How Poor Young Black Men Run from the Police
Alice Goffman is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison whose book, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (out this month on University of Chicago Press), has been getting far more attention than academic works usually get. The book is a result of her living in a poor black neighborhood in Philadelphia she refers to as “6th Street” for years as an undergraduate and a grad student. (She changed the names of people and places in her book.) She eventually fell in with a group of young men who were almost constantly under the threat of being arrested and jailed, often for petty probation violations or unpaid court fees. She became a “fly on the wall” and took notes as her subjects (who were also her friends) attempted to make a living, support each other, and maintain relationships with their loved ones, all while attempting to evade the authorities. Goffman’s work shows how the threat of imprisonment hangs over the lives of so many in communities like 6th Street and warps families and friendships in the process. It’s an uncommonly close look at how lives are lived under police surveillance and should be read by anyone with an interest in poverty, policing, or mass incarceration. This excerpt is from the second chapter, which is titled “Techniques for Evading the Authorities.”
A young man concerned that the police will take him into custody comes to see danger and risk in the mundane doings of everyday life. To survive outside prison, he learns to hesitate when others walk casually forward, to see what others fail to notice, to fear what others trust or take for granted.
One of the first things that such a man develops is a heightened awareness of police officers—what they look like, how they move, where and when they are likely to appear. He learns the models of their undercover cars, the ways they hold their bodies and the cut of their hair, the timing and location of their typical routes. His awareness of the police never seems to leave him; he sees them sitting in plain clothes at the mall food court with their children; he spots them in his rearview mirror coming up behind him on the highway, from ten cars and three lanes away. Sometimes he finds that his body anticipates their arrival with sweat and a quickened heartbeat before his mind consciously registers any sign of their appearance.
When I first met Mike, I thought his awareness of the police was a special gift, unique to him. Then I realized Chuck also seemed to know when the police were coming. So did Alex. When they sensed the police were near, they did what other young men in the neighborhood did: they ran and hid.
The War on Weed: Racist, Expensive, and Failed
For years, anti-drug-war advocates have been saying, over and over again, that arresting people for possessing controlled substances overcrowds prisons, wastes resources, and destroys communities. Yet little has changed at the federal level. In fact, during Obama’s first three years as president, the arrest rate for marijuana possession was about 5 percent higher than the average rate under George W. Bush. At a certain point, you have to stop being subtle, which might be why the American Civil Liberties Union’s new study on the “war on marijuana” doesn’t fuck around: “Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests,” it announces in big, unambiguous letters right at the top.
The report—touted as the first comprehensive look at statistics on marijuana-related arrests in all 50 states—finds that enforcement of pot prohibition has been an even costlier and more racially charged nightmare than originally suspected. The data shows that over 8 million marijuana-related arrests were made between 2001 and 2010, costing taxpayers billions of dollars every year and branding many black youths as criminals, though they smoke pot at rates equal to their white peers. Indeed, the study finds that blacks are nearly four times as likely as whites to face arrest for pot-related offenses (and eight times as likely in some states, like Iowa).
Public Schoolteachers’ Pensions Are Partially Funded by Private Prisons
Public schools and prisons are becoming increasingly linked—police officers are now a constant presence in many schools, which has led to students getting hassled and arrested by cops for what could be described as normal kid stuff, including performing science experiments on school grounds. There’s even a name for this phenomenon: the school-to-prison pipeline, which takes kids, mostly minority students who live in poverty, out of the classroom and into the legal system, shuffling them into the prison-industrial complex before they’re old enough to vote.
But there’s another, less obvious way schools are tied to prisons. Retirement funds for public school teachers (as well as other government employees) in several states have a combined $90 million invested in Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group, the largest private prison companies in the world. Though individual teachers didn’t decide to make their pensions partially connected to America’s gigantic,often abusive incarceration industry—many of them aren’t aware of all the investments made on their behalf—they are indirectly profiting from mass incarceration thanks to choices made by their money managers who run public employees’ massive pension funds.
That $90 million figure is an estimate based on publicly-available NASDAQ data for public employee pension funds. Most of the money comes from three big states: California, New York, and Texas. Texas, through its Permanent School Fund and state employee retirement system, has about $13 million invested in CCA and GEO. California and New York, through their retirement funds for public school teachers and other state employees (which includes non-teacher school employees like janitors and principals), each have about $30 million tied to private prisons.
Don’t Get Caught: I’ve Spent 8+ Years in the System for a Nonviolent Felony
I’d been involved in selling drugs since I first smoked weed when I was 13. It just made sense to me that in order to have the money to use drugs, I’d have to sell some, too. I never thought I was doing anything wrong—my entrepreneurship put smiles on a lot of faces, and I did it better than most people ’cause I showed up on time and wasn’t a greedy, lying scumbag. I did abuse my stash pretty frequently, but I had enough self-control to avoid going off the deep end.
As a kid, I attended elite prep schools, played hockey year-round, and wound up getting accepted into Skidmore College, where, smooth as silk, I kept selling narcotics, mostly to my fellow students. Soon, I was HOOKED, living lovely off all that drug loot. I drove all around the Northeast like a madman, bartering and hustling coke, weed, X, shrooms, and whatever else seemed like a good flip. (I stayed away from dope and crack, though—you have to draw the line somewhere.)
I was so cocky—I never actually thought the pork-chop patrol would come after me. I ignored the illegality of what I was doing and didn’t care about my well-being enough to investigate or even pay attention to the laws. But as I soon learned, the law was paying lots of attention to me.
On a seemingly normal Friday night in February 2004, I was outside a Barnes & Noble with my older brother and his son when I got tagged by an undercover cop who looked like an upstate trailer-park stick-up kid. In retrospect, I wish he had robbed me for all my money instead of cuffing me in front of my six-year-old nephew. At that moment, my brain was spiraling through a million made-up explanations for my arrest instead of accepting the nightmarish reality of what was about to happen next. The pigs had a search warrant, and they took me back to my crib to rifle through my head stash, which was substantial enough to get me charged with five felonies and, potentially, 12 to 25 years in prison. I was 23 years old.
I spent the night in county jail and then, thankfully, was released on bail to await my trial. At the time, I was in my last semester of college and had been as excited as a nip-sucking piglet to finally graduate with all of my peoples. The future was so bright, and unlike most of my fellow students, I was in the black: I had a ton of money saved. I had already booked my plane tickets and hotel reservations to go to Italy with my girlfriend. But not anymore. Whatever the outcome of the trial, I knew my parents would be devastated (way more than I was), and I’d probably be kicked out of school.
I ended up taking a plea bargain. I was sentenced to three to nine years in state prison. My lengthy sentence was at least partially a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time—’04 was an election year, and the politicians in Saratoga Springs, where I was living and dealing, thought the town had a drug problem. The district attorney who prosecuted me probably figured nabbing a college student “involved in a drug-trafficking ring from New York City” (as the local paper referred to me) was a good demonstration that the city was tough on crime. They made an example out of me.
I took the plea deal in August, and they told me I was going to jail in October. Because I was at home, living in my own apartment, I spent that summer in an awkward sort of hell—I was technically free, but soon not to be. Every day that passed inched me closer to The End. It was such an awful countdown—never before or since in my life have I wanted time to stand still.
When the morning of that loathsome day arrived I was already running late, stumbling out of my girl’s apartment, hungover and sleep-deprived. I left my bonerabelle sobbing uncontrollably in the bed. She couldn’t handle going to court and watching the police take me away. We’d been together a couple years, and this was the most horrible way imaginable to say good-bye. Only death would’ve been worse.
I found my parents parked on the street, waiting, already lockjawed with tears in their eyes. They were so caring that they had even temporarily moved to Saratoga Springs, renting an apartment for a few months to watch over me while I was out on bail, making sure I didn’t do anything stupid before I was sent away, which I probably would have if they weren’t there. I still cringe over the pain I put my father and mother through. I felt like the Human Turd.
Coffee, Coca, and Government Favors
If you hate the War on Drugs, Ricardo Cortés should be one of your favorite illustrators. Though his most well-known work is probably the art for last year’s viral children’s book Go the Fuck to Sleep, he’s been working to convince people that our counterproductive prohibitions on certain substances need to end since at least 2005, when his book for kids about marijuana, It’s Just a Plant, sparked a lot of less-than-level-headed debate. He also published a pamphlet on jury nullification, which is the idea that juries can choose to declare defendants not guilty if the law seems unjust to them—his idea, shared by other anti-Drug War folks like The Wire’s writing staff, is that this controversial power should be used to acquit everyone charged with a non-violent drug offense regardless of evidence. (I interviewed Ricardo about this a year ago.)
This week, Akashic Books published what’s probably Ricardo’s most ambitious picture book: A Secret History of Coffee, Coca & Cola, which he has been working on for six years. During the research process, he found a bunch of letters between Harry J. Anslinger, America’s first drug czar—who held the post for 42 years and is responsible for many of the US’s anti-marijuana, anti-narcotic policies—and Ralph Hayes, a Coca-Cola executive. Their friendly correspondence, which, as the book documents, went on for decades and ended in the 60s, helped the soda company secure the exclusive rights to import and process coca leaves, which are otherwise illegal to possess in the US. (The New York Times uncovered Coke’s use of coca back in 1988, but the company has yet to acknowledge their use of the plant.) Ricardo’s book isn’t limited to a critique of this favoritism—there’s also a history of past attempts to criminalize coffee, and interesting stuff about the US government growing coca in experimental farms in Hawaii. I called Ricardo up and talked to him about the book, which, by the way, would make a nice holiday gift for Drug War doves of all ages. (You can buy it here.)
VICE: Hey Ricardo, thanks for talking to me. I heard from the press materials that this project started out as an idea for a kid’s book, like It’s Just a Plant.
Ricardo Cortés: When I did It’s Just a Plant, I got a lot of criticism about, “We shouldn’t be teaching kids about marijuana.” The book wasn’t about teaching kids how to smoke, of course. But I got a lot of people that were like, “Well, why don’t you do a kid’s book about cocaine?” and they kind of gave me a challenge to think about that, and to think about if that would be relevant to kid’s lives. And I wasn’t really interested in doing a children’s book about cocaine, but I did think, Well, the coca leaf is highly relevant to children’s lives in the Americas. Maybe not to children in the US, but in South America, kids actually pick coca leaves and families subsist on it, and it’s been part of the culture for thousands of years. So, yeah, the book started out that way, and that’s why it sort of looks like a children’s book. Originally I was thinking it would be talking about the coca plant, and as I got deeper into the history of cocaine and Coca-Cola, which even though it takes up a huge part of the book, was kind of a secondary aspect of it. It evolved into the adult book it is.
I kind of see the book as two things. There’s a first part of it, which is kind of a meta-conversation about the evolution of cultural and legal taboos against intoxicants. And that’s why it starts out with the image of tomatoes and potatoes, because these things have been banned at one point or looked at askew, just like coffee. I kind of see all these plants as things that through these cultural evolutions where people scapegoat them and ban them. Like when some in this country thought that apples were the fruit of the devil and got people drunk back when people were fermenting apples. Then, decades later, we’ve got the expression, “As American as apple pie.” So I saw coffee and coca as these two plants that grew on the same mountainside, were picked by the same people for thousands of years, and are both really benign stimulants. Both have been transformed into global commodities, but coffee is totally legal and accepted culturally around the world, and coca is this super-illicit, super-illegal, Drug War-starting plant. The conceit of the book was to introduce coffee, then talk about coca and show how these plants have developed over time and established these relationships with people. So, really, I think the story of Coca-Cola is a vehicle for telling the bigger story which is largely about drugs in general, but I really got into the nitty-gritty of the research.
It’s really remarkable to read the letters between Hayes and Anslinger in your book. They’re really upfront about saying, “We’re want to use this plant you want to make illegal for our legal product.”
Some of that stuff is on my website, where you can actually see the actual documents. But my favorite part was just how chummy they got. You kind of get a sense of their different styles. Like Ralph Hayes was just a total kiss-ass, but really professional about it, a real professional, diplomatic guy who would constantly say to Harry, “Oh, you’re the best at what you do, and your department is like a beacon to the world.” And Anslinger just ate it up.