The judge who ruled that New York’s “stop-and-frisk” practice violated the constitutional rights of the city’s citizens seemed to have had Trayvon Martin on her mind.
Judge Shira Scheindlin references his death four times in her ruling in which she found the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy amounted to racial profiling. Scheindlin refers to Martin as “a black teenager” in the body of the opinion, but then cites his name in the footnotes as she quotes directly from three sources, including President Obama’s remarks following the verdict. She references Martin as a touchstone for the pain and frustration experienced by black men facing constant suspicion by the authorities.
George Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter in July by a jury after he shot Martin, an unarmed black teen in Sanford, Fla., the prior year. Zimmerman said he acted in self-defense. Americans are divided along racial lines about the justness of the verdict with many black Americans believing that Martin was unjustly profiled by Zimmerman because of his race.
Scheindlin quotes two op-eds and Obama’s remarks in her opinion. Here is the passage quoted in Sheindlin’s ruling from Obama.
There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. And there are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me, at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.
The second reference Scheindlin makes is to a New York Times op-ed by Ekow Yankah, in which Yankah writes:
What is reasonable to do, especially in the dark of night, is defined by preconceived social roles that paint young black men as potential criminals and predators. Black men, the narrative dictates, are dangerous, to be watched and put down at the first false move. This pain is one all black men know; putting away the tie you wear to the office means peeling off the assumption that you are owed equal respect. Mr. Martin’s hoodie struck the deepest chord because we know that daring to wear jeans and a hooded sweatshirt too often means that the police or other citizens are judged to be reasonable in fearing you.
Scheindlin quoted Obama and Yankah’s statements in response to testimony by Dennis Smith, a criminal justice expert called by the city. Smith testified that “the evidence from the stop patterns” suggested that “law abiding black people” were more likely to engage in crime than “law abiding white people.” Responding to Smith’s testimony, Sheindlin quotes Obama and Yankah, then writes that “No doubt many people have heard similar fears and stereotypes expressed, whether intentionally or unintentionally. But race alone is not an objective basis for suspicion by the police.”
Scheindlin’s 198-page opinion concludes with a quote from New York Times columnist Charles Blow, from a column written shortly after the Zimmerman verdict. Here is the quote as it appears in the opinion:
The idea of universal suspicion without individual evidence is what Americans find abhorrent and what black men in America must constantly fight. It is pervasive in policing policies — like stop-and-frisk…neighborhood watch — regardless of the collateral damage done to the majority of innocents. It’s like burning down a house to rid it of mice.
The fourth time Scheindlin references Martin, first noted by Jelani Cobb in the New Yorker, is less direct. In ordering the NYPD to begin a pilot program where officers will wear body mounted cameras, Scheindlin writes that the future recordings “may either confirm or refute the belief of some minorities that they have been stopped simply as a result of their race, or based on the clothes they wore, such as baggy pants or a hoodie.” Martin was killed wearing a hooded sweatshirt, and the article of clothing itself has become a symbol to his supporters.
Only Scheindlin knows how or even if the case of Martin and Zimmerman influenced her view of the evidence in the stop-and-frisk case. But there’s little question that she, like millions of Americans, was deeply affected by it.