Municipal “Violations” as Racial and Class Injustice

Municipal violation you say? Such a lofty term, but to many it simply translates to a heedless financial hassle. Many of us have received parking and/or speeding tickets in our past. I myself have racked up my share as a lead-footed and non-paying-metered teen and college student.

Boring topic, right? But when one begins to peel the layers back, they encounter a metaphoric fetid smell surrounding an intricate topic of injustice, judicial misappropriation, and economic subjugation concerning the poor. For many with the monetary means and legal resources, a hit to the bank account and possibly some time with your attorney is procurable. But for a certain segment of the U.S. population that continue to be overlooked (with the exception of amusing attempts during presidential elections) due to their economic status or racial makeup, these so-called small municipal violations can lead to dire financial and criminal consequences.

Case in point, the findings of the Department of Justice (DOJ) during the week of March 5th. They revealed that the city council of Ferguson, Missouri was successful at maximized their city fiscal revenue by urging the local police department to issue more tickets for minor offenses. With very little applicability toward the ultimate goal of ensuring public safety, Ferguson police not only habitually, but competitively amongst themselves conducted traffic stops and issued citations. The DOJ report went as far to state that,

“‘Issuing three or four charges in one stop is not uncommon. Officers sometimes write six, eight, or, in at least one instance, fourteen citations for a single encounter.”

The moral and legal corruption did not stop with the police department and city council. The DOJ described how municipal court judges are influenced by their appointed city council members to generate revenue from the bench as well. In fact, their job performance is partly based on their abilities to financial generation proceeds to the city’s coffers.

An internal report in 2011 noted that regardless of municipal judge Ronald Brockmeyer’s failure to perform justly (i.e., not listening to testimony, reviewing relevant reports/criminal records of defendants, or allowing relevant witnesses appear for testimony before issuing a verdict), a requested reappointment was denied due to his illustrated previous ability to contribute to the city revenue from the bench. Further, the report stated:

“…it goes without saying the City cannot afford to lose any efficiency in our Courts, nor experience any decrease in our Fines and Forfeitures.”

The impact of said findings are even more pronounced when accounting for population trends. In 2013, Ferguson, a city with a population of 21,135 citizens issued approximately 32,975 arrests warrants. These warrants were issued for people mostly accused of non-violent driving violations, parking tickets, and housing code intrusions. In 2012, the city of collected 2.6 million dollars in municipal court fines and fees. Racially, statistics indicate that Blacks are disproportionately affected. Respectively, it has been shown that 86 percent and 12.7 percent of Black and White motorist were stopped. This is astounding when one recognizes that the population of Blacks and Whites are 67 and 29 percent respectively. In addition, In regard to traffic stops, Blacks citizens are stopped, searched, and arrested approximately two times more than their White counterparts.

Since there are no public defenders assigned to municipal courts, many of the 22 percent living below the poverty line who may have been on the wrong side of luck and consequentially arrested for frivolous traffic accounts, do not have access to free, and definitely not paid legal representation. Due to their inability to pay court fines, many defendants perform the “Curly Shuffle” and avoid court. Even if they did happen to appear, employees of the court have reported that hearings have a likelihood of beginning 30 minutes before their designated time. Doors are often locked at least 5 minutes before the official time began. This sort of court supervised shell game leads to additional charges mounting for those appearing before the court.

But do not worry; there is help. But this type of assistance comes with an unadorned high price. But this is not uncommon in our nation. As always, there are parasites falsely disguised as saviors who prey on the weak and suffering. Unscrupulous companies such as Judicial Correction Services (JCS) and Sentinel Offenders Services are blindly used by the judicial system to subjugate countless people living in poverty. If you are unfamiliar with the scheme, here is how it goes:

Let’s say you received a speeding ticket in Alabama for driving less than 25 miles over the posted limit. The actual fee and cost of the ticket is 20 and 162 dollars respectively. This brings you to a whopping total of 182 “American dollars (insert verbal emphasis).” But do not forget you are working two part-time jobs and attempting to provide for your family alone. It is hard enough simply keeping the lights on and some food in your baby’s belly. You try, but ultimately you cannot pay the total cost of fines and cost of the speeding violation.

The city in which you live then puts you on “pay-only” probation. The state of probation is not to ensure that you are avoiding the bad elements of street or drug life. It is merely a form of probation that is in place to make sure the state collects that cash money (ex. Any fines, fees and associated court costs). But in order for this to occur, you must first pay a fee of 10 dollars to be enrolled in the probation (set up fee). Once enrolled, your new monthly obligation is to visit (regardless of your employment obligations) your local JCS to pay 140 dollars. The problem is, a place such as JCS pockets 40 dollars. But you find yourself now falling behind on your payments. Additional fees are accrued alongside your standing debt. All of which prolongs your involvement in the court system. This is how these for-profit companies get their take. Slowly but surely, you find yourself sinking more and more into that all too familiar financial pit of misery. A bothersome, but easily dealt with obligation for the financially able, is a heavy yoke not easily removed from the neck of the poor.

In response to such practices, advocacy and social justice groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) have begun to fight for the marginalized. On behalf of Roxanne Reynolds, a federal lawsuit was filed on March 12, 2015 accusing JCS of violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act due to their effort to extort funds from economically poor citizens of Alabama who fell behind on their payment plan. To coerce people, JCS used the threat of jail (debtors’ prison) to force people to continue with their payments. Attorney for SPLC stated that through court manipulation, places such as JCS have created a “two-tiered system of justice.” One tier houses those who can afford to pay and quickly settle all financial obligations. The other is occupied with those without the means who get entombed for months and possibly years in their system. ” In regards to Mrs. Reynolds, SPLC stated:

Reynolds earned very little on an assembly line making automobile parts. Plus, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and had to miss three months of work. When she fell behind on her payments, a JCS employee threatened her with jail. She did everything she could to pay. She ignored her mounting medical and utility bills. Once, she barely ate for a week. She was terrified about what would happen to her health in jail…Last year, Reynolds was finally able to pay off her debt – after 15 months and a four-day stint in jail.

Similar lawsuits have been filed throughout Alabama and Georgia. In Georgia for example, companies such as Sentinel Offender Services were extending “pay only” probation periods when citizens were unable to pay their costs. Further, in Sentinel Offender Services, LLC., v. Glover et al, (S14A1033 and S14X1036 et al., 2012, the Georgia Supreme Court unanimously ruled that municipal courts cannot “legally lengthen a person’s misdemeanor sentence beyond what was originally ordered by the sentencing court.” In fact, the Court declared that probation companies do not have the authority to “put fee collections on hold–a practice called tolling–or extend a probation sentence.” There is a maximum sentence of twelve months for a misdemeanor conviction.

Now that I am thinking, this practice seems very familiar. Oh yes, white America has a funny way of revising its racial practices of oppression to fit with the times. If we look back throughout the American history books, one would stumble upon a period from the end of the Civil War until World War II were Blacks, especially Black males were forced into a state of compulsory slavery in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Georgia. In the eyes of Pulitzer Prize recipient Douglas Blackmon, these poor Blacks were seen to be involved in the practice of human labor trafficking. They were essentially sold to White owners of labor farms, timber mills, pine tar companies, and coal and road construction operations. These men were often physically and emotionally abused. Before being imprisoned, these men were initially jailed on trumped-up charges by paid off law enforcement officials (on the take of wealthy owners and compensated for their collection of Blacks). Once appearing before court, these kidnapped men were ordered to pay overpriced court costs or fines that resulted from their false charges. If they we unable to pay in court, local law officials gave them to rich land and business owners for as low as 25 dollars. Once the men were traded, they were told that they could not leave their employer until their debt was paid in full. Of course, this almost never occurred. Not only state, but also federal bodies of government knew of this practice. This custom continued in some form or fashion until the 1960s (Counter to Blackmon’s claim that it ended after WWII).

History does truly repeat itself. Again and Again, and . . . . . .

DOJ: Ferguson Police Engaged in Systemic Racism

Today the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) released their report the Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department, following the shooting death of Michael Brown at the hands of a Ferguson police officer.

The 102-page report documents the systemic racism that the police department of Ferguson, Missouri engaged, and it reads a bit like a piece of sociological research. The methodology included the following:

we interviewed City officials, including City Manager John Shaw, Mayor James Knowles, Chief of Police Thomas Jackson, Municipal Judge Ronald Brockmeyer, the Municipal Court Clerk, Ferguson’s Finance Director, half of FPD’s sworn officers, and others. We spent, collectively, approximately 100 person-days onsite in Ferguson. We participated in ride-alongs with on-duty officers, reviewed over 35,000 pages of police records as well as thousands of emails and other electronic materials provided by the police department. Enlisting the assistance of statistical experts, we analyzed FPD’s data on stops, searches, citations, and arrests, as well as data collected by the municipal court. We observed four separate sessions of Ferguson Municipal Court, interviewing dozens of people charged with local offenses, and we reviewed third-party studies regarding municipal court practices in Ferguson and St. Louis County more broadly. As in all of our investigations, we sought to engage the local community, conducting hundreds of in-person and telephone interviews of individuals who reside in Ferguson or who have had interactions with the police department. We contacted ten neighborhood associations and met with each group that responded to us, as well as several other community groups and advocacy organizations.”

What they found was certainly not surprising for regular readers here, but it was no less shocking for its grim familiarity. The stories of the routine, systematic, racist practices of the Ferguson Police Department (FPD) reveal that the African American citizens of that municipality live under a repressive, brutal regime that circumscribes the boundaries of their lives in ways that appear totalizing and inescapable. Through a pattern of police stops that the report deems “improper” and likely unconstitutional for things like jay-walking, coupled with a revenue-generating scheme when the inevitable violations occur, followed by an elaborate system of fines, penalties and warrants for failure to appear in court over those violations, the predominantly white FPD maintains an effective system of apartheid against the predominantly black residents of the town of Ferguson. This is a moral outrage, and it is also life-threatening in its consequences for African American residents.  Here is one account:

While the record demonstrates a pattern of stops that are improper from the beginning, it also exposes encounters that start as constitutionally defensible but quickly cross the line. For example, in the summer of 2012, an officer detained a 32-year-old African-American man who 19 was sitting in his car cooling off after playing basketball. The officer arguably had grounds to stop and question the man, since his windows appeared more deeply tinted than permitted under Ferguson’s code. Without cause, the officer went on to accuse the man of being a pedophile, prohibit the man from using his cell phone, order the man out of his car for a pat-down despite having no reason to believe he was armed, and ask to search his car. When the man refused, citing his constitutional rights, the officer reportedly pointed a gun at his head, and arrested him. The officer charged the man with eight different counts, including making a false declaration for initially providing the short form of his first name (e.g., “Mike” instead of “Michael”) and an address that, although legitimate, differed from the one on his license. The officer also charged the man both with having an expired operator’s license, and with having no operator’s license in possession. The man told us he lost his job as a contractor with the federal government as a result of the charges.

This account is not an isolated incident, but rather suggests the broader pattern of racial disparity in Ferguson.

The FPD also used police dogs against low-level, nonviolent offenders, according to the report. In 14 of the police dog attacks, all those attacked were African Americans, including one minor. The use of dogs against African American citizens conjures an earlier era of repression when dogs were key part of upholding Jim Crow. The reintroduction of trained attack dogs against African Americans raises questions about the progress the U.S. has made on civil rights.

The DOJ report also reveals a small cache of emails that circulated in the Ferguson Police Department in the days and weeks following the death of Michael Brown. Here is a recap of these provided by the Southern Poverty Law Center:

Racist Emails

That this new technology – email – is joined with the old technologies of trained attack dogs, bullets, and policing practices routed in racist brutality – highlights the mix of old and new mechanisms of racism that circulate today. In taking stock of the racist emails, the DOJ report has this to say:

“The racial animus and stereotypes expressed by these supervisors suggest that they are unlikely to hold an officer accountable for discriminatory conduct or to take any steps to discourage the development or perpetuation of racial stereotypes among officers.”

The cold, bureaucratic language of ‘racial animus’ seems too tepid for a police force that murders an 18-year-old, leaves his body in the street for hours, and then sends racist ‘joke’ emails around afterward. This, it is safe to say, is looking into the abyss of depravity that is white supremacy.

Expressed in pie chart form (h/t @digiphile) the racial disparities in Ferguson policing practices look like this:


This is a textbook illustration of what the term “disproportionate” means. If the stops and arrests of African Americans were proportional to their percentage of the population, those charts at the bottom there would both read “67%” – but since they’re higher, that’s disproportionate. In other words, something else is going on here. Something systematic having to do with race. Here’s another set of charts from the DOJ:



This kind of stark racial disparity is characteristic of what we, in the U.S., are taught to believe happened in the distant Jim Crow past, or in apartheid South Africa, but we have trouble believing this is happening now, in our own time.

To be sure, this is not an isolated police department, this is not unique, or an unusual set of racial disparities.


This is America.

Comey’s (and Capehart’s) Uncritical Analysis of Racism

On February 12, 2015, James B. Comey delivered a speech at Georgetown University that has garnered much media attention for delivering “hard truths” about racism in the United States.

Comey’s recent remarks, and those by Jonathon Capehart, Washington Post and MSNBC pundit about the Comey speech, reveal the weak, uninformed analyses of race and the evasion of the institutional, structural and systemic racism in the U.S.

FBI Director Comey (Image by Sophie Faaborg-Anderson)

What would appear to be a welcoming speech that partially recognizes law enforcement agencies’ biased approach to policing is, however, offset by disappointing “half truths,” misperceptions and rhetorical reversals that work to deflate focus on police hyper-aggression toward people of color and ignore the systemically racist structures of the US justice system.

While acknowledging that “there is a disconnect between police agencies and many citizens—predominately in communities of color” and that relations between police and people of color is “not pretty,” Comey then proceeds to regurgitate the problematic discourse about race in the US and the weak racial analysis that focuses exclusively on racial attitudes, as with much of social science (see Zuberi and Bonilla-Silva, 2008).

Extremely troubling is Comey’s understanding that racial problems in the US exist primarily because of racial biases of individuals, a view that completely ignores institutional structural and systemic racism.

Equally troubling is Comey’s insinuation that all Americans are “racist,” a term he inappropriately uses interchangeably with racially “biased.” Comey notes that he is “reminded of the song from the Broadway hit, Avenue Q: ‘Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.’ Part of it goes like this: 

Look around and you will find
No one’s really color blind.
Maybe it’s a fact
We all should face
Everyone makes judgments
Based on race.

After establishing that all Americans are “racist”—that is, harbor racial biases —  Comey continues to reflect uncritically on US racial matters and elude discussion of the institutional racism that runs deep in law enforcement agencies.  He points out the “real and perceived biases, both within and outside law enforcement,” de-escalating accountability of the real biases of police by aligning it with much less consequential perceived police biases, and equating the highly consequential biases of law enforcement with everyday racial biases outside law enforcement.

Ferguson protestor, hands up

(Image by Scott Olson)

While, indeed, perceived biases exist outside (and about) law enforcement, these perceived biases often have substance and validity due to the much larger, more far-reaching realities of law enforcement biases that shape police practice. Biases of those “outside law enforcement” are much less significant in police-community relations, because citizens who interact with police do not have the power and “legitimate,” ubiquitous force (backed by clubs, guns, tasers/CEWs, and assorted military arsenal) possessed by those who enforce the law. Here we have Comey disingenuously comparing disparate forms of biases and unequalized power relations between US citizens and law enforcement, whose biases have much more weight and effect.

Comey also trips up and presents a confusing analysis when he attempts to compare the prejudice faced by early Irish immigrants with that faced by African Americans. Predictably, he presents a portrait of his white Irish grandfather as “hero” of law enforcement and exemplar of righteousness. After claiming that Irish faced discrimination by law enforcement (referencing the “paddy wagon”), he then, very confusingly, backs off this point, noting that “little compares to the experience of racial (discrimination) …of black Americans” and that “[m]any people in our white-majority culture have unconscious racial biases and react differently to a white face than a black face.” While at one point Comey mentions problems inherent in policing “communities of color,” he never addresses the large-scale police bias against Latinos, the largest community of color in the US, a point raised by Juan Cartagena at Huffington Post.

There are a number of other serious missteps with Comey’s speech. After half acknowledging problems with law enforcement’s racial biases, Comey then reverses his position and raises concerns that the “difficult conversation about race and policing has become focused entirely on the nature and character of law enforcement officers.” At this point, Comey quickly retreats from focus on police misbehavior to the “dangerous” environment of those victimized by police. Instead of maintaining focus of the history of police misconduct and discrimination toward people of color, he then begins to argue that “we all carry biases around with us” and “racial bias isn’t epidemic in law enforcement any more than it is epidemic in academia or the arts.” Here he diverts attention away from law enforcement racial biases and underestimates racial biases existing in academia and arts. Do racial biases substantially exist or not? Should we focus on law enforcement biases or not? It is hard to discern Comey’s position with this back and forth, imprecise rhetoric. At one moment in his speech, we are all biased, and at the next moment, racial biases appear to be a superficial or ancillary issue; at first, police are deemed biased, and shortly thereafter, he feels there is over-focus on police biases.

This double-talk is followed up by glorification, no longer a critique, of police who “risk their lives” and “don’t sign up to…help white people or black people or Hispanic people or Asian people. They sign up because they want to help all people.” Well, if Comey’s initial points about police racial biases toward people of color are to be taken seriously, how do we all of a sudden move to a colorblind police force? This flip-flop appears to be one of the most disingenuous moments of his speech, because in the next couple paragraphs Comey returns to a discussion of police “cynicism” toward blacks, noting that “two young black men on one side of the street look like so many others the officer has locked up. Two white men on the other side of the street…do not.” In this scenario, it does not seem that police are being equally helpful to both groups, but instead favoring one over the other.

Of serious concern is the next set arguments made by Comey when addressing the “fourth hard truth.” Comey moves even farther away from his critique of law enforcement’s historical mistreatment of blacks and issues of racism in US society by arguing that the reason “so many black men (are) in jail” has nothing to do with “racism” of “cops, prosecutors, judges and juries,” but rather blacks’ pathological criminal behavior and dysfunctional community life. This is another disingenuous, mind-numbing move that completely ignores issues of racial profiling, hyper-policing in black neighborhoods and the long history of a rigged justice system that targets black Americans (from all white juries in the Deep South to the stop-and-frisk programs and excessive prosecution of blacks for petty offenses in the Northern US).

Comey goes on to present a “culture of poverty” argument about blacks’ poor interaction with police and trouble with the law, in essence, blaming the victims of police aggression toward the black community. Next, Comey disparages black neighborhoods, black families and black individuals whose “legacy of crime and prison,” he states, represent the main problem, fully ignoring how blacks have been subject to the whims and abuses of the US justice system for centuries up until the present day. In an effort to portray criminals as blacks and crime as a black problem, nowhere in his speech does Comey address white crime (crimes that adversely affect US society on much greater scale than crimes by people of color—see John Hagan’s Who Are the Criminals?), even claiming that police do not overlook the criminal behavior of whites. However, as Chauncey DeVega’s insightful analysis of the Comey speech notes:

Police and law enforcement do in fact “turn a blind eye” to white criminals. White criminals destroyed the American economy through fraud and other illegal acts have not been punished. White people have a higher rate of drug use in the United States than African Americans and other people of color. However, the country’s prisons are full of black and brown people.

The white racial frame has even robbed American public discourse of the language to discuss the fact that there are a myriad of crimes (mass shootings, treason, domestic terrorism, etc.) that are overwhelmingly committed by white people. We have the language of “black crime;” there is no equivalent speech for “white crime.”

Toward the end of his speech, Comey acknowledges his “affection for cops” and returns to uncritical praise of law enforcement, arguing rather ignorantly that when dialing 911, “cops…come quickly whether you are white or black.” This is patently false with regard to 911 responses to problems in black neighborhoods. As Flavor Flav perceptively notes, “I dialed 911 a long time ago, don’t you see how late they’re reactin’…911 is a joke.”

Having moved away from addressing the very real systemic problems of race and law enforcement, Comey ends his speech with a one-way concern for police who have been killed in the line of duty. He completely evades acknowledging the multitudes of people of color killed and physically abused by police on a daily basis—indeed, to focus on deaths of police officers at the hands of people of color pales in comparison to the vast number of black deaths by police. Ultimately, the speech is an empty, meaningless, vexing one that deserves none of the commendations it has received by numerous mainstream media sources.

Yet, echoing many other news media pundits, Jonathon Capehart of the Washington Post offers one of many stunted, uncritical analyses of the speech, presenting undue admiration of Comey’s analytically inept discussion of race and law enforcement.

Capehart on TV

(Image source)

Capehart claims Comey is “no coward on race” and believes the “searing and true speech” delivers a “critical assessment” of the problems inherent in the relationship between law enforcement and race, arguing that Comey’s speech “is as important as Obama’s and Holder’s speeches on race.”

Capehart incorrectly perceives Comey’s speech as a “challenge” to US citizens “to face our nation’s flawed racial past…” If Comey even came close to meeting such a challenge, one might be able sympathize with Capehart’s ill-considered plea. Yet, Comey never addresses the racial past in any meaningful way, never addresses the structural, institutional and systemic racism that defines that past and largely places blame on the victims of racial injustices of law enforcement. Clearly, Capehart seems not to have closely read or watched the speech or, like Comey, has little understanding of the ever-present systemically racist realities of the United States.

If Michael Brown were Harvard Bound, And White, And Wealthy

During the Fall of 2014, I taught an Introduction to Sociology course at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL). We covered numerous concepts & theories, including Broken Windows Theory. This theory was developed by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling to illustrate how one broken window left unrepaired in a building is an invitation for more windows to be broken. If not repaired there can be a downward-spiral of vandalism that culminates into lawlessness. Basically, Broken Windows Theory explains how we rely upon social contexts and cues to assess and/or engage in behaviors considered deviant.

Harvard University is a campus largely absent of broken windows and other forms of esthetic disrepair. When teaching at UNL, I have used Harvard as an elite reference point and will now do so in this article. While working on my PhD at Harvard, I lived in an undergraduate Residence House (that’s Harvard speak for “dormitory”) and worked as a Resident Tutor (that’s Harvard speak for “resident assistant”). I had conversations with Harvard undergrads on numerous occasions including breakfast/lunch/dinner. I was always amazed by the privileged backgrounds of typical Harvard students. Though from a low-income background, I gained knowledge about the mannerisms, dress, and linguistic maneuvers of elitism while an undergrad at Georgetown University. I was, however, quick to correct persons at Harvard who assumed I shared their elite origins. Still, interactions with Harvard students from elite backgrounds moved me to empathize with the vulnerabilities of elite youths.

Among vulnerable students were wealthy sons emotionally neglected by their wealthy parents; sons desperate for emotional support. There were wealthy daughters deeply worried that they would fail parental expectations by wanting to play in a rock band instead of becoming doctors/lawyers/scientists/professors, and so on.

Two students that I came to know quite well shared stories of tribulation and triumph. One student, TJ, had hypothesized a fantastic science project despite inadequate support for his idea. After access to a Harvard science lab and a thoughtfully written report, TJ earned an “A”. Another student, GW, endured a confrontational encounter with a rude police officer; GW stood his ground and called for mutual respect. A third student, DJ, had shoplifted some goods before coming to Harvard. His parents used their clout to prevent DJ from serving jail/prison time. (Though vastly true, I have modified minor details of these stories to protect the students’ anonymity.)

At Harvard broken windows are constantly repaired. Transgressions are washed away or significantly minimized by a “Hahvarhd” affiliation. DJ and many elite students with histories of juvenile delinquency like him are now successful Harvard alums.

As I share stories about students I met while at Harvard, what images come to mind: Images of wealthy, White, students full of complex humanity; students who deserve to achieve their dreams; young women/men who are not easily reduced to individual mistakes or parental shortcomings? Actually, two examples above are NOT about Harvard students. What happens to the image of these students as I reveal that “TJ” was an African American teen and “GW” was an Afro-Latino-American teen; both were from low-income neighborhoods in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Are TJ and GW suddenly less deserving of the benefit of the doubt; do racial/ethnic and class details strip away their complex humanity? To learn more about TJ (aka “Malik”) and GW (aka “Robbie”), read my book Tough Fronts (2002). I came to know them while at Harvard not because they were Harvard students, but because they were middle and high school students from low-income neighborhoods in Cambridge who shared stories of mistreatment and oppression eclipsed by Harvard’s affluence. I interviewed them for my dissertation and for Tough Fronts. I arranged Malik’s access to the Harvard science lab. Doing so briefly bestowed Malik with enough Harvard clout to cause his middle-school teacher to suddenly see his potential to be an A-student in 8th-grade science. Of course, Malik’s Harvard clout was fleeting. As for Robbie, his respect for Cambridge police was not reciprocated. Malik and Robbie were (and still are) no less complexly human than the Harvard students with whom I lived; yet they were constantly treated as such by powerful social institutions like schools, police departments, and social service agencies.

What happens to your image of Harvard when I tell you that in addition to DJ there are Harvard students—and I’m talking about wealthy, White students—who shoplift and commit other crimes. This was the case well before I went to Harvard. It was the case while I attended Harvard during the 1990s. And continues well after I graduated with my PhD. For example, Harvard students who shoplift include the daughter of Rudy Giuliani.

Let’s return to DJ, who actually was one of the Harvard students from my Residence House and who was White and Male and Wealthy. Let’s update his story and try to strip DJ of his complex humanity by providing his shoplifting story with a different ending.

In August of 2014, before his freshman year at Harvard, DJ shoplifts some limited edition Gurkha Maharaja Cigars costing $2,000 per cigar, from M&M Cigar and Gift in Norwalk, Connecticut. DJ returns to his neighborhood of wealthy White professionals in Darien, Connecticut. As DJ exits his 2014 Porsche 911 Carrera, a police car pulls onto his street. DJ, known for being spoiled and obnoxious, has hubris enough to be confrontational with the police officer. At what point does this White police office fire a gun at this 18-year-old, Harvard bound, White male suspected of shoplifting? At what point does this police officer continue shooting at DJ who has now walked away from the confrontation? At what point does the officer continue to fire as DJ turns around with his hands up? At what point does the officer use deadly force and kill DJ? At what point is DJ’s body left on the street in his White professional, Darien, Connecticut neighborhood for four hours? At what point do the police prevent DJ’s parents from going to their son’s dead body? At what point is the police officer not held accountable once it is clear that he shot and killed an unarmed, college-bound, 18-year-old? At what point does the Assistant District Attorney tell the Grand Jury that the police officer had the right to shoot DJ because he had turned to flee? Few if any of these things would happen to a Wealthy, White teen like DJ, yet most if not all happened to Michael Brown, who was also a college-bound 18-year old male.

Experiences with Harvard students, especially wealthy, White male students, lead me to conclude that at no point would DJ share Michael’s fate. If DJ had been caught stealing the cigars, he would probably have been detained at the store while his parents were contacted. Or as was the case with Rudy Giuliani’s daughter, Caroline Giuliani, store managers may call the police yet decline to press charges! In elite places where broken windows are constantly repaired, people honor the complex humanity of young people, who commit or are suspected of committing criminal acts. Unlike unprivileged youths, privileged youths are not easily stripped of their complex humanity.

I can personally assure you that the absence of broken windows at Harvard does not mean an absence of deviant behavior. Despite well-manicured lawns and unbroken windows there are Harvard students who deal drugs as well as those who commit rape and other heinous acts. Studies on the youths of privilege reveal that they have higher rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and other destructive behaviors than non-privileged youths. Furthermore, the presence of broken windows in urban communities of color does not mean an absence of complex humanity.

I have been to the place where Michael Brown was shot dead as if he were an aggressive monster instead of an unarmed teenager, like DJ; it is not a neighborhood full of broken windows. But even if it were, Michael and Black youths like him, whether males or females, deserve the same benefit of the doubt as privileged youths like DJ and Caroline Giuliani. And for places where windows are rarely repaired, the police should honor the humanity of youths as they would honor the humanity of spoiled and obnoxious rich kids. And at the very least, instead of destroying more windows with bullets from guns aimed to kill unarmed teens, police and other government officials should assist residents to restore shattered lives and broken windows. This is all the more necessary in Ferguson, Missouri where the police and government officials share a legacy of shattering the lives of African Americans.

L. Janelle Dance, Associate Professor of Sociology and Ethnic Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Senior Researcher at Lund University in Sweden, with sociological input from Selma Hedlund, Sociology Master’s Student, Columbia University.

An Open Letter to Those Devastated by the Jordan Davis Decision

As my friend and fellow professor Heidi Oliver-O’Gilvie says, “There is always something you can do.”  It’s been a long year for black people.  But what can we do?  First, there was the “not guilty” decision in the George Zimmerman case, which set free a white man who killed an unarmed black youth in his own neighborhood.  Then came the pseudo-conviction of Michael Dunn, who murdered a black Jordan Davis for pumping what he considered “thug music” too loudly.  All this while a white Ethan Couch drunkenly killed a family of four and was given no jail time due to “affluenza,” or excessive privilege.  It’s been a long year indeed, and I refuse to be helpless about it.  But again, there is always something you can do.

Jordan Davis

(Jordan Davis, 1995-2012)

So on this, what would have been Jordan Davis’ 19th birthday (he is deceased now, by the way, of horribly unnatural causes.  Not attempted dead, but actually dead, says my friend Wayne Au of Rethinking Schools), I am wondering what I can do about living in a country that appears to have one set of legal rules for white people, and another for everyone else.

Literally, what can I do?

I suppose I could take to the streets and riot, but you cannot fight violence with violence.  I could hate the country, or hate the legal system, or hate white people.  But you cannot overcome hate with hate.  You can only do that with love, patience, and repaying evil with good.  So, then, what can I do?

First, I have the second most important job in the world.  I used to have the most important job in the world—I used to be a preschool teacher.  Twenty-four children at a time, I used to influence the next generation of US youth by fomenting their love of learning, helping them to understand the importance of using education to actualize their dreams, and teaching them to value all human beings despite their differences from ourselves.  Now I am a teacher educator.  A teacher of teachers.  I am a professor of education at the Center for Urban Education, which is a graduate program that prepares educators for the nation’s must under-supported, black and brown-filled urban schools.  Now, instead of touting the importance of education to 24 children at a time, I do it with 24 teachers who will teach 24 children at a time, for what could be 24 years or longer each.  And that’s powerful.

The late Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”  And he was right.  Even Adolph Hitler, with his Nazi Youth programs, understood that if you wish to change a country, you begin with its youth and patiently wait for generational change.  So if evil can use education (the largest form of organized socialization in any society, says Joel Spring, in Globalization of Education, 2009) and youth (generations are defined in 20-year spans) to alter the beliefs, practices, and culture of a nation, then so too can I use it for good.  And use it I shall.

So what can I do?  Continue to be an awesome professor.  When I teach my “Culture, Context, and Critical Pedagogy” course, I will continue to discuss race, privilege, whiteness, anti-oppression, and the affirmation of all forms of human diversity.  After all, you cannot change that which you don’t understand.

I will continue to teach my teachers—to teacher their students—that all human life is valuable.  That skin color is not a marker of automatic danger (blackness) or automatic innocence (whiteness).  That way, young black boys won’t be presumed guilty as they walk home with candy in their pockets, or when they blast their music loudly at a convenience store. And the white men who gun them down won’t be presumed to be acting in self-defense.  And get away with murder.  Literally.

And that’s not all I can do.  I’m a consultant for inclusion and diversity.  Oh, yes.  I will continue to accept invitations from private corporations, non-profit organizations, school systems, and teacher preparation programs to discuss difference, systemic privilege and oppression, racism, and most importantly, anti-racism.

And I vote.  In presidential and mid-term elections.  I will continue to educate myself about which candidates understand institutional “isms” such as sexism, classism, ageism, heterosexism, and racism.  Martin Luther King taught me that all forms of oppression are related, and that an injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere.  I learned that lesson well, and I plan to use it at the polls as I vote for candidates, laws, and those who will legislate on my behalf with an eye toward valuing the importance of justice for all.

And I plan to have children.  Highly educated, social-justice-loving, politically active children who believe in the common good.  Who will understand that, as Kimberly Wallace-Sanders of Emory University says, “No human beings are better than other human beings.”  Amen to that.  My children will be taught that, and they will live it out each day in these United States.

Look out, injustice.  I have a plan.  I am simultaneously seething and saturated with heartbreak at all I’ve seen in the media this year, and all I experience as a multiracial woman who is often perceived as black.  In addition to the story of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Darrin Manning, and Oscar Grant (on whose life the film Fruitvale Station is based), I experience similar disdain all the time.  Just the other day, a white woman in a dentist’s office hurried to her purse and buried it in her arm as soon as she noticed I had walked in.  She shot me a long glance to make sure I knew her actions were aimed at protecting her valuables from me.  At least she shot me a glance and did not actually shoot me.  Because if she had, she would have killed an unarmed, Ph.D-holding, two-time Harvard graduate.  And probably been let go.

As someone who is devastated by pervasive racism in American life and law, there is much I can do.  Racism and injustice had better watch their backs.  Because I am—we are—not helpless. And their time is limited.

Happy Birthday, Jordan Davis.  You should have had the chance to celebrate turning 19.

~ Guest blogger Taharee Jackson is Asst. Professor (Visiting) at the Center for Urban Education at the University of the District of Columbia.  She specializes in teacher education, multicultural education, and urban education reform.  Dr. Jackson holds a magna cum laude B.A. from Harvard University, an M.Ed. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and a Ph.D. from Emory University.  

Guide to Stop-and-Frisk

We’ve blogged here before about the issue of racial discrimination in the stop-and-frisk policing practice in New York City. There is lots of data that shows stop-and-frisk is discriminatory, harmful to communities and is not effective at “getting guns off the streets,” as is frequently claimed by advocates of the policing strategy. And, it’s very likely unconstitutional.


protestors hold sign saying "stop stop + frisk"

(Image source)

Bill diBlasio, the newly elected mayor of New York City, has promised to end stop-and-frisk and that means there is a new future ahead for the city and the communities most affected by this policy.

In an effort to assess where we are with stop-and-frisk, what the data shows, and how scholars, activists and journalists have worked to change this policy, JustPublics@365, a project of the Ford Foundation based at the CUNY-Graduate Center (and that I lead), recently curated a series on this topic.  And now, that series has been compiled as an all-in-one guide to stop-and-frisk (pdf)

The Information Guide is structured around three levels of social justice outcomes:

  • Make Your Issues Their Interest: Raising Awareness About An Issue with an Audience
  • Make Your Issue Their Issue: Getting an Audience More Deeply Engaged in An Issue
  • Make Your Issue Their Action: Moving an Audience Towards a Specific Action

If you are teaching a class or training people in your organization, you can also use this Information Guide as a tool for teaching and learning about stop-and-frisk.

You can download the guide(pdf) and reuse it for teaching, research, activism or media.

Stop-and-Frisk: Racial Discrimination in Policing

This short video (4:17) from Communities United for Police Reform, tells the story of a high school senior, Kasiem Walters. Walters recounts his experience with the “stop-and-frisk,” a racially discriminatory policing strategy used by the NYPD:

Defenders of the “stop-and-frisk” policy, including NYC Mayor Bloomberg, often justify these practices as “getting guns off the streets” of New York.

This claim is not supported by the evidence. According to data collected by the NYCLU,

Guns are found in less than 0.2 percent of stops. That is an unbelievably poor yield rate for such an intrusive, wasteful and humiliating police action. Yet, stop-and-frisk has increased more than 600 percent under Bloomberg and Kelly. And the rate of finding guns is worsening as the NYPD stops more innocent people each year.

And, this map from the data of stop-and-frisks alongside gun stops created by WNYC, further undermines the claim that this policy is doing anything to remove guns from the streets:

This policy hurts young black and Latino boys, like Kasiem Walters, yet Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly seem unmoved, entrenched even in their defense of the practice. Bloomberg for his part is dismissive of the claim that there is any racial bias in the practice, and, in fact, recently claimed by some very faulty logic that whites were stopped too often, and blacks not often enough. Kelly vigorously defends the stop-and-frisk policy. And, there is at least one account – delivered under oath – that Commissioner Kelly has said that stop-and-frisk is “meant instill fear in blacks and Latinos… [knowing] every time that they left their homes they could be targeted by police.”

There are some actions to take to stop this.

Communities United for Police Reform has a petition you can sign to support the Community Safety Act, package of comprehensive reforms for NYPD.

And, serious candidates running for NYC Mayor are making stop-and-frisk and ending the reign-of-terror of Ray Kelly campaign issues in this election.

We can build a better city, indeed a better world, where all high school seniors, including the ones that look like Kasiem Walters, can walk on a sidewalk without fear.

Mapping NYC Stop-and-Frisk Data

This short video (3:51) presents data of stop-and-frisks in an interactive, visual format:

This video was created by the really amazing Morris Justice Project. The Morris Justice Project brings together people affected by the NYPD policing practices together with academic researchers to resist criminalization in new ways. This map is just one of those ways.

The Morris Justice Project is an initiative that is part of the Public Science Project at the Graduate Center, CUNY. You can follow updates on the Floyd case at the Morris Justice Project Tumblr, and on Twitter, @public_science.

NYPD Racial Profiling Challenged in Court

There is a major court case happening in New York that seeks to challenge the NYPD’s practice of racial profiling through it’s “stop-and-frisk” policing.  The case, known as Floyd, et al. v. City of New York, et al., makes the claim that the NYPD’s policy is unconstitutional because it unfairly targets black and Latino people, specifically young men.

According to The Nation:

The NYPD has just surpassed 5 million stop-and-frisks during the Bloomberg era. Most stops have been of people of color, and the overwhelming majority were found innocent of any wrongdoing, according to the department’s own statistics. And though the number of stops may have gone down recently—as pressure on the department and increased awareness of the policy has officers and supervisors thinking twice about how they employ the practice—the existence of quotas ensures that New Yorkers will continue to be harassed unnecessarily by the NYPD.

Not familiar with the “stop-and-frisk” practice?  Here’s a video, secretly recorded by someone enduring stop-and-frisk policing from October, 2012 (about 13 minutes – and pardon the oil company advert at the beginning):

I’ll post more here about the Floyd case as it unfolds.

Documentary: “The Central Park Five”

There is an excellent, devastating, and powerful documentary out now in some theaters and on InDemand on cable, called “The Central Park Five.” The film, by Ken Burns, David McMahon and Sarah Burns, tells the story of the five black and Latino teenagers who, in 1989, were arrested and charged with brutally attacking and raping a white female jogger in Central Park. News media swarmed the case, referring to the incident as a “wilding” and to the young men as a “wolfpack.” The five young men spent years in prison before the truth about what really happened became clear. Here is a short (2:27) trailer:

Go see it if you can get to a theater, or call it up on your cable TV. Even though this documentary was inexplicably not included in the short list for Academy Awards, I’m certain that this film will be important in college classrooms for many years to come.