One New York City Latino tells the story of what the Stop and Frisk policy has meant to young men like him. (Getty Images/Mario Tama)

Opinion: When Stop and Frisk taught me I was a menace to society

I had no idea that walking while Latino was a threat to public safety. From my recollection, I’d never broken the law or walked around with a menacing demeanor. I always went out of my way to be polite and kind with strangers (open and hold doors, help carry baby carriages up or down train stations and give money to the needy.) That was one of the many things I learned from my grandmother; to be kind and respectful and to always pay it forward. I thought I was a standup guy but never did it cross my mind that I was a menace to society.

Apparently, I was. No amount of anthropology, sociology, and urban studies courses were going to prepare me for a stop and frisk. I thought that it would never happen to me. Especially if I was walking around with a book bag and never bothered anybody, but it did. As I waited for the F train on Woodhaven Blvd in Queens, I was approached by two young police officers and told to lean against the wall. I asked incredulously if they were talking to me. They said they were and lean against the wall I did.

They patted me down without a word and I came out of my stupor with a knot of humiliation in my throat. It escaped as a tear. Everyone there saw me. Everyone was looking at me. Their eyes said I was a criminal, a deviant, the lowest of the lowest and it was validated by the NYPD. I mean, only criminals get stopped and frisked, right?

I finally gathered the courage to ask them why was I stopped and frisked and if they needed further proof that I wasn’t a criminal or a menace to society, to check out my college ID. This seemed to stop them in their tracks and they tried to justify their stop and frisk with the usual: I fit the description of a young Hispanic male that had robbed someone minutes earlier. One of them appeared to feel guilt or remorse and went as far as apologize to me. It was too late. The damage had been done.

It wasn’t until years later that I didn’t tense up or wasn’t suspicious of the ones that swore to serve and protect me but I learned my lesson. I have been pulled over and asked for my license and registration more than I care to recollect for bogus reasons. One thing I never did was get belligerent or combative. Just cooperative. Almost catatonic. As if doing a daily task with no thought behind it. Automatic.

That is what happens daily with young Latino males in NYC. We’ve become so accustomed to illegal stop and frisks and being suspicious of the law overall that we expect it to come sooner or later and no amount of education, politeness, kindness or respect seems to stop it. I thought I was a standup guy but never did it cross my mind that I was a menace to society — except in the eyes of the NYPD.

Opinion: When Stop and Frisk taught me I was a menace to society tumblr m5b29dpI5H1r1767o news NBC Latino News

Cesar Vargas was born and raised in the Dominican Republic and came to the U.S. when he was thirteen years old. He received a B.A. in Film Studies from Queens College, CUNY and has worked in the fashion and film industry. He is the production director of Being Latino, a communications platform and online magazine, where he writes, produces, directs, shoots and edits their video content. He is preparing to shoot a feature film, Sojourner’s Lament, a documentary about education and poverty. 

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