Sunday, March 30, 2014

THE LIBERAL RACE BLIND SPOT

I don’t normally wade into Twitter shitstorms unless white people are behaving badly, and need to be checked by one of their own, and I've definitely never written about one outside of Twitter. But what's going on in the case of #cancelcolbert right now demands some immediate attention.

A writer named Bob Cesca, managing editor of the Daily Banter, took an activist named Suey Park to task for suggesting that Comedy Central should cancel the Colbert Report because the host Stephen Colbert made a joke about the “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”

Cesca annihilates Park, telling her that she doesn’t understand satire, that the joke was made in a racial context that Park either wasn't aware of or doesn't get. He then asks her on his Twitter timeline whether she has seen the show, again implying that maybe she isn't sophisticated enough to get Colbert's brand of humor. 

Piers Morgan mini-me Josh Zepps did the same on Friday during a HuffPo segment, calling Park's opinion "stupid" and dismissing her much like Morgan dismissed Janet Mock in February. 

I'm writing to tell you, Mr. Cesca, Mr. Zepps, and white people who say you are against racism everywhere, that Colbert and his writers could have easily made the same exact point, with identical context, and achieved the same comedic effect with: “I’m going to start the Cracka' Ass Cracker Barrel Foundation to Combat Reverse Racism Against White People.” 

When I find myself laughing at sketches like Colbert’s -- even when I understand the context and agree with his larger point (probably hard for Mr. Cesca to believe) -- I am also often cringing at the same time because it reminds me of my own cruelty as a kid: A hurt, wretched little creature hurling slurs around to make myself feel better while pointing and laughing at my many victims.

And if it makes me wince as a former perp, it's not much of a stretch of empathic imagination to suspect that it would reconjure the inverse for Ms. Park. There she is, sitting quietly on the sidelines, nodding and agreeing substantively with everything Mr. Colbert is saying about Snyder's refusal to understand the offensiveness of his football team's name towards Native Americans, when -- POOF -- suddenly words redolent of the same slurs Ms. Park has experienced throughout her life as an Asian woman are up on the screen while an audience that looks strikingly similar to the people that typically hurl them is roaring with laughter. 

The decision of Colbert and his team to poke fun at a real, historically marginalized group instead of targeting a fictional marginalized group, that included the host, and would have likely been just as funny, is a clean glimpse at the blind spot in the race consciousness of white liberals. That they get to choose to bring a second marginalized group into the scrum, or not, and that they go for it, rather than erring on the side of caution, and that they and the many supporters that rally to their defense unleash their intentions as if they are invincible weapons that disprove claims of harm and delegitimize responsive measures by the marginalized group itself, undermines the entire point of being on the right side and perpetuates a far more insidious and hurtful brand of racism than the open coded attempts of buffoons like Paul Ryan.  

When something like this happens, and someone like Ms. Park, who has experienced these things firsthand -- unlike Cesca, Zepps and me -- we have a stark choice as people who claim to be on the "right" side of racism, ignorance and hate. We can take her word for it, whether or not we agree with, believe in, or understand her injury, because we acknowledge that she has standing that we lack (because we have never personally experienced the pain of such slurs, nor will we). 

Or, on the other hand, we can throw a collective fit and dismiss her, insisting on our right to use the group that she is a member of as a pawn in our satire, though we could have easily refrained. And then, rather than humbly listening, or giving her the benefit of the doubt, we insist that we did not -- and could never -- hurt her because intentions, because context, and because satire is an important tool, as though we are explaining these concepts to a child rather than a woman who at age twenty-three understands the complexity and nuance of race, class and history in America better than the majority of us ever will in our lifetimes. 

Choosing the nuclear hissy fit option proves to Ms. Park, and others like her, beyond any doubt that we as liberal white people with public platforms don't value her emotional well being or her intellect. More tellingly, it demonstrates to her that we are definitively on the "right" side of racism right up until the moment we are asked to change any of our behaviors or humbly entertain the possibility that we may have, despite our very high opinions of ourselves, offended someone. That the Morgans, Cescas and Zeppses of the world continue to operate smack in the middle of such a massive blind spot, without seeming to be aware of it, is tragic proof that we are nowhere near the level of race consciousness needed to identify and eradicate racism in all of its ugly forms in America. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

I GOT ARRESTED...SO WHAT?

Since my story ran in The Atlantic Tuesday, I have been overwhelmed with emails from people all over the country wanting to get involved with the Truth Artists Coalition (I promise I will get to them all, thank you so much for reaching out to us), comments, tweets, facebook messages -- for the most part all positive and supportive.

Perhaps more amazing have been the thoughtful conversations happening in the comments section of the article, on Reddit, Mother Jones, and in other places, such as Slate's crime blog, as opposed to trolling

In a piece by Justin Peters on Slate's blog (if you haven't read the piece, please do), he writes, "I just don't think it [Constantino's story] says anything significant."


I want to respond here (there are several other things I would like to clarify, such as that I never "concluded" anything in my piece, as he suggested, but rather I presented the facts in a way that lets readers conclude themselves, but that's for another day) because I think Justin has seized on an important nuance of my story. The nuance is this: It's true, my story doesn't say anything significant to Justin, and that's kind of the whole point. 


One of the most fascinating things about this experience has been that all of my friends who have never experienced the system from the inside, ranging from people I grew up with, to college, law school, and so on, have remarked, "Wow, I can't believe you went through so much," "I can't believe you risked so much," "I can't believe how bad it is in there," etc. 


In stark contrast, many of the people that have experienced the system, or who know and love those that have, not by the luxury of choice, like me, but by force, because of who they are and where they live, have written, "All this shows is how privileged you are," "You haven't seen anything because you were protected by your privilege," "You will never experience the system the way someone from Brownsville does."  


And this latter group is exactly right. I wasn't beaten. I wasn't pulled from a car and left to bleed to death on a public street. I wasn't pulled over and killed in front of my friends. I wasn't chased down, Tased, and left to die in police custody for tagging graffiti. I didn't have a broken wrist, or Taser burns, or any lumps on my head from my arrest, as all of the men of color around me in central booking did. Furthermore, as the story itself makes plain, I definitely do not get stopped or bothered when I leave the house and walk around Roxbury or Brooklyn. 


But here's the thing: Just because this latter group is right (and they are, because I will never experience the system the way a man of color my age does, nor will I ever be stopped in Barney's for buying a nice belt) does not make my white friends wrong for thinking what they think. To them, it is a huge, catastrophic life event to go through the experience of getting arrested and convicted. Where I am from, one doesn't get arrested unless one does something really, really outrageous, like driving drunk and crashing, or becoming addicted to heroin and breaking into houses. 


Accordingly, we trust the police and the justice system because they never give us a hard time and they (almost always) give us the benefit of doubt. Because this is our reality, we can't possibly believe the police or the justice system would ever treat people otherwise unless they deserve it. In my piece I wrote, "we figured whatever they [people in high incidence police contact neighborhoods] got, they deserved," which is, "how I ended up in Roxbury, fresh out of law school, ready to incarcerate everything in sight." 


It was only after resigning, moving into a neighborhood up the street from the courthouse, and living there for four years -- incredibly, with a man I once prosecuted -- that I realized how tragically misguided my worldview had been. This distance between worlds is what prevented people like me from seeing men and women of color in Roxbury as equals growing up. Where I grew up we had no natural points of contact with people in Roxbury. Accordingly, we had no way of hearing from friends, colleagues, associates, etc., that there are places where police harassment is a daily feature of life. Naive or oblivious, maybe, but where I grew up the idea of unprovoked, daily police harassment was nearly impossible to believe. 


This is why my piece isn't supposed to say anything significant to you, Justin. You already get it. The problem is that not everyone thinks the way you do yet, and the statistics that you cite as the end-all-be-all on the matter (because anecdotes, like landfills, are "all garbage") sadly don't have much power to help folks like me along. If statistics did have this power, stop and frisk would have ended a long time ago because the numbers clearly show how wasteful and ineffective it is. 


The truth is, no one gives a crap about statistics when they run up against thirty years of suburban, fear-based, hysteria-driven, driving-with-no-headlights-is-a-gang-initiation-watch-out-for-the-knockout-game-Cadillac-queen worldview that is inculcated in us from birth in faraway bastions of white privilege. In my experience, it is often hard for people to care about an issue until they can see, with their own two eyes, how it affects someone they know and love, someone they recognize, someone they don't fear, someone they can empathize with and relate to in a real way.


I got arrested and told this story so people like me, in suburbs far away from racial profiling and police harassment, with no natural points of contact with the system and those it unfairly targets, could see how messed up it is without having to go through it themselves. Will that be enough? Who knows. But in my view, after ten years of sitting in a chair and writing about these things (here, here, here, here, ad infinitum), with very, very little to show for it except a good salary, I decided it was time to cash in my immense privilege and try something different.  

Saturday, August 24, 2013

REMEMBERING MA SISS





















“Life, misfortunes, isolation, abandonment, poverty, are battlefields which have their heroes; obscure heroes, sometimes greater than the illustrious heroes.”
       
                                               -Victor Hugo

In the fall of 2006, Idene Wilkerson, or “Ma Siss,” as everyone calls her in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, took me, a homeless, penniless, 29-year-old attorney, into her arms, like a son, no questions asked. 

Ma gave me a place to stay in her Drayton Avenue walkup while I got my feet back on the ground, in exchange for a promise on my part to help out around the neighborhood. It was a promise that turned out to be a full-time job, and one that I eagerly, and often clumsily, embraced. I soon found myself doing things that had never needed doing in the places where I grew up: accompanying parents to court, taking teenagers to answer grand jury subpoenas after shootings, sitting with families in hospitals after overdoses, convincing young men not to retaliate after getting jumped, etc. 

We played football in the street, video games until early in the morning, and laughed as much as we cried.  The work was the most important, fulfilling work I have ever done, and there was, tellingly, as I have found with most work of this kind, no salary for it.

There were cold, dark winter nights when I would come home from a day of running around, exhausted, frozen, and starving. I would walk up the steps to my room in the building Ma owned, full of hunger and pride, angry and conflicted over whether to knock and ask for food. I often decided against it, ashamed to be begging for food with an advanced degree on my resume.

Nearly every time this would happen, I would walk up the stairs, go into my room brooding and griping, and no sooner take off my coat than a knock would come at the door, one of Ma’s children or grandchildren, or one of the neighbors, or one of the many people that helped out around the neighborhood, with a hot plate of food, baked chicken, greens, mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, beans, black eyed peas, and so on, wrapped in foil, condensation steaming on the underside, set aside for me, and a small black plastic bag full of canned goods, vegetables, and other groceries. I have never met someone with such intuition for people in need. Somehow she knew. She always knew.

And I wasn’t special. Ma did this for everyone that entered the orbit of her Quincy Street neighborhood.  Free meals at the church, rides to the doctor, the store, job interviews, a spare couch if you need one, a patch on the roof, some extra bedding, and always, in my case, and many, many others, a hot plate if you are hungry.

How she managed to do this well into her seventies I do not know. But that’s Ma Siss, one of the selfless, resplendent souls that Hugo had in mind when he spoke of heroes. Ma Siss deserves a monument in the City of Boston, and that would not be nearly enough.

Ma Siss dramatically altered the course of my life, welcoming me into a world that somehow, shamefully, after twenty years of formal education, I did not know existed. I began to see the world clearly for the first time, to be quiet for the first time, to experience community for the first time, and, perhaps most importantly, to see all of the things I’d been taking for granted for the first time.

Thank you, Ma, for treating me like a son, for loving and caring for me, no questions asked. Without you, my life to this point, and all of the things I experienced, would never have been possible. You will be terribly missed, and adoringly remembered.


Monday, April 29, 2013

REMEMBERING MARTIN RICHARD

Two weeks ago, on the afternoon of Marathon Monday, as most Bostonians, whether here or abroad, did, I answered the many inquiries of concerned friends and relatives from my home state of Massachusetts. No, I didn’t run this year, thankfully, and, no, I didn’t know anyone hurt or injured at the finish line during the attacks. 

I’d just finished explaining this to my girlfriend’s roommate in Chinatown, as I hit the sidewalk for the 4, 5 Subway at the Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall stop in New York City, when, poof, there it was in my inbox.

“One of the kids who was in my class last year who was your biggest fan…he was the 8-yr-old who died at the marathon today.”

The text was from a friend of mine, Martin’s second grade teacher last year in Dorchester.

I met Martin almost exactly a year earlier, when I was walking from Boston, MA to Sanford, FL. The march was modeled after James Meredith’s 1966 March Against Fear, when he set out alone from Memphis, TN to Jackson, MS to protest segregation and other forms of racism.

He was injured by a shotgun blast on his march, and strangers from all over the country took over to finish for him, sleeping in tents and being fed by generous locals along the march route.

Martin's class was studying nonviolent resistance through the lives of Gandhi and Martin Luther King and my friend had been researching whether anyone was doing nonviolent protest actions today. She’d heard about the march – to protest the failure of local authorities to arrest George Zimmerman – from a friend.

We met in Government Center, she enthusiastically explained the unit her class was studying, and we marched the first four-mile leg to Upham’s Corner together. A no-brainer, I agreed to stop by and speak to her students on my second leg the following day.

I woke up to an immaculate spring day and walked to class with a toothbrush and bagged lunch. Upon my arrival, this perfectly diverse class of ahimsakas – a Gandhian term for activists committed to "doing no harm" – was electric and bursting with enthusiasm.

“Where are you going to stay?”

“I don’t know. Maybe you can help me?”

“Yaaaaaaa!”

“What will you eat?”

“Hopefully whatever I can find.”

“What if you don’t find anything?”

“Then I’m going to be hungry.”

“Whoooaaaa.”

“But I don’t think people will let me starve, do you?”

“No, people are good.”

“Why are you doing it?”

“Because of Trayvon Martin. Do you know who that is?”

Hands shot up.

They began discussing the case, eagerly sharing their opinions and relating the case to their own personal experiences with violence in Boston.

After a moment, I stopped them.

“Please raise your hand if you know someone that has been hurt or killed by violence.”

Hands shot up. After a moment, every single child had a hand in the air.

One by one, the youngsters began sharing their stories. Some had relatives who had been shot and killed, others stabbed, many in jail. These were second graders. In America.

Martin began to relate his story.

“One time, there was this big fight on the street, and this group of people was really loud, and it was really scary, and-”

He paused.

He looked around at his classmates. His little mind switched gears and he chose his words very carefully.

“Someone got hurt really bad and I just think we all need to stop hurting each other.”

“So class, how do we use our experiences with violence as motivation to do good things?” one of the teachers asked.

Hands shot up again.

“We can do ahimsa!” one chimed

“We can make signs!” 


“We can march!”

I turned to the instructors.

“Do you think they are old enough to march with me a little bit today?”

The students began frantically looking around and whispering.

“I don’t know class, what do you think? Do you want to march with Mr. Constantino today?”

Martin’s hand shot up, as did several others, “OOOH OOOH OOOH I want to!”

“YAAAAAAAAA!!!”

The place became a whirling vortex of poster board, markers and signs. 





“We need more caring people in the world.”

I snapped a photo.

“We need ahimsa.”

I snapped another.

“Use your words instead of guns.”

And then I came to Martin’s sign. It was on light blue poster board, framed by two hearts and two peace signs.

“No more hurting people, peace.”

I snapped a photo.

After we marched together, Martin and his class headed back to the school to calculate my route and average speed in math class, to study the places where I would stop for geography and history, and to reach out to colleges, universities and shelters to try and help me find places to spend the night.

Sadly, I only met Martin twice, once on this day, and once when I reported back to the class on my journey after Zimmerman was arrested. 


As the days and now weeks have passed since his killing, one thing has nagged me to the point of disregarding all of the reasons – it’s too soon; it’s not my place; his family is still mourning – why not to write about him.

In September 2012, Maya Angelou appeared on the Melissa Harris-Perry show and explained that the reason why we don’t defend our brothers and sisters when they are being harmed is because we lack courage.

“Whoever is being assailed, that’s you, nitwit…”

I mention this because I can't get over this image of Martin against the backdrop of Ms. Angelou's words. There he is, leading the way with his classmates, second graders intuiting each and every one, word for word: Trayvon Martin is us


Martin was not only smart enough to look at violence against an unarmed teenager and know it was wrong, but he was courageous enough to fire his hand into the air like a rocket when he was asked if he wanted to do something about it, right then and there.

In 1966, when James Meredith was shot on his march to Jackson, strangers from all over the country converged as one and took his place until he was released from the hospital and able to rejoin them on the road into Jackson. 


I’d like to ask that in the coming weeks and months, as we come to terms with Martin's loss, we do the same for him, not by convening a march to Mississippi, although he would have probably loved that idea, but by convening together around acts of courage in our daily lives.

I wonder if we might try and honor Martin's example by trying to be more like him. When we see someone being harmed, we step up, right here and now, without regard for reasons why not. When we hear about violence in any of its awful forms, we stand up and say, nope, not today, not while there's life and breath in this body.

Let's give freely to the charitable initiatives that have been created in the name of the victims (here and here), but let's also remember that Martin would have gone several -- or several hundred, if my experience with him in class was any indication -- steps further, and that if we truly wish to honor his example with our own lives, we can draw inspiration from his courage and do the same. 

[This post was updated on May 1, 2013 at 22:41 EST]

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

PICTURES OF YOU


I was on my way to Dorchester Court yesterday when I drove by where 14-year-old Nicholas Fomby-Davis was killed on Sunday. I started thinking about another 14-year-old, Jaewon Martin, who was also killed May 9. I was going over the sensational story line in my head about how neither boy was "gang-involved," or "known to police," or an "impact player," when it sort of dawned on me: do these things really matter when we are talking about 14-year-olds? If 14-year-olds are gang-involved, known to police, or killing each other or getting killed, is that really something we should be holding against them?

Each time something like this happens, the community is devastated, then outraged. We hold multiple press conferences and we promise that we are going to find the people responsible and lock them up forever. Then, when the hubbub dies down, and the young person is buried, things go back to exactly how they were. I reflected on a piece I wrote last year around the same time, under the same exact circumstances, telling anyone that would listen that if we don't channel this outrage and begin to use it to address what is really causing crime, then it is only a matter of time before we will be standing "at a press conference with the parents of the next dead 15-year-old." Well, here we are. Again.

To be honest, I was pretty hard on the mayor in that piece. It is, of course, not all his fault. I know he cares more than most people about this issue, and that he has been trying out new ideas so far in his last term. This is a good thing. And we can at least know for sure that he cares more than the press that were at the arraignment yesterday.

When I arrived at court, there were hordes of press from the local stations, with vans humming, microphones, cables, all freaking out like mad and running around to make sure they spoke to every one of the dead child's relatives to get all the gushy footage of them sobbing and grieving. I wanted to grab their microphones and throw them into the street: where the hell were you people when this tragedy was unfolding from a mile away? Do you realize you only come here after kids die or cab drivers and shopkeepers are murdered? Year after year this happens, year after year you come here to cover these stories, and yet to you it's not a story that this keeps happening?

It's not news that 16-year-old boys like Justin Fernandez, the alleged shooter, are being found in cars with guns and gang members, as happened in a separate incident some months ago? It's not news that this is happening with 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds all over the city of Boston? Somehow it's news when it happens in DR Congo, when rebels there give kids guns and turn them into child soldiers, but it's not news when it happens in Boston?

There are big structural forces driving young people towards gangs year after year. Our multi-billion dollar criminal justice system is not only failing to address these structural realities, but may even be making them worse. This is not news?

I met my client and his mother and father inside the courthouse. They live in Dorchester. He is 16, the same age as the alleged shooter. He had bruises on his face from getting jumped over the weekend. I asked him about it. His mother interrupted, without giving him a chance to explain, her voice overcome with motherly anguish, "I keep telling him not to go outside. Not to hang out with anyone. To just stay in the house. But he won't listen. He just won't listen."

Imagine this for a second: a parent begging a 16-year-old to stay inside, alone, in Boston, in June. And this is not news?

Our children, just like my 16-year-old client, are growing up in neighborhoods where if they do not have a group of friends around them at all times, they are in constant danger of getting their pockets run through, and, if they resist, beaten up, shot or stabbed. This is not hyperbole. It is a fact of daily life for young people that live in Dorchester, Mattapan and Roxbury.

In the pages below, and at meetings and in columns and to everyone I have ever spoken to in Boston, I and so many of my peers that do this work have discussed hundreds of ideas, promising practices that are working in other jurisdictions, programs that have had incredible success at lowering violent crime and recidivism, etc. Based on this evidence, a group of us even started a non-profit in Roxbury that helps young men work off their court fees by getting their resume together, filling out job applications, going on interviews and leaving the streets behind. I also know many other people have been doing and saying the same things that we are doing and saying for years. Yet for some reason, time after time, year after year in Boston, the overwhelming majority of our resources go towards law enforcement, prisons and prosecutions, which every shred of available data shows are unconscionably expensive and do little or nothing to prevent violent crime and recidivism. How is this not news?

Recently, the police released pictures of kids in the gang that Justin Fernandez was in, with the intention of shaming them publicly. What's interesting is that if you look at the flyer, most of the pictures of the alleged gang members are pictures of kids who appear to be no older than 15 or 16. These are the kids we are shaming? Seriously?

For the last two years I have been working with young men just like these. They are kids who are growing up in single-parent homes, often with caregivers absent because they are addicted to drugs and off chasing the grind somewhere. They are surrounded by violence, have attended multiple funerals of classmates and relatives, know dozens of others that have been shot and/or sent to prison, and they are bombarded day in and day out with toxic stress that is frying their ability to ever function as healthy adults.

They are saddled with the overwhelming responsibility of raising themselves from an early age, which turns quite dangerous when they become teenagers in a jungle where those with the craziest, baddest reputations rule, and so they wind up doing what so many male role models before them have done: they give the finger to society for doing so little to help them wind through this meat grinding mess alone, they hustle for money to survive and they team up with their friends -- the only people they can trust -- for safety. And at the end of long days worrying about whether they or any of their friends will get jumped, robbed, or worse when they go outside, there is little mental bandwidth remaining to focus on the big picture, to worry about MCAS, school, a career, or to buy a damn umbrella when it rains.

We in the mainstream often stand by and watch as "these kids" go through this protracted hell by themselves, and then we turn around and blame them for not making it out unscathed and in a chipper mood, ready to play by our rules. We act surprised when they drop out of school, assume oppositional identities and give mainstream society the finger.

In response, we blame the parents for not raising their children properly, and then once they have made the leap and gone from neglected children without a chance to ruthless, ruined teenagers, we overpolice the neighborhoods where they live, stop, frisk, arrest, prosecute, incarcerate, and now the latest, release pictures of them to shame them, all despite the fact that it costs hundreds of millions of dollars more to do all of this than to intervene when they are young and prevent them from going down this wretched, life destroying path in the first place. Such is the fate of children becoming teenagers in Boston. And this is not news.

The only pictures we should be releasing are pictures of ourselves.

Friday, April 9, 2010

CRUEL AND UNUSUAL






















The recent possible fatal shooting by police of a grieving, mentally ill 19-year-old in Dorchester has provoked responses ranging from blaming the police for brutally murdering a traumatized young man to blaming the 19-year-old for being a violent thug that got what he deserved.

While neither position is particularly well-informed, there are two important angles to this story that have not received much play.

The first is that in response to this incident the Globe quoted Police Commissioner Ed Davis as saying:

"Davis said the discussion was to focus on the root cause of violence that brought officers to the neighborhood in the first place. He said that only a fraction of the greater community is responsible for the violence plaguing city streets, and so those at the meeting discussed ways to reach out to families and to youth with jobs and summer programs."

This may not seem significant at first glance, but this is a HUGE development. Typically when incidents like this happen, city officials puff out their chests and talk about increased police operations and locking up bad guys and throwing away keys, as they did as recently as April 2nd. Then the press leave and within hours everything goes right back to the way it was because what actually caused the violent crime was not addressed. So to hear Commissioner Davis say this in response to a tragic shooting is an all-caps huge change in tone for the department. It shows that Mayor Menino was serious when he said he was going to try new things and it bodes very well for the future of this city. It shows that city officials are finally getting hip to what causes crime, always better late than never, and this is far more than can be said for other cities and towns affected by violence.

The second angle is how police practices are souring relationships in the community and leading to dangerous and growing levels of frustration and anger towards them, particularly in the wake of incidents like this one where police were confronted by angry crowds and are now receiving violent threats.

The New York City Police Department recently released statistics showing that in the last five years they have stopped and frisked nearly 2.8 million people. Of those 2.8 million, more than 88 percent were found innocent of any wrongdoing and released. Over 81 percent of those stopped were black or Hispanic.

Getting stopped by police when you have done nothing wrong and because you live in a poor neighborhood and are not white is a humiliating and frustrating experience. When it happens over and over again, it leads to a dangerous breakdown of trust and anger in communities subjected to it. This is why Henry Louis Gates was so angry when police came to his house and arrested him. And it is why most white people didn't understand what he was so mad about: they don't get stopped and frisked.

Manny DaVeiga was grieving for a friend he recently lost at a makeshift memorial. He was carrying a gun because the same people that killed his friend would have killed him if they saw him outside. This does not justify his carrying a gun, or any of the many bad decisions he made. But it was why he was carrying it. As soon as he saw police officers coming towards him, he knew he was getting frisked. Even if the police were not investigating a shooting, he knew he was getting frisked. Just as he and his friends always are, regardless of whether or not they have given police reasonable suspicion as required by the Constitution. And he knew that once he got frisked, he was going to jail for at least 18 months for carrying a gun. So he ran. He wanted to stay and properly mourn his friend, but he couldn't. So he ran. And the rest is under investigation.

I do not know what happened that day because I was not there. It seems the police were legitimately investigating a shooting and may have wanted to talk to Mr. DaVeiga. And though I can't comment on what happened out there that day, I do know with 100 percent certainty that what is happening in NYC is happening in Boston. I also know that residents here both young and old are sick and tired of getting stopped, frisked, harassed and overpoliced because of where they live and what they look like. This practice has been souring relationships between police and residents for years and it is only getting worse.

I am guessing that Mr. DaVeiga was a young man that had been "posted up" -- it happens so often there is actually a slang term for it in the community -- many times before. I imagine that sometimes he would have something on him, and most of the time he would not. And I am willing to bet that on that day when police approached him as he grieved for his friend, what went through his head was something along the lines of, "Damn, these police won't even let me be as I stand over the memorial of my dead 17-year-old friend." And as the frustration he felt over this fact, and surely from the many prior times he had been stopped and frisked, whether the police were justified in doing so or not, added to his grief, mental illness and everything else traumatic going on in his unimaginably volatile life, he was overwhelmed to the point of making the horrible decision to run, fire his gun and ultimately take his own life, as is alleged.

I am not laying blame for this incident. Nor am I justifying the actions of this very troubled young man. I am simply pointing out that when incidents like this happen, residents that are constantly stopped and frisked by police, and that do not trust them as a result, will have a hard time believing them when they say they were fired on first, whether or not it is true. They will have a hard time believing that the young man turned his gun on himself and took his own life, whether or not it is true. They will have a hard time believing anything the police say, which is why finding weapons or contraband less than 12 percent of the time is not worth the trust of the entire community.

Friday, February 26, 2010

HONORING GERALDO SERRANO

In the aftermath of the tragic shooting of 71-year-old Geraldo Serrano, Boston Police have done an amazing job tracking down the killers and reaching out to local store owners to prevent future robberies from turning fatal. Mayor Menino and Commissioner Davis deserve credit for taking swift and decisive action on this.

The problem is that a convenience store safety initiative, while laudable and much-needed, is just like hiring more police, instituting a gun buyback program or installing a gunshot detection system: while it will help prevent future robberies from turning fatal, standing alone it will not address the root cause of the bigger problem: isolated young men so desperate for cash that they arm themselves, hold up their neighbors and shoot them when they resist.

The police and community presence at the arraignment of Onyx White and Martin Freels, the alleged suspects in the shooting, was breathtaking. It showed Boston Police and the broader community putting a best foot forward in solidarity with Mr. Serrano's family. It rightly demonstrated that the city is taking this incident seriously and joining the victim's family in support of the prosecution of the teens, who are 16 and 17.

But what was glaring at the arraignment, was this: where was everyone while these two young men were very clearly heading down a path destined to destroy at best their own lives and at worst destroy others' lives in the process?

A neighbor of 16-year-old Onyx White nailed the real issue, telling reporters, "I saw him headed for trouble, because he was left alone. I feel bad for Onyx because he didn't have the support he needed. He needed the support of the system but he fell through the cracks."

She saw it coming. Many others in the neighborhood did too -- they always do. Yet despite so many seeing this coming from a mile away, the entire force of the community, media and police department did not show up until the life of a beloved 71-year-old pillar in the community had been taken and the lives of two misguided teenagers had been ruined. If we truly want to honor the life of Geraldo Serrano, shouldn't we be doing more to reach 16- and 17-year olds that we know are heading for trouble before it is too late?

In my last post, I wrote about young men like the two teens in this case, who, after getting frustrated at getting left behind by the mainstream economy, and being unable to find jobs -- and living in segregated, economically depressed neighborhoods where many other men just like them cannot find work -- follow suit and resort to underground employment to survive. And to succeed at underground employment, because there are no laws to protect you, you must have a crew for organization and protection, turf to do business and perhaps most importantly a bad ass reputation that deters others from attacking you or trying to steal your turf and jack your stash.

Tragically, once enrolled in this game, or in trying to gain enough respect to get into it, young men like the two boys have it in their minds that they have no choice but to pull the trigger when their reputations (i.e. their means of survival) are on the line. This may sound crazy, but in the survival-is-the-name-of-the-game mind of a young man trying to make a living in a lawless, high-stakes environment, it's not crazy at all: it is everyday reality.

When you are hustling to make a living, your reputation is paramount. This sounds utterly ridiculous to those of us that work in the mainstream economy, because we have laws that protect our means to survive, but for young men fully engaged in underground employment, T.I. says it best in his song ASAP, "I don't know what you do for your respect but I'm a die for mine."

Had the boys let a 71-year-old man make them look foolish by refusing to cooperate and hitting them with a cane, as was alleged at the arraignment, their reputations would have been ruined forever in the hustle game where they live. They would have been dismissed as feckless and bumbling wannabes, unable to get the job done. Hence T.I.'s point for those involved in the hustle game: if a bad reputation = good success in underground employment, and good success in underground employment = money, at the end of the day reputation is everything because you need one if you want to get paid.

The mainstream may scoff at this notion, but if we are honest, and we acknowledge this connection for what it is, we must admit that throughout history the mainstream has gone just as far in defense of its own assets, lifestyles, and means of making a living: Jim Crow, Ku Klux Clan, Charles Stewart, and the list goes on.

Thus, in order to address the root causes of gun violence, it is imperative that we recognize the nexus between reputation, money and survival, crazy as it may seem to those of us protected by laws. In the end, the violence we dismiss as "senseless" -- ironically, to make sense of it ourselves -- has much more to do with money and survival than callous or "mindless" blood lust. If we want to work with young men before it is too late, and reach those that have made mistakes and want to get out of the game, it would be a mistake to continue to treat the idea of "respect" as "mindless," however ridiculous it may seem to us. To a man trying to make a living on the streets, reputation is survival, and that is no laughing matter.

If we really want to keep small business owners like Geraldo Serrano safe, we should begin to work with residents to identify young people that are heading towards underground employment, and use the bulk of our resources to welcome them into a mainstream economy that they have been excluded from since the beginning. This is the real issue, and if we want to honor the life of Geraldo Serrano (and Surendra Dangol, Trina Persad, Jermaine Goffigan, Stephen Odom, Soheil Turner, Liquarry Jefferson and countless others I have written about over and over again throughout the years) and prevent this kind of tragedy from occurring in the first place, we have to get serious about what really causes crime and begin to address it now.