114 Minutes With Jumaane Williams

Photo: Wayne Lawrence/Institute

On a recent Monday morning, 37-year-old City Councilman Jumaane D. Williams drives from Brooklyn into Manhattan, his radio blasting Jadakiss, and slides his BMW into a parking space near City Hall. A few blocks away, the trial of Floyd et al. v. City of New York—the lawsuit challenging the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policies—is about to kick off another week of testimony. “This is 2013. It’s not like 1963,” Williams says, walking toward the federal courthouse in a black corduroy jacket, dreadlocks tied back. “It’s crazy. I don’t understand why we have to argue in court that you shouldn’t profile people simply by how they look.”

A Department of Correction van rolls up, and the officer in the driver’s seat leans out. “Keep up the good work, man!” he hollers, flashing a peace sign.

“Thank you, brother,” Williams says. “I appreciate it.”

“There’s a lot of us out there with you!” the driver shouts before speeding off.

Williams turns toward the courthouse and says, “I have no idea who he is.”

Since winning his seat in 2009, Williams has become one of the most vocal critics of the NYPD, arguing that the police have been overly aggressive in stopping and searching innocent people. (Officers made a record 685,724 street stops in 2011 and another 532,911 stops in 2012.) Williams has been pushing a bill he co-wrote with Councilman Brad Lander to create an independent inspector general for the NYPD.

In recent weeks, Williams, who happens to be the only member of the City Council with Tourette’s, has watched his profession get battered in the press. He won’t talk about specific politicians—not State Senator Malcolm Smith nor fellow councilman Dan Halloran nor anyone else. But he will say, “Power and money make people act unscrupulously—and that transcends politics.”

Shortly before 9:30 a.m., he enters the hallway outside Courtroom 15C only to encounter a security officer who informs him that every seat is already filled. “What time do you have to get here?” Williams says, shaking his head. “Goddamn it!”

He rides back down the elevator and walks to another courthouse. When he steps into the overflow room, he spots a 17-year-old with tattoos covering both arms. “There’s Aboti!” Williams shouts, hurrying over to give him a hug. Kasiem Aboti Walters belongs to Williams’s church and works with a youth group supported by his office. When Williams takes a seat in the fourth row, the teen sits beside him.

By way of introduction, Williams says, “He learned a good lesson about having I.D. last year.”

As Walters tells it, two police officers stopped him on his way to Tilden Educational Campus one weekend afternoon. He recalls, “They said there had been a robbery in the area.” Walters had just come from a shoot for a music video he was making about the police, and his bag held the props: ski mask and handcuffs. After peering inside the bag, the cops detained him for about three hours—until he thought to mention that he knew Councilman Williams. “Other than that, I don’t know when I would’ve gotten out,” he says.

Williams, whose district includes Flatbush and East Flatbush, can relate. During the West Indian Day parade in 2011, he and another city official entered a sidewalk on Eastern Parkway cordoned off to the public, only to have cops snap handcuffs on them. (They were trying to get to an event at the Brooklyn Museum and had received permission from other officers to walk there.) The NYPD later explained that the police never actually arrested them. “I don’t know the definition of arrest,” Williams says, “if I’m cuffed and I can’t leave.”

At 10 a.m., Judge Shira A. Scheindlin appears on the screen, along with this morning’s witness: State Senator Eric Adams, a 22-year NYPD veteran and frequent NYPD critic. Williams scoots forward, draping his arms over the wooden bench in front of him, eyes fixed on the screen.

Fifty or so people now fill the rows, and everyone watches the trial silently—­everyone except Williams. His body hops in place; his back slams against the bench so hard that the vibrations ricochet down the row. Watching him is a jarring sight, but Williams appears unfazed. Later, he explains that he rarely thinks about his ­Tourette’s anymore—except when he glimpses himself on TV, and then he’ll say to himself, “Damn, that’s distracting.”

His tics subside partway through Adams’s testimony. When the judge and a city lawyer dance around the question of how effective the NYPD’s use of stop and frisk is in reducing crime, Williams gets fired up, turning to me and whispering: “You should stop, question, and frisk bankers coming out of Wall Street and go through their briefcases to see where the next financial crime is going to be! That would be more effective.”

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114 Minutes With Jumaane Williams