NEW YORK—After days of emotional rallies, protests, and public outcry over the Zimmerman verdict, communities across America are examining how to take action to affect real change.
The outpouring of emotion has been especially strong in New York City, which was already being rocked by the NYPD’s controversial stop-and-frisk practice.
For months now, plaintiffs in New York have been arguing in court that officers engaged in racial profiling when stopping and searching them, and the City Council has used unprecedented maneuvers to pass laws to curb the practice. Most recently, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has used his money to pressure council members to flip their votes of support so he can override a veto-proof majority and block one of the bills. Bloomberg has expressed concerns that the bills would reduce public safety and bankrupt the city.
New York’s post-Zimmerman verdict protests have remained peaceful—unlike violence that has broken out in California—with a massive gathering last Sunday, and a spontaneous street march on Monday that ended on the steps of the county courthouse. And many here believe that the moment to express anger, sadness, and frustration over the verdict has passed, and it’s now time to take action.
Candis Tolliver, an organizer with the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) said she was feeling downtrodden after the verdict and had even lost her enthusiasm over the Know Your Rights workshops she often holds for community members.
But a group of disadvantaged youth, many who have had personal experiences with the criminal justice system, helped her see the positive side of the situation.
During a workshop this past week, the teacher became the student.
“The young people were so energized,” said Tolliver. “They started to talk to me about strategy and how to register to vote.”
Ranging in age between 14 and 24, the youths were part of a group home, and the encounter helped Tolliver see that there is life after what was, for her, a devastating outcome in the trial of a young African-American man.
“Maybe that anger [of the kids] turned to action,” she said.
As an organizer for NYCLU, Tolliver has had little choice but action, even when her heart wasn’t in it for a brief moment.
On July 17, that meant that Tolliver and her colleagues from NYCLU, and fellow advocacy group VOCAL-NY, got out to support those city council members who voted for the council bills that establish independent oversight of the NYPD, and give those who feel they have been racially profiled an opportunity to sue.
New York City Council member Deborah Rose supported the bills, but she has been pressured to give up her support. Standing outside the Staten Island Ferry terminal in Manhattan, Tolliver and others handed out fliers asking people to call and email to express their support for Rose.
Rose is among the many City Council members being pressured to rescind their votes, as the racial profiling bill was decided by a margin of one and is facing a mayoral veto. Tolliver thinks the timing of the Zimmerman verdict illuminates the very kind of thorny issues the bill is trying to protect the community from getting entangled in.
“I think what the Zimmerman case shows is that profiling does exist,” said Tolliver, who added that the measure is “not to tie the hands of the police, it’s to make New York City safer.”
As the possibility of a mayoral veto looms, other New Yorkers are also actively engaged in moving forward and making positive changes.
For Kevin Powell, a longtime community organizer and founder of grass-roots activism organization BK Nation, change means going beyond the many public advocacy events that have been occurring nationwide since the verdict.
“Marches and rallies are inspiring, but we have to have action,” said Powell by phone on July 17. “As people who really care about this country, we’ve got to come together.”
Powell is willing to put his money where his mouth is. He has organized a three-hour July 18 meeting in Manhattan for the general public to explore options for next steps.
When asked about the goal of the meeting and mobilizing the community, Powell said he hopes for “nothing short of repealing stand your ground,” the law in Florida that allowed Zimmerman to go free based on self-defense.
Others in New York have concrete plans, too. On July 19 and 20, the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network will continue a monthlong Occupy the Corners campaign to stand on street corners in New York City’s highest-crime areas in a show of community solidarity. On Friday and Saturday late night and early morning, a Civilian Observation Patrol, which partners with the NYPD, will spend two hours at the intersection of Foster Avenue and Ralph Avenue at the Glenwood Houses in East New York. Also on Saturday, a vigil is planned at New York City police headquarters. It is 1 of 100 planned nationally.
But Powell is clear that, going forward, the emphasis needs to be on change, not expressing rage—verbally or otherwise.
“Yelling at police, name calling—that leads to nowhere, nowhere, nowhere,” said Powell. “Proactive anger that is rooted in peace, love, and non-violence—that’s what I believe in.”