MAXWELL:  A New York streetscape in action

12/5/2001 – Printed in the EDITORIAL Section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



From the Financial District to Harlem, sidewalk vendors sell colorful streetscapes that capture the essence of Manhattan. More than keepsakes, these painted and photographed scenes remind buyers that New York is America’s City.

On Monday afternoon, I witnessed another kind of streetscape, the kind city and tourism officials would rather keep from public view. It is the kind that reminds us that despite talk of all residents being bona fide members of the New York family, dangerous racial profiling of black males persists.

I walked out of my hotel at Central Park West and 107th Street to catch a Times Square-bound bus. As I headed downtown, two blue-and-white police cruisers, one behind the other, their lights flashing, executed synchronized U-turns and whipped to the curb. You could tell the drivers had practiced this maneuver many times.

Startled by police action so close, I turned to see four black teenage males who had been running along the sidewalk suddenly stop in their tracks. The four cops _ all white _ were out of their cruisers, barking orders, their handguns drawn.

Several other pedestrians and I watched the action. The corralled teens wore designer baggy garb and expensive sneakers. One had on a “Riverside Church Basketball” sweat shirt. They looked like scared, confused kids to me.

Apparently, the cops were less sanguine. They approached the boys cautiously. Several more vehicles, lights flashing and sirens blasting, rushed to the scene. By then, other wary onlookers had gathered.

For readers unacquainted with Manhattan, a little geography to help understand the dynamics of the police reaction to the black teens: Central Park West is the wide, four-laned street that borders western Central Park. It is home to tony apartments, condos, professional offices and hotels. Some of entertainment’s biggest stars live here. The Dakota luxury apartment complex, where Beatles great John Lennon lived and was gunned down, is here. Wealthy tenants here consider Central Park their front yard.

As mentioned, the black teens looked scared and confused. One automatically sank to his knees and locked his hands behind his head. Another remained standing and thrust his arms above his head. Unsure of what to do, the other two looked at each other.

A Hispanic woman in the crowd said, “They didn’t do nothing.” One of the cops told her and the rest of us to move away. I obeyed and kept writing notes. But a few black males insisted on knowing the boys’ crime. They were warned to back off.

The officer in charge huddled with the four cops who had stopped the boys. They talked heatedly for five minutes. I could not hear what the officer in charge said, but something extraordinary happened. Based on everyone’s body language and facial expressions, he had apologized to the boys. With no collars in the offing, the cops disappeared as quickly as they had materialized.

I studied the boys for a few moments: They were relieved _ but humiliated. I went to themand asked why had they been stopped in the first place?

The 14-year-old calling himself Lil’ Wizard, said: “We wanted to catch the next bus, so we were running to the next stop at 96th. The bus was coming.”

Was that the only reason?

“No,” Russell, 15, said. “We were stopped for running while black on the Upper West Side.”

They had a knowing laugh off that one.

“These cops see brothers together, and they think you stole a TV or something,” Cyrus, 14, said. “We were just going downtown to chill with some friends and listen to some rap.”

“I live on 107th and Manhattan,” Lil’ Wizard said. “I was born right around the corner. I’m a member of Riverside Church. Russell, he lives on 109th by Amsterdam.”

Has life changed for them as black males since Sept. 11?

“A little,” Cyrus said. “Some of white people on my block speak to me now. They didn’t used to. I didn’t speak to them either because I could see that look on their faces.”

Were they surprised the officer in charge had apologized?

Lil’ Wizard: “Yeah. We got lucky this time.”

I said something to the effect that they should not knock the apology. They would not have gotten it before Sept. 11.

“I guess,” Michael, 15, said. “At least we’re still walking around.”

If I had had a camera, I would have captured their expressions. They would have made an authentic New York streetscape.