In one of the bordering police service areas, a whopping 84 percent of pedestrians stopped were African-Americans in a neighborhood with a Black population of 16 percent.

Seven years after the city agreed to do better, we still see consistent racial disparities in stops and frisks. Yet, in a video statement in response to the incident, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross had the nerve to say that his officers “did absolutely nothing wrong.”

His statement, the data the city has collected on stops, and this incident all lead me to wonder if Ross and his leaders in this district and this police service area, Capt. Danielle Vales and Lt. Jeffrey Rabinovitch, are serious about ending racial profiling in this neighborhood and throughout the city.

There was no need for a Starbucks employee to call 911 because two men were waiting for an associate in their store. And even after the police were called, the police did not have to end the situation by arresting these men. If Commissioner Ross is right that these officers followed policy, then the policy needs to change. Starbucks may be able to decide who sits in its store, but only the police could decide to arrest these men.

Racial bias and discrimination are so steeped in American culture that those of us who experience it on a regular basis have learned to live as second-class citizens in the country of our birth. Many folks have expressed pride or relief because the two men remained calm. I get that. I am glad, too. We have seen far too many incidents that have quickly spiraled out of control.

But there is an ugly side to that as well. Black people, men in particular, are not allowed the full range of emotional expression in public spaces. Even when an emotion other than being calm is warranted, we have been taught and have learned to police our emotions. No matter how badly we are being treated or how much our dignity is being assailed, we have to be the ones maintaining control and being responsible for de-escalating these situations.

We are not allowed to be angry. Or loud. Or boisterous. Or too happy or too celebratory. In other words, we’re not allowed to be human. We police ourselves because we know that others are already policing us. That, too, takes a toll.

As this story has gathered attention over the last three days, many people are doing back flips to justify what happened here. It is well past time to quit making excuses for racist behavior. Enough with the rationalizations and alternative theories. Believe us. We are credible messengers of our own truths and lived experiences. We shouldn’t have to rely on a white person or a video to validate us.

Abu-Jamal Hep C treatment victory will benefit 7,000 PA state prison inmates

By Matt Stroud, Criminal Justice Researcher/Writer, ACLU of Pennsylvania

A federal judge has ordered Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections to provide Mumia Abu-Jamal with hepatitis C treatment. Photo via The Inquirer.

In a victory for some 7,000 Pennsylvania state prison inmates, a federal judge this week ordered that Mumia Abu-Jamal — the activist and radio journalist serving a life sentence at a state prison in Frackville — should be treated for his hepatitis C infection.

Hepatitis C is pervasive in prisons; in Pennsylvania, about 14 percent of the state’s prisoner population is infected with it. But the only cures are produced by Gilead Sciences Inc., AbbVie Inc., and Merck & Co., which charge as much as $94,500 for complete treatment. In a remarkable opinion by Middle District Judge Robert D. Mariani, the judge was unmoved by the cost, which could rise to as much as $600 million if every one of Pennsylvania’s infected state prisoners receives treatment. “The only conceivable injury [the Pa. Department of Corrections] will suffer is monetary,” the judge wrote.

“As a result of the grant of this injunction,” he continued, “Defendants will be required to treat Plaintiff with expensive medication. While the Court is sensitive to the realities of budgetary constraints and the difficult decisions prison officials must make, the economics of providing this medication cannot outweigh the Eighth Amendment’s constitutional guarantee of adequate medical care.”

Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center in Pittsburgh — which also collaborated with ACLU-PA on its recent lawsuit against Allegheny County Jail for its treatment of pregnant women — told The Inquirer that judge Mariani’s ruling was the first time “a federal court has ordered prison officials to provide an incarcerated patient with the new [hepatitis C] medications that came on the market in 2013.”

Grote and co-counsel Robert Boyle have no expectations that the case is over.

“We expect an appeal,” Grote wrote on Facebook following the opinion’s release, “but for now this is a major victory.”

IN OTHER NEWS

(The Pennsylvania criminal justice news that could use a second look.)

Bias is inevitable in criminal risk scores. ProPublica found that Bernard Parker, pictured left, was determined to be high risk; Dylan Fugett, on the right, was low risk.
  • From The Morning Call: “Glitch puts felony charge on Fountain Hill Man’s record”

“Ernesto Galarza went to court twice and won. He stood trial on a drug conspiracy charge and a Lehigh County jury found him not guilty. The New Jersey native sued the officials who improperly held him as an illegal immigrant after his arrest and changed the way local law enforcement agencies work with federal immigration authorities. But more than eight years after he was arrested at an Allentown construction site where police suspected his boss was selling drugs, the experience is still dragging him down.” Read more about Galarza’s 2010 ACLU case here.

  • From NBC News: “To End Decades on Death Row, [A Pennsylvania] Inmate Makes an Agonizing Choice”

“‘James Dennis entered a no-contest plea, not a guilty plea, because he maintains the same position that he has maintained for 25 years: that he is innocent of this crime,’ one of his lawyers, Karl Schwartz, told the judge. ‘He and his family have made this incredibly difficult decision based on his and their strong desire to have him home and free, [in] lieu of potentially years of continuing litigation.’ The no-contest plea is not uncommon in claims of wrongful conviction. It allows prosecutors to keep a conviction without a new trial. The defendant, meanwhile, acknowledges there may be enough evidence for another guilty verdict but can still claim innocence.”

  • From ProPublica: “Bias in Criminal Risk Scores Is Mathematically Inevitable, Researchers Say”

“Defendants inaccurately classed as ‘high risk’’ and deemed more likely to be arrested in the future may be treated more harshly than is just or necessary, said Alexandra Chouldechova, Assistant Professor of Statistics & Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, who also studied ProPublica’s COMPAS findings. Chouldechova said focusing on outcomes might be a better definition of fairness. To create equal outcomes, she said, ‘You would have to treat people differently.’ Chouldechova’s paper, ‘Fair prediction with disparate impact: A study of bias in recidivism prediction instruments,’ was posted online in October. Chouldechova is continuing to research ways to improve the likelihood of equal outcomes.”

  • From The Wall Street Journal: “Why Some Problem Cops Don’t Lose Their Badges: [An] examination shows how states allow some police officers to remain on the force despite misconduct”

“Pennsylvania has reported no officer decertifications since 2012 and just 31 in the past 12 years, according to data the state provided to the Journal. Cpl. Adam Reed, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania agency in charge of decertification, said the state’s law is ‘very specific’ as to when an officer can be decertified and the agency ‘does not act as an “internal affairs.”’

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ACLU Week in Review

By Ben Bowens, Communications Associate, ACLU of Pennsylvania

17th annual picnic

July 13 – July 17

With the 4th of July in our rearview mirror, it’s time to look ahead to the next big event of the Summer – The 17th annual ACLU picnic in Pittsburgh! This year’s event promises to be the best yet as we take time to reflect on what an amazing year it has already been for civil liberties in Pennsylvania. Find more details about the picnic and check out some ACLU-involved stories from around the country below.

Department of Justice urged to look into SC shooting

ACLU, NAACP urge DOJ to investigate Walter Scott’s shooting death

The ACLU of South Carolina joined the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and over two dozen South Carolina leaders in urging the Department of Justice to open an investigation of the North Charleston Police Department to uncover any pattern or practice of racially discriminatory policing. The letter also requests that the DOJ open a criminal civil rights investigation into the shooting death of Walter Scott on April 4, 2015. read more…

KY County Clerk denies same sex-couple a marriage license

Federal judge hears arguments in ACLU same-sex marriage case

A federal judge on Monday heard arguments about a county clerk who is refusing to issue marriage licenses following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. The American Civil Liberties Union sued Davis on behalf of two gay couples and two straight couples who were denied marriage licenses. The couples named in the suit are April Miller and Karen Roberts, Shantel Burke and Stephen Napier, Jody Fernandez and Kevin Holloway, and L. Aaron Skaggs and Barry W. Spartman. read more…

PA inmate denied the right to marry

Lawsuit Filed on Behalf of Inmate Denied Ability to Marry

The ACLU of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project filed a lawsuit today on behalf of an inmate whose attempts to get married have been thwarted by both the Fayette County Register of Wills and the State Correctional Institute (SCI) in Fayette. read more…

Blocking NSA’s dragnet program

ACLU sues to block extension of NSA dragnet program

The temporary extension of the National Security Agency’s bulk phone records collection authority by the secretive court that oversees US government spying should be revoked, since a federal court ruled the program unconstitutional, according to the ACLU.read more…

ACLU-PA Greater Pittsburgh Chapter 17th Annual Picnic – THURSDAY, July 23th (Rain or Shine!)

PICNIC TIME!

Join us to celebrate a great summer and great people. We’ll provide beverages and grilling items (hamburgers, hot dogs, veggie burgers, etc.) We ask you to bring a side dish, snack, drink or dessert or, if cooking isn’t your thing, a $10 donation to help cover costs of food. (Kids five and under eat free.) Click here to RSVP and let us know that you’ll be coming and what you can bring.

Estranged Family: Black History Month and the Stigma of Gays in the Black Community

By Hollis Holmes, Legal Fellow, ACLU of Pennsylvania

(credit: All rights reserved by tnar/g/rant)

(credit: All rights reserved by tnar/g/rant)

My early experiences of Black History Month conjure up images of Martin Luther King Jr., Fredrick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman. I saw the same images year after year, with maybe a few controversial figures like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali included. By fourth grade, I formed my opinion of the annual event as a limited and symbolic reminder of the contributions of my race to America. It wasn’t until my teens, while discovering my sexual identity, that I thought more seriously about this specific celebration of black figures. A teacher instructed us to write an essay on an influential person; however, I struggled to find an individual, both black and gay, whom I could relate to. Not seeing myself reflected in the celebration of Black History Month, I realized the black community fails to accept and even stigmatizes homosexuality.

Now, apparently support amongst black voters for same-sex marriage is approximately the same as whites. While a positive step, the black community still must understand that the fight for equality extends beyond marriage to basic civil rights. Black transgender people, isolated even within the LGBT community, particularly face shocking levels of discrimination and almost non-stop violence. While black LGBT people accounted for 73 per cent of the homicides in 2012 amongst the LGBT community, black transgender women accounted for the highest number of those murdered. The condition of black youth is also very appalling, where they disproportionately experience homelessness more than their white counterparts due in large part to family rejection and employment and educational discrimination.

In spite of this crisis for survival, black churches and pastors remain a pivotal force in hindering the expansion of gay rights. Reverend Patrick Wooden, a pastor of North Carolina, likened himself to Martin Luther King, Jr., after receiving a standing ovation from a 3,000 member congregation for his efforts in successfully passing a statewide amendment banning same-sex marriage. Other institutions mirror the opposition of the black churches. In spite of progress at a couple of black academic institutions, of more than 100 Historically Black Colleges and Universities across the United States, fewer than a quarter offer course listings with LGBT-related classes or formally recognize LGBT student groups. The lack of community support forces people to choose one side of an intersectional identity over the other, seeking refuge in the LGBT community while losing visibility in the black community. Even more, this shunning of black gay people comes across as ignorance to the fact that we still also endure the obstacles associated with the historical legacies of slavery, and on that basis alone need black community to share common experience.

Black History Month, a time when we celebrate black historical figures, reveals the stigma against black gays present in the black community. People left out of the dialogue include Audre Lorde, Bayard Rustin, Alvin Ailey, Basquiat, Josephine Baker… and the list goes on. Even if granted some visibility, the sexual orientation of figures like James Baldwin is often excluded or under-emphasized in public commentary. About her experience, Audre Lorde states, “I remember how being young and black and gay and lonely felt. A lot of it was fine, feeling I had the truth and the light and the key, but a lot of it was purely hell.” Feelings such as this persist, even though seemingly out of place with the recent expansion of gay rights.

Challenging America not to erase the contributions of black individuals from public consciousness depends on the efforts of the black community to value our own history. The support of President Obama and the NAACP for same-sex marriage provides an opportunity to internally address existing homophobia and embrace black gays, lesbians, bisexual, and transgender persons. In doing this work, the black community has the power to capitalize on the moment by alleviating the hypocrisy associated with the exclusion of black gays and redefine the black American legacy.

This post is part of a series in honor of Black History Month.