Opinion

Minorities hit the hardest by knife law

By Bertha Lewis |  

December 13, 2016 |  

Bertha Lewis.

A half-century old statute meant to criminalize large knives has unjustly prosecuted more than 60,000 New Yorkers over the past decade for being in possession of a simple work knife, 86 percent of them black and Latinos. The ability to put an end to this discriminatory practice rests firmly in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s hands. 

Walk into almost any hardware store across the state, and you can find and buy a pocketknife that many carpenters, maintenance workers, construction workers, artists and electricians use for their work. Get caught on the streets with this knife in New York City though, and you can be charged with a criminal offense. For most, this means loss of job and sacrificing your time and money to appear in court for days at a time. The prohibition is strict and the penalties are severe. It should come as no surprise that the overwhelming majority who are prosecuted are minorities. Stop-and-frisk may have been ruled unconstitutional three years ago, but with such a large percentage of black and Latino citizens being penalized it is clear that the discriminatory program is still alive and well.

Gravity knives, defined as a knife that opens with the force of gravity, were banned in the 1950’s, but are now practically extinct. Today’s work knives used by electricians, handymen, and others as tools of their trade are simple folding knives but have been grouped in with gravity knives. Under this categorization, almost every knife on the market can be considered a gravity knife. Members of the NYPD have been able to get away with these arrests by developing a special skill to force open a knife in a way that it was not designed to do. This has nothing to do with safety or crime and everything to do with numbers and quotas. Recover a “gravity” knife from a police stop, and the NYPD have made it appear like the racist practice is far more effective than it actually is.

In June, the gravity knife reform legislation carried by Assemblyman Dan Quart and state Sen. Diane Savino, which would decriminalize these knives, was successfully passed in both the Assembly and Senate and requires Gov. Cuomo’s signature to be put into effect. What is surprising is that self-proclaimed progressives, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and Mayor Bill de Blasio, have been lobbying hard to put a stop to this bill.

In October, Mayor de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill wrote a letter to our governor saying that passage of the decriminalization bill would lead to an increase in knife assaults, a claim that is completely unfounded. Across the state, and even across the nation, knife reform bills have already been passed as a common sense solution to decrease the disproportionate number of low-income people who suffer from the financial hardships of going to court. In 2009, an amendment to the Federal Switchblade Act was passed that changed the definition of gravity knives. Only in New York City have the NYPD and the District Attorney abused the current law to unlawfully prosecute thousands of minorities.

The current law is ridiculous and inconsistent. We have waited long enough for this legislation. Communities of color should not be burdened by absurd laws designed to profit from their oppression. If Gov. Cuomo values progressive ideals and calls himself a champion of the working class, there is no excuse for him not to sign this bill.

Bertha Lewis is the president and founder of The Black Institute

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