Friday, December 20, 2013


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.  

1 comment:

Quyen said...

beautiful. thank you.