MANHATTAN (CN) – Spared death by starvation, former prosecutor turned provocateur Bobby Constantino has an uncanny habit of putting himself in danger to protest social injustice days before the system addresses his demands.
In early April, Constantino began a march from his native Boston to Sanford, Fla., demanding the arrest of George Zimmerman for the murder of teenager Trayvon Martin. By the time he reached Rhode Island, the special prosecutor in Florida had charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder, the Boston Globe reported.
This month, in New York, Constantino has staged several protests to raise awareness about stop-and-frisk policing. He began a food-and-water strike Wednesday in front of City Hall, saying he would fast until Mayor Michael Bloomberg reformed the controversial policy that has been documented at targeting minorities more often than whites for searches.
This dichotomy became apparent hours into Constantino’s protest when a group of construction workers spotted Bobby carrying a sign that said simply, “March Against Stop & Frisk.”
As Constantino answered a white hard-hat’s questions about the sign, a black worker choked on his surprise. “You don’t know what stop and frisk is?” Ray Goodman said, pointing at his white colleague. “I know.”
Goodman then fell into conversation with Constantino, who was wearing the same ensemble that he has worn for many of his demonstrations: a Hugo Boss suit, Yves Saint Laurent tie, a lion-decorated silk handkerchief in his breast pocket and Cole Haan wingtip oxford shoes.
Constantino wears the self-styled “magic invisible suit of miracles” in wry comment on the trappings of white privilege.
The suit, which Constantino says brings him luck, was apparently already at work. On Wednesday afternoon, a Manhattan federal judge certified a class action lawsuit that may put the New York City Police Department under the court’s oversight.
The ruling intensified growing opposition to racially discriminatory stops, until NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly announced an effort Thursday to “increase public confidence” in its policies.
Though the New York Civil Liberties Union called Kelly’s plan more “PR” than “reform,” Constantino said the wheels of justice and legislature grinding into motion were enough to get his teeth grinding on the food he had given up just 36 hours prior.
Constantino’s knack for timing has boded a prodigious start in social justice spectacle for a man who once operated in the nitty-gritty of the system.
Now 34, Constantino spent the past decade moving from a Boston-area prosecutor to public defender to senior staffer at a nonprofit reform outfit called the Vera Institute. He said that he left his work out of frustration with the pace of reform.
Over the past two weeks, Constantino has threatened to hold a City Hall “lobby-in” against stop and frisk, spray-painted the gates with the words “NYPD Get Your Hands Off Me,” and courted arrest for five days that capped off with a courtroom protest.
Constantino said he settled on a hunger strike as his next step to ensure the mayor’s attention.
He said that his decision was partly inspired by the Indian tradition dating back to 750 B.C. in the Hindu epic, the Ramayana. He believes the Sanskrit tome indicates a practice of fasting in the house of a person who committed a wrong to seek redress.
“The purpose of the fast would be to bring your community’s attention to the notion that they had offended you,” Constantino said.
Though the idea won the support of the nonprofit group Stop Mass Incarceration, he said announcement of his hunger strike on blogs and social media alarmed many, and led to some grueling missives from mostly anonymous detractors.
“They’ve gone straight for the jugular,” he said. “The first thing they started saying was, ‘You’re mentally ill. You’re unstable. You’re not thinking clearly. You’re narcissistic. You’re grandiose. You’re all of these things.’ And I suppose to someone from inside the system, that all seems true.”
But Constantino thinks that the naysayers are the irrational ones.
“To me, it is irrational to say to the people who are suffering, ‘Wait,'” Constantino said. “To me, any rational person who believes in justice says, ‘This has to stop, now.’ But how do you do that? I tried to get the mayor’s attention. I spray-painted City Hall. I dropped off a letter in person and said, ‘Arrest me.’ They haven’t gotten back to me about my letter. So now, I am going literally to their house.”
Though the Powers That Be still have not answered Constantino’s letter, that has not dampened his sense of victory.
“Obviously my protest is not the reason, but I’m hoping the many calls and emails my friends made did make a difference,” he said.
His protest also increased the ranks of his supporters and allies.
Though Constantino started his strike alone, this reporter watched people introducing themselves as Constantino’s friends. Supporters and strangers started checking in to join him in loops around City Hall.
Among them were Amy Richardson, a teacher who knew Constantino from Boston, and activists Jamel Mims and Gregory Allen, who were arrested for protesting stop and frisk several months ago, leading to a trial that garnered the attention of like-minded supporters like Constantino.
Constantino said he has had a more difficult time convincing those like himself to risk their power, privilege and connections for a cause. Former Vera Institute colleagues working at an office a block away from City Hall belong to this group, he said.
“I know for a fact about the power and the connections and the privilege that those people have, and I know for a fact that if they filed out of work like it was a fire alarm, and they joined me out here, that this thing would be stopped overnight,” he claimed.
Instead, he said, he saw one of those former co-workers running “away from me like I am the plague.”
Neither City Hall nor the Vera Institute responded to requests for comment.