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.

Meek Mill’s sentence reveals problems with Pennsylvania’s extreme use of court supervision

By Reggie Shuford, Executive Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Hip-hop artist Meek Mill was named one of the 100 most influential Philadelphians by Philadelphia Magazine. However, rather than his music, his recent prison sentence is what has garnered the spotlight, helping to focus attention on the problems of our criminal justice system, specifically the issue of court supervision in Pennsylvania and its impact on mass incarceration.

Rapper Meek Mill arrives at the criminal justice center in Philadelphia, Monday, Nov. 6, 2017. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

This past week, on November 6, Judge Genece E. Brinkley sentenced Mill, 30, to two to four years in state prison for a probation violation. Over ten years ago, an 18-year-old Mill was arrested for drug and gun possession. In 2009, Judge Brinkley sentenced Mill — who was then known by his given name Robert Rahmeek Williams — to 11 ½ to 23 months in prison, followed by eight years of probation. Since that time, the judge has overseen his case.

Many people are outraged over the injustice of Mill’s lengthy sentence, and they should be. Criminal justice advocate Jay-Z, whose Roc Nation recording company signed the Philadelphia native, took to Facebook and called the sentence “unjust and heavy handed,” pledging to “always stand by and support Meek Mill, both as he attempts to right this wrongful sentence and then in returning to his musical career.” Said CNN contributor Van Jones, “It is absolutely outrageous. It is one of the worst things I’ve ever seen. I’ve never heard of a case where a brother stands before a judge; the prosecutor says, do not put this brother in jail; the probation office says do not put this brother in jail; And, for some reason, the judge says I’m going to put him in jail any way.”

And a petition on Change.org in support of Mill is closing in on 200,000 signatures.

The public outcry over this case underscores how people are sent to prison over technical violations versus direct violations. A probationer incurs a direct violation if he or she is convicted of a new crime while on probation. A person who has failed to comply with the terms of their probation — but who has not committed a new crime — receives a technical violation. Pennsylvania law permits a judge to incarcerate a defendant only if he or she already committed, or is likely to commit, a new crime. Even more problematic, that same statute allows a judge to impose prison time if “such a sentence is essential to vindicate the authority of the court” — which means the law allows a court to incarcerate someone merely if the judge feels disrespected.

What did Mill do to cause the judge to send him to prison? This past year, he was arrested for a fight in the St. Louis airport — charges were dropped — and took a dismissal deal for reckless driving and “popping a wheelie” on his dirt bike.

Meanwhile, 4.65 million adults in the U.S. are on probation or parole, or 1 in 53 adults. Pennsylvania — which has the highest incarceration rate in the Northeast — has the fourth highest number of people under government supervision, long after they committed their crimes, with 280,000 people as of 2015, and one-third of all prison beds in Pennsylvania are occupied by people who violated the terms of their probation or parole. This comes at great expense to Pennsylvania’s taxpayers, diverting precious resources from education and social services.

Meek Mill has become the face of probation and parole and the excesses of a system that ensnares so many without celebrity status. When the law allows judges to incarcerate people under their supervision solely because of a technical violation — when they committed no new crime and pose no threat whatsoever — we have a problem.

The work of defending civil liberties goes on

ACLU of Pennsylvania Executive Director Reggie Shuford addresses the crowd at the “Show Love for the Constitution” event. | February 15, 2017. (credit: Ben Bowens)

Dear supporter,

In some ways, our country changed on November 8. The United States elected a leader who, by all measures, is hostile to the basic foundations and principles that we stand for. President Trump and his regime deserve every ounce of pushback we can gather, and the ACLU will be on the front lines of the resistance.

And yet, at the ACLU of Pennsylvania, we have always taken the long view. Issues that are with us today were with us before November 8 and, to one degree or another, would have continued regardless of who was elected, including mass incarceration, police brutality, inequality for gay and transgender people, and efforts to compromise women’s access to reproductive healthcare.

You may have heard that there has been a major increase in giving to the ACLU since the election. While much of that growth has occurred at the national level, in fact, here in Pennsylvania, our membership has tripled. We saw a notable rise in donations after Election Day, but the real surge of giving happened after the weekend of the Muslim Ban. It was in that moment that many Pennsylvanians realized the significance of the threat to our values and to the people we most cherish.

You have put your trust in the ACLU in these challenging times. We are grateful for that trust and take it as a responsibility. Thank you.

The generous outpouring of support we’ve received in recent months has allowed us to think big about our work. It is my intention to add new staff to our existing staff of 22. Our current team has the talent, skills, and persistence to take on the many challenges before us. I also know that we can advance the cause of civil liberties throughout Pennsylvania by bringing even more talented people on board. The times demand it. Your support enables it.

In the months ahead, you’ll hear more about our Smart Justice campaign, our effort to reform, reinvent, and revamp the criminal justice system; our Transgender Public Education and Advocacy Project; the campaign for District Attorney in Philadelphia; the many bills we’re advocating for and against at the state capitol; and more litigation to push back against government excesses wherever they occur.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania is prepared to thwart the Trump administration’s worst instincts as they play out in the commonwealth.

And state and municipal officials aren’t off the hook. We’re working with immigrant communities to monitor federal immigration enforcement tactics while also standing with municipal governments that insist they won’t bend to every demand of ICE. We’re insisting that the commonwealth keeps its commitment to open beds for people who are too ill to stand trial and are being warehoused in local jails. We’re working at the state legislature to defeat efforts to hide the identity of police who seriously injure and kill people and to hide video that captures police brutality from the public. And we are active in ongoing struggles to diminish police presence in schools, to stop rollbacks of women’s reproductive healthcare, and to fight the practice of jailing people for their debts.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania has the infrastructure and the experience to defend civil rights at every turn. Consider some of our recent work:

  • Our legal team successfully freed travelers who were detained at Philadelphia International Airport the weekend of Muslim Ban 1.0, our advocacy team supported the protests at airports in Philly and Pittsburgh, and our communications staff echoed the message to #LetThemIn.
  • Two weeks ago, we settled a lawsuit against the School District of Lancaster for denying enrollment at its regular high school for older refugee students. Older refugee students will now be able to attend the regular high school instead of being segregated at an alternative school.
  • Over the last month, our legislative director has been busy at the state capitol in Harrisburg lobbying against efforts to reinstate mandatory minimum sentencing, which has been suspended for two years due to court rulings.
  • In tandem with allies, our advocacy team has launched the Philadelphia Coalition for a Just District Attorney, an effort to push the candidates for district attorney to commit to reforming the criminal justice system.
  • Last week, our lawyers filed to intervene to defend a school in Berks County that has been sued for affirming its students’ gender identity. We’re representing a transgender student and a youth advocacy organization who would be harmed if the lawsuit successfully overturns the school’s practice.

These five examples are just from the last two months. In fact, four of them happened in the last two weeks.

My favorite playwright, Pittsburgh native August Wilson, said this about gratitude in his play Two Trains Running:  “You walking around here with a ten-gallon bucket. Somebody put a little cupful in and you get mad ’cause it’s empty. You can’t go through life carrying a ten-gallon bucket. Get you a little cup. That’s all you need. Get you a little cup and somebody put a bit in and it’s half-full.”

Well, thanks to you, our ten-gallon bucket runneth over.

Onward!

Reggie Shuford
Executive Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

An Open Letter to the Pennsylvania Trans Community from the ACLU of Pennsylvania

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It’s a scary time for many communities. It is an especially harrowing time for those who are disproportionately affected by bigotry, structural and institutional racism, and other types of discrimination. We are in awe of those of you who are sharing your stories during Transgender Awareness Week and coming together in your communities for the Transgender Day of Remembrance.

I know personally what it means to have to fight for recognition and respect. I know what it feels like to run up against bias, discrimination and institutional barriers as so many of you do. I also know that I have benefited from cisgender privilege, given the issues that the LGBT movement historically has prioritized. The LGBT movement – and, honestly, my own organization – has not always centered the experiences of trans people and the issues facing your communities. We must do better.

In the wake of a devastating election for trans rights and in honor of Transgender Awareness Week, I want to make clear that the ACLU of Pennsylvania stands in support of Pennsylvania’s trans communities. We commit to lifting up your voices and experiences and priorities for change. We will fight for you and with you in the months and years to come.

The indomitable spirit and resilience of trans communities inspire ACLU-PA to become an ally you can count on in all times, good and bad. We are here for you.

In solidarity,
Reggie Shuford
Executive Director
ACLU of Pennsylvania

‘Letters: Bykofsky’s ideas skate on thin ICE’ via Philly.com

On Friday, July 18, 2014, Daily News Columnist Stu Bykofsky wrote an article entitled ‘Welcome, foreign felons.’ The following Letter to the Editor is in response to that article:

NO ONE should be held in jail for days on end because some federal agent wants to “run checks” on them to see whether it would be lawful to arrest them for something. In fact, the Fourth, Fifth and 14th Amendments to our Constitution prohibit that kind of tyrannical police-state behavior.

Yet, Stu Bykofsky, in his column “Welcome, foreign felons,” takes Mayor Nutter to task for upholding this basic American principle. The city has a policy, in place since mid-April, of refusing to honor non-binding “detainer” requests lodged by federal immigration authorities on prisoners in city jails whom our criminal justice system has determined should be released. In the court case – won by the ACLU – that determined that these ICE “detainers” are legally unenforceable, the plaintiff was a U.S. citizen, born in New Jersey, whom Allentown police wrongly suspected of being an undocumented noncitizen. As a result, he spent over three extra days in jail, despite having already made bail, while ICE got around to figuring out the police were wrong. (As it turned out, he was mistakenly in jail in the first place; when his trial came up, he was acquitted of the charge for which he had been arrested.)

Philadelphia’s policy avoids travesties like that one (and the resulting liability) by refusing to keep people in jail at the mere request of ICE. Under the policy the city, quite properly, will hold someone for pickup by ICE only if the feds have gotten a warrant for their deportation or arrest.

Instead of engaging in baseless fear-mongering, Bykofsky should be praising the city administration for standing up for everyone’s equal civil rights. A country where any low-level government official can tell the police to jail you for days on mere suspicion, or for “investigation,” is not the country described in the Constitution of the United States.

Peter Goldberger
President
ACLU of Greater Philadelphia

Reggie Shuford
Executive Director
ACLU of Pennsylvania

Read the original article, including a letter from Everett Gillison, Chief of Staff/Deputy Mayor of Philadelphia, at Philly.com

You, Me and James Dupree

By Carol Petraitis, Director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania’s Duvall Reproductive Freedom Project

James Dupree with The Diptych (1976/79). 72×72, acrylic on canvas. Right panel from the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art; left panel from the collection of the artist. (credit: Mike Zaikowski, Profiles Studios, Philadelphia http://www.dupreestudiosinc.com/)

James Dupree with The Diptych (1976/79). 72×72, acrylic on canvas. Right panel from the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art; left panel from the collection of the artist.
(credit: Mike Zaikowski, Profiles Studios, Philadelphia http://www.dupreestudiosinc.com/)

In our official capacities, Reggie Shuford, our executive director; Peter Goldberger, the president of the ACLU-Philadelphia Chapter; and I attended an opening for Philadelphia artist James Dupree on Saturday night. Hmmm . . . exactly what was the civil liberties issue at the Dupree Gallery??

Last month, the ACLU signed on to a coalition letter to Mayor Nutter accusing the city of abusing its power of eminent domain by trying to seize Dupree’s Mantua property, which he calls his “private artistic sanctuary and haven.” Dupree, an accomplished artist who has several paintings housed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, spent years turning a broken-down warehouse and garage into a unique art space where he works and has hosted art classes.

The city now plans bulldoze Dupree’s studio and turn it over to a commercial developer to build a grocery store and a parking lot – despite the fact there are numerous abandoned properties throughout Mantua. The city has also grossly undervalued the property.

The ACLU is part of a coalition supporting Dupree’s fight against the city of Philadelphia, along with what may be the strangest assortment of bedfellows ever – from the right-leaning Americans for Prosperity (which David and Charles Koch founded), the Commonwealth Foundation and the Institute for Justice to the artsy Institute for Contemporary Art and the Painted Bride.

(credit: Carol Petraitis)

(credit: Carol Petraitis)

Much of Dupree’s vivid new work (pictured above) has been fueled by the stress of being a David up against a Goliath. If you’re moved by his plight, consider signing onto the petition, write directly to Mayor Nutter, or visit Dupree’s gallery in Queen Village (703 S. 6th Street).

To learn more, follow this link: http://www.savedupreestudios.org/

Carol Petraitis directs the ACLU-PA’s reproductive rights work, but her undergraduate degree is in visual art.