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How hitting Bloomberg on Stop and Frisk could backfire with Black voters

Going into Wednesday night’s pre-caucus debate in Nevada, former New York City mayor and current presidential contender Michael Bloomberg must have know he’d get grilled over “Stop and Frisk”, the policy implemented during his time as mayor whereby young Black and Latino men were regularly thrown up against a wall by police absent any justification. Stop and Frisk, which ruined lives and destroyed any semblance of trust between minority communities and the cops, was eventually ruled unconstitutional, and since seeking the presidency, Bloomberg has apologized for it. But his apology, like his comments when asked about the policy on the debate stage, was stilted and mealy-mouthed. Not only was the follow-up apology even flatter than the first, but there was no clear explanation for how this gross miscarriage of justice had happened.

“The one thing that I’m really worried about, embarrassed about, was how it turned out with stop-and-frisk,” Bloomberg said. What happened, Bloomberg said, “was it got out of control.”

It’s the understatement of the year. As the Prison Policy Initiative notes, in 2011, the peak year for Stop and Frisk, police stopped 685,724 people, 84% of whom were African American and Latino, with “physical force” being used in nearly 23% of those instances. Yet police found weapons, and “mostly knives” at that, during just one percent of those Stop and Frisk episodes with Black and Brown “suspects.” Meanwhile, weapons were found on whites twice as often.

It was a shameful episode in New York history. And yet, despite this ugly history, Bloomberg is surging in the polls with Black voters, many of whom are switching their support from former Vice President Joe Biden. Morning Consult and YouGov both find him in third place with Black voters, polling at 16% and 17% respectively.

What many white pundits fail to understand is that while Black communities paid a steep price for the horror of Stop and Frisk, many Black voters will find it in their hearts forgive the mayor if he seems poised to deliver on some of the other major problems our communities face. It’s absolutely a steep climb for the mayor — but a very aggressive media blitz in Black media and political spaces is already paying off.

His effort to reach out to Black voters is not just impressive but commendable. Democrats have a bad habit of putting very little investment in Black media, political consultants and organized infrastructure — and then feigning surprise or irritation when they don’t get the Black votes needed.

For Bloomberg, doing the exact opposite is paying dividends. It reflects Bloomberg’s gambit that Stop and Frisk won’t completely derail his chance at winning the Democratic nomination — because Black voters have always faced these kinds of difficult, Machiavellian, lesser-of-two-evils choices.

The truth is, most Black voters are prioritizing the defeat of Donald Trump in 2020. They’re politically savvy and strategic enough to know that voters can’t take any chances this second round. What the polling means is that Black voters think Bloomberg has the best chance to beat Trump.

What it boils down to is a simple choice between the billionaire white mayor who actually wasn’t bad at running New York City, apart from his Stop and Frisk habit, and the billionaire-on-paper megalomaniac currently in the White House, who is seen by many in the Black community as an open, unapologetic white nationalist who actually campaigned hard on expanding Stop and Frisk. “I would do Stop and Frisk. In New York City it was so incredible, the way it worked,” said Trump just two months shy of Election Day 2016.

And while primary opponents looking to attack Bloomberg are focusing heavily on Stop and Frisk, there’s a risk to letting the topic dominate the conversation on Black voter concerns. Bloomberg’s opponents and detractors seem to be making the blanket assumption that criminal justice issues are a high priority for the Black electorate. And while it’s certainly something Black voters think about, it’s dangerous and misleading to confine the mainstream Black discourse to a topic like crime. Over-saturation of that discussion, deliberate or not, only repeats a racist narrative that all Black people have seen the inside of a jail or are involved in some kind of criminal activity when, clearly, that’s completely false.

Black voters are quality-of-life voters above all else. Too much focus on micro-issues like Stop and Frisk can sway attention from the core structural challenges plaguing our communities, including bad schools, the lack of wealth accumulation, low labor force participation rates, barriers to business development, and environmental violence.

And and any prolonged conversation that assumes Stop and Frisk alone will sink a candidate’s bid for Black votes could eventually breed resentment; Black people want to live in safe neighborhoods too, just like everyone else. A 2016 poll found Black voters were more worried about gun violence (80%) than either police misconduct (50%) and mass incarceration (69%). Criminal justice will, of course, factor prominently in Black voter assessments due to its disparate impact on Black communities. But, newsflash: It’s not the most important issue to us. It won’t be a dealbreaker in the final selection.

So here’s what Bloomberg should have said on that debate stage: “Listen: Giuliani created the Frankenstein that is Stop and Frisk. I inherited it and now I understand that it’s illegal and not effective. I should’ve ended it. I deeply apologize for that. But I am not only Stop and Frisk. I am a three-term mayor who successfully led a city of 8.5 million people — the size of a small country — through post-9/11 terrorist threats and the Great Recession. That includes helping distressed Black and Brown communities who were living through those same crises.”

Charles Ellison is Principal and Chief Strategist of B|E Strategy. He is also Host/Executive Producer of “Reality Check,” a public affairs program airing Mon-Thur, 4-7pm ET on WURD radio (Philadelphia), Contributing Editor for The Philadelphia Citizen and Contributing Editor to Follow him on Twitter @ellisonreport.

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