New York Times – The Opinion Pages
By Alice Goffman
WE have begun to pay attention to the harmful effects that America’s extremely high levels of incarceration have on former prisoners and their families, particularly in African-American neighborhoods, but we’re still missing part of the story. Our get-tough turn didn’t just send millions of African-American men to prison and return them home with felony convictions. It expanded the scope of policing and court supervision in poor black neighborhoods, radically altering the way life is lived there.
In 2002, during my sophomore year of college, I moved into a working-class-to-poor African-American neighborhood in Philadelphia, and got to know a group of friends in their teens and early 20s who hung out together in the alleyways and on back porches. I watched the police stop and search young men in the street, chase them, make arrests, raid houses in the middle of the night and threaten girlfriends and mothers who refused to cooperate. I saw the police take young men into custody, not only on the streets, but at their jobs, in their mothers’ homes, at funerals and even in a hospital delivery room.
Children in the neighborhood played games of chase in which one child played the role of the cop. The child would push the other child down on the ground and stick his hands in imaginary handcuffs: “I’m going to lock you up! I’m going to lock you up, and you ain’t never coming home!” I once saw a 6-year-old pull another child’s pants down to attempt a cavity search.
Most of the young men I met had not finished high school and were struggling to find work. They lived with female relatives, and some sold drugs off and on. Many went to jail or prison, but before they went in, and after they came home, they lived as suspects and as fugitives. With pending cases in criminal courts, probation and parole sentences to complete or low-level warrants out for unpaid court fees or missed court dates, they worried that any encounter with the police would send them to prison. The threat of capture and confinement had seeped into the basic activities of daily living.
A FEW weeks after Eddie turned 14, an officer stopped him outside the corner store, patted him down and found a nickel bag of crack in the lining of his jeans. When the officer reached for his handcuffs, Eddie fled, losing the officer in the alleyways. In the escape, Eddie scaled a fence and landed badly. He walked into his grandmother’s house panting and clutching his right forearm, the bone exposed. I had been sitting with his grandmother that afternoon and saw Eddie come through the door.
His grandmother took Eddie’s shirt off, muttered a prayer and examined the wound.
“Should I call for an ambulance?” I asked.
Eddie shook his head, saying that he had no intention of going to the E.R. The cops there would arrest him for fleeing the police and for possession of narcotics, and he was not going to juvenile detention, not for this or for anything.
“Better that than lose your arm,” I said.
“Have you been to juvie?”
“What were you doing selling drugs anyway?” his grandmother asked.
Eddie shrugged. Later he mumbled to me, “It’s not like she can buy groceries every week.”
After an hour or so on the phone, his grandmother announced that a woman was coming to fix Eddie’s arm.
“Is she a doctor?”
“She’s a janitor,” his grandmother said, laughing. “But she works at the hospital.”
Eddie’s grandmother spent the afternoon visiting the houses of her friends and relatives, trying to raise money. She came back that evening, looking exhausted, with $70 in crumpled bills.
The woman arrived around midnight, wearing scrubs and carrying a large plastic bag full of medical supplies. She unwrapped Eddie’s arm and injected it with anesthetic. As she caught up with Eddie’s grandmother, she cleaned the wound and asked me to turn up the music. She instructed his grandmother to hold on to Eddie’s torso while she clutched his arm between her thighs and set the bone. Eddie screamed and struggled to get away, then cried for a good 10 minutes. The woman dropped two needles into boiling water on the stove and used them to sew up the torn skin. Soon Eddie’s arm sat in a sling, and Eddie’s grandmother handed the woman the $70, along with three plates of chicken and corn bread.
I met Eddie through Mike, the cousin of a high school student I had been tutoring. Like her, Mike lived in an African-American section of Philadelphia, but Mike’s neighborhood had nicer lawns and larger homes.
“To white people it’s all just the ghetto, though,” he said.
About a month after I met Mike, the cops raided his uncle’s house in the middle of the night. Mike, who was 22 at the time, had slept at his girlfriend’s that night, and his uncle called there around 4 a.m. to tell him to leave immediately, since they would probably come to her place next. Mike was wanted on a shooting charge, though he denied being involved in any shooting or even owning a gun.
With a warrant out for his arrest, Mike spent the next few weeks hiding in the houses of friends and relatives and trying to raise money for his defense. Then he paid a lawyer and turned himself in. He was held at a large pink-and-gray jail in Northeast Philadelphia. After a fight in the yard, Mike spent a week in solitary confinement, and his mother scraped together the money to pay his bail.
“Who knows how long he will last in the darkness like that?” she said, as we walked out of the bail office.
Mike came home and began attending monthly court dates. I had never known a man facing criminal charges before and assumed this was a grave and significant event in Mike’s life. As we approached the local courthouse, Mike recognized a man he knew and smoked a cigarette with him while they exchanged details about their cases. By the time we were sitting on the benches on the defendant’s side of the courtroom, he had greeted over a dozen more young men. He recognized two of the public defenders and told me which guys from the block had been assigned to them for various cases.
I began to understand that Mike’s shooting charge, though not insignificant for him, was nothing new — not to him or the other guys he grew up with. His best friend, Chuck, was in county jail awaiting trial for a schoolyard fight, and another close friend, Alex, was completing two years of parole after serving a year upstate for drugs. Mike’s cousin was out on bail; his neighbor was living under house arrest. Another friend, who was homeless and sleeping in an abandoned Jeep, had a warrant out for unpaid court fees. These young men were coming of age in courtrooms, jail visiting rooms and prison cells.
Near the end of my sophomore year, I asked Mike what he thought of my writing about his life. He agreed, and then I asked other young men and their families to take part. My junior year, Mike, Chuck and I became roommates. I spent the rest of college and then four years of graduate school in the neighborhood writing daily notes. On the weekends, we’d visit incarcerated friends in prisons across Pennsylvania. Wary that my writing might generate new charges for Mike and his friends, we picked out pseudonyms and a new name for the neighborhood.
When I give talks about this research, people sometimes ask whether young men selling drugs and getting into violent disputes don’t deserve a difficult life. I’m never quite sure how to answer this question. Sometimes I simply tell stories.
Tim’s first arrest came at age 11. One of his older brothers, Mike’s friend Chuck, was driving Tim to school in his girlfriend’s car, and when a cop pulled them over, the car came up as stolen in California. Chuck had never been to California and had no idea which one of his girlfriend’s relatives had stolen the car. The officer took both brothers into custody. Down at the police station, they charged Chuck with receiving stolen property and they charged Tim as an accessory to the crime. Later, a judge in juvenile court placed Tim on three years’ probation.
Mike’s first arrest had come at 13, when the police stopped, searched and arrested him for carrying a small quantity of marijuana.
Chuck made it all the way to 18 without any jail time, but during his senior year, he got into a schoolyard fight with someone who called his mom a crack whore. The guy wasn’t severely injured, but the police charged Chuck with aggravated assault. He sat in county jail while the trial dates dragged on, coming home eight months later, the assault charge dropped. The next fall, he tried to re-enroll as a senior, but by then he was 19 and the school secretary would not admit him. He could not afford the court fees that came due after his case closed, so he ended up with a bench warrant out for his arrest.
Aren’t these precisely the young men committing the violent crimes ruining poor neighborhoods, people ask. Surely the innocent public should be protected from this criminal element. Yes, I say, in theory. But the division between innocent victims and violent offenders simply does not hold up in this neighborhood, where poor young men without work are both the most frequent perpetrators and the most frequent victims of the violence. In the time I lived there, we lost a number of young men to shootings, and the guys I knew were on both sides of those conflicts.
The question we might also ask is not whether an individual should be punished for an act of violence, but where this violence is coming from and how we might prevent it. Often, when older people in the neighborhood talked about the troubling levels of violence, they blamed bad parenting, absent fathers, or a lack of moral fortitude in the younger generation. Maybe all this is true, but from what I observed, the roots of crime and violence were also found in economic hardship and in particular a profound dislocation from the legal labor market.
Some of the saddest days I spent in the neighborhood were the days that Mike, Chuck and their friends searched for work. Watching them try and fail, day after day, to secure low-paying part-time jobs broke my spirit. Once, after months of putting in applications, Chuck became too exhausted and too hungry and asked another man for some crack to sell. As he cut it and placed it into little baggies, he seemed to get more and more upset.
“Are you O.K.?”
“I hate this. I seen what it did to my mother. I hate doing that to other people’s mothers. Like I’m causing their pain.”
“And I know I’m probably going right back to jail.”
“But what am I supposed to do? I need to eat. Tim needs to eat.”
The deep employment problems of African-American young men cannot be solved through police work or prison sentences. They predate the war on crime and may well survive it. But if we want young men like Chuck and Mike to end their reliance on an underground, illegal trade for income and employment, we must address the chronic joblessness that they face. As long as the drug trade continues to sustain a large portion of poor African-American communities, we will see a level of violence there that no resident or outside observer feels is acceptable.
Policy analysts sometimes look at a neighborhood like this one and conclude that the main problem is one of police legitimacy. This sanitizes the intense conflict going on between the police and the residents of poor minority communities. In these neighborhoods, the problem is not that the police lack legitimacy; the problem is that residents who are already struggling with acute poverty, joblessness and drug addiction are living under daily threat of arrest.
Whatever our opinion about Mike or Chuck’s guilt or innocence, we might agree that a criminal justice system that arrests an 11-year-old boy for sitting in the passenger seat of a stolen car or makes a 14-year-old boy scared to seek medical treatment for a severe injury is not working for the public good. Perhaps we might also agree that requiring young men to avoid their mother’s houses, their workplaces and their friends’ funerals in order to stay out of jail is also misguided.
In this Philadelphia neighborhood, the agencies charged with providing justice and safety were instead sources of fear and instability. Locking up large percentages of African-American young men is morally wrong and immensely costly, but creating a shadow world of police surveillance and fugitive living is perhaps equally harmful and ultimately self-defeating.
Can we imagine a world in which the police in poor communities act not as an occupying force, to use Mike’s mother’s phrase, but instead as mediators of disputes, people residents can turn to for help and support, without fear of going to prison? If we stretch ourselves even further, can we imagine the police connecting residents to jobs and social services, rather than disconnecting them?
People on both sides of the aisle and on both sides of the courtroom now acknowledge that the criminal justice system needs a major overhaul. After four decades of zero tolerance and getting tough on crime, we seem poised for change. Can we seize the moment?
June 1, 2014: The excerpted version of this article that appeared in the print edition of Sunday Review and inadvertently appeared online has been replaced by the full-length essay.