On any given night, dozens of LGBT teenagers and twentysomethings hang out along Pier 45 and on West Village streets made famous by the legendary Stonewall riot. Though they may not live in the West Village, many queer youths now consider it home.
However, at a June 21 meeting at the LGBT Center between FIERCE (Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment), a queer youth of color activist group, and the Sixth Precinct of the New York Police Department, tensions simmered over accusations of racial, sexual orientation and gender profiling by the police. Weeks before the meeting, FIERCE had informally unveiled plans to launch a “Cop Watch” program this July.
According to Rickke Mananzala, FIERCE’s campaign coordinator, queer youth of color are often subject to illegal stops and searches, along with verbal and physical harassment. FIERCE conducted a recent survey of 40 young people in the West Village and found 52 percent “were given no reason” as to why they were stopped or arrested. Another 66 percent reported “police targeting and profiling” based on race, sexual orientation, gender identity and age.
FIERCE member Heather Horgan, 22, understands the problem firsthand. Leaving a gay bar to smoke a rolled cigarette one night, Horgan and her friend were approached by police who mistakenly thought the pair was smoking a joint. Horgan says she was detained for 30 minutes while police rifled through her things. Horgan also says police called her “bitch” and told to keep her mouth shut. “My story is one of the good ones—I didn’t get my ass kicked,” she said.
FIERCE members pressed police officers at the meeting about Operation West Side, a police anti-crime program that targets quality of life issues. Officers denied profiling queer youth of color or treating them unfairly. They encouraged audience members to lodge complaints with the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB). “We will never know this [harassment] unless you make a complaint with the CCRB,” said Lieutenant Rich Phluger of the NYPD Sixth Precinct.
FIERCE members questioned the effectiveness of the complaint board and the process used to discipline unruly police officers. Instead, they’re launching a Cop Watch program to document abuse. Members will walk the streets this summer equipped with video and digital cameras, and microphones to document harassment and civil rights information as they monitor police activity. Another team will observe with cameras from a safe distance. FIERCE is modeling their program after one run by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, a black liberation group, which conducts a similar program in central Brooklyn to document racial profiling.
“Cop Watch is a tool for police oversight and accountability, and for our members to get a sense of their own power,” said Mananzala. “They [police] have made it very clear the people they are protecting are the people that can afford to live here.”
In fact, some advocates wonder if the problems faced by queer youths originate with their West Village neighbors rather than the cops. Citing increasing gentrification and a generation gap, Stonewall veteran and West Village resident Bob Kohler said many in the area saw the teens as noisy trouble-makers. “The feeling of some in the old guard is that [the kids] don’t belong here,” said Kohler. “Its classist—these kids have the right to be here.”