A few nights ago, I was stopped and frisked by the NYPD on the Lower East Side for smoking a hand-rolled tobacco cigarette. I know, I know -- all you HIGH TIMES readers are right now thinking to yourselves that I should have been blazing a joint instead. While I willfully acknowledge the idiocy of my occasional tobacco indulgences, the truth is, had I been hitting a fatty of Sour Diesel, I would have been given a two-day tour of the scenic Manhattan Detention Complex -- nicknamed “the Tombs,” assumedly for good reason.
Blame it on too many Bukowski books in my formative years, but sometimes a smoke and a beer will kick loose a few extra thoughts in the course of an evening writing session. Now, I don’t have a backyard, and my wife doesn’t appreciate me turning our apartment into a bar, but there are benches outside my apartment where I sometimes seek a moment’s respite. I’m aware of the city’s open-container law but nonetheless I sometimes stash a beer in my coat, and if some Dick Tracy opts to give me a $25 summons for my infraction, so be it.
With multiple deadlines looming, I was working into the night. Around 9 pm, I popped downstairs to the benches and sparked a rollie. Because of the beer (12 oz.), I was watching for cops, but this guy came out of nowhere, no uniform, and walked purposefully toward me. You smell bacon before you see it, so I had an idea as to his affiliation. He pulled out his badge and asked to see what I was smoking. I told him it was tobacco. He held it up to his nose and was unconvinced. What kind of detective can’t tell tobacco from marijuana? This idiot, apparently, which would have been fine if he’d been my mailman and not an armed enforcer of New York City’s pot laws.
“Have you ever been arrested?” he asked.
“No,” replied. Technically a lie, but this guy didn’t need to know about the DWI I got when I was 19.
“Do you have anything on you shouldn’t have?”
“I have a beer.” That, too, was a distortion of the truth, because I wasn’t drunk and, in my eyes, it wasn’t something I “shouldn’t” have had. In fact, I deserved two.
Two other plainclothes cops appeared and started searching me without my consent. One muttered something about “PCP,” which I thought was absurd. They went through all my pockets, removing my wallet, lighter and rolling papers, a bag of loose tobacco, a taxicab receipt and a dog tag I’d recently found on a Montauk beach that certified the canine it had been issued to was, as of 2011, rabies-free. They opened the bag of tobacco and shined a flashlight into it, then asked me again if I had ever been arrested.
Then one of the officers, again without my consent, began running his hands over my body -- under my arms, between my legs, and then, specifically and invasively, around my belt line, so that I could feel his thumb between my underwear and my abdomen. Abandoning the foreplay, he moved to my nether regions, poking and squeezing my ass, dick and balls through my Levi’s. He also reached down the tops of my motorcycle boots to see if there was any substance hidden in my socks that could potentially compromise the security of the 8,405,837 New Yorkers he was tasked with protecting.
“We stopped you because it looked like you were smoking a joint,” one of the cops explained. “You’re drinking a beer, but since you’re outside your home, we’re going to let you keep it. Just keep it tucked in your coat like you had it.”
With that, they walked off, offering no apology.
I live on a dark, quiet street off the FDR Drive that is host to a mental hospital, a drug rehab, a nursing home for convalescing nuns, and thousands of units of subsidized and Section 8 housing. You will see the occasional parade of junkies on the street, out for their 20-minute smoke break, but they don’t bother anybody. The truth is, the 7th Precinct is one of the safest areas in Manhattan, and I’d argue that my block is one of the safest in the 7th Precinct -- not because of the heavy police presence, but because there are no stores, delis, supermarkets, banks, bars or anything else that might attract outsiders. It’s a family block; people have been living there for generations. At the end there’s a park with a playground and a baseball field. The housing projects across the street are pretty quiet and, in the interest of security, recently raised their own money to install surveillance cameras throughout the grounds. There’s a distinct neighborhood flavor to the area, it's one of the most ethnically diverse in the city.
According to the NYC Crime Map, as far as crimes per capita go, the 7th Precinct, where I live, is in the same tier as the 17th Precinct, Midtown East, which includes the famously wealthy enclave of Sutton Place. To be specific, in 2013, there were 12.70 crimes per every 1,000 residents in the 7th Precinct and 12.29 crimes per every 1,000 residents in the 17th Precinct. According to the NYC Crime Map, in the past year, 11 crimes have been committed on my block and 14 crimes have been committed on Sutton Place, one of the most exclusive streets in all of New York City, where former New York State governor Mario Cuomo lives. The latest stop-and-frisk data that I could find for the two neighborhoods, on stopandfrisk.org, dates back to 2011, when the program was at its height. In the 7th Precinct, there were 4,177 stops. In the 17th Precinct, there were 2,060. So despite the relatively equal amount of crime in both areas, we got double the stops. Could it be because Midtown East is comprised of mostly wealthy white people, and my neighborhood is populated by (in descending numerical order) poor and middle-class Latinos, blacks, Asians, whites, recovering drug addicts and convalescing nuns?
Would a cop have felt as comfortable stopping and frisking a man on Sutton Place who was wearing a $5,000 suit and smoking a cigar that could have, in the dark, been mistaken for a blunt? Despite the fact that, statistically, I was no more likely to have been committing a crime, I got my wang unapologetically manhandled by swine.
According to the ACLU, in 2011, police stopped and frisked New Yorkers 685,724 times. Of those stopped, 53 percent were black, 34 percent were Latino and nine percent were white. Eighty-eight percent were innocent. The initial goal of the “Stop, Question and Frisk” program was to reduce the amount of guns on New York City streets, but the overwhelming number of arrests have been of young black and Latino men for minor pot possession. Since the program targets poor neighborhoods, it has the effect of burdening with criminal records people who are already struggling financially. When they apply for jobs or financial aid to go to college, that bust is there. Had Barack Obama, back in the “Choom Gang” days, been stopped and frisked and put through the system for weed, it is likely that he never would have been able to become the first African-American president of the United States.
As a result of public outrage, the numbers have declined in the past few years. Our new mayor, Bill de Blasio, campaigned on a promise to end the stop-and-frisk program, and to change the pot laws so that people can no longer be arrested for minor possession. I can personally attest that he has thus far failed on both counts.
In the end I got off lucky: my age and skin color probably saved me the whole “Shut your fuckin’ mouth before I slap you” kind of shit that can happen. Considering what I do for a living, and the fact that I knew I was clean as far as any kind of drugs went, ultimately, the experience was as amusing as it was humiliating.
Others are not so lucky. There’s Ramarley Graham, an 18-year-old black man who drew the suspicion of the NYPD during a trip to the local bodega. A cop put a call out that he’d spotted a suspect in possible possession of a firearm, and backup quickly arrived. Ramarley didn’t have a gun, but he did have some herb on him and bolted when the cops approached him, running into his grandmother’s nearby apartment. After cops kicked in the door, NYPD officer Richard Haste shot Ramarley Graham dead in the bathroom as the young man was attempting to flush his weed down the toilet. Haste wasn’t prosecuted, and the initial indictment against him was thrown out. If you read Ramarley’s story, you will be outraged. You might even remember my little saga and think, What was Simunek complaining about? He got off easy. That would be fine with me.
Yogi Berra, a true New Yorker, once said, “It ain’t over till it’s over,” and until our new mayor, Bill de Blasio, lives up to his promises, abandons stop-and-frisk, and changes this city’s marijuana laws so that pot smokers no longer have to worry that the bag of herb in their pocket could negatively alter the trajectory of their futures, the most vulnerable of this city, which I still love, will continue to be the target of those sworn to protect them.