Even local activists who spend their time dedicated to working on racial justice issues can’t figure out who’s behind the billboards. Nonetheless, they’re intrigued by the campaign. This month’s billboard is dedicated to Stop-and-Frisk, the controversial NYPD tactic that’s drawn national criticism for its disproportionate impact on black and Latino men. The billboard’s provactive text reads, “Don’t want to get stopped by the NYPD? Stop being black.” On the heels of New York City’s 2013 mayoral race and the prominent role that critics of Stop-and-Frisk have taken in city politics, the billboards have become a meaningful part of local discussion.
“Bed-Stuy, and Brooklyn in general, is going through a very profound transformation and we gotta put that in context,” says Kali Akuno, an organizer with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement’s New York chapter, referencing the gentrification that’s drastically altered the borough’s demographics over at least the past ten years. “For many of the young yuppies and buppies, they see the police playing a positive role and trying to engage in a race neutral dialouge.
“What the billboard is doing is kinda opening up and exploding this myth that [stop-and-frisk] is taking place in a race neutral light — it’s making people confront it in a very real way.”
Akuno added, “I applaud the effort. If the intent was to shake things up, I think they did their job.”
It’s no accident that of all of New York City’s neighborhoods, the billboards have targeting this one. A historically black neighborhood, Bed-Stuy has become one of the most contested spaces in New York City. A 2012 study from Fordham University found that Brooklyn is home to 25 of the country’s most rapidly gentrifying zip codes. That’s created a stark contrast between those in the neighborhood who have more upward social and economic mobility than others. Several high profile media accounts have recently noted Bed Stuy’s so-called “hip” transformation and “resurgence”, but the borough’s medium per capita income in 2009 was just $23,000, which was $10,000 below the national average.
The content of the billboard’s messaging may not exactly be news for most residents, but the presentation has nonetheless been powerful.