James Baldwin Wrote About Stop-And-Frisk Years After This Childhood Experience

james baldwin sitting down holding a cigarette
Zain Murdock
January 22, 2023

James Baldwin never shied away from piercingly critiquing the police’s impact on Black America. He once called them our “hired enemies.” Of course he knew firsthand. When he was very young, walking the streets of Harlem, he experienced their violence himself.

Two police officers stopped and frisked him. They made “comic (and terrifying) speculations concerning my ancestry and probable sexual prowess,” he wrote. Then, they left him on the ground in an empty lot. 

Baldwin was only ten years old.

At 13, Baldwin heard yet another NYPD officer mumbling while walking to the library: “Why don’t you niggers stay uptown where you belong?” That was in the 1930s. And now, nearly a century later, the violence hasn’t gotten any better.

While Black LGBTQ+ people have been policed and criminalized for being “predators” because of their race and sexuality, police are actual predators themselves. Baldwin wasn’t alone in his experience. The “frisk” in stop-and-frisk is often an act of sexual assault. 

A system that creates and maintains assault is unacceptable.

Today, we are still routinely and disproportionately stopped and frisked. The system tells us we’re supposed to take it. But let’s ask ourselves for whose gain and whose expense? What does it mean to “respect the law” when the law doesn’t respect us?

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