Hundreds of people are lined up along Fifth Avenue in Harlem Sunday afternoon, where they plan to march in silence to demand an end to the New York Police Department's "stop-and-frisk" program, which the protesters say disproportionately targets black and Latino males.
The parents of Ramarley Graham — an unarmed teen killed by the police earlier this year — are at the march, and Trayvon Martin's father is rumored to be marching in Harlem, as well.
The march, which will end at New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's townhouse on East 79th Street, is reminiscent of a 1917 silent civil rights march along the same path, said NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous, who will march on Father's Day with the Rev. Al Sharpton, civil libertarians and some potential Democratic mayoral candidates.
Bloomberg and NYPD officials have vigorously defended the stop-and-frisk tactic, arguing it has been crucial in taking guns off the streets and achieving a historic drop in crime rates. The police deny that race or quotas motivate stops and say they are stopping people considered suspicious.
Jealous said the program constitutes racial profiling and has created "a police state for one community's children."
Last year, the department performed 168,126 on-the-spot searches of black men aged 14 to 24 out of a total population of 158,406 for that demographic, according to a New York Civil Liberties Union analysis of departmental statistics.
"This program needs to be scrapped and the needs to start from square one," Jealous told Reuters.
Bloomberg acknowledged the criticism last week but said the program should be "mended, not ended."
The mayor said new training videos and precinct-level audits of stop and frisk data by commanding officers — who will be held accountable to senior police officials — will address critics' concerns.
He insisted the program is vital, particularly in high crime areas, where police make stops "not because of race because of crime."
"We are not going to walk away from a strategy that we know saves lives," he said last weekend.
Civil rights leaders said New York City has not seen a large-scale silent protest since the Vietnam War-era.
"That silence will resonate louder than anything we could say or chant," said Sharpton, who with other civil rights leaders met recently with Bloomberg to discuss the program.
"We've agreed to keep talking," Sharpton said. "But he said he's not backing down off 'mend it, don't end it,' and we say 'end it, it can't be mended.'"