MANHATTAN (CN) – After eluding police in plain sight for five days, former Boston-area prosecutor Bobby Constantino had to stage a courtroom protest to get arrested and charged over his spray-painted protest of stop-and-frisk policing.
Two of Constantino’s former colleagues told Courthouse News that they were “not surprised” that the 34-year-old Brooklyn man opted for the extreme to raise awareness about the racially discriminatory trappings of stop and frisk.
“I’m not surprised that Bobby would stand his ground like that,” said Adam Foss, who was Constantino’s opposing counsel for several cases in Roxbury District Court in Massachusetts. “He’s a very passionate person. He’ll do what it takes to be heard.”
Foss spoke to Courthouse News on the record, so long as it was clear that he was not making his comments in his official capacity as an active prosecutor.
When they worked together, Constantino served as a defense attorney at Suffolk Lawyers for Justice, and Foss assumed a position where he would eventually help negotiate a two-year probation plea deal for iconic graffiti artist Shepard Fairey.
“[Constantino] moved into one of the worst parts of Dorchester so he could understand what he was fighting for,” Foss said. “He certainly has never been soft-spoken for his beliefs about the powers that be.”
Now a resident of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Constantino sent a letter to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg dated April 29, demanding that his administration immediately reform stop-and-frisk policies or face a “lobby-in” in City Hall.
Around 3 a.m. the next day, Constantino says he dressed up in his best courtroom attire and walked from Brooklyn to Manhattan, carrying a graffiti stencil and spray paint, to leave a message that he believed Bloomberg could not ignore.
For a few hours until officials scrubbed off the graffiti, the gates of City Hall sported two handprints below the text, “NYPD Get Your Hands Off Me.”
Constantino later blogged that he had passed by the “Fort Knox” security near the Wall Street Bull before selecting the also highly guarded gates as his canvas.
The gates are surrounded by police and Lower Manhattan’s omnipresent surveillance system, modeled after London’s “Ring of Steel.” But Constantino says he worked unmolested because of the “magic invisible suit of miracles” he wore.
“It seems that there is no limit to the things a white man can do in a Hugo Boss suit, Yves Saint Laurent tie, silk handkerchief with a lion on it for a pocket square, and Cole Haan Wingtip Oxford shoes,” Constantino wrote in May 1 blog post.
Constantino timed his graffiti tags to mark the start of a trial against 20 activists, including Princeton University Professor Cornel West, who were arrested for disorderly conduct while protesting stop and frisk outside a Harlem police precinct.
Over the next five days, Constantino passed freely through two police checkpoints at Manhattan Criminal Court to watch the trial, and said he returned three times to City Hall to ask if the mayor had read his letter.
This reporter accompanied Constantino on one of those trips, watching as the lawyer handed a guard his passport and driver’s license. After calling City Hall staffers from inside the guard booth, the officer told Constantino to come back the next day.
Instead, Constantino dramatically turned himself in at Manhattan Criminal Court that Friday, after the stop-and-frisk protesters were convicted of disorderly conduct.
“Your Honor, I refuse to leave this court,” Constantino told the judge. “I am choosing in peace and love not to leave this court.”
Police officers cleared the courtroom at the end of the proceedings, and eventually escorted Constantino to central booking in the same building.
Charging papers ignore this courtroom incident and charge Constantino exclusively with nine misdemeanors related to the four graffiti tags on April 30.
In Constantino’s criminal complaint, NYPD Detective Frank Parker says that, “via video surveillance,” he “observed the defendant approach City Hall at two different locations and at each location use a can of spray paint and a stencil to apply spray paint on City Hall.”
Department spokesmen deflected questions about how Constantino eluded capture for five days, despite returning repeatedly to the scene of the crime and waltzing past multiple checkpoints in a criminal courthouse.
“He was arrested after his criminal conduct was captured on video tape,” NYPD spokesman Paul Browne told Courthouse News in an email, which also avoided mention of the courtroom protest.
City Hall referred to the NYPD’s statement, and the District Attorney’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Constantino says he spent about 26 hours in custody, mostly at central booking, which he claims has far worse conditions than any he observed across the country.
After his release, Constantino went on Facebook to share a line from Kurt Vonnegut’s “Jailbird,” which he had been reading prior to his arrest: “Young people refuse to see the obvious impossibility of world disarmament and economic equality. Could be fault of New Testament. (Quod Vide).”
In between his time as a prosecutor and a protester, Constantino worked as a senior program associate at New York’s Vera Institute, where he served on a team that pushed for prison reforms in Baton Rouge, La. The Bayou State has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world.
Constantino said he resigned from that position after “tough-on-crime” politics pressured Gov. Bobby Jindal and the sheriff’s office to sideline the institution’s hard work on prison reforms.
“After a lot of good people in Louisiana did a lot of hard work, it got derailed out of pure politics,” Constantino said.
No one at the Vera Institute was willing to speak to Courthouse News about the matter on the record, despite attempts over the phone and in person.
Constantino said the Louisiana’s prison system pales in comparison to what he experienced in Manhattan central booking.
“I was inside of the belly of the beast, and what I saw in Louisiana was not even close to what I saw in downtown Manhattan,” he said.
While incarcerated, Constantino says he saw a detoxing addict denied medical care, urine-and-feces splattered walls, filth caked on the floors, and mostly black and Latino inmates packed into a single cell “like sausages.”
“If you get arrested, you are human scum,” Constantino said, describing the alleged mindset of the guards. “It doesn’t matter who you are; it does not matter if you’re innocent.”
By contrast, he says that Boston prisons are “immaculate,” though he added they’re “not the Ritz-Carlton.”
Foss, the former colleague, backed up Constantino’s sentiments about Boston prisons, though he added he had not seen New York City counterparts.
“Jail’s not nice, and when you’re with a lot of people, things get nasty,” Foss said. Noting that prisons in his county are “clean,” Foss added, “They do a good job of treating the inmates well.”
Foss also spoke about Constantino’s penchant for risk-taking to be heard on social issues.
The Boston Globe profiled Constantino’s efforts to walk from Boston to Sanford, Fla., to demand the arrest of George Zimmerman over the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
Constantino ended his trek in Rhode Island when he learned that Zimmerman had been charged with second-degree murder.
“If they hadn’t arrested Zimmerman, he would have walked all the way to Florida,” Foss said.
Constantino said he grew disillusioned with the possibility to effect change within official channels, and that the findings of guilt in the stop-and-frisk trial illustrates this predicament.
“The system did what it’s supposed to do, and that’s the scary thing,” he said.
That trial also brought him some new allies with activists.
After his first Facebook posts following his arrest, one of the defendants in the stop-and-frisk trial, former U.S. Navy veteran John Hector commented: “The StopStop&Frisk crew salutes you.”
As a motions hearing gears up for late this month, Constantino has no made a formal plea, but he insists that none of his potential legal strategies will be an effort to avoid responsibility.
“The whole point of the civil disobedience is to take responsibility for the very act of nonviolent protest,” he said.
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