By Aidan Gardiner and Paul Lomax
DNAinfo.com New York Reporters
MANHATTAN — Thousands of people marched down Fifth Avenue Sunday in near total silence to protest the New York Police Department's use of the tactic known as stop-and-frisk, which marchers felt unfairly targets and humiliates young black and Latino men.
The vast protest was preceded by an roughly hour-long event in which Rev. Al Sharpton railed against stop-and-frisks, and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, in an address that skewered the mayor's defense of the tactic recently at outreach speeches in Brownsville and East New York churches in Brooklyn.
"You cannot rob me of my civil rights, rob me of my civil liberties, rob me of my presumption of innocence, and then tell me, 'I'm doing it for your own good,'" Sharpton said. "What you are saying is, in order to find criminals, you must criminalize all of us, and that is unacceptable."
Nate Polite, 20, addressed the crowd before the march began, and recounted his own experience of being stopped and searched by police officers, calling the experience "humiliating."
"We worry about officers stopping us as we head to 7-Elevens, go to school, or come home from work," said Polite. "We have learned to fear the very police officers sworn to protect us."
The march began with a bit of chaos, as two groups converged into one, and organizers in orange vests shouted orders at the protesters.
Just two blocks later, the crowd took on a sudden muteness. All that could be heard were birds chirping, and the voices of children in the park. Occasionally, police muttered into their radios things like, "At 107th and moving forward," and a low but sharp collective "Shhh!" would emerge from the crowd.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People first used the tactic of a silent march in 1917 to protest both the then-common practice of lynching and race riots that two through East St. Louis, Illinois at the time, according to a press release distributed by the march's organizers.
Several participants said they felt the silent march was effective because it focuses the message of the march.
"When silence comes, you have a chance to reflect on what's going on in your life, in your city," said Andre Black, 73, who said he was still a Marine. "When things are silent, you have no choice but to be your own spokesman."
The march, organized by the National Action Network, a civil rights advocacy group founded by Sharpton, started at East 110th Street and Fifth Avenue, and slowly moved south on Fifth until it reached East 79th Street. Rev. Sharpton held a press conference there, and harshly attacked the controversial tactic, saying it has done little to stop crime in New York City.
"How is it safer when the net result shows you have more innocent people harassed?" Sharpton asked rhetorically. "We intend to go to the Department of Justice, but wouldn't it be sad to have to take the New York City government to the Federal level like we had to do with the south?"
In fact, a federal judge in May ruled that there was "overwhelming evidence" that the policy had led to thousands of illegal stop, and granted class-action status to a lawsuit challenging the practice, according to reports.
Cops searched 685,724 people in 2011, compared to 97,296 in 2002, according to NYPD figures, yet numbers of shooting victims barely changed in that same time, a report by DNAinfo.com New York revealed on June 5.
Sharpton was joined by other leaders, including Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn, State Senator Daniel L. Squadron, Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer, and Franclot Graham, the father of Ramarley Graham, an 18-year-old Bronx man who was shot by police in February.
"This silent march really drives the point home," said Kat Ferrera, 62, a pet nutritionist who watched the procession from the street, and who lives in the Upper East Side. "To stop someone based on the color of their skin, what their wearing, or what music they're playing out of their car is just wrong," she said.
John Johnson, a former Army medic who said he served the Korean and Vietnam wars, said he traveled from Baltimore, Maryland to protest what he thinks is the unfair use of racial profiling by the NYPD.
"It looks like it's getting back to the old days, and too many people have died to go back," said Johnson, 72. "I've gone through two wars, so to come home and be thrown up against a wall — no."
"There are a lot of fathers out there whose sons have gone to jail unnecessarily," Johnson added.