how and why Latino poverty is similar to or different from the urban poverty

how and why Latino poverty is similar to or different from the urban poverty

Sociology 153 / USP 105 – Grading Rubric for Midterm
Professor Abigail Andrews
Student Name _____________________________________________Overall Grade _______
Sub-par Fine Excellent
Main Argument
Clearly articulated thesis statement,
that makes a specific argument
answering “how” or “why”
None,
incomprehensible Thesis present Sophisticated
Compares causal reasons for
marginality among groups
Vague, or little
comparison of
causes
Compares causes
among groups
Thoughtful
on causal
differences
Defines key concepts from the reading
and communicates understanding None Partially – sometimes
mixes up concepts Sophisticated
Shows understanding of texts
(Including at least 3 weeks of reading)
Vague or
misinterpreted
discussion
Discusses 3 weeks of
texts with some
understanding
Clear
interpretation
of at least 3
weeks
Use of evidence to support argument None, little, or
inappropriate
Some, straightforward
(a quote, a
reference)
Creative,
thorough use
of evidence
Attention to folk logic, opposing
views, or possible counter-claims
(with rebuttal to possible critiques)
None or
superficial
Takes on at least one
counter-claim
seriously
Takes on two
(or more)
critiques
seriously
Whole Reflection Memo
Organization, logical argument
Scattered, disorganized
thoughts
Some organization,
but flow could be
improved
Excellent –
logically
compelling
Mechanics Lots of typos,
grammar errors
A few typos, some
awkward language
Almost no
mistakes;
excellent
writing
EVALUATION RUBRIC FOR MIDTERM AND FINAL
Professor Abigail Andrews
A- through A+ For an A, a paper must have all of the characteristics of a B
paper listed below. In addition, it will:
• have an innovative thesis.
• have a logically compelling argument.
• consider and refute alternative arguments.
• show evidence of originality or creativity.
• have a clear and error-free prose style.
• use particularly strong evidence.
B- through B+ For a B, a paper must have all of the characteristics of a C
paper listed below. In addition, it will:
• have a clear thesis statement.
• have a logical structure that advances the argument.
• use appropriate evidence to support its argument.
• be free from digressions and extraneous material.
• be mostly free from errors of usage and grammar.
• be free from major substantive errors; where a C paper
gets some things right, a B paper gets few things wrong.
C- through C+ For a C, a paper must have all of the characteristics of a D
paper listed below. In addition, it will:
• have an identifiable thesis statement.
• use evidence to support its argument.
• communicate an understanding of some core concepts
from the reading.
D- through D+ A D paper will:
• comply with UCSD’s policy on the integrity of
scholarship
• comply with the instructions for the assignment (e.g.
with respect to length, timeliness of submission, and the
number and character of sources)
MIDTERM ESSAY
SOCI 153 / USP 105: Urban Sociology [Fall 2015]
Professor Abigail Andrews
In the first half of this course, we have read several works about the characteristics of urban black
marginality, the causes of this marginalization, and the possibilities for change. In his article
“The New Latino Underclass” (2013), Douglas Massey argues that a new migrant “underclass” is
emerging in the United States today: Latinos. How valid is Massey’s comparison, and why?
Should we fear that Latinos will face the same fate blacks have faced over the 20th century?
Your midterm assignment: Drawing on the readings from this course, write an
op-ed in which you make an argument to readers of a major newspaper about how
and why Latino poverty is similar to or different from the urban poverty that
plagued African Americans throughout the 20th century and keeps them marginal
today.
You may also want to consider addressing common public understandings of black and Latino
poverty, or conclusions from course readings with which you disagree. Finally, consider
commenting what the implications of your analysis for each group’s prospects in the future.
As is standard in an op-ed, your paper must make and defend a reasoned argument. This means
starting out with your central claims, making a well-organized case in answer to the question you
choose. It also means using specific, concrete quotations and evidence to support your argument.
You do not need to do any outside research. Rather, your essay should draw exclusively on the
readings, using readings from at least three different weeks between weeks 1-5. That includes
Week 1: Engel, Burgess
Week 2: Wilson
Week 3: Massey & Denton, Wacquant, Coates
Week 4: Goffman (you may also draw on the work of Michele Alexander)
Week 5: Massey, Menjivar & Abrego, and Golash-Boza & Hondagneu-Sotelo
The best papers will critically assess and compare the readings selected. You may use class notes
and the TED discussion memos to help guide your thoughts but please do not cite them.
Specifications: Your paper should be five (5) pages or less, double-spaced, 12 point font, 1 inch
margins. Your paper MUST be in .doc or .docx (Microsoft Word) format, otherwise we may be unable to
read it online. You do not need to include a works cited section, but you should mention the full
name and year of works in the text, as in an op-ed.
Submitting the paper: You DO NOT need to submit a hard copy. Instead, please post your essay
on TED, using the content tab for this class. You will submit the assignment through the
turnitin.com function on TED, which checks for plagiarism both from the Internet and among
members of the class.
Deadline: Monday, November 2 no later than 11:00AM.
Condition of the Working Class in England, by Engels, 1845
The Great Towns
A town, such as London, where a man may wander for hours together without
reaching the beginning of the end, without meeting the slightest hint which could lead to
the inference that there is open country within reach, is a strange thing. This colossal
centralisation, this heaping together of two and a half millions of human beings at one
point, has multiplied the power of this two and a half millions a hundredfold; has raised
London to the commercial capital of the world, created the giant docks and assembled
the thousand vessels that continually cover the Thames. I know nothing more imposing
than the view which the Thames offers during the ascent from the sea to London Bridge.
The masses of buildings, the wharves on both sides, especially from Woolwich upwards,
the countless ships along both shores, crowding ever closer and closer together, until, at
last, only a narrow passage remains in the middle of the river, a passage through which
hundreds of steamers shoot by one another; all this is so vast, so impressive, that a man
cannot collect himself, but is lost in the marvel of England’s greatness before he sets foot
upon English soil. [3]
But the sacrifices which all this has cost become apparent later. After roaming the
streets of the capital a day or two, making headway with difficulty through the human
turmoil and the endless lines of vehicles, after visiting the slums of the metropolis, one
realises for the first time that these Londoners have been forced to sacrifice the best
qualities of their human nature, to bring to pass all the marvels of civilisation which
crowd their city; that a hundred powers which slumbered within them have remained
inactive, have been suppressed in order that a few might be developed more fully and
multiply through union with those of others. The very turmoil of the streets has
something repulsive, something against which human nature rebels. The hundreds of
thousands of all classes and ranks crowding past each other, are they not all human
beings with the same qualities and powers, and with the same interest in being happy?
And have they not, in the end, to seek happiness in the same way, by the same means?
And still they crowd by one another as though they had nothing in common, nothing to
do with one another, and their only agreement is the tacit one, that each keep to his own
side of the pavement, so as not to delay the opposing streams of the crowd, while it
occurs to no man to honour another with so much as a glance. The brutal indifference,
the unfeeling isolation of each in his private interest, becomes the more repellent and
offensive, the more these individuals are crowded together, within a limited space. And,
however much one may be aware that this isolation of the individual, this narrow selfseeking,
is the fundamental principle of our society everywhere, it is nowhere so
shamelessly barefaced, so self-conscious as just here in the crowding of the great city.
The dissolution of mankind into monads, of which each one has a separate principle, the
world of atoms, is here carried out to its utmost extreme.
Hence it comes, too, that the social war, the war of each against all, is here openly
declared. Just as in Stirner’s recent book [The Ego and Its Own], people regard each
other only as useful objects; each exploits the other, and the end of it all is that the
stronger treads the weaker under foot; and that the powerful few, the capitalists, seize
everything for themselves, while to the weak many, the poor, scarcely a bare existence
remains.
What is true of London, is true of Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, is true of all
great towns. Everywhere barbarous indifference, hard egotism on one hand, and
nameless misery on the other, everywhere social warfare, every man’s house in a state of
siege, everywhere reciprocal plundering under the protection of the law, and all so
shameless, so openly avowed that one shrinks before the consequences of our social
state as they manifest themselves here undisguised, and can only wonder that the whole
crazy fabric still hangs together.
Since capital, the direct or indirect control of the means of subsistence and
production, is the weapon with which this social warfare is carried on, it is clear that all
the disadvantages of such a state must fall upon the poor. For him no man has the
slightest concern. Cast into the whirlpool, he must struggle through as well as he can. If
he is so happy as to find work, i.e., if the bourgeoisie does him the favour to enrich itself
by means of him, wages await him which scarcely suffice to keep body and soul together;
if he can get no work he may steal, if he is not afraid of the police, or starve, in which
case the police will take care that he does so in a quiet and inoffensive manner. During
my residence in England, at least twenty or thirty persons have died of simple starvation
under the most revolting circumstances, and a jury has rarely been found possessed of
the courage to speak the plain truth in the matter. Let the testimony of the witnesses be
never so clear and unequivocal, the bourgeoisie, from which the jury is selected, always
finds some backdoor through which to escape the frightful verdict, death from
starvation. The bourgeoisie dare not speak the truth in these cases, for it would speak its
own condemnation. But indirectly, far more than directly, many have died of starvation,
where long-continued want of proper nourishment has called forth fatal illness, when it
has produced such debility that causes which might otherwise have remained
inoperative brought on severe illness and death. The English working-men call this
“social murder”, and accuse our whole society of perpetrating this crime perpetually. Are
they wrong?
True, it is only individuals who starve, but what security has the working-man
that it may not be his turn tomorrow? Who assures him employment, who vouches for it
that, if for any reason or no reason his lord and master discharges him tomorrow, he can
struggle along with those dependent upon him, until he may find some one else “to give
him bread”? Who guarantees that willingness to work shall suffice to obtain work, that
uprightness, industry, thrift, and the rest of the virtues recommended by the
bourgeoisie, are really his road to happiness? No one. He knows that he has something
today and that it does not depend upon himself whether he shall have something
tomorrow. He knows that every breeze that blows, every whim of his employer, every
bad turn of trade may hurl him back into the fierce whirlpool from which he has
temporarily saved himself, and in which it is hard and often impossible to keep his head
above water. He knows that, though he may have the means of living today, it is very
uncertain whether he shall tomorrow.
Meanwhile, let us proceed to a more detailed investigation of the position in
which the social war has placed the non-possessing class. Let us see what pay for his
work society does give the working-man in the form of dwelling, clothing, food, what
sort of subsistence it grants those who contribute most to the maintenance of society;
and, first, let us consider the dwellings.
Every great city has one or more slums, where the working-class is crowded
together. True, poverty often dwells in hidden alleys close to the palaces of the rich; but,
in general, a separate territory has been assigned to it, where, removed from the sight of
the happier classes, it may struggle along as it can. These slums are pretty equally
arranged in all the great towns of England, the worst houses in the worst quarters of the
towns; usually one- or two-storied cottages in long rows, perhaps with cellars used as
dwellings, almost always irregularly built. These houses of three or four rooms and a
kitchens form, throughout England, some parts of London excepted, the general
dwellings of the working-class. The streets are generally unpaved, rough, dirty, filled
with vegetable and animal refuse, without sewers or gutters, but supplied with foul,
stagnant pools instead. Moreover, ventilation is impeded by the bad, confused method
of building of the whole quarter, and since many human beings here live crowded into a
small space, the atmosphere that prevails in these working-men’s quarters may readily
be imagined. Further, the streets serve as drying grounds in fine weather; lines are
stretched across from house to house, and hung with wet clothing.
Let us investigate some of the slums in their order. London comes first, [4] and in
London the famous rookery of St. Giles which is now, at last, about to be penetrated by a
couple of broad streets. St. Giles is in the midst of the most populous part of the town,
surrounded by broad, splendid avenues in which the gay world of London idles about, in
the immediate neighbourhood of Oxford Street, Regent Street, of Trafalgar Square and
the Strand. It is a disorderly collection of tall, three- or four-storied houses, with narrow,
crooked, filthy streets, in which there is quite as much life as in the great thoroughfares
of the town, except that, here, people of the working-class only are to be seen. A
vegetable market is held in the street, baskets with vegetables and fruits, naturally all
bad and hardly fit to use obstruct the sidewalk still further, and from these, as well as
from the fish-dealers’ stalls, arises a horrible smell. The houses are occupied from cellar
to garret, filthy within and without, and their appearance is such that no human being
could possibly wish to live in them. But all this is nothing in comparison with the
dwellings in the narrow courts and alleys between the streets, entered by covered
passages between the houses, in which the filth and tottering ruin surpass all
description. Scarcely a whole window-pane can be found, the walls are crumbling, doorposts
and window-frames loose and broken, doors of old boards nailed together, or
altogether wanting in this thieves’ quarter, where no doors are needed, there being
nothing to steal. Heaps of garbage and ashes lie in all directions, and the foul liquids
emptied before the doors gather in stinking pools. Here live the poorest of the poor, the
worst paid workers with thieves and the victims of prostitution indiscriminately huddled
together, the majority Irish, or of Irish extraction, and those who have not yet sunk in
the whirlpool of moral ruin which surrounds them, sinking daily deeper, losing daily
more and more of their power to resist the demoralising influence of want, filth, and evil
surroundings.
Nor is St. Giles the only London slum. In the immense tangle of streets, there are
hundreds and thousands of alleys and courts lined with houses too bad for anyone to
live in, who can still spend anything whatsoever upon a dwelling fit for human beings.
Close to the splendid houses of the rich such a lurking-place of the bitterest poverty may
often be found. So, a short time ago, on the occasion of a coroner’s inquest, a region
close to Portman Square, one of the very respectable squares, was characterised as an
abode “of a multitude of Irish demoralised by poverty and filth”. So, too, may be found
in streets, such as Long Acre and others, which, though not fashionable, are yet
“respectable”, a great number of cellar dwellings out of which puny children and halfstarved,
ragged women emerge into the light of day. In the immediate neighbourhood of
Drury Lane Theatre, the second in London, are some of the worst streets of the whole
metropolis, Charles, King, and Park Streets, in which the houses are inhabited from
cellar to garret exclusively by poor families. In the parishes of St. John and St. Margaret
there lived in 1840, according to the Journal of the Statistical Society, 5,566 workingmen’s
families in 5,294 “dwellings” (if they deserve the name!), men, women, and
children thrown together without distinction of age or sex, 26,850 persons all told; and
of these families three-fourths possessed but one room. In the aristocratic parish of St.
George, Hanover Square, there lived, according to the same authority, 1,465 workingmen’s
families, nearly 6,000 persons, under similar conditions, and here, too, more
than two-thirds of the whole number crowded together at the rate of one family in one
room. And how the poverty of these unfortunates, among whom even thieves find
nothing to steal, is exploited by the property-holding class in lawful ways! The
abominable dwellings in Drury Lane, just mentioned, bring in the following rents: two
cellar dwellings, 3s., one room, ground-floor, 4s.; second-storey, 4s. 6d.; third-floor, 4s.;
garret-room, 3s. weekly, so that the starving occupants of Charles Street alone, pay the
house-owners a yearly tribute of £2,000, and the 5,566 families above mentioned in
Westminster, a yearly rent of £40,000.
The most extensive working-people’s district lies east of the Tower in
Whitechapel and Bethnal Green, where the greatest masses of London working-people
live. Let us hear Mr. G. Alston, preacher of St. Philip’s, Bethnal Green, on the condition
of his parish. He says:
“It contains 1,400 houses, inhabited by 2,795 families, comprising a population of
12,000. The space within which this large amount of population are living is less than
400 yards square (1,200 feet), and it is no uncommon thing for a man and his wife, with
four or five children, and sometimes the grandfather and grandmother, to be found
living in a room from ten to twelve feet square, and which serves them for eating and
working in. I believe that till the Bishop of London called the attention of the public to
the state of Bethnal Green, about as little was known at the West-end of the town of this
most destitute parish as the wilds of Australia or the islands of the South Seas. If we
really desire to find out the most destitute and deserving, we must lift the latch of their
doors, and find them at their scanty meal; we must see them when suffering from
sickness and want of work; and if we do this from day to day in such a neighbourhood as
Bethnal Green, we shall become acquainted with a mass of wretchedness and misery
such as a nation like our own ought to be ashamed to permit. I was Curate of a parish
near Huddersfield during the three years of the greatest manufacturing distress; but I
never witnessed such a thorough prostration of the poor as I have seen since I have been
in Bethnal Green. There is not one father of a family in ten throughout the entire district
that possesses any clothes but his working dress, and that too commonly in the worst
tattered condition; and with many this wretched clothing forms their only covering at
night, with nothing better than a bag of straw or shavings to lie upon.”
The foregoing description furnishes an idea of the aspect of the interior of the
dwellings. But let us follow the English officials, who occasionally stray thither, into one
or two of these workingmen’s homes.
On the occasion of an inquest held Nov. 16th, 1843, by Mr. Carter, coroner for
Surrey, upon the body of Ann Galway, aged 45 years, the newspapers related the
following particulars concerning the deceased: She had lived at No. 5 White Lion Court,
Bermondsey Street, London, with her husband and a nineteen- year-old son in a little
room, in which neither a bedstead nor any other furniture was to be seen. She lay dead
beside her son upon a heap of feathers which were scattered over her almost naked
body, there being neither sheet nor coverlet. The feathers stuck so fast over the whole
body that the physician could not examine the corpse until it was cleansed, and then
found it starved and scarred from the bites of vermin. Part of the floor of the room was
torn up, and the hole used by the family as a privy.
On Monday, Jan. 15th, 1844, two boys were brought before the police magistrate
because, being in a starving condition, they had stolen and immediately devoured a halfcooked
calf’s foot from a shop. The magistrate felt called upon to investigate the case
further, and received the following details from the policeman: The mother of the two
boys was the widow of an ex-soldier, afterwards policeman, and had had a very hard
time since the death of her husband, to provide for her nine children. She lived at No. 2
Pool’s Place, Quaker Court, Spitalfields, in the utmost poverty. When the policeman
came to her, he found her with six of her children literally huddled together in a little
back room, with no furniture but two old rush-bottomed chairs with the seats gone, a
small table with two legs broken, a broken cup, and a small dish. On the hearth was
scarcely a spark of fire, and in one corner lay as many old rags as would fill a woman’s
apron, which served the whole family as a bed. For bed clothing they had only their
scanty day clothing. The poor woman told him that she had been forced to sell her
bedstead the year before to buy food. Her bedding she had pawned with the victualler
for food. In short, everything had gone for food. The magistrate ordered the woman a
considerable provision from the poor-box.
In February, 1844, Theresa Bishop, a widow 60 years old, was recommended,
with her sick daughter, aged 26, to the compassion of the police magistrate in
Marlborough Street. She lived at No. 5 Brown Street, Grosvenor Square, in a small back
room no larger than a closet, in which there was not one single piece of furniture, In one
corner lay some rags upon which both slept; a chest served as table and chair. The
mother earned a little by charring. The owner of the house said that they had lived in
this way since May 1843, had gradually sold or pawned everything that they had, and
had still never paid any rent. The magistrate assigned them £1 from the poor-box.
I am far from asserting that all London working-people live in such want as the
foregoing three families. I know very well that ten are somewhat better off, where one is
so totally trodden under foot by society; but I assert that thousands of industrious and
worthy people – far worthier and more to be respected than the rich of London – do find
themselves in a condition unworthy of human beings; and that every proletarian,
everyone, without exception, is exposed to a similar fate without any fault of his own
and in spite of every possible effort.
But in spite of all this, they who have some kind of a shelter are fortunate,
fortunate in comparison with the utterly homeless. In London fifty thousand human
beings get up every morning, not knowing where they are to lay their heads at night. The
luckiest of this multitude, those who succeed in keeping a penny or two until evening,
enter a lodging-house, such as abound in every great city, where they find a bed. But
what a bed! These houses are filled with beds from cellar to garret, four, five, six beds in
a room; as many as can be crowded in. Into every bed four, five, or six human beings are
piled, as many as can be packed in, sick and well, young and old, drunk and sober, men
and women, just as they come, indiscriminately. Then come strife, blows, wounds, or, if
these bedfellows agree, so much the worse; thefts are arranged and things done which
our language, grown more humane than our deeds, refuses to record. And those who
cannot pay for such a refuge? They sleep where they find a place, in passages, arcades, in
corners where the police and the owners leave them undisturbed. A few individuals find
their way to the refuges which are managed, here and there, by private charity, others
sleep on the benches in the parks close under the windows of Queen Victoria. Let us
hear the London Times:
“It appears from the report of the proceedings at Marlborough Street Police Court
in our columns of yesterday, that there is an average number of 50 human beings of all
ages, who huddle together in the parks every night, having no other shelter than what is
supplied by the trees and a few hollows of the embankment. Of these, the majority are
young girls who have been seduced from the country by the soldiers and turned loose on
the world in all the destitution of friendless penury, and all the recklessness of early
vice.
“This is truly horrible! Poor there must be everywhere. Indigence will find its way
and set up its hideous state in the heart of a great and luxurious city. Amid the thousand
narrow lanes and by-streets of a populous metropolis there must always, we fear, be
much suffering – much that offends the eye – much that lurks unseen.
“But that within the precincts of wealth, gaiety, and fashion, nigh the regal grandeur
of St. James. close on the palatial splendour of Bayswater, on the confines of the old and
new aristocratic quarters, in a district where the cautious refinement of modern design
has refrained from creating one single tenement for poverty; which seems, as it were,
dedicated to the exclusive enjoyment of wealth. that there want, and famine, and
disease, and vice should stalk in all their kindred horrors, consuming body by body, soul
by soul!
“It is indeed a monstrous state of things! Enjoyment the most absolute, that bodily
ease, intellectual excitement, or the more innocent pleasures of sense can supply to
man’s craving, brought in close contact with the most unmitigated misery! Wealth, from
its bright saloons, laughing – an insolently heedless laugh – at the unknown wounds of
want! Pleasure, cruelly but unconsciously mocking the pain that moans below! All
contrary things mocking one another – all contrary, save the vice which tempts and the
vice which is tempted!
“But let all men remember this – that within the most courtly precincts of the richest
city of God’s earth, there may be found, night after night, winter after winter, women –
young in years – old in sin and suffering – outcasts from society – ROTTING FROM
FAMINE, FILTH, AND DISEASE. Let them remember this, and learn not to theorise but
to act. God knows, there is much room for action nowadays.” [5]
I have referred to the refuges for the homeless. How greatly overcrowded these
are, two examples may show. A newly erected Refuge for the Houseless in Upper Ogle
Street, that can shelter three hundred persons every night, has received since its
opening, January 27th to March 17th, 1844, 2,740 persons for one or more nights; and,
although the season was growing more favourable, the number of applicants in this, as
well as in the asylums of Whitecross Street and Wapping, was strongly on the increase,
and a crowd of the homeless had to be sent away every night for want of room. In
another refuge, the Central Asylum in Playhouse Yard, there were supplied on an
average 460 beds nightly, during the first three months of the year 1844, 6,681 persons
being sheltered, and 96,141 portions of bread were distributed. Yet the committee of
directors declare this institution began to meet the pressure of the needy to a limited
extent only when the Eastern Asylum also was opened.
Let us leave London and examine the other great cities of the three kingdoms in
their order. Let us take Dublin first, a city the approach to which from the sea is as
charming as that of London is imposing. The Bay of Dublin is the most beautiful of the
whole British Island Kingdom, and is even compared by the Irish with the Bay of
Naples. The city, too, possesses great attractions, and its aristocratic districts are better
and more tastefully laid out than those of any other British city. By way of
compensation, however the poorer districts of Dublin are among the most hideous and
repulsive to be seen in the world. True, the Irish character, which under some
circumstances, is comfortable only in the dirt, has some share in this; but as we find
thousands of Irish in ever great city in England and Scotland, and as every poor
population must gradually sink into the same uncleanliness, the wretchedness of Dublin
is nothing specific, nothing peculiar to Dublin, but something common to all great
towns. The poor quarters of Dublin are extremely extensive, and the filth, the
uninhabitableness of the houses and the neglect of the streets surpass all description.
Some idea of the manner in which the poor are here crowded together may be formed
from the fact that, in 1817, according to the report of the Inspector of
Workhouses,[6] 1,318 persons lived in 52 houses with 390 rooms in Barrack Street, and
1,997 persons in 71 houses with 393 rooms in and near Church Street; that:
“foul lanes, courts, and yards, are interposed between this and the adjoining
streets …. There are many cellars which have no light but from the door …. In some of
these cellars the inhabitants sleep on the floors which are all earthen; but in general,
they have bedsteads …. Nicholson’s Court … contains 151 persons in 28 small
apartments … their state is very miserable, there being only two bedsteads and two
blankets in the whole court.”
The poverty is so great in Dublin, that a single benevolent institution, the
Mendicity Association, gives relief to 2,500 persons or one per cent of the population
daily, receiving and feeding them for the day and dismissing them at night.
Dr. Alison describes a similar state of things in Edinburgh, whose superb
situation, which has won it the title of the modern Athens, and whose brilliant
aristocratic quarter in the New Town, contrast strongly with the foul wretchedness of
the poor in the Old Town. Alison asserts that this extensive quarter is as filthy and
horrible as the worst districts of Dublin, while the Mendicity Association would have as
great a proportion of needy persons to assist in Edinburgh as in the Irish capital. He
asserts, indeed, that the poor in Scotland, especially in Edinburgh and Glasgow, are
worse off than in any other region of the three kingdoms, and that the poorest are not
Irish, but Scotch. The preacher of the Old Church of Edinburgh, Dr. Lee, testified in
1836, before the Commission of Religious Instruction, that:
“I have never seen such a concentration of misery as in this parish,” where the
people are without furniture, without everything. “I frequently see the same room
occupied by two married couples. I have been in one day in seven houses where there
was no bed, in some of them not even straw. I found people of eighty years of age lying
on the boards. Many sleep in the same clothes which they wear during the day. I may
mention the case of two Scotch families living in a cellar, who had come from the
country within a few months…. Since they came they had had two children dead, and
another apparently dying. There was a little bundle of dirty straw in one corner, for one
family, and in another for the other. In the place they inhabit it is impossible at noonday
to distinguish the features of the human face without artificial light. – It would almost
make a heart of adamant bleed to see such an accumulation of misery in a country like
this.”
In the Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal, Dr. Hennen reports a similar
state of things. From a Parliamentary Report, [7] it is evident that in the dwellings of the
poor of Edinburgh a want of cleanliness reigns, such as must be expected under these
conditions. On the bed-posts chickens roost at night, dogs and horses share the
dwellings of human beings, and the natural consequence is a shocking stench, with filth
and swarms of vermin. The prevailing construction of Edinburgh favours these
atrocious conditions as far as possible. The Old Town is built upon both slopes of a hill,
along the crest of which runs the High Street. Out of the High Street there open
downwards multitudes of narrow, crooked alleys, called wynds from their many
turnings, and these wynds form the proletarian district of the city. The houses of the
Scotch cities, in general, are five or six-storied buildings, like those of Paris, and in
contrast with England where, so far as possible, each family has a separate house. The
crowding of human beings upon a limited area is thus intensified.
…..the house,” says an English journal in an article upon the sanitary condition of
the working-people in cities, “are often so close together, that persons may step from the
window of one house to that of the house opposite – so high, piled story after story, that
the light can scarcely penetrate to the court beneath. In this part of the town there are
neither sewers nor any private conveniences whatever belonging to the dwellings; and
hence the excrementitious and other refuse of at least 50,000 persons is, during the
night, thrown into the gutters, causing (in spite of the scavengers’ daily labours) an
amount of solid filth and foetid exhalation disgusting to both sight and smell, as well as
exceedingly prejudicial to health. Can it be wondered that, in such localities, health,
morals, and common decency should be at once neglected? No; all who know the private
condition of the inhabitants will bear testimony to the immense amount of their disease,
misery, and demoralisation. Society in these quarters has sunk to a state indescribably
vile and wretched…. The dwellings of the poorer classes are generally very filthy,
apparently never subjected to any cleaning process whatever, consisting, in most cases,
of a single room, ill-ventilated and yet cold, owing to broken, ill-fitting windows,
sometimes damp and partially underground, and always scantily furnished and
altogether comfortless, heaps of straw often serving for beds, in which a whole family –
male and female, young and old, are huddled together in revolting confusion. The
supplies of water are obtained only from the public pumps, and the trouble of procuring
it of course favours the accumulation of all kinds of abominations.”
In the other great seaport towns the prospect is no better. Liverpool, with all its
commerce, wealth, and grandeur yet treats its workers with the same barbarity. A full
fifth of the population, more than 45,000 human beings, live in narrow, dark, damp,
badly-ventilated cellar dwellings, of which there are 7,862 in the city. Besides these
cellar dwellings there are 2,270 courts, small spaces built up on all four sides and having
but one entrance, a narrow, covered passage-way, the whole ordinarily very dirty and
inhabited exclusively by proletarians. Of such courts we shall have more to say when we
come to Manchester. In Bristol, on one occasion, 2,800 families were visited, of whom
46 per cent occupied but one room each.
Precisely the same state of things prevails in the factory towns. In Nottingham
there are in all 11,000 houses, of which between 7,000 and 8,000 are built back to back
with a rear party-wall so that no through ventilation is possible, while a single privy
usually serves for several houses. During an investigation made a short time since, many
rows of houses were found to have been built over shallow drains covered only by the
boards of the ground- floor. In Leicester, Derby, and Sheffield, it is no better. Of
Birmingham, the article above cited from the Artisan states:
“In the older parts of the town there are many inferior streets and courts, which
are dirty and neglected, filled with stagnant water and heaps of refuse. The courts of
Birmingham are very numerous in every direction, exceeding 2,000, and comprising the
residence of a large portion of the working-classes. They are for the most part narrow,
filthy, ill-ventilated. and badly drained, containing from eight to twenty houses each, the
houses being built against some other tenement and the end of the courts being pretty
constantly occupied by ashpits, etc., the filth of which would defy description. It is but
just, however, to remark that the courts of more modern date are built in a more
rational manner, and kept tolerably respectable; and the cottages, even in old courts, are
far less crowded than in Manchester and Liverpool, the result of which is, that the
inhabitants, in epidemic seasons, have been much less visited by death than those of
Wolverhampton, Dudley, and Bilston, at only a few miles distance. Cellar residences,
also, are unknown in Birmingham, though some few are, very improperly, used as
workshops. The low lodging-houses are pretty numerous (somewhat exceeding 400),
chiefly in courts near the centre of the town; they are almost always loathsomely filthy
and close, the resorts of beggars, trampers, thieves and prostitutes, who here, regardless
alike of decency or comfort, eat, drink, smoke and sleep in an atmosphere unendurable
by all except the degraded, besotted inmates.”
Glasgow is in many respects similar to Edinburgh, possessing the same wynds,
the same tall houses. Of this city the Artisan observes:
The working-class forms here some 78 per cent of the whole population (about
300,000), and lives in parts of the city “which, in abject wretchedness, exceed the lowest
purlieus of St. Giles’ or Whitechapel, the liberties of Dublin, or the wynds of Edinburgh.
Such localities exist most abundantly in the heart of the city – south of the Irongate and
west of the Saltmarket, as well as in the Calton, off the High Street, etc.– endless
labyrinths of narrow lanes or wynds, into which almost at every step debouche courts or
closes formed by old, ill-ventilated, towering houses crumbling to decay, destitute of
water and crowded with inhabitants, comprising three or four families (perhaps twenty
persons) on each flat, and sometimes each flat let out in lodgings that confine – we dare
not say accommodate – from fifteen to twenty persons in a single room. These districts
are occupied by the poorest, most depraved, and most worthless portion of the
population, and they may be considered as the fruitful source of those pestilential fevers
which thence spread their destructive ravages over the whole of Glasgow.”
Let us hear how J. C. Symons, Government Commissioner for the investigation of
the condition of the hand-weavers, describes these portions of the city:[8]
“I have seen human degradation in some of its worst phases, both in England and
abroad, but I did not believe until I visited the wynds of Glasgow, that so large an
amount of filth, crime, misery, and disease existed in any civilised country. In the lower
lodging-houses ten, twelve, and sometimes twenty persons of both sexes and all ages
sleep promiscuously on the floor in different degrees of nakedness. These places are,
generally, as regards dirt, damp and decay, such as no person would stable his horse in.”
And in another place:
“The wynds of Glasgow house a fluctuating population of between 15,000 and
30,000 persons. This district is composed of many narrow streets and square courts and
in the middle of each court there is a dung-hill. Although the outward appearance of
these places was revolting, I was nevertheless quite unprepared for the filth and misery
that were to be found inside. In some of these bedrooms we [i.e. Police Superintendent
Captain Miller and Symons] visited at night we found a whole mass of humanity
stretched out on the floor. There were often 15 to 20 men and women huddled together,
some being clothed and others naked. Their bed was a heap of musty straw mixed with
rags. There was hardly any furniture there and the only thing which gave these holes the
appearance of a dwelling was fire burning on the hearth. Thieving and prostitution are
the main sources of income of these people. No one seems to have taken the trouble to
clean out these Augean stables, this pandemonium, this nucleus of crime, filth and
pestilence in the second city of the empire. A detailed investigation of the most wretched
slums of other towns has never revealed anything half so bad as this concentration of
moral iniquity, physical degradation and gross overcrowding…. In this part of Glasgow
most of the houses have been condemned by the Court of Guild as dilapidated and
uninhabitable – but it is just these dwellings which are filled to overflowing, because, by
law no rent can be charged on them.”
The great manufacturing district in the centre of the British Islands, the thickly
peopled stretch of West Yorkshire and South Lancashire, with its numerous factory
towns, yields nothing to the other great manufacturing centres. The wool district of the
West Riding of Yorkshire is a charming region, a beautiful green hill country, whose
elevations grow more rugged towards the west until they reach their highest point in the
bold ridge of Blackstone Edge, the watershed between the Irish Sea and the German
Ocean, The valleys of the Aire, along which stretches Leeds, and of the Calder, through
which the Manchester-Leeds railway runs, are among the most attractive in England,
and are strewn in all directions with the factories, villages, and towns. The houses of
rough grey stone look so neat and clean in comparison with the blackened brick
buildings of Lancashire, that it is a pleasure to look at them. But on coming into the
towns themselves, one finds little to rejoice over. Leeds lies, as the Artisan describes it,
and as I found confirmed upon examination:
“on a slope running down towards the river Aire, which meanders about a-mileand-a-half
through the town, and is liable to overflows during thaws or after heavy rains.
The higher or western districts are clean for so large a town, but the lower parts
contiguous to the river and its becks or rivulets are dirty, confined, and, in themselves,
sufficient to shorten life, especially infant life; add to this the disgusting state of the
lower parts of the town about Kirk-gate. March-lane, Cross-street and Richmond-road,
principally owing to a general want of paving and draining, irregularity of building, the
abundance of courts and blind alleys, as well as the almost total absence of the
commonest means for promoting cleanliness, and we have then quite sufficient data to
account for the surplus mortality in these unhappy regions of filth and misery…. In
consequence of the floods from the Aire” (which, it must be added, like all other rivers in
the service of manufacture, flows into the city at one end clear and transparent, and
flows out at the other end thick, black, and foul, smelling of all possible refuse), “the
dwelling-houses and cellars are not infrequently so inundated that the water has to be
pumped out by hand-pumps, on to the surface of the streets; and at such times, even
where there are sewers, the water rises through them into the cellars,[9] creating
miasmatic exhalations, strongly charged with sulphuretted hydrogen, and leaving
offensive refuse, exceedingly prejudicial to human health. Indeed, during a season of
inundation in the spring of 1859, so fatal were the effects of such an engorgement of the
sewers, that the registrar of the North district made a report, that during that quarter
there were, in that neighbourhood, two births to three deaths, whilst in all the other
districts there were three to two deaths. Other populous districts are wholly without
sewers, or so inadequately provided as to derive no advantage therefrom. “In some rows
of houses, the cellar dwellings are seldom dry”; in certain districts there are several
streets covered with soft mud a foot deep. “The inhabitants have from time to time
vainly attempted to repair these streets with shovelfuls of ashes; and soil, refuse-water,
etc., stand in every hole, there to remain until absorbed by wind or sun…. An ordinary
cottage, in Leeds, extends over no more than about five yards square, and consists
usually of a cellar, a sitting-room, and a sleeping chamber. This small size of the houses
crammed with human beings both day and night, is another point dangerous alike to the
morals and the health of the inhabitants.”
And how greatly these cottages are crowded, the Report on the Health of the
Working-Classes, quoted above, bears testimony:
“In Leeds, brothers and sisters, and lodgers of both sexes, are found occupying
the same sleeping-room with the parents, and consequences occur which humanity
shudders to contemplate.”
So, too, Bradford, which, but seven miles from Leeds at the junction of several
valleys, lies upon the banks of a small, coal-black, foul-smelling stream. On week-days
the town is enveloped in a grey cloud of coal smoke, but on a fine Sunday it offers a
superb picture, when viewed from the surrounding heights. Yet within reigns the same
filth and discomfort as in Leeds. The older portions of the town are built upon steep
hillsides, and are narrow and irregular. In the lanes, alleys, and courts lie filth
and débris in heaps; the houses are ruinous, dirty, and miserable, and in the immediate
vicinity of the river and the valley bottom I found many a one whose ground-floor, halfburied
in the hillside, was totally abandoned. In general, the portions of the valley
bottom in which working-men’s cottages have crowded between the tall factories, are
among the worst-built and dirtiest districts of the whole town. In the newer portions of
this, as of every other factory town, the cottages are more regular, being built in rows,
but they share here, too, all the evils incident to the customary method of providing
working-men’s dwellings, evils of which we shall have occasions to speak more
particularly in discussing Manchester. The same is true of the remaining towns of the
West Riding, especially of Barnsley, Halifax, and Huddersfield. The last named, the
handsomest by far of all the factory towns of Yorkshire and Lancashire by reason of its
charming situation and modern architecture, has yet its bad quarter; for a committee
appointed by a meeting of citizens to survey the town reported August 5th, 1844:
“It is notorious that there are whole streets in the town of Huddersfield, and
many courts and alleys, which are neither flagged, paved, sewered, nor drained; where
garbage and filth of every description are left on the surface to ferment and rot; where
pools of stagnant water are almost constant, where the dwellings adjoining are thus
necessarily caused to be of an inferior and even filthy description; thus where disease is
engendered, and the health of the whole town perilled.”
If we cross Blackstone Edge or penetrate it with the railroad, we enter upon that
classic soil on which English manufacture has achieved its masterwork and from which
all labour movements emanate, namely, South Lancashire with its central city
Manchester. Again we have beautiful hill country, sloping gently from the watershed
westwards towards the Irish Sea, with the charming green valleys of the Ribble, the
Irwell, the Mersey, and their tributaries, a country which, a hundred years ago chiefly
swamp land, thinly populated, is now sown with towns and villages, and is the most
densely populated strip of country in England. In Lancashire, and especially in
Manchester, English manufacture finds at once its starting-point and its centre. The
Manchester Exchange is the thermometer for all the fluctuations of trade. The modern
art of manufacture has reached its perfection in Manchester. In the cotton industry of
South Lancashire, the application of the forces of Nature, the superseding of handlabour
by machinery (especially by the power-loom and the self-acting mule), and the
division of labour, are seen at the highest point; and, if we recognise in these three
elements that which is characteristic of modern manufacture, we must confess that the
cotton industry has remained in advance of all other branches of industry from the
beginning down to the present day. The effects of modern manufacture upon the
working-class must necessarily develop here most freely and perfectly, and the
manufacturing proletariat present itself in its fullest classic perfection. The degradation
to which the application of steam-power, machinery and the division of labour reduce
the working-man, and the attempts of the proletariat to rise above this abasement, must
likewise be carried to the highest point and with the fullest consciousness. Hence
because Manchester is the classic type of a modern manufacturing town, and because I
know it as intimately as my own native town, more intimately than most of its residents
know it, we shall make a longer stay here.
The towns surrounding Manchester vary little from the central city, so far as the
working-people’s quarters are concerned, except that the working-class forms, if
possible, a larger proportion of their population. These towns are purely industrial and
conduct all their business through Manchester upon which they are in every respect
dependent, whence they are inhabited only by working-men and petty tradesmen, while
Manchester has a very considerable commercial population, especially of commission
and “respectable” retail dealers. Hence Bolton, Preston, Wigan, Bury, Rochdale,
Middleton, Heywood, Oldham, Ashton, Stalybridge, Stockport, etc., though nearly all
towns of thirty, fifty, seventy to ninety thousand inhabitants, are almost wholly workingpeople’s
districts, interspersed only with factories, a few thoroughfares lined with shops,
and a few lanes along which the gardens and houses of the manufacturers are scattered
like villas. The towns themselves are badly and irregularly built with foul courts, lanes,
and back alleys, reeking of coal smoke, and especially dingy from the originally bright
red brick, turned black with time, which is here the universal building material. Cellar
dwellings are general here; wherever it is in any way possible, these subterranean dens
are constructed, and a very considerable portion of the population dwells in them.
Among the worst of these towns after Preston and Oldham is Bolton, eleven miles
north-west of Manchester. It has, so far as I have been able to observe in my repeated
visits, but one main street, a very dirty one, Deansgate, which serves as a market, and is
even in the finest weather a dark, unattractive hole in spite of the fact that, except for the
factories, its sides are formed by low one and two-storied houses. Here, as everywhere,
the older part of the town is especially ruinous and miserable. A dark-coloured body of
water, which leaves the beholder in doubt whether it is a brook or a long string of
stagnant puddles, flows through the town and contributes its share to the total pollution
of the air, by no means pure without it.
There is Stockport, too, which lies on the Cheshire side of the Mersey, but belongs
nevertheless to the manufacturing district of Manchester. It lies in a narrow valley along
the Mersey, so that the streets slope down a steep hill on one side and up an equally
steep one on the other, while the railway from Manchester to Birmingham passes over a
high viaduct above the city and the whole valley. Stockport is renowned throughout the
entire district as one of the duskiest, smokiest holes, and looks, indeed, especially when
viewed from the viaduct, excessively repellent. But far more repulsive are the cottages
and cellar dwellings of the working-class, which stretch in long rows through all parts of
the town from the valley bottom to the crest of the hill. I do not remember to have seen
so many cellars used as dwellings in any other town of this district.
A few miles north-east of Stockport is Ashton-under-Lyne, one of the newest
factory towns of this region. It stands on the slope of a hill at the foot of which are the
canal and the river Tame, and is, in general, built on the newer, more regular plan. Five
or six parallel streets stretch along the hill, intersected at right angles by others leading
down into the valley. By this method, the factories would be excluded from the town
proper, even if the proximity of the river and the canal-way did not draw them all into
the valley where they stand thickly crowded, belching forth black smoke from their
chimneys. To this arrangement Ashton owes a much more attractive appearance than
that of most factory towns; the streets are broader and cleaner, the cottages look new,
bright red, and comfortable. But the modern system of building cottages for workingmen
has its own disadvantages; every street has its concealed back lane to which a
narrow paved path leads, and which is all the dirtier. And, although I saw no buildings,
except a few on entering, which could have been more than fifty years old, there are even
in Ashton streets in which the cottages are getting bad, where the bricks in the house-
corners are no longer firm but shift about, in which the walls have cracks and will not
hold the chalk whitewash inside; streets, whose dirty, smoke-begrimed aspect is nowise
different from that of the other towns of the district, except that in Ashton this is the
exception, not the rule.
A mile eastward lies Stalybridge, also on the Tame. In coming over the hill from
Ashton, the traveller has, at the top, both right and left, fine large gardens with superb
villa-like houses in their midst, built usually in the Elizabethan style, which is to the
Gothic precisely what the Anglican Church is to the Apostolic Roman Catholic. A
hundred paces farther and Stalybridge shows itself in the valley, in sharp contrast with
the beautiful country seats, in sharp contrast even with the modest cottages of Ashton!
Stalybridge lies in a narrow, crooked ravine, much narrower even than the valley at
Stockport, and both sides of this ravine are occupied by an irregular group of cottages,
houses, and mills. On entering, the very first cottages are narrow, smoke-begrimed, old
and ruinous; and as the first houses, so the whole town. A few streets lie in the narrow
valley bottom, most of them run criss-cross, pell-mell, up hill and down, and in nearly
all the houses, by reason of this sloping situation, the ground-floor is half-buried in the
earth; and what multitudes of courts, back lanes, and remote nooks arise out of this
confused way of building may be seen from the hills, whence one has the town, here and
there, in a bird’s-eye view almost at one’s feet. Add to this the shocking filth, and the
repulsive effect of Stalybridge, in spite of its pretty surroundings, may be readily
imagined.
But enough of these little towns. Each has its own peculiarities, but in general,
the working-people live in them just as in Manchester. Hence I have especially sketched
only their peculiar construction, and would observe that all more general observations
as to the condition of the labouring population in Manchester are fully applicable to
these surrounding towns as well.
Manchester lies at the foot of the southern slope of a range of hills, which stretch
hither from Oldham, their last peak, Kersallmoor, being at once the race course and the
Mons Sacer of Manchester. Manchester proper lies on the left bank of the Irwell,
between that stream and the two smaller ones, the Irk and the Medlock, which here
empty into the Irwell. On the right bank of the Irwell, bounded by a sharp curve of the
river, lies Salford, and farther westward Pendleton; northward from the Irwell lie Upper
and Lower Broughton; northward of the Irk, Cheetham Hill; south of the Medlock lies
Hulme; farther east Chorlton on Medlock; still farther, pretty well to the east of
Manchester, Ardwick. The whole assemblage of buildings is commonly called
Manchester, and contains about four hundred thousand inhabitnts, rather more than
less. The town itself is peculiarly built, so that a person may live in it for years, and go in
and out daily without coming into contact with a working-people’s quarter or even with
workers, that is, so long as he confines himself to his business or to pleasure walks. This
arises chiefly from the fact, that by unconscious tacit agreement, as well as with
outspoken conscious determination, the working-people’s quarters are sharply
separated from the sections of the city reserved for the middle- class; or, if this does not
succeed, they are concealed with the cloak of charity. Manchester contains, at its heart, a
rather extended commercial district, perhaps half a mile long and about as broad, and
consisting almost wholly of offices and warehouses. Nearly the whole district is
abandoned by dwellers, and is lonely and deserted at night; only watchmen and
policemen traverse its narrow lanes with their dark lanterns. This district is cut through
by certain main thoroughfares upon which the vast traffic concentrates, and in which
the ground level is lined with brilliant shops. In these streets the upper floors are
occupied, here and there, and there is a good deal of life upon them until late at night.
With the exception of this commercial district, all Manchester proper, all Salford and
Hulme, a great part of Pendleton and Chorlton, two-thirds of Ardwick, and single
stretches of Cheetham Hill and Broughton are all unmixed working-people’s quarters,
stretching like a girdle, averaging a mile and a half in breadth, around the commercial
district. Outside, beyond this girdle, lives the upper and middle bourgeoisie, the middle
bourgeoisie in regularly laid out streets in the vicinity of the working quarters, especially
in Chorlton and the lower lying portions of Cheetham Hill; the upper bourgeoisie in
remoter villas with gardens in Chorlton and Ardwick, or on the breezy heights of
Cheetham Hill, Broughton, and Pendleton, in free, wholesome country air, in fine,
comfortable homes, passed once every half or quarter hour by omnibuses going into the
city. And the finest part of the arrangement is this, that the members of this money
aristocracy can take the shortest road through the middle of all the labouring districts to
their places of business without ever seeing that they are in the midst of the grimy
misery that lurks to the right and the left. For the thoroughfares leading from the
Exchange in all directions out of the city are lined, on both sides, with an almost
unbroken series of shops, and are so kept in the hands of the middle and lower
bourgeoisie, which, out of self-interest, cares for a decent and cleanly external
appearance and can care for it. True, these shops bear some relation to the districts
which lie behind them, and are more elegant in the commercial and residential quarters
than when they hide grimy working-men’s dwellings; but they suffice to conceal from
the eyes of the wealthy men and women of strong stomachs and weak nerves the misery
and grime which form the complement of their wealth. So, for instance, Deansgate,
which leads from the Old Church directly southward, is lined first with mills and
warehouses, then with second-rate shops and alehouses; farther south, when it leaves
the commercial district, with less inviting shops, which grow dirtier and more
interrupted by beerhouses and gin-palaces the farther one goes, until at the southern
end the appearance of the shops leaves no doubt that workers and workers only are their
customers. So Market Street running south-east from the Exchange; at first brilliant
shops of the best sort, with counting-houses or warehouses above; in the continuation,
Piccadilly, immense hotels and warehouses; in the farther continuation, London Road,
in the neighbourhood of the Medlock, factories, beerhouses, shops for the humbler
bourgeoisie and the working populations; and from this point onward, large gardens
and villas of the wealthier merchants and manufacturers. In this way any one who
knows Manchester can infer the adjoining districts from the appearance of the
thoroughfare, but one is seldom in a position to catch from the street a glimpse of the
real labouring districts. I know very well that this hypocritical plan is more or less
common to all great cities; I know, too, that the retail dealers are forced by the nature of
their business to take possession of the great highways; I know that there are more good
buildings than bad ones upon such streets everywhere, and that the value of land is
greater near them than in remoter districts; but at the same time I have never seen so
systematic a shutting out of the working-class from the thoroughfares, so tender a
concealment of everything which might affront the eye and the nerves of the
bourgeoisie, as in Manchester. And yet, in other respects, Manchester is less built
according to a plan, after officials regulations, is more an outgrowth of accident than any
other city; and when I consider in this connection the eager assurances of the middleclass,
that the working-class is doing famously, I cannot help feeling that the Liberal
manufacturers, the “Big Wigs” of Manchester, are not so innocent after all, in the matter
of this shameful method of construction.
I may mention just here that the mills almost all adjoin the rivers or the different
canals that ramify throughout the city, before I proceed at once to describe the labouring
quarters. First of all, there is the Old Town of Manchester, which lies between the
northern boundary of the commercial district and the Irk. Here the streets, even the
better ones, are narrow and winding, as Todd Street, Long Millgate, Withy Grove, and
Shude Hill, the houses dirty, old, and tumble-down, and the construction of the side
streets utterly horrible. Going from the Old Church to Long Millgate, the stroller has at
once a row of old-fashioned houses at the right, of which not one has kept its original
level; these are remnants of the old pre-manufacturing Manchester, whose former
inhabitants have removed with their descendants into better-built districts, and have
left the houses, which were not good enough for them, to a population strongly mixed
with Irish blood. Here one is in an almost undisguised working-men’s quarter, for even
the shops and beerhouses hardly take the trouble to exhibit a trifling degree of
cleanliness. But all this is nothing in comparison with the courts and lanes which lie
behind, to which access can be gained only through covered passages, in which no two
human beings can pass at the same time. Of the irregular cramming together of
dwellings in ways which defy all rational plan, of the tangle in which they are crowded
literally one upon the other, it is impossible to convey an idea. And it is not the buildings
surviving from the old times of Manchester which are to blame for this; the confusion
has only recently reached its height when every scrap of space left by the old way of
building has been filled up and patched over until not a foot of land is left to be further
occupied.
To confirm my statement I have drawn here a small section of the plan of
Manchester – not the worst spot and not one-tenth of the whole Old Town.
This drawing will suffice to characterise the irrational manner in which the entire
district was built, particularly the part near the Irk.
The south bank of the Irk is here very steep and between fifteen and thirty feet
high. On this declivitous hillside there are planted three rows of houses, of which the
lowest rise directly out of the river, while the front walls of the highest stand on the crest
of the hill in Long Millgate. Among them are mills on the river, in short, the method of
construction is as crowded and disorderly here as in the lower part of Long Millgate.
Right and left a multitude of covered passages lead from the main street into numerous
courts, and he who turns in thither gets into a filth and disgusting grime, the equal of
which is not to be found – especially in the courts which lead down to the Irk, and which
contain unqualifiedly the most horrible dwellings which I have yet beheld. In one of
these courts there stands directly at the entrance, at the end of the covered passage, a
privy without a door, so dirty that the inhabitants can pass into and out of the court only
by passing through foul pools of stagnant urine and excrement. This is the first court on
the Irk above Ducie Bridge – in case any one should care to look into it. Below it on the
river there are several tanneries which fill the whole neighbourhood with the stench of
animal putrefaction. Below Ducie Bridge the only entrance to most of the houses is by
means of narrow, dirty stairs and over heaps of refuse and filth. The first court below
Ducie Bridge, known as Allen’s Court, was in such a state at the time of the cholera that
the sanitary police ordered it evacuated, swept, and disinfected with chloride of lime. Dr.
Kay gives a terrible description of the state of this court at that time. [10] Since then, it
seems to have been partially torn away and rebuilt; at least looking down from Ducie
Bridge, the passer-by sees several ruined walls and heaps of debris with some newer
houses. The view from this bridge, mercifully concealed from mortals of small stature by
a parapet as high as a man, is characteristic for the whole district. At the bottom flows,
or rather stagnates, the Irk, a narrow, coal-black, foul-smelling stream, full of debris and
refuse, which it deposits on . the shallower right bank. In dry weather, a long string of
the most disgusting, blackish-green, slime pools are left standing on this bank, from the
depths of which bubbles of miasmatic gas constantly arise and give forth a stench
unendurable even on the bridge forty or fifty feet above the surface of the stream. But
besides this, the stream itself is checked every few paces by high weirs, behind which
slime and refuse accumulate and rot in thick masses. Above the bridge are tanneries,
bonemills, and gasworks, from which all drains and refuse find their way into the Irk,
which receives further the contents of all the neighbouring sewers and privies. It may be
easily imagined, therefore, what sort of residue the stream deposits. Below the bridge
you look upon the piles of débris, the refuse, filth, and offal from the courts on the steep
left bank; here each house is packed close behind its neighbour and a piece of each is
visible, all black, smoky, crumbling, ancient, with broken panes and window-frames.
The background is furnished by old barrack-like factory buildings. On the lower right
bank stands a long row of houses and mills; the second house being a ruin without a
roof, piled with débris; the third stands so low that the lowest floor is uninhabitable, and
therefore without windows or doors. Here the background embraces the pauper burialground,
the station of the Liverpool and Leeds railway, and, in the rear of this, the
Workhouse, the “Poor-Law Bastille” of Manchester, which, like a citadel, looks
threateningly down from behind its high walls and parapets on the hilltop, upon the
working-people’a quarter below.
Above Ducie Bridge, the left bank grows more flat and the right bank steeper, but
the condition of the dwellings on both bank grows worse rather than better. He who
turns to the left here from the main street, Long Millgate, is lost; he wanders from one
court to another, turns countless corners, passes nothing but narrow, filthy nooks and
alleys, until after a few minutes he has lost all clue, and knows not whither to turn.
Everywhere half or wholly ruined buildings, some of them actually uninhabited, which
means a great deal here; rarely a wooden or stone floor to be seen in the houses, almost
uniformly broken, ill-fitting windows and doors, and a state of filth! Everywhere heaps
of débris, refuse, and offal; standing pools for gutters, and a stench which alone would
make it impossible for a human being in any degree civilised to live in such a district.
The newly built extension of the Leeds railway, which crosses the Irk here, has swept
away some of these courts and lanes, laying others completely open to view.
Immediately under the railway bridge there stands a court, the filth and horrors of
which surpass all the others by far, just because it was hitherto so shut off, so secluded
that the way to it could not be found without a good deal of trouble, I should never have
discovered it myself, without the breaks made by the railway, though I thought I knew
this whole region thoroughly. Passing along a rough bank, among stakes and washing-
lines, one penetrates into this chaos of small one-storied, one-roomed huts, in most of
which there is no artificial floor; kitchen, living and sleeping-room all in one. In such a
hole, scarcely five feet long by six broad, I found two beds – and such bedsteads and
beds! – which, with a staircase and chimney-place, exactly filled the room. In several
others I found absolutely nothing, while the door stood open, and the inhabitants leaned
against it. Everywhere before the doors refuse and offal; that any sort of pavement lay
underneath could not be seen but only felt, here and there, with the feet. This whole
collection of cattle-sheds for human beings was surrounded on two sides by houses and
a factory, and on the third by the river, and besides the narrow stair up the bank, a
narrow doorway alone led out into another almost equally ill-built, ill-kept labyrinth of
dwellings.
Enough! The whole side of the Irk is built in this way, a planless, knotted chaos of
houses, more or less on the verge of uninhabitableness, whose unclean interiors fully
correspond with their filthy external surroundings. And how could the people be clean
with no proper opportunity for satisfying the most natural and ordinary wants? Privies
are so rare here that they are either filled up every day, or are too remote for most of the
inhabitants to use. How can people wash when they have only the dirty Irk water at
hand, while pumps and water pipes can be found in decent parts of the city alone? In
truth, it cannot be charged to the account of these helots of modern society if their
dwellings are not more cleanly than the pig-sties which are here and there to be seen
among them. The landlords are not ashamed to let dwellings like the six or seven cellars
on the quay directly below Scotland Bridge, the floors of which stand at least two feet
below the low-water level of the Irk that flows not six feet away from them; or like the
upper floor of the corner-house on the opposite shore directly above the bridge, where
the ground-floor, utterly uninhabitable, stands deprived of all fittings for doors and
windows, a case by no means rare in this region, when this open ground-floor is used as
a privy by the whole neighbourhood for want of other facilities!
If we leave the Irk and penetrate once more on the opposite side from Long
Millgate into the midst of the working-men’s dwellings, we shall come into a somewhat
newer quarter, which stretches from St. Michael’s Church to Withy Grove and Shude
Hill. Here there is somewhat better order. In place of the chaos of buildings, we find at
least long straight lanes and alleys or courts, built according to a plan and usually
square. But if, in the former case, every house was built according to caprice, here each
lane and court is so built, without reference to the situation of the adjoining ones. The
lanes run now in this direction, now in that, while every two minutes the wanderer gets
into a blind alley, or, on turning a corner, finds himself back where he started from;
certainly no one who has not lived a considerable time in this labyrinth can find his way
through it.
If I may use the word at all in speaking of this district, the ventilation of these
streets and courts is, in consequence of this confusion, quite as imperfect as in the Irk
region; and if this quarter may, nevertheless, be said to have some advantage over that
of the Irk, the houses being newer and the streets occasionally having gutters, nearly
every house has, on the other hand, a cellar dwelling, which is rarely found in the Irk
district, by reason of the greater age and more careless construction of the houses. As for
the rest, the filth, débris, and offal heaps, and the pools in the streets are common to
both quarters, and in the district now under discussion, another feature most injurious
to the cleanliness of the inhabitants, is the multitude of pigs walking about in all the
alleys, rooting into the offal heaps, or kept imprisoned in small pens. Here, as in most of
the working-men’s quarters of Manchester, the pork-raisers rent the courts and build
pig-pens in them. In almost every court one or even several such pens may be found,
into which the inhabitants of the court throw all refuse and offal, whence the swine grow
fat; and the atmosphere, confined on all four sides, is utterly corrupted by putrefying
animal and vegetable substances. Through this quarter, a broad and measurably decent
street has been cut, Millers Street, and the background has been pretty successfully
concealed. But if any one should be led by curiosity to pass through one of the numerous
passages which lead into the courts, he will find this piggery repeated at every twenty
paces.
Such is the Old Town of Manchester, and on re-reading my description, I am
forced to admit that instead of being exaggerated, it is far from black enough to convey a
true impression of the filth, ruin, and uninhabitableness, the defiance of all
considerations of cleanliness, ventilation, and health which characterise the
construction of this single district, containing at least twenty to thirty thousand
inhabitants. And such a district exists in the heart of the second city of England, the first
manufacturing city of the world. If any one wishes to see in how little space a human
being can move, how little air – andsuch air! – he can breathe, how little of civilisation
he may share and yet live, it is only necessary to travel hither. True, this is the Old Town,
and the people of Manchester emphasise the fact whenever any one mentions to them
the frightful condition of this Hell upon Earth; but what does that prove? Everything
which here arouses horror and indignation is of recent origin, belongs to the industrial
epoch. The couple of hundred houses, which belong to old Manchester, have been long
since abandoned by their original inhabitants; the industrial epoch alone has crammed
into them the swarms of workers whom they now shelter; the industrial epoch alone has
built up every spot between these old houses to win a covering for the masses whom it
has conjured hither from the agricultural districts and from Ireland; the industrial
epoch alone enables the owners of these cattlesheds to rent them for high prices to
human beings, to plunder the poverty of the workers, to undermine the health of
thousands, in order that they alone, the owners, may grow rich. In the industrial epoch
alone has it become possible that the worker scarcely freed from feudal servitude could
be used as mere material, a mere chattel; that he must let himself be crowded into a
dwelling too bad for every other, which he for his hard-earned wages buys the right to
let go utterly to ruin. This manufacture has achieved, which, without these workers, this
poverty, this slavery could not have lived. True, the original construction of this quarter
was bad, little good could have been made out of it; but, have the landowners, has the
municipality done anything to improve it when rebuilding? On the contrary, wherever a
nook or corner was free, a house has been run up; where a superfluous passage
remained, it has been built up; the value of land rose with the blossoming out of
manufacture, and the more it rose, the more madly was the work of building up carried
on, without reference to the health or comfort of the inhabitants, with sole reference to
the highest possible profit on the principle that no hole is so bad but that some poor
creature must take it who can pay for nothing better. However, it is the Old Town, and
with this reflection the bourgeoisie is comforted. Let us see, therefore, how much better
it is in the New Town.
The New Town, known also as Irish Town, stretches up a hill of clay, beyond the
Old Town, between the Irk and St. George’s Road. Here all the features of a city are lost.
Single rows of houses or groups of streets stand, here and there, like little villages on the
naked, not even grass-grown clay soil; the houses, or rather cottages, are in bad order,
never repaired, filthy, with damp, unclean, cellar dwellings; the lanes are neither paved
nor supplied with sewers, but harbour numerous colonies of swine penned in small sties
or yards, or wandering unrestrained through the neighbourhood. The mud in the streets
is so deep that there is never a chance, except in the dryest weather, of walking without
sinking into it ankle deep at every step. In the vicinity of St. George’s Road, the separate
groups of buildings approach each other more closely, ending in a continuation of lanes,
blind alleys, back lanes and courts, which grow more and more crowded and irregular
the nearer they approach the heart of the town. True, they are here oftener paved or
supplied with paved sidewalks and gutters; but the filth, the bad order of the houses,
and especially of the cellars, remain the same.
It may not be out of place to make some general observations just here as to the
customary construction of working-men’s quarters in Manchester. We have seen how in
the Old Town pure accident determined the grouping of the houses in general. Every
house is built without reference to any other, and the scraps of space between them are
called courts for want of another name. In the somewhat newer portions of the same
quarter, and in other working-men’s quarters, dating from the early days of industrial
activity, a somewhat more orderly arrangement may be found. The space between two
streets is divided into more regular, usually square courts.
These courts were built in this way from the beginning, and communicate with
the streets by means of covered passages. If the totally planless construction is injurious
to the health of the workers by preventing ventilation, this method of shutting them up
in courts surrounded on all sides by buildings is far more so. The air simply cannot
escape; the chimneys of the houses are the sole drains for the imprisoned atmosphere of
the courts, and they serve the purpose only so long as fire is kept burning. [11] Moreover,
the houses surrounding such courts are usually built back to back, having the rear wall
in common; and this alone suffices to prevent any sufficient through ventilation. And, as
the police charged with care of the streets does not trouble itself about the condition of
these courts, as everything quietly lies where it is thrown, there is no cause for wonder at
the filth and heaps of ashes and offal to be found here. I have been in courts, in Millers
Street, at least half a foot below the level of the thoroughfare, and without the slightest
drainage for the water that accumulates in them in rainy weather!
More recently another different method of building was adopted, and has now
become general. Working-men’s cottages are almost never built singly, but always by the
dozen or score; a single contractor building up one or two streets at a time. These are
then arranged as follows: One front is formed of cottages of the best class, so fortunate
as to possess a back door and small court, and these command the highest rent. In the
rear of these cottages runs a narrow alley, the back street, built up at both ends, into
which either a narrow roadway or a covered passage leads from one side. The cottages
which face this back street command least rent, and are most neglected. These have
their rear walls in common with the third row of cottages, which face a second street and
command less rent than the first row and more than the second.
By this method of construction, comparatively good ventilation can be obtained
for the first row of cottages, and the third row is no worse off than in the former method.
The middle row, on the other hand, is at least as badly ventilated as the houses in the
courts, and the back street is always in the same filthy, disgusting condition as they. The
contractors prefer this method because it saves them space, and furnishes the means of
fleecing better-paid workers through the higher rents of the cottages in the first and
third rows.
These three different forms of cottage building are found all over Manchester and
throughout Lancashire and Yorkshire, often mixed up together, but usually separate
enough to indicate the relative age of parts of towns. The third system, that of the back
alleys, prevails largely in the great working-men’s district east of St. George’s Road and
Ancoats Street, and is the one most often found in the other working-men’s quarters of
Manchester and its suburbs.
In the last-mentioned broad district included under the name Ancoats, stand the
largest mills of Manchester lining the canals, colossal six and seven-storied buildings
towering with their slender chimneys far above the low cottages of the workers. The
population of the district consists, therefore, chiefly of mill-hands, and in the worst
streets, of hand-weavers. The streets nearest the heart of the town are the oldest, and
consequently the worst; they are, however, paved, and supplied with drains. Among
them I include those nearest to and parallel with Oldham Road and Great Ancoats
Street. Farther to the north-east lie many newly built-up streets; here the cottages look
neat and cleanly, doors and windows are new and freshly painted, the rooms within
newly whitewashed; the streets themselves are better aired, the vacant building lots
between them larger and more numerous. But this can be said of a minority of the
houses only, while cellar dwellings are to be found under almost every cottage; many
streets are unpaved and without sewers; and, worse than all, this neat appearance is all
pretence, a pretence which vanishes within the first ten years. For the construction of
the cottages individually is no less to be condemned than the plan of the streets. All such
cottages look neat and substantial at first; their massive brick walls deceive the eye, and,
on passing through a newly built working- men’s street, without remembering the back
alleys and the construction of the houses themselves, one is inclined to agree with the
assertion of the Liberal manufacturers that the working population is nowhere so well
housed as in England. But on closer examination, it becomes evident that the walls of
these cottages are as thin as it is possible to make them. The outer walls, those of the
cellar, which bear the weight of the ground-floor and roof, are one whole brick thick at
most, the bricks lying with their long sides touching ; but I have seen many a cottage of
the same height, some in process of building, whose outer walls were but one-half brick
thick, the bricks lying not sidewise but lengthwise, their narrow ends touching . The
object of this is to spare material, but there is also another reason for it; namely, the fact
that the contractors never own the land but lease it, according to the English custom, for
twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, or ninety-nine years, at the expiration of which time it falls,
with everything upon it, back into the possession of the original holder, who pays
nothing in return for improvements upon it. The improvements are therefore so
calculated by the lessee as to be worth as little as possible at the expiration of the
stipulated term. And as such cottages are often built but twenty or thirty years before
the expiration of the term, it may easily be imagined that the contractors make no
unnecessary expenditures upon them. Moreover, these contractors, usually carpenters
and builders, or manufacturers, spend little or nothing in repairs, partly to avoid
diminishing their rent receipts, and partly in view of the approaching surrender of the
improvement to the landowner; while in consequence of commercial crises and the loss
of work that follows them, whole streets often stand empty, the cottages falling rapidly
into ruin and uninhabitableness. It is calculated in general that working-men’s cottages
last only forty years on the average. This sounds strangely enough when one sees the
beautiful, massive walls of newly built ones, which seem to give promise of lasting a
couple of centuries; but the fact remains that the niggardliness of the original
expenditure, the neglect of all repairs, the frequent periods of emptiness, the constant
change of inhabitants, and the destruction carried on by the dwellers during the final ten
years, usually Irish families, who do not hesitate to use the wooden portions for
firewood – all this, taken together, accomplishes the complete ruin of the cottages by the
end of forty years. Hence it comes that Ancoats, built chiefly since the sudden growth of
manufacture, chiefly indeed within the present century, contains a vast number of
ruinous houses, most of them being, in fact, in the last stages of inhabitableness. I will
not dwell upon the amount of capital thus wasted, the small additional expenditure
upon the original improvement and upon repairs which would suffice to keep this whole
district clean, decent, and inhabitable for years together. I have to deal here with the
state of the houses and their inhabitants, and it must be admitted that no more injurious
and demoralising method of housing the workers has yet been discovered than precisely
this. The working-man is constrained to occupy such ruinous dwellings because he
cannot pay for others, and because there are no others in the vicinity of his mill;
perhaps, too, because they belong to the employer, who engages him only on condition
of his taking such a cottage. The calculation with reference to the forty years’ duration of
the cottage is, of course, not always perfectly strict; for, if the dwellings are in a thickly
built-up portion of the town, and there is a good prospect of finding steady occupants
for them, while the ground-rent is high, the contractors do a little something to keep the
cottages inhabitable after the expiration of the forty years. They never do anything more,
however, than is absolutely unavoidable, and the dwellings so repaired are the worst of
all. Occasionally when an epidemic threatens, the otherwise sleepy conscience of the
sanitary police is a little stirred, raids are made into the working-men’s districts, whole
rows of cellars and cottages are closed, as happened in the case of several lanes near
Oldham Road; but this does not last long: the condemned cottages soon find occupants
again, the owners are much better off by letting them, and the sanitary police won’t
come again so soon. These east and north-east sides of Manchester are the only ones on
which the bourgeoisie has not built, because ten or eleven months of the year the west
and south-west wind drives the smoke of all the factories hither, and that the workingpeople
alone may breathe.
Southward from Great Ancoats Street, lies a great, straggling, working-men’s
quarter, a hilly, barren stretch of land, occupied by detached, irregularly built rows of
houses or squares, between these, empty building lots, uneven, clayey, without grass
and scarcely passable in wet weather. The cottages are all filthy and old, and recall the
New Town to mind. The stretch cut through by the Birmingham railway is the most
thickly built-up and the worst. Here flows the Medlock with countless windings through
a valley, which is, in places, on a level with the valley of the Irk. Along both sides of the
stream, which is coal-black, stagnant and foul, stretches a broad belt of factories and
working-men’s dwellings, the latter all in the worst condition. The bank is chiefly
declivitous and is built over to the water’s edge, just as we saw along the Irk; while the
houses are equally bad, whether built on the Manchester side or in Ardwick, Chorlton,
or Hulme. But the most horrible spot (if I should describe all the separate spots in detail
I should never come to the end) lies on the Manchester side, immediately south-west of
Oxford Road, and is known as Little Ireland. In a rather deep hole, in a curve of the
Medlock and surrounded on all four sides by tall factories and high embankments,
covered with buildings, stand two groups of about two hundred cottages, built chiefly
back to back, in which live about four thousand human beings, most of them Irish. The
cottages are old, dirty, and of the smallest sort, the streets uneven, fallen into ruts and in
part without drains or pavement; masses of refuse, offal and sickening filth lie among
standing pools in all directions; the atmosphere is poisoned by the effluvia from these,
and laden and darkened by the smoke of a dozen tall factory chimneys. A horde of
ragged women and children swarm about here, as filthy as the swine that thrive upon
the garbage heaps and in the puddles. In short, the whole rookery furnishes such a
hateful and repulsive spectacle as can hardly be equalled in the worst court on the Irk.
The race that lives in these ruinous cottages, behind broken windows, mended with
oilskin, sprung doors, and rotten doorposts, or in dark, wet cellars, in measureless filth
and stench, in this atmosphere penned in as if with a purpose, this race must really have
reached the lowest stage of humanity. This is the impression and the line of thought
which the exterior of this district forces upon the beholder. But what must one think
when he hears that in each of these pens, containing at most two rooms, a garret and
perhaps a cellar, on the average twenty human beings live; that in the whole region, for
each one hundred and twenty persons, one usually inaccessible privy is provided; and
that in spite of all the preachings of the physicians, in spite of the excitement into which
the cholera epidemic plunged the sanitary police by reason of the condition of Little
Ireland, in spite of everything, in this year of grace 1844, it is in almost the same state as
in 1831! Dr. Kay asserts that not only the cellars but the first floors of all the houses in
this district are damp; that a number of cellars once filled up with earth have now been
emptied and are occupied once more by Irish people; that in one cellar the water
constantly wells up through a hole stopped with clay, the cellar lying below the river
level, so that its occupant, a hand-loom weaver, had to bale out the water from his
dwelling every morning and pour it into the street!
Farther down, on the left side of the Medlock, lies Hulme, which properly
speaking, is one great working-people’s district, the condition of which coincides almost
exactly with that of Ancoats; the more thickly built-up regions chiefly bad and
approaching ruin, the less populous of more modern structure, but generally sunk in
filth. On the other side of the Medlock, in Manchester proper, lies a second great
working-men’s district which stretches on both sides of Deansgate as far as the business
quarter, and in certain parts rivals the Old Town. Especially in the immediate vicinity of
the business quarter, between Bridge and Quay Streets, Princess and Peter Streets, the
crowded construction exceeds in places the narrowest courts of the Old Town. Here are
long narrow lanes between which run contracted, crooked courts and passages, the
entrances to which are so irregular that the explorer is caught in a blind alley at every
few steps, or comes out where he least expects to, unless he knows every court and every
alley exactly and separately. According to Dr. Kay, the most demoralised class of all
Manchester lived in these ruinous and filthy districts, people whose occupations are
thieving and prostitution and, to all appearances, his assertion is still true at the present
moment. When the sanitary police made its expedition hither in 1831, it found the
uncleanness as great as in Little Ireland or along the Irk (that it is not much better
today, I can testify); and among other items, they found in Parliament Street for three
hundred and eighty persons, and in Parliament Passage for thirty thickly populated
houses, but a single privy.
If we cross the Irwell to Salford, we find on a peninsula formed by the river a
town of eighty thousand inhabitants, which, properly speaking, is one large workingmen’s
quarter, penetrated by a single wide avenue. Salford, once more important than
Manchester, was then the leading town of the surrounding district to which it still gives
its name, Salford Hundred. Hence it is that an old and therefore very unwholesome,
dirty, and ruinous locality is to be found here, lying opposite the Old Church of
Manchester, and in as bad a condition as the Old Town on the other side of the Irwell.
Farther away from the river lies the newer portion, which is, however, already beyond
the limit of its forty years of cottage life, and therefore ruinous enough. All Salford is
built in courts or narrow lanes, so narrow, that they remind me of the narrowest I have
ever seen, the little lanes of Genoa. The average construction of Salford is in this respect
much worse than that of Manchester, and so, too, in respect to cleanliness. If, in
Manchester, the police, from time to time, every six or ten years, makes a raid upon the
working-people’s districts, closes the worst dwellings, and causes the filthiest spots in
these Augean stables to be cleansed, in Salford it seems to have done absolutely nothing.
The narrow side lanes and courts of Chapel Street, Greengate, and Gravel Lane have
certainly never been cleansed since they were built. Of late, the Liverpool railway has
been carried through the middle of them, over a high viaduct, and has abolished many
of the filthiest nooks; but what does that avail? Whoever passes over this viaduct and
looks down, sees filth and wretchedness enough; and, if any one takes the trouble to
pass through these lanes and glance through the open doors and windows into the
houses and cellars, he can convince himself afresh with every step that the workers of
Salford live in dwellings in which cleanliness and comfort are impossible. Exactly the
same state of affairs is found in the more distant regions of Salford, in Islington, along
Regent Road, and back of the Bolton railway. The working-men’s dwellings between
Oldfield Road and Cross Lane, where a mass of courts and alleys are to be found in the
worst possible state, vie with the dwellings of the Old Town in filth and overcrowding. In
this district I found a man, apparently about sixty years old, living in a cow-stable. He
had constructed a sort of chimney for his square pen, which had neither windows, floor,
nor ceiling, had obtained a bedstead and lived there, though the rain dripped through
his rotten roof. This man was too old and weak for regular work, and supported himself
by removing manure with a hand-cart; the dung-heaps lay next door to his palace!
Such are the various working-people’s quarters of Manchester as I had occasion
to observe them personally during twenty months. If we briefly formulate the result of
our wanderings, we must admit that 350,000 working-people of Manchester and its
environs live, almost all of them, in wretched, damp, filthy cottages, that the streets
which surround them are usually in the most miserable and filthy condition, laid out
without the slightest reference to ventilation, with reference solely to the profit secured
by the contractor. In a word, we must confess that in the working-men’s dwellings of
Manchester, no cleanliness, no convenience, and consequently no comfortable family
life is possible; that in such dwellings only a physically degenerate race, robbed of all
humanity, degraded, reduced morally and physically to bestiality, could feel comfortable
and at home. And I am not alone in making this assertion. We have seen that Dr. Kay
gives precisely the same description; and, though it is superfluous, I quote further the
words of a Liberal, recognised and highly valued as an authority by the manufacturers,
and a fanatical opponent of all independent movements of the workers: [12]
“But when I went through their [i.e., the Manchester operatives’] habitations in
Irish Town, and Ancoats, and Little Ireland, my only wonder was that tolerable health
could be maintained by the inmates of such houses. These towns, for such they are in
extent and population, have been erected by small speculators with an utter disregard to
everything except immediate profit. A carpenter and a bricklayer club to buy a patch of
ground [i.e., they lease it for a number of years], and cover it with what they call houses.
In one place we saw a whole street following the course of a ditch, in order to have
deeper cellars (cellars for people, not for lumber) without the expense of excavations.
Not a house in this street escaped cholera. And generally speaking, throughout these
suburbs the streets are unpaved, with a dung-hill or a pond in the middle; the houses
built back to back, without ventilation or drainage; and whole families occupy a corner
of a cellar or of a garret.”
I have already referred to the unusual activity which the sanitary police
manifested during the cholera visitation. When the epidemic was approaching, a
universal terror seized the bourgeoisie of the city. People remembered the unwholesome
dwellings of the poor, and trembled before the certainty that each of these slums would
become a centre for the plague, whence it would spread desolation in all directions
through the houses of the propertied class. A Health Commission was appointed at once
to investigate these districts, and report upon their condition to the Town Council. Dr.
Kay, himself a member of this Commission, who visited in person every separate police
district except one, the eleventh, quotes extracts from their reports: There were
inspected, in all, 6,951 houses – naturally in Manchester proper alone, Salford and the
other suburbs being excluded. Of these, 2,565 urgently needed whitewashing within;
960 were out of repair, 959 had insufficient drains; 1,455 were damp; 452 were badly
ventilated; 2,221 were without privies. Of the 687 streets inspected, 248 were unpaved,
53 but partially paved, 112 ill- ventilated, 352 containing standing pools, heaps of debris,
refuse, etc. To cleanse such an Augean stable before the arrival of the cholera was, of
course, out of the question. A few of the worst nooks were therefore cleansed, and
everything else left as before..In the cleansed spots, as Little Ireland proves, the old
filthy condition was naturally restored in a couple of months. As to the internal
condition of these houses, the same Commission reports a state of things similar to that
which we have already met with in London, Edinburgh, and other cities.
“A whole Irish family is often accommodated on a single bed, and sometimes a
heap of filthy straw and a covering of old sacking hide them in one undistinguished
heap, debased alike by penury, want of economy and dissolute habits. Frequently the
inspectors found two families crowded into one small house, containing only two
apartments, one in which they slept, and another in which they eat; and often more than
one family lived in a damp cellar, containing only one room, in whose pestilential
atmosphere from twelve to sixteen persons were crowded. To these fertile sources of
disease were sometimes added the keeping of the pigs and other animals in the house,
with other nuisances of the most revolting character.”
We must add that many families, who had but one room for themselves, receive
boarders and lodgers in it, that such lodgers of both sexes by no means rarely sleep in
the same bed with the married couple; and that the single case of a man and his wife and
his adult sister-in-law sleeping in one bed was found, according to the “Report on the
Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population”, six times repeated in Manchester.
Common lodging-houses, too, are very numerous; Dr. Kay gives their number in 1831 as
267 in Manchester proper, and they must have increased greatly since then. Each of
these receives from twenty to thirty guests, so that they shelter all told, nightly, from five
to seven thousand human beings. The character of the houses and their guests is the
same as in other cities. Five to seven beds in each room lie on the floor – without
bedsteads, and on these sleep, mixed indiscriminately, as many persons as apply. What
physical and moral atmosphere reigns in these holes I need not state. Each of these
houses is a focus of crime, the scene of deeds against which human nature revolts, which
would perhaps never have been executed but for this forced centralisation of vice.
Gaskell [13] gives the number of persons living in cellars in Manchester proper as 20,000.
The Weekly Dispatch gives the number, “according to official reports”, as twelve per
cent of the working-class, which agrees with Gaskell’s number; the workers being
estimated at 175,000, 21,000 would form twelve per cent of it. The cellar dwellings in
the suburbs are at least as numerous. so that the number of persons living in cellars in
Manchester – using its name in the broader sense – is not less than forty to fifty
thousand. So much for the dwellings of the workers in the largest cities and towns. The
manner in which the need of a shelter is satisfied furnishes a standard for the manner in
which all other necessities are supplied. That in these filthy holes a ragged, ill-fed
population alone can dwell is a safe conclusion, and such is the fact. The clothing of the
working-people, in the majority of cases, is in a very bad condition. The material used
for it is not of the best adapted. Wool and linen have almost vanished from the wardrobe
of both sexes, and cotton has taken their place. Shirts are made of bleached or coloured
cotton goods; the dresses of the women are chiefly of cotton print goods, and woollen
petticoats are rarely to be seen on the washline. The men wear chiefly trousers of fustian
or other heavy cotton goods, and jackets or coats of the same. Fustian has become the
proverbial costume of the working-men, who are called “fustian jackets”, and call
themselves so in contrast to the gentlemen who wear broadcloth, which latter words are
used as characteristic for the middle-class. When Feargus O’Connor, the Chartist leader,
came to Manchester during the insurrection of 1842, he appeared, amidst the deafening
applause of the working-men, in a fustian suit of clothing. Hats are the universal headcovering
in England, even for working-men, hats of the most diverse forms, round, high,
broad-brimmed, narrow- brimmed, or without brims – only the younger men in factory
towns wearing caps. Any one who does not own a hat folds himself a low, square paper
cap.
The whole clothing of the working-class, even assuming it to be in good
condition, is little adapted to the climate. The damp air of England, with its sudden
changes of temperature, more calculated than any other to give rise to colds, obliges
almost the whole middle-class to wear flannel next to the skin, about the body, and
flannel scarfs and shirts are in almost universal use. Not only is the working-class
deprived of this precaution, it is scarcely ever in a position to use a thread of woollen
clothing; and the heavy cotton goods, though thicker, stiffer, and heavier than woollen
clothes, afford much less protection against cold and wet, remain damp much longer
because of their thickness and the nature of the stuff, and have nothing of the compact
density of fulled woollen cloths. And, if a working-man once buys himself a woollen coat
for Sunday, he must get it from one of the “cheap shops” where he finds bad, so-called
“Devil’s-dust” cloth, manufactured for sale and not for use, and liable to tear or grow
threadbare in a fortnight, or he must buy of an old clothes’-dealer a half-worn coat
which has seen its best days, and lasts but a few weeks. Moreover, the working-man’s
clothing is, in most cases, in bad condition, and there is the oft-recurring necessity for
placing the best pieces in the pawnbroker’s shop. But among very large numbers,
especially among the Irish, the prevailing clothing consists of perfect rags often beyond
all mending, or so patched that the original colour can no longer be detected. Yet the
English and Anglo-Irish go on patching, and have carried this art to a remarkable pitch,
putting wool or bagging on fustian, or the reverse – it’s all the same to them. But the
true, transplanted Irish hardly ever patch except in the extremest necessity, when the
garment would otherwise fall apart. Ordinarily the rags of the shirt protrude through the
rents in the coat or trousers. They wear, as Thomas Carlyle says, [14]
“a suit of tatters, the getting on or off which is said to be a difficult operation,
transacted only in festivals and the high tides of the calendar.”
The Irish have introduced, too, the custom, previously unknown in England, of
going barefoot. In every manufacturing town there is now to be seen a multitude of
people, especially women and children, going about barefoot, and their example is
gradually being adopted by the poorer English.
As with clothing, so with food. The workers get what is too bad for the propertyholding
class. In the great towns of England everything may be had of the best, but it
costs money; and the workman, who must keep house on a couple of pence, cannot
afford much expense. Moreover, he usually receives his wages on Saturday evening, for,
although a beginning has been made in the payment of wages on Friday, this excellent
arrangement is by no means universal; and so he comes to market at five or even seven
o’clock, while the buyers of the middle-class have had the first choice during the
morning, when the market teems with the best of everything. But when the workers
reach it, the best has vanished, and, if it was still there, they would probably not be able
to buy it. The potatoes which the workers buy are usually poor, the vegetables wilted, the
cheese old and of poor quality, the bacon rancid, the meat lean, tough, taken from old,
often diseased, cattle, or such as have died a natural death, and not fresh even then,
often half decayed. The sellers are usually small hucksters who buy up inferior goods,
and can sell them cheaply by reason of their badness. The poorest workers are forced to
use still another device to get together the things they need with their few pence. As
nothing can be sold on Sunday, and all shops must be closed at twelve o’clock on
Saturday night, such things as would not keep until Monday are sold at any price
between ten o’clock and midnight. But nine-tenths of what is sold at ten o’clock is past
using by Sunday morning, yet these are precisely the provisions which make up the
Sunday dinner of the poorest class. The meat which the workers buy is very often past
using; but having bought it, they must eat it. On the 6th of January, 1844 (if I am not
greatly mistaken), a court leet was held in Manchester, when eleven meat-sellers were
fined for having sold tainted meat. Each of them had a whole ox or pig, or several sheep,
or from fifty to sixty pounds of meat, which were all confiscated in a tainted condition.
In one case, fifty-four stuffed Christmas geese were seized which had proved unsaleable
in Liverpool, and had been forwarded to Manchester, where they were brought to
market foul and rotten. All the particulars, with names and fines, were published at the
time in the Manchester Guardian. In the six weeks, from July 1st to August 14th [1844],
the same sheet reported three similar cases. According to theGuardian for July 3rd, a
pig, weighing 200 pounds, which had been found dead and decayed, was cut up and
exposed for sale by a butcher at Heywood, and was then seized. According to the
number for July 31st, two butchers at Wigan, of whom one had previously been
convicted of the same offence, were fined £2 and £4 respectively, for exposing tainted
meat for sale; and, according to the number for August 10th, twenty-six tainted hams
seized at a dealer’s in Bolton, were publicly burnt, and the dealer fined twenty shillings.
But these are by no means all the cases; they do not even form a fair average for a period
of six weeks, according to which to form an average for the year. There are often seasons
in which every number of the semi-weekly Guardian mentions a similar case found in
Manchester or its vicinity. And when one reflects upon the many cases which must
escape detection in the extensive markets that stretch along the front of every main
street, under the slender supervision of the market inspectors – and how else can one
explain the boldness with which whole animals are exposed for sale? – when one
considers how great the temptation must be, in view of the incomprehensibly small fines
mentioned in the foregoing cases; when one reflects what condition a piece of meat must
have reached to be seized by the inspectors, it is impossible to believe that the workers
obtain good and nourishing meat as a usual thing. But they are victimised in yet another
way by the money-greed of the middle-class. Dealers and manufacturers adulterate all
kinds of provisions in an atrocious manner, and without the slightest regard to the
health of the consumers. We have heard theManchester Guardian upon this subject, let
us hear another organ of the middle-class – I delight in the testimony of my opponents
– let us hear theLiverpool Mercury:
“Salt butter is moulded into the form of pounds of fresh butter, and cased over
with fresh. In other instances a pound of fresh is conspicuously placed to be tasted; but
that pound is not sold; and in other instances salt butter, washed, is moulded and sold
as fresh…. Pounded rice and other cheap materials are mixed in sugar, and sold at full
monopoly price. A chemical substance – the refuse of the soap manufactories – is also
mixed with other substances and sold as sugar…. Chicory is mixed in good coffee.
Chicory, or some similarly cheap substance, is skilfully moulded into the form of the
coffee berry, and is mixed with the bulk very liberally…. Cocoa is extensively adulterated
with fine brown earth, wrought up with mutton fat, so as to amalgamate with portions of
the real article…. The leaves of tea are mingled with sloe levies and other abominations.
Used leaves are also re-dried, and re-coloured on hot copper plates, and sold as tea.
Pepper is adulterated with dust from husks etc.; port wine is altogether manufactured
(from spirits, dyes, etc.), it being notorious that more port wine is drunk in this country
than is made in Portugal. Nasty things of all sorts are mixed with the weed tobacco in all
its manufactured forms”.
I can add that several of the most respected tobacco dealers in Manchester
announced publicly last summer, that, by reason of the universal adulteration of
tobacco, no firm could carry on business without adulteration, and that no cigar costing
less than three pence is made wholly from tobacco. These frauds are naturally not
restricted to articles of food, though I could mention a dozen more, the villainy of
mixing gypsum or chalk with flour among them. Fraud is practised in the sale of articles
of every sort: flannel, stockings, etc., are stretched, and shrink after the first washing;
narrow cloth is sold as being from one and a half to three inches broader than it actually
is; stoneware is so thinly glazed that the glazing is good for nothing and cracks at once,
and a hundred other rascalities, tout comme chez nous. But the lion’s share of the evil
results of these frauds falls to the workers. The rich are less deceived, because they can
pay the high prices of the large shops which have a reputation to lose, and would injure
themselves more than their customers if they kept poor or adulterated wares; the rich
are spoiled, too, by habitual good eating, and detect adulteration more easily with their
sensitive palates. But the poor, the working-people, to whom a couple of farthings are
important, who must buy many things with little money, who cannot afford to inquire
too closely into the quality of their purchases, and cannot do so in any case because they
have had no opportunity of cultivating their taste – to their share fall all the adulterated,
poisoned provisions. They must deal with the small retailers, must buy perhaps on
credit, and.these small retail dealers who cannot sell even the same quality of goods so
cheaply as the largest retailers, because of their small capital and the large proportional
expenses of their business, must knowingly or unknowingly buy adulterated goods in
order to sell at the lower prices required, and to meet the competition of the others.
Further, a large retail dealer who has extensive capital invested in his business is ruined
with his ruined credit if detected in a fraudulent practice; but what harm does it do a
small grocer, who has customers in a single street only, if frauds are proved against him?
If no one trusts him in Ancoats, he moves to Chorlton or Hulme, where no one knows
him, and where he continues to defraud as before; while legal penalties attach to very
few adulterations unless they involve revenue frauds. Not in the quality alone, but in the
quantity of his goods as well, is the English working-man defrauded. The small dealers
usually have false weights and measures, and an incredible number of convictions for
such offences may be read in the police reports. How universal this form of fraud is in
the manufacturing districts, a couple of extracts from the Manchester Guardian may
serve to show. They cover only a short period, and, even here, I have not all the numbers
at hand:
Guardian, June 15, 1844, Rochdale Sessions.– Four dealers fined five to ten
shillings for using light weights. Stockport Sessions.– Two dealers fined one shilling,
one of them having seven light weights and a false scale, and both having been warned.
Guardian, June 19, Rochdale Sessions.– One dealer fined five, and two farmers ten
shillings.
Guardian, June 22, Manchester Justices of the Peace.– Nineteen dealers fined two
shillings and sixpence to two pounds.
Guardian, June 26, Ashton Sessions.– Fourteen dealers and farmers fined two shillings
and sixpence to one pound. Hyde Petty Sessions.– Nine farmers and dealers condemned
to pay costs and five shillings fines.
Guardian, July 6, Manchester.– Sixteen dealers condemned to pay costs and fines not
exceeding ten shillings.
Guardian, July 13, Manchester.– Nine dealers fined from two shillings and sixpence to
twenty shillings.
Guardian, July 24, Rochdale.– Four dealers fined ten to twenty shillings.
Guardian, July 27, Bolton.– Twelve dealers and innkeepers condemned to pay costs.
Guardian, August 3, Bolton.– Three dealers fined two shillings and sixpence, and five
shillings.
Guardian, August 10, Bolton.– One dealer fined five shillings.
And the same causes which make the working-class the chief sufferers from
frauds in the quality of goods make them the usual victims of frauds in the question of
quantity too.
The habitual food of the individual working-man naturally varies according to his
wages. The better-paid workers, especially those in whose families every member is able
to earn something, have good food as long as this state of things lasts; meat daily and
bacon and cheese for supper. Where wages are less, meat is used only two or three times
a week, and the proportion of bread and potatoes increases. Descending gradually, we
find the animal food reduced to a small piece of bacon cut up with the potatoes; lower
still, even this disappears, and there remain only bread, cheese, porridge, and potatoes,
until on the lowest round of the ladder, among the Irish, potatoes form the sole food, As
an accompaniment, weak tea, with perhaps a little sugar, milk, or spirits, is universally
drunk. Tea is regarded in England, and even in Ireland, as quite as indispensable as
coffee in Germany, and where no tea is used, the bitterest poverty reigns. But all this
presupposes that the workman has work. When he has none, he is wholly at the mercy
of accident, and eats what is given him, what he can beg or steal. And, if he gets nothing,
he simply starves, as we have seen. The quantity of food varies, of course, like its quality,
according to the rate of wages, so that among ill-paid workers, even if they have no large
families, hunger prevails in spite of full and regular work; and the number of the ill-paid
is very large. Especially in London, where the competition of the workers rises with the
increase of population, this class is very numerous, but it is to be found in other towns
as well. In these cases all sorts of devices are used; potato parings, vegetable refuse, and
rotten vegetables[15] are eaten for want of other food, and everything greedily gathered
up which may possibly contain an atom of nourishment. And, if the week’s wages are
used up before the end of the week, it often enough happens that in the closing days the
family gets only as much food, if any, as is barely sufficient to keep off starvation. Of
course such a way of living unavoidably engenders a multitude of diseases, and when
these appear, when the father from whose work the family is chiefly supported, whose
physical exertion most demands nourishment, and who therefore first succumbs – when
the father is utterly disabled, then misery reaches its height, and then the brutality with
which society abandons its members, just when their need is greatest, comes out fully
into the light of day.
To sum up briefly the facts thus far cited. The great towns are chiefly inhabited by
working-people, since in the best case there is one bourgeois for two workers, often for
three, here and there for four; these workers have no property whatsoever of their own,
and live wholly upon wages, which usually go from hand to mouth. Society, composed
wholly of atoms, does not trouble itself about them; leaves them to care for themselves
and their families, yet supplies them no means of doing this in an efficient and
permanent manner. Every working-man, even the best, is therefore constantly exposed
to loss of work and food, that is to death by starvation, and many perish in this way. The
dwellings of the workers are everywhere badly planned, badly built, and kept in the
worst condition, badly ventilated, damp, and unwholesome. The inhabitants are
confined to the smallest possible space, and at least one family usually sleeps in each
room. The interior arrangement of the dwellings is poverty-stricken in various degrees,
down to the utter absence of even the most necessary furniture. The clothing of the
workers, too, is generally scanty, and that of great multitudes is in rags. The food is, in
general, bad; often almost unfit for use, and in many cases, at least at times, insufficient
in quantity, so that, in extreme cases, death by starvation results. Thus the workingclass
of the great cities offers a graduated scale of conditions in life, in the best cases a
temporarily endurable existence for hard work and good wages, good and endurable,
that is, from the worker’s standpoint; in the worst cases, bitter want, reaching even
homelessness and death by starvation. The average is much nearer the worst case than
the best. And this series does not fall into fixed classes, so that one can say, this fraction
of the working-class is well off, has always been so, and remains so. If that is the case
here and there, if single branches of work have in general an advantage over others, yet
the condition of the workers in each branch is subject to such great fluctuations that a
single working-man may be so placed as to pass through the whole range from
comparative comfort to the extremest need, even to death by starvation, while almost
every English working-man can tell a tale of marked changes of fortune. Let us examine
the causes of this somewhat more closely.
NOTES
3. This applies to the time of sailing vessels. The Thames now is a dreary
collection of ugly steamers.– F. E.– Note by Engels to the American edition of 1887
(1892) This was written nearly fifty years ago, in the days of the picturesque sailing
vessels. In so far as such ships still ply to and from London they are now to be found
only in the docks, while the river itself is covered with ugly, sooty steamers.– Note by
Engels to the German edition of 1892. Return to Text
4. The description given below had already been written when I came across an
article in the Illuminated Magazine (October 1844) dealing with the working-class
districts in London which coincides – in many places almost literally and everywhere in
general tenor – with what I had said. The article was entitled “The Dwellings of the
Poor, from the notebook of an M.D.” – Note by Engels. Return to Text
5. Times, Oct. 12th, 1843.– Note by Engels. Return to Text
6. Quoted by Dr. W. P. Alison. F.R.S.E., Fellow and late President of the Royal
College of Physicians, etc., etc. Observations on the Management of the Poor in
Scotland and its Effects on the Health of Great Towns, Edinburgh. 1840. The author is
a religious Tory, brother of the historian, Archibald Alison.– Note by Engels. Return to
Text
7. Report to the Home Secretary from the Poor-Law Commissioner, on an
Inquiry into the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Classes in Great Britain, with
Appendix. Presented to both Houses of Parliament in July, 1842, 3 vols, Folio.
Assembled and arranged from medical reports by Edwin Chadwick, Secretary of the
Poor-Law Commissioners. – Note by Engels Return to Text
8. Arts and Artisans at Home and Abroad, by J. C. Symons, Edinburgh, 1839.
The author, as it seems, himself a Scotchman, is a Liberal, and consequently fanatically
opposed to every independent movement of working-men. The passages here cited are
to be found p. 116 et seq.–Note by Engels.Return to Text
9. It must be borne in mind that these cellars are not mere storing-rooms for
rubbish, but dwellings of human beings.– Note by Engels. Return to Text
10.The Moral and Physical Condition of the Working Classes employed in the
Cotton Manufacture in Manchester. By James Ph. Kay, M.D. 2nd Ed. 1852.
Dr. Kay confuses the working-class in general with the factory workers, otherwise an
excellent pamphlet.– Note by Engels. Return to Text
11. And yet an English Liberal wiseacre asserts, in the Report of the Children’s
Employment Commission, that these courts are the masterpiece of municipal
architecture, because, like a multitude of little parks, they improve ventilation, the
circulation of air! Certainly, if each court had two or four broad open entrances facing
each other, through which the air could pour; but they never have two, rarely one, and
usually only a narrow covered passage.–Note by Engels. Return to Text
12. Nassau W. Senior, Letters on the Factory Act to the Rt. Hon., the President of
the Board of Trade (Chas. Poulett Thomson, Esq.), London, 1837, p. 24.– Note by
Engels. Return to Text
13. P. Gaskell, The Manufacturing Population of England: its Moral, Social and
Physical Condition, and the Changes which have arisen from the Use of Steam
Machinery; with an Examination of Infant Labour. Fiat Justitia, 1855.– Depicting
chiefly the state of the working-class in Lancashire. The author is a Liberal, but wrote at
a time when it was not a feature of Liberalism to chant the happiness of the workers. He
is therefore unprejudiced, and can afford to have eyes for the evils of the present state of
things, and especially for the factory system. On the other hand, he wrote before the
Factories Enquiry Commission, and adopts from untrustworthy sources many
assertions afterwards refuted by the report of the Commission. This work, although on
the whole a valuable one, can therefore only be used with discretion, especially as the
author, like Kay, confuses the whole working-class with the mill-hands. The history of
the development of the proletariat contained in the introduction to the present work, is
chiefly taken from this work of Gaskell’s.– Note by Engels. Return to Text
14. Thomas Carlyle, Chartism, London, 1840, p.28. Concerning Thomas Carlyle
see below.– Note by Engels. Return to Text
15. Weekly Dispatch, April or May, 1844, according to a report by Dr,. Southwood
Smith on the condition of the poor in London. – Note by Engels.Return to Text
ON
THE
RUN
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FIELDWORK ENCOUNTERS AND DISCOVERIES
A series edited by Robert Emerson and Jack Katz
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ON
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RUN
Fugitive Life in
an American City
ALICE
GOFFMAN
The University of Chicago Press
Chicago and London
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ALICE GOFFMAN is assistant professor of sociology at the
University of Wisconsin–Madison.
The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 60637
The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., London
© 2014 by The University of Chicago
All rights reserved. Published 2014.
Printed in the United States of America
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DOI: 10.7208/ chicago/ 9780226136851.001.0001
Library of Congress Cataloging- in- Publication Data
Gof man, Alice, author.
On the run : fugitive life in an American city / Alice Gof man.
pages cm — (Fieldwork encounters and discoveries)
Includes bibliographical references.
ISBN 978- 0- 226- 13671- 4 (hardcover : alk. paper) —
ISBN 978- 0- 226- 13685- 1 (e- book) 1. Criminal justice,
Administration of—Pennsylvania—Philadelphia. 2. African
American youth—Legal status, laws, etc.—Pennsylvania—
Philadelphia. 3. African American youth—Pennsylvania—
Philadelphia—Social conditions. 4. Discrimination in criminal
justice administration—Pennsylvania—Philadelphia. 5. Racial
prof ling in law enforcement—Pennsylvania—Philadelphia.
6. Imprisonment—Social aspects—United States. I. Title.
II. Series: Fieldwork encounters and discoveries.
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Prologue vii
Preface xi
Introduction 1
1 The 6th Street Boys and Their Legal Entanglements 9
2 The Art of Running 23
3 When the Police Knock Your Door In 55
4 Turning Legal Troubles into Personal Resources 91
5 The Social Life of Criminalized Young People 107
6 The Market in Protections and Privileges 141
7 Clean People 163
Conclusion: A Fugitive Community 195
Epilogue: Leaving 6th Street 205
Acknowledgments 207
Appendix: A Methodological Note 211
Notes 263
CONTENTS
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vii
Mike, Chuck, and their friend Alex were shooting dice on the wall of
the elementary school. It was approaching midnight and quite cool for
mid- September in Philadelphia. Between throws, Chuck cupped his
hands together and blew heat into his f ngers.
Mike usually won when the guys played craps, and tonight he was
rubbing their noses in it, shrugging into a little victory dance when
he scooped the dollar bills of the ground. After a pair of nines, Alex
started in on Mike.
“You a self sh, skinny motherfucker, man.”
“Niggas is always gonna hate,” Mike grinned.
“You think you better than everybody, man. You ain’t shit!”
Chuck laughed softly at his two best friends. Then he yawned and
told Alex to shut his fat ass up before the neighbors called the law. A
short time later, Chuck called it a night. Mike announced he was going
to get cheesesteaks with his winnings and asked if I wanted to come
with.
“Can I get a cheesesteak?” Alex interjected.
“Man, take your fat ass in the house,” Chuck laughed.
“Oh, so I’m walking?!”
* * *
Mike and I were halfway to the store in his car when his cell phone
started ringing. When he picked up I could hear screams on the other
end. Mike shouted, “Where you at? Where you at?”
He screeched the old Lincoln around and headed back to 6th Street,
PROLOGUE
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Prologue
viii
pulling up in front of the corner store. There in the headlights we saw
Alex, all 250 pounds of him, squatting by the curb, apparently looking
for something. When he glanced up at us, blood streamed from his face,
down his white T- shirt, and onto his pants and boots. Alex mumbled
something I couldn’t decipher, and then I realized he was looking for
his teeth. I started searching on the ground with him.
“Alex,” I said, “we have to take you to the hospital.”
Alex shook his head and put up his hand, struggling to form words
with his mangled lips. I kept pleading until f nally Mike said, “He’s not
fucking going, so stop pushing.”
At this point I remembered that Alex was still on parole. In fact, he
was quite close to completing his two years of supervision. He feared
that the cops who crowd the local emergency room and run through
their database the names of Black young men walking in the door
would arrest him on the spot, or at least issue him a violation for breaking
the terms of his parole. If that happened, he’d be back in prison,
his two years of compliance on the outside wiped away. A number
of his friends had been taken into custody at the hospital when they
sought care for serious injuries or attempted to attend the birth of their
children.
Mike took of his shirt and gave it to Alex to soak up the blood from
his face. Chuck had come back around by this point, and carefully
helped him into the front seat of Mike’s car. We drove to my apartment
a few blocks away. We cleaned Alex up a bit, and then he began to explain
what had happened. On his way home from the dice game, a man
in a black hoodie stepped out from behind the corner store and walked
him into the alley with a gun at his back. This man pistol- whipped him
several times, took his money, and smashed his face into a concrete
wall. Later, Alex found out that this man had mistaken him for his
younger brother, who’d apparently robbed the man the week before.
Over the next three hours, Mike and Chuck made a series of futile
calls to locate someone with basic medical knowledge. Mike’s babymom,
Marie, was in school to become a nurse’s aide, but she hadn’t
been speaking to him lately—not since she’d caught him cheating and
put a brick through his car window. Finally, at around six in the morning,
Alex contacted his cousin, who came over with a plastic bag full
of gauze and needles and iodine, and stitched up his chin and the skin
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Prologue
ix
around his eyebrow. His jaw was surely broken, she said, as well as his
nose, but there was nothing she could do about it.
The next afternoon, Alex returned to the apartment he shared with
his girlfriend and young son. Mike and I went to visit him that evening.
I again pleaded with Alex to seek medical treatment, and he again
refused.
All the bullshit I done been through [to f nish his parole sentence], it’s like,
I’m not just going to check into emergency and there come the cops asking
me all types of questions and writing my information down, and before
you know it I’m back in there [in prison]. Even if they not there for me,
some of them probably going to recognize me, then they going to come
over, run my shit [check for his name in the police database under open
arrest warrants]. I ain’t supposed to be up there [his parole terms forbade
him to be near 6th Street, where he was injured]; I can’t be out at no
two o’clock [his curfew was 10:00 p.m.]. Plus, they might still got that little
jawn [warrant] on me in Bucks County [for court fees he did not pay at the
end of a trial two years earlier]. I don’t want them running my name, and
then I got to go to court or I get locked back up.
At this point his girlfriend emerged from the bedroom, ran her
hands over her jeans, and said, “He needs to go to the hospital. Better
he spends six months in jail than he can’t talk or chew food. That’s the
rest of his life.”
* * *
Alex’s attack occurred over ten years ago. He still f nds it dif cult to
breathe through his nose and speaks with a muf ed lisp. His eyes don’t
appear at quite the same level in his face. But he didn’t go back to
prison. Alex successfully completed his parole sentence, a feat of luck
and determination that only one other guy in his group of friends ever
achieved.
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xi
The number of people imprisoned in the United States remained fairly
stable for most of the twentieth century, at about one person for every
thousand in the population.1
In the 1970s this rate began to rise,
and continued a steep upward climb for the next thirty years.2
By the
2000s, the number of people behind bars stood at a rate never before
seen in US history: about 1 for every 107 people in the adult population.3
The United States currently imprisons f ve to nine times more people
than western European nations, and signif cantly more than China and
Russia.4
Roughly 3 percent of adults in the nation are now under correctional
supervision: 2.2 million people in prisons and jails, and an
additional 4.8 million on probation or parole.5
In modern history, only
the forced labor camps of the former USSR under Stalin approached
these levels of penal conf nement.6
The f vefold increase in the number of people sitting in US jails
and prisons over the last forty years has prompted little public outcry.
In fact, many people scarcely notice this shift, because the growing
numbers of prisoners are drawn disproportionately from poor and
segregated Black communities. Black people make up 13 percent of the
US population, but account for 37 percent of the prison population.7
Among Black young men, one in nine are in prison, compared with
less than 2 percent of white young men.8
These racial dif erences are
reinforced by class dif erences. It is poor Black young men who are
being sent to prison at truly astounding rates: approximately 60 percent
of those who did not f nish high school will go to prison by their
midthirties.9
PREFACE
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Preface
xii
This book is an on- the- ground account of the US prison boom: a
close- up look at young men and women living in one poor and segregated
Black community transformed by unprecedented levels of imprisonment
and by the more hidden systems of policing and supervision
that have accompanied them. Because the fear of capture and
conf nement has seeped into the basic activities of daily living—work,
family, romance, friendship, and even much- needed medical care—it
is an account of a community on the run.
* * *
I stumbled onto this project as a student at the University of Pennsylvania.
During my sophomore year I began tutoring Aisha, a high school
student who lived with her mother and siblings in a lower- income
Black neighborhood not far from the campus. In the evenings we would
sit at the plastic and metal kitchen table in her family’s bare- walled,
two- bedroom apartment, the old TV blaring, and work on her English
or math homework. Afterward her mom and aunts would gather on
the stoop of their building and talk about their kids or watch people
go by. Gradually, I got to know Aisha’s relatives, friends, and neighbors.
When my lease was up, Aisha and her mother suggested that I take an
apartment nearby.
Aisha’s fourteen- year- old cousin Ronny came home from a juvenile
detention center that winter. He lived with his grandmother about ten
minutes away by car. We started taking the bus to visit him there.
Soon Ronny introduced me to his cousin Mike, a thin young man
with a scruf y beard and an intense gaze. At twenty- two, Mike was a
year older than I was. He quickly explained that he was in a temporary
f nancial rut, living at his uncle’s house and with no car to drive. Last
year he had his own car and his own apartment, and he planned to get
back on his feet very soon. Mike seemed to command some respect
from other young men in the neighborhood. When a neighbor asked
what a white woman was doing hanging out on the back porch with
him, he replied that I was Aisha’s tutor who lived nearby. Other times,
he explained that I was Aisha’s godsister.
Over the next few weeks, Mike introduced me to his mother, his aunt,
his uncle, and his close friend Alex. Many inches shorter and nearly
twice Mike’s weight, Alex seemed tired and defeated, as if he weren’t
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Preface
xiii
trying to succeed in life so much as avoid major tragedy. Gradually I
learned that Mike and Alex were two members of a close- knit group of
friends. The third member, Chuck, was spending his senior year of high
school in county jail awaiting trial on an aggravated assault charge for
a school yard f ght. Mike missed him keenly, explaining that Chuck was
the glass- half- full member of the trio. As Chuck later told me on the
phone from jail, “I ain’t got shit but I’m healthy, I ain’t bad looking, you
feel me? I’m a happy person.”
That f rst month with Mike and Alex was calm—boring even. We
would sit on Mike’s uncle’s stoop and share a beer, or hang out in various
houses of his friends and neighbors. Some evenings we headed
over to Chuck’s mother’s house so Mike could catch his friend’s nightly
phone call from jail.
Then the cops raided Mike’s uncle’s house in the middle of the night.
They were looking for Mike on a shooting charge, though he vehemently
denied any involvement. With a warrant out for his arrest, he spent the
next few weeks hiding in the houses of friends and relatives. Then he
turned himself in, made bail, and began the lengthy court proceedings.
I had never known a man facing criminal charges before, and assumed
this was a grave and signif cant event in Mike’s life. I soon
learned that he had gone through two other criminal cases within the
past year: one for possession of drugs and the other for possession of an
unlicensed gun. Chuck was in county jail awaiting trial, and Alex was
completing two years of parole after serving a year upstate for drugs.
Mike’s cousin was out on bail. His neighbor was living under house arrest.
Another friend, who was homeless and sleeping in his car, had a
warrant out for unpaid court fees.
Near the end of my sophomore year, I asked Mike what he thought
of my writing about his life for my senior thesis in the Sociology Department
at Penn. He readily agreed, with the caveat that I leave out
anything he asked me to keep secret. When Chuck came home from jail
that spring, I received his permission to include him as well. Over time,
I asked other young men and their families to take part.
For the next year, I spent much of every day with Mike, Chuck, and
their friends and neighbors. I went along to lawyers’ of ces, courthouses,
the probation and parole of ce, the visiting rooms of county jails, halfway
houses, the local hospital, and neighborhood bars and parties.
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Preface
xiv
Having grown up in a wealthy white neighborhood in downtown
Philadelphia, I did not yet know that incarceration rates in the United
States had climbed so dramatically in recent decades. I had only a vague
sense of the War on Crime and the War on Drugs, and no sense at all
of what these federal government initiatives meant for Black young
people living in poor and segregated neighborhoods. I struggled to
make sense of the police helicopters circling overhead and the young
men getting searched and cuf ed in the streets. I worked hard to learn
basic legal terminology and process.
That spring, Mike’s gun case ended and a judge sentenced him to
one to three years in state prison. A short time later, I was accepted into
a PhD program at Princeton. Through four years of graduate school I
continued to live in Aisha’s neighborhood, commuting to school and
spending many of the remaining hours hanging out around 6th Street
with whichever of the 6th Street Boys were home. On the weekends I
visited Mike, Chuck, and other young men from the neighborhood in
prisons across the state. Over time, I got to know family members and
girlfriends as we cleaned up after police raids, attended court dates, and
made long drives upstate for prison visiting hours.
The families described here agreed to let me take notes for the purpose
of one day publishing the material, and we discussed the project
at length many times. I generally did not ask formal, interview- style
questions, and most of what I recount here comes from f rsthand observations
of people, events, and conversations. People’s names and
identifying characteristics have been changed, along with the name
of the neighborhood. Mike initially suggested that in notes and term
papers I call his neighborhood 6th Street, and I kept this pseudonym as
the project grew into a book.
Though I gratefully draw on information that a number of police off
cers, judges, parole of cers, and prison guards provided in interviews,
this book takes the perspective of 6th Street residents. In doing so, it
provides an account of the prison boom and its more hidden practices
of policing and surveillance as young people living in one relatively
poor Black neighborhood in Philadelphia experience and understand
them. Perhaps these perspectives will come to matter in the debate
about criminal justice policy that now seems to be brewing.
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1
In the 1960s and 1970s, Black Americans achieved the full rights of citizenship
that had eluded them for centuries. As they successfully defended
the right to vote, to move freely, to attend college, and to practice
their chosen profession, the United States simultaneously began
building up a penal system with no historic precedent or international
comparison.
Beginning in the mid- 1970s, federal and state governments enacted
a series of laws that increased the penalties for possessing, buying,
and selling drugs; instituted steeper sentences for violent crime; and
ramped up the number of police on the streets and the number of arrests
these of cers made. Street crime had risen dramatically in urban
areas in the 1960s and 1970s, and politicians on both sides of the aisle
saw a heavy crackdown on drugs and violence as the political and practical
solution. By the 1980s, crack cocaine led to waves of crime in poor
minority communities that further fueled the punitive crime policies
begun years earlier.
In the 1990s, crime and violence in the United States began a prolonged
decline, yet tough criminal policies continued. In 1994 the Violent
Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act poured billions of federal
dollars into urban police departments across the nation and created
f fty new federal of enses. Under the second Bush administration, the
near unanimous endorsement of tough- on- crime policies by police and
civic leaders accompanied the mushrooming of federal and state police
agencies, special units, and bureaus.1
These policies increased the senINTRODUCTION
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Introduction
2
tences for violent of enses, but they also increased the sentences for
prostitution, vagrancy, gambling, and drug possession.2
The tough- on- crime era ushered in a profound change in how the
United States manages ghettoized areas of its cities. For most of the
twentieth century, the police ignored poor and segregated Black neighborhoods
such as 6th Street. Between the 1930s and the 1980s, an era
which saw the Great Migration, restrictive racial housing covenants,
the Civil Rights Movement, growing unemployment, the erosion of social
services, an expanding drug trade, and the departure of much of the
Black middle class from the poor and segregated areas of major cities,3
reports from f rsthand observers paint the police in segregated Black
neighborhoods as uninterested, absent, and corrupt.4
This began to change in the 1960s, when riots in major cities and a
surge in violence and drug use spurred national concern about crime,
particularly in urban areas. The number of police of cers per capita
increased dramatically in the second half of the twentieth century in
cities nationwide.5
In Philadelphia between 1960 and 2000, the number
of police of cers increased by 69 percent, from 2.76 of cers for every
1,000 citizens to 4.66 of cers.6
The 1980s brought stronger drug laws
and steeper sentences. In the 1990s, the tough- on- crime movement
continued, with urban police departments across the nation adopting
what became known as zero- tolerance policing, and then CompStat to
track their progress.7
For many decades, the Philadelphia police had turned a fairly blind
eye to the prostitution, drug dealing, and gambling that went on in
poor Black communities. But in the late 1980s, they and members of
other urban police forces began to refuse bribes and payof s. In fact,
corruption seems to have been largely eliminated as a general practice,
at least in the sense of people working at the lower levels of the drug
trade paying the police to leave them in peace. Also during this period,
large numbers of people were arrested for using or possessing drugs,
and sent to jails and prisons.
The crackdown on the drug economy in poor Black neighborhoods
came at the same time that welfare reform cut the assistance that poor
families received and the length of time they could receive it. As welfare
support evaporated, the War on Drugs arrested those seeking work
in the drug trade on a grand scale.
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Introduction
3
By 2000, the US prison population swelled to f ve times what it
had been in the early 1970s. An overwhelming majority of men going
to prison are poor, and a disproportionate number are Black. Today,
30 percent of Black men without college educations have been to
prison by their midthirties. One in four Black children born in 1990 had
an imprisoned father by the time he or she turned fourteen.8
Sociologist David Garland has termed this phenomenon mass imprisonment:
a level of incarceration markedly above the historical and
comparative norm, and concentrated among certain segments of the
population such that it “ceases to be the incarceration of individual offenders
and becomes the systematic imprisonment of whole groups.”9
Sociologist Loïc Wacquant and legal scholar Michelle Alexander have
argued that current levels of targeted imprisonment represent a new
chapter in American racial oppression.10
Since the 1980s, the War on Crime and the War on Drugs have taken
millions of Black young men out of school, work, and family life, sent
them to jails and prisons, and returned them to society with felony
convictions. Spending time in jail and prison means lower wages and
gaps in employment. This time away comes during the critical years
in which other young people are completing degrees and getting married.
Laws in many states deny those with felony convictions the right
to vote and the right to run for of ce, as well as access to many government
jobs, public housing, and other benef ts. Black people with
criminal records are so discriminated against in the labor market that
the jobs for which they are legally permitted to apply are quite dif cult
to obtain.11 These restrictions and disadvantages af ect not only the
men moving through the prison system but their families and communities.
So many Black men have been imprisoned and returned home
with felony convictions that the prison now plays a central role in the
production of unequal groups in US society, setting back the gains in
citizenship and socioeconomic position that Black people made during
the Civil Rights Movement.12
* * *
6th Street is a wide commercial avenue, and the f ve residential blocks
that connect to it from the south form an eponymous little neighborhood.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the 6th Street neighborhood had been a
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Introduction
4
middle- class Jewish area; by the early 1970s it was just opening up to
Black residents.
When I f rst came to the neighborhood in 2002, 93 percent of its
residents were Black. Men and boys stood at its busiest intersection,
of ering bootleg CDs and DVDs, stolen goods, and food to drivers and
passersby. The main commercial street included a bulletproofed Chinese
takeout store that sold fried chicken wings, single cigarettes called
loosies, condoms, baby food, and glassines for smoking crack. The
street also included a check- cashing store, a hair salon, a payday loan
store, a Crown Fried Chicken restaurant, and a pawnshop. On the next
block, a Puerto Rican family ran a corner grocery. Roughly one- fourth
of the neighborhood’s households received housing vouchers, and in
all but two households, families received some type of government
assistance.13
6th Street is not the poorest or the most dangerous neighborhood in
the large Black section of Philadelphia of which it is a part—far from it.
In interviews with police of cers, I discovered that it was hardly a top
priority of theirs, nor did they consider the neighborhood particularly
dangerous or crime ridden. Residents in adjacent neighborhoods spoke
about 6th Street as quiet and peaceful—a neighborhood they would
gladly move to if they ever had enough money.
Still, 6th Street has not escaped three decades of punitive drug and
crime policy. By 2002, police curfews had been established around the
area for those under age eighteen, and police video cameras had been
placed on major streets. In the f rst eighteen months that I spent in
the neighborhood, at least once a day I watched the police stop pedestrians
or people in cars, search them, run their names for warrants,
ask them to come in for questioning, or make an arrest.14 In that same
eighteen- month period, I watched the police break down doors, search
houses, and question, arrest, or chase people through houses f fty- two
times. Nine times, police helicopters circled overhead and beamed
searchlights onto local streets. I noted blocks taped of and traf c redirected
as police searched for evidence—or, in police language, secured
a crime scene—seventeen times. Fourteen times during my f rst eighteen
months of near daily observation, I watched the police punch,
choke, kick, stomp on, or beat young men with their nightsticks.
The problems of drugs and gun violence are real ones in the 6th
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Introduction
5
Street community, and the police who come into the neighborhood
are trying to solve them with the few powers that have been granted
to them: the powers of intimidation and arrest. Their ef orts do not
seem to be stopping young men like Mike and Chuck from attempting
to earn money selling drugs or from getting into violent conf icts;
whether they are helping to reduce overall crime rates is beyond the
scope of this study.
Whatever their ef ect on crime, the sheer scope of policing and imprisonment
in poor Black neighborhoods is transforming community
life in ways that are deep and enduring, not only for the young men who
are their targets but for their family members, partners, and neighbors.
CLEAN AND DIRTY PEOPLE
With decent, well- paying jobs in perennial short supply, Black communities
have long been divided between those able to obtain respectable
employment and those making their money doing dangerous, profaned
work. In the 1890s, W. E. B. DuBois dubbed this latter group the
submerged tenth.15 In the 1940s, Chicago sociologists St. Clair Drake
and Horace Cayton referred to these groups as the respectables and the
shadies. Drawing on terms used frequently in the Black community, sociologist
Elijah Anderson famously dubbed this distinction the divide
between decent and street.
16 Though the line between decent and street
has been recognized and elaborated by academics, those divides f rst
emerged as folk categories that residents of segregated Black neighborhoods
used to draw distinctions among themselves.
In the current era, where police circle overhead and the threat of
prison weighs heavily on neighborhood residents, the long- standing
social divides within the Black community have been exacerbated by
the issue of legal standing.
A central social fact about any person living in the community of
6th Street is his or her legal status; more specif cally, whether the person
is likely to attract police attention in the future: whether he can get
through a police stop, or make it home from a court hearing, or pass a
“piss test” during a probation meeting. Those who have no pending
legal entanglements or who can successfully get through a police stop,
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Introduction
6
a court hearing, or a probation meeting are known as clean. Those likely
to be arrested should the authorities stop them, run their names, or
search them are known as dirty.
These designations are occasioned ones, brought to the fore when
an encounter with the authorities is imminent or has just occurred.
When friends and neighbors hear that a young man has been stopped,
their f rst question is often “Is he dirty?” This question means: Does he
have an open warrant? Any probation or parole sentence he’d be violating
by running into the police? Is he carrying any drugs? In short: if he
meets with the police, will he come home to his bed tonight, or will he
be seized?
Yet the designations of clean and dirty aren’t just in- the- moment estimations
occasioned by contact with the criminal justice system. They
also become more general labels that attach to individuals or locations
over time. While some people are widely known to be in good standing
with the law, others are generally assumed to be liable for arrest should
the authorities stop them. These designations become signif cant even
when a police stop isn’t imminent, because they’re linked to distinct
kinds of behavior, attitudes, and capabilities. For instance, a clean person
can rent a car or a hotel room, or show the ID required for entry into
many buildings. A dirty person may be taken advantage of in various
ways, as it’s assumed he won’t be able to notify the authorities.
As men are largely the ones caught up in the criminal justice system,
there exists in part a gendered divide—in many couples, the woman
is clean, the man dirty. And the woman is not only free from legal
entanglements—she likely works in the formal economy or receives
government assistance, whereas the man makes his sporadic income
in the streets, doing things for which he could be arrested. There is also
an age divide—overwhelmingly, it is young people who are mired in
legal entanglements, not older people. And third, there is a class divide,
for it is most typically unemployed young men without high school
diplomas who are dipping and dodging the police, who have probation
sentences to complete and court cases to attend.
Dirty people are likely more aware of their status than clean people
are of theirs, much in the same way that Black people may think about
race more often than white people do, or gay people may think about
sexual orientation more often than straight people do. But clean people
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Introduction
7
living in the 6th Street neighborhood and surrounding areas so often
have relatives, friends, and neighbors who are looking over their shoulder
that these categories remain somewhat salient no matter which
side a person is on.17
Residents of the neighborhood draw further distinctions between
those likely to be taken into custody if the authorities do a general
sweep, and those for whom the authorities are aggressively searching.
The people the police are particularly interested in are said to be “hot.”
Places can also be hot, as in a block with a lot of recent police activity
or the funeral of a young man who was gunned down, where police are
likely to be looking for people related to the case or with other open
warrants. In these instances, it may be said that one should not enter
the area or event, or associate with the individual, until it or he
cools down.
While the categories of clean/ dirty and hot/ cool focus on a person’s
risk of arrest or a place’s likelihood to draw police attention, residents
also draw distinctions among themselves according to how a person
treats the legal entanglements of others. Those who continue to have
dealings with a young man once he becomes wanted, who protect and
aid him in his hiding and running, or who support him while locked up
are known as riders—a term signaling courage and commitment. Those
who turn on a man once the warrant has come in, or who fail to support
a partner or family member once that person is sent to jail or prison, are
said to be “not riding right.” Those who go a step further and provide
the police with information about the whereabouts or actions of a legally
precarious person are known as “snitches” or “rats.” Designations
such as the clean person, the dirty person, the hot person, the snitch,
and the rider have become basic social categories for young men and
women in heavily policed Black neighborhoods.
The f rst chapters of the book concern the dirty world: the young
men spending their teens and early twenties running from the police,
going in and out of jail, and attempting to complete probation and
parole sentences. These chapters ref ect my attempt to understand this
world through the eyes of Mike and Chuck and their friends—young
men living with the daily fear of capture and conf nement. Because
the reach of the penal system goes beyond the young men who are
its main targets, later chapters take up the perspective of girlfriends
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Introduction
8
and mothers caught between the police and the men in their lives; of
young people who have found innovative ways to prof t from the legal
misfortunes of their neighbors; and f nally of neighborhood residents
who have managed to steer clear of the penal system and those
enmeshed therein. The appendix recounts the research on which this
work is based, along with some personal ref ection about the practical
and ethical dilemmas of a middle- class white young woman reporting
on the experiences of poor Black young men and women.
Together, the chapters make the case that historically high imprisonment
rates and the intensive policing and surveillance that have
accompanied them are transforming poor Black neighborhoods into
communities of suspects and fugitives. A climate of fear and suspicion
pervades everyday life, and many residents live with the daily concern
that the authorities will seize them and take them away. A new social
fabric is emerging under the threat of conf nement: one woven in suspicion,
distrust, and the paranoiac practices of secrecy, evasion, and
unpredictability.
Still, neighborhood residents are carving out a meaningful life for
themselves betwixt and between the police stops and probation meetings.
The scope of punishment and surveillance does not prevent them
from constructing a moral world in which they can f nd dignity and
honor; and the struggles of young men and women to negotiate work,
family, romance, and friendship in this hyper- policed zone, under
threat of conf nement, constitute as much of the story as the late- night
raids or full- body searches.
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9
CHUCK AND TIM
On quiet afternoons, Chuck would sometimes pass the time by teaching
his twelve- year- old brother, Tim, how to run from the police. They’d
sit side by side on the iron back- porch steps of their two- story home,
facing the shared concrete alley that connects the small fenced- in
backyards of their block to those of the houses on the next.
“What you going to do when you hear the sirens?” Chuck asked.
“I’m out,” his little brother replied.
“Where you running to?”
“Here.”
“You can’t run here—they know you live here.”
“I’ma hide in the back room in the basement.”
“You think they ain’t tearing down that little door?”
Tim shrugged.
“You know Miss Toya?”
“Yeah.”
“You can go over there.”
“But I don’t even know her like that.”
“Exactly.”
“Why I can’t go to Uncle Jean’s?”
“’Cause they know that’s your uncle. You can’t go to nobody that’s
connected to you.”
Tim nodded his head, seeming happy to get his brother’s attention
no matter what he was saying.
The 6th Street Boys and
Their Legal Entanglements
ONE
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Chapter One
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Chuck was the eldest of three brothers. He shared a small, secondf
oor bedroom with Tim, seven years his junior, and Reggie, born right
between them. Reggie had left for juvenile detention centers by the
time he turned eleven, so Tim didn’t know his middle brother very well.
He looked up to Chuck almost like a father.
When Tim was a baby, his dad had moved down to South Carolina
and married a woman there; he did not keep in touch. Reggie’s father
was worse: an in- the- way (no- account) man of no consequence or
merit, in prison on long bids and then out for stints of drunken robberies.
Reggie said he wouldn’t recognize him in the street. By contrast,
Chuck’s father came around a lot during his early years, a fact
that Chuck sometimes mentioned when trying to explain why he knew
right from wrong and his younger brothers did not.
The boys’ mother, Miss Linda, had been f ve years into a heavy crack
habit when she became pregnant with Chuck, and continued using as
the boys grew up. With welfare cuts the family had very little government
assistance, and Miss Linda never could hold a job for more than a
few months at a time. Her father’s post of ce pension paid the household
bills, but he didn’t pay for food or clothes or school supplies. He
said it was beyond what he could do, and not his responsibility anyway.
At thirteen Chuck began working for a local dealer, which meant that
he could buy food for himself and Tim instead of asking his mother for
money she didn’t have. His access to crack also meant that he could better
regulate his mother’s addiction. Now she came to him to get drugs,
and mostly stopped prostituting herself and selling of their household
possessions when she needed a hit. In high school Chuck got arrested
a number of times, but the cases didn’t stick and he continued working
for the dealer.
By his sophomore year, Chuck’s legs were sticking out past the edge
of the bunk bed he shared with Tim. He cleared out the unf nished
basement and moved his mattress and clothing down there. The basement
f ooded and smelled like mildew and sometimes the rats bit him,
but at least he had his own space.
Tim was eight when Chuck moved out of their room, and he tried to
put a brave face on it. When he couldn’t sleep, he padded down to the
basement and crawled into bed with his brother.
In his senior year, when we met, Chuck stood six feet tall and had a build
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The 6th Street Boys and Their Legal Entanglements
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shaped by basketball and boxing—his two favorite sports. That winter,
he got into a f ght in the school yard with a kid who had called his mom
a crack whore. According to the police report, Chuck didn’t hurt the
other guy much, only pushed his face into the snow, but the school cops
charged him with aggravated assault. It didn’t matter, Chuck said, that
he was on the basketball team, and making Cs and Bs. Since he’d just
turned eighteen, the aggravated assault case landed him in the Curran-
Fromhold Correctional Facility, a large pink and gray county jail on State
Road in Northeast Philadelphia, known locally as CFCF or simply the F.
About a month after Chuck went to jail, Tim stopped speaking. He
would nod his head yes or no, but didn’t say any words. When Chuck
called home from jail he asked his mother to put Tim on the phone, and
he would talk to his little brother about what he imagined was happening
back at home.
“Mike prolly don’t be coming around no more, now that his baby- mom
about to pop. She probably big as shit right now. If it’s a boy he going to
be skinny like his pops, but if it’s a girl she’ll be a fat- ass like her mom.”
Tim never answered, but sometimes he smiled. Chuck kept talking
until his minutes ran out.
In his letters and phone calls home, Chuck tried to persuade his
mother to take his little brother to the jail for visiting hours. “He just
need to see me, like, he ain’t got nobody out there.”
Miss Linda didn’t have the state ID required to visit inmates in
county jail, only a social security card and an old voter registration
card, and anyway she hated seeing her sons locked up. Chuck’s friends
Mike and Alex of ered to take Tim along with them, but since Tim was
a minor, his parent or guardian had to go, too.
Eight months after Chuck was taken into custody, the judge threw
out most of the charges and Chuck came home, with only a couple hundred
dollars in court fees hanging over his head. When Tim saw his
brother walking up the alley, he cried and clung to his leg. He tried to
stay awake through the evening festivities but f nally fell asleep with
his head in Chuck’s lap.
Over the next few months, Chuck patiently coaxed his brother to
start speaking again. He stayed in most nights and played video games
with Tim on the old TV in the living room. He even moved back up to
Tim’s room for a while, so Tim wouldn’t be alone at night. He extended
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Chapter One
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his bed with a folding chair, propping his legs up on it and cursing
when they fell through.
“He’ll get it back,” Chuck said. “He just needs some QT [quality time].”
Tim nodded hopefully.
The following fall, Chuck tried to re- enroll as a senior, but the high
school would not admit him; he had already turned nineteen. Then the
judge on his old assault case issued a warrant for his arrest, because
he hadn’t paid $225 in court fees that came due a few weeks after his
assault case ended. He spent a few months on the run before going
downtown to the Warrant and Surrender Of ce of the Criminal Justice
Center to see if he could work something out with the judge. It was a
big risk: Chuck wasn’t sure if they’d take him into custody on the spot.
Instead, the court clerk worked out a monthly payment plan, and Chuck
came home, jubilant, that afternoon.
That fall Tim started speaking again. He remained very quiet, preferring
to communicate with a small smile or a shake of his head.
Tim’s f rst arrest came later that year, after he’d turned eleven. Chuck
was driving Tim to school in his girlfriend’s car, and when a cop pulled
them over the car came up as stolen in California. Chuck had a pretty
good idea which one of his girlfriend’s relatives had stolen the car, but
he didn’t say anything. “Wasn’t going to help,” he said.
The of cer took both brothers into custody, and down at the police
station they charged Chuck with receiving stolen property. They
charged Tim with accessory, and later a judge in the juvenile court
placed Tim on three years of probation.
With this probation sentence hanging over Tim’s head, any encounter
with the police might mean a violation and a trip to juvenile detention,
so Chuck began teaching his little brother how to run from the
police in earnest: how to spot undercover cars, how and where to hide,
how to negotiate a police stop so that he didn’t put himself or those
around him at greater risk.
REGGIE
Chuck and Tim’s middle brother, Reggie, came home for a few months
then. He was an overweight young man of f fteen, and already developYou
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The 6th Street Boys and Their Legal Entanglements
13
ing a reputation as good muscle for robberies. Older guys in the neighborhood
referred to him as a cannon, meaning a person of courage and
commitment. Reggie had heart, they said. He wouldn’t back down from
danger. Miss Linda described her middle son as a goon. Unlike herself
and her oldest son, Chuck, Reggie seemed utterly uninterested in
neighborhood gossip. He didn’t care if someone else was out there making
money or getting girls—he only cared if he was.
“And he fearless,” she said with some pride. “A stone- cold gangster.”
Reggie also had a lesser- known artistic side: he wrote rhymes on the
outside, and penned a number of “’hood” novels while he was locked up.
When Reggie came home this time, he planned a number of daring
schemes to rob armored cars or big- time drug dealers, but he could
rarely f nd anyone around 6th Street willing to team up with him. “Niggas
be backing out at the last minute!” he lamented to me, half- jokingly.
“They ain’t got no heart.”
Chuck tried to discourage Reggie from these robberies, but Reggie
didn’t seem to have the patience for making slow money selling drugs
hand to hand, so he contributed only sporadically to the household.
“My brother’s the breadwinner,” he acknowledged.
A month after he turned f fteen, Reggie tested positive for marijuana
at a routine probation meeting. (This is referred to as a piss test,
and when you test positive, it is called hot piss.) The probation board
issued him a technical violation, and instead of allowing them to take
him into custody, Reggie ran out of the building. They soon issued a
bench warrant for his arrest.
That evening, Reggie explained that there was no point in turning
himself in, because being in juvenile detention is much worse than
living on the run.
“How long are you going to be on the run for?” I asked.
“Till I turn myself in.”
“That’s what you’re going to do?”
“No, that’s something I could do, but I’m not.”
“Yeah.”
“’Cause what happened last time I turned myself in? Time.”
“Last time when you got locked up you had turned yourself in?”
“Did I.”1
“How long did you sit before your case came up?”
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“Like nine months.”
During the time Reggie was on the run from this probation violation,
he also became a suspect in an armed robbery case, so the police
issued a body warrant—an open warrant for those accused of committing
new crimes—for his arrest. The robbery had been caught on tape,
and the footage was even aired on the six o’clock news. The cops began
driving around the neighborhood with Reggie’s picture and asking
people to identify him. They raided his mother’s house in the middle
of the night, and the next morning Reggie told me:
Yo, the law ran up in my crib last night talking about they had a body
warrant for a armed robbery. I ain’t rob nobody since I had to get that bail
money for my brother last year. . . . They talking ’bout they going to come
back every night till they grab me. Now my mom saying she going to turn
me in ’cause she don’t want the law in her crib. . . . I’m not with it. I ain’t
going back to jail. I’ll sleep in my car if I have to.
In fact, Reggie did take to sleeping in his car, and managed to live on
the run for a few months before the cops caught him.
* * *
Some people in the neighborhood said that Chuck and his younger
brothers got into so much trouble because their fathers weren’t around,
and their mother failed to set a good example. By virtually all accounts,
Miss Linda was an addict and had not raised her boys well. One had
only to step foot inside her house to know this: it smelled of piss and
vomit and stale cigarettes, and cockroaches roamed freely across the
countertops and soiled living room furniture. But many of Chuck’s
friends had mothers who hadn’t succumbed to crack, who worked two
jobs and went to church. These friends, too, were spending a lot of their
time dealing with the police and the courts.
MIKE AND RONNY
Mike was two years older than Chuck and had grown up just a block
away in a two- story home shared with his mother and uncle, who had
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The 6th Street Boys and Their Legal Entanglements
15
inherited the house from Mike’s grandfather. His mother kept an exceptionally
clean house and held down two and sometimes three jobs.
Mike’s f rst arrest had come at thirteen, when the police stopped,
searched, and arrested him for carrying a small quantity of marijuana.
He was put on probation and managed to stay out of trouble long
enough to f nish high school by taking night classes, as the large graduation
photo on his mother’s mantel attested.
The two jobs Mike’s mom worked meant that he had more money
growing up than most of the other guys—enough for new school
clothes and Christmas gifts. Chuck and Alex sometimes joked that as a
result of this relatively privileged upbringing, Mike had too strong an
appetite for the f ner things in life, like beautiful women and the latest
fashion. His elaborate morning routine of clothes ironing, hair care,
body lotion, and sneaker buf ng was the source of much amusement.
“Two full hours from the shower to the door,” Chuck quipped. Mike
defended these habits and af nities, claiming that they came from an
ambition to make something more of himself than what he was given.
At twenty- two, Mike was working part time at a pharmaceutical
warehouse and selling crack on the side for extra cash. His high school
girlfriend was about to give birth to their second child.
A few weeks after his daughter was born, Mike lost the job at the
warehouse. Complications with his daughter’s birth had caused him to
miss work too many days in a row. He spent the f rst six months of his
daughter’s life in a fruitless and humiliating attempt to f nd work; then
he persuaded a friend from another neighborhood to give him some
crack to sell on credit.
Mike had no brothers or sisters but often went around with his
young boy Ronny, whom he regarded as a brother and in more sentimental
moments as a godson.2
Ronny was a short and stocky boy who
wore do- rags that concealed a short Afro, and hoodies that he pulled
down to cover most of his face. His mother had gotten strung out on
crack while he was growing up, and he spent his early years shuttling
between homeless shelters. An adopted aunt on his father’s side raised
Ronny until he was twelve. When this beloved aunt died, his maternal
grandmother took over his care. That’s when the trips to detention
centers started.
A self- proclaimed troublemaker, Ronny was repeatedly kicked out of
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school for things like hitting his teacher or trying to steal the principal’s
car. When his grandmother asked him to be good, he smiled with
one corner of his mouth and said, “I want to, Nanna, but I can’t promise
nothing. I can’t even say I’m going to try.” Daily she threatened to send
him away to a juvenile detention center. Ronny began to carry a gun at
thirteen, and at f fteen he shot himself in the leg while boarding a bus.
Ronny was also an excellent dancer and, in his words, “a lil’ pimp.”
The f rst time we had a real conversation, we were driving to various jails
in the city to f nd where Mike was being held, because the police had arrested
him earlier that morning. We were sitting in my car, and Ronny
asked how old I was. I told him my age at the time: twenty- one. After a
moment he grinned and said, “I’ve been with women older than you.”
Soon after we met, Ronny made a name for himself in the neighborhood
by getting into a cop chase from West to South Philly, f rst by car
and then on foot through a gas station, a Laundromat, and an arcade.
He spent most of the next six years in juvenile detention centers in
upstate Pennsylvania and Maryland.
ALEX
Alex had grown up a few blocks of 6th Street, but he hung out there all
through his childhood and became good friends with Chuck and Mike
in high school. He lived with his mother, but when he turned f fteen
his father had reconnected with the family, which improved their circumstances
substantially. His dad owned two small businesses in the
neighborhood, and Alex got to hang out there after school.
By twenty- three, Alex was a portly man with a pained and tired look
about him, as if the weight of caring for his two toddlers and their
mothers were too much for him to bear. He had sold crack and pills on
the block in his teens and spent a year upstate on a drug conviction. By
his early twenties, he was working hard to live in compliance with his
two- year parole sentence. He worked part time at his dad’s heating and
air- conditioning repair shop, moving to full- time hours by the end of
2004. Sometimes Mike and Chuck grudgingly noted that if their dads
owned a small business they’d have jobs, too, but mostly they seemed
happy for Alex and hoped he could keep his good thing going.
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The 6th Street Boys and Their Legal Entanglements
17
ANTHONY
Anthony was twenty- two years old when we met, and living in an abandoned
Jeep of 6th Street. The year before, his aunt kicked him out of
her house because she caught him stealing from her purse, though
Anthony denied this. He occasionally found day- labor work in light
construction, sometimes getting on a crew for a few weeks at a time. In
between, Mike sometimes gave him a little crack to sell, though he was
never any good at selling it because he put up no defense when other
guys robbed him. “Living out here [in a car], I can’t just go shoot niggas
up, you feel me?” Anthony explained. “Everybody knows where I’m at. I
ain’t got no walls around me.”
When Anthony and I met, he had a bench warrant out for his arrest,
because he hadn’t paid $173 in court fees for a case that ended that year.
He had spent nine of the previous twelve months in jail awaiting the
decision. Soon after, two neighbors who knew that Anthony had this
bench warrant called the police and got him arrested, because they said
he had stolen three pairs of shoes from them.
“Where would I even put three pairs of sneaks?” Anthony asked,
pointing to the backseat of the Jeep.
“He probably sold them,” Mike said, “for food and weed.”
When Anthony got sick with what looked to be pneumonia, Chuck
started letting him sleep on a blanket on the f oor next to his bed in the
basement, sneaking him in through the back door after his grandfather
was asleep. Chuck’s mother, Miss Linda, let Anthony stay even after
Chuck got locked up later that year, though Anthony’s tax, she said,
would have to go up. In angry moments Anthony complained bitterly
that he would never be able to leave Miss Linda’s for his own place,
because she continually stole the money he was trying to save from his
pockets when he was asleep.
* * *
The legal issues that Chuck and his friends on 6th Street struggled
with seemed immense to me—too numerous and complex to keep
straight without copious notes. Between the ages of twenty- two and
twenty- seven, Mike spent about three and a half years in jail or prison.
Out of the 139 weeks that he was not incarcerated, he spent 87 weeks on
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Chapter One
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probation or parole for f ve overlapping sentences. He spent 35 weeks
with a warrant out for his arrest, and had a total of ten warrants issued
on him. He also had at least f fty- one court appearances over this f veyear
period, forty- seven of which I attended.
Initially I assumed that Chuck, Mike, and their friends represented
an outlying group of delinquents: the bad apples of the neighborhood.
After all, some of them occasionally sold marijuana and crack
cocaine to local customers, and sometimes they even got into violent
gun battles. I grew to understand that many young men from 6th Street
were at least intermittently earning money by selling drugs, and the
criminal justice entanglements of Chuck and his friends were on a par
with what many other unemployed young men in the neighborhood
were experiencing. By the time Chuck entered his senior year of high
school in 2002, young women outnumbered young men in his classes
by more than 2:1. Going through his freshman yearbook years later,
when he turned twenty- two, he identif ed roughly half the boys in his
ninth- grade class as currently sitting in jails or prisons.3
ON BEING WANTED
In 2007 Chuck and I went door to door and conducted a household survey
of the 6th Street neighborhood. We interviewed 308 men between
the ages of eighteen and thirty. Of these young men, 144 reported that
they had a warrant issued for their arrest because of either delinquencies
with court f nes and fees or failure to appear for a court date within
the previous three years. For that same period, 119 men reported that
they had been issued warrants for technical violations of their probation
or parole (for example, drinking or breaking curfew).
According to contacts at the Philadelphia Warrant Unit, there were
about eighty thousand open warrants in the city in the winter of 2010. A
small portion of these warrants were for new criminal cases—so- called
body warrants. Most were bench warrants for missing court or for unpaid
court fees, or technical warrants issued for violations of probation
or parole.
Until the 1970s, the city’s ef orts to round up people with outstanding
warrants consisted of two men who sat at a desk in the evening and
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The 6th Street Boys and Their Legal Entanglements
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made calls to the people on the warrant list, encouraging them to either
come in and get a new court date or get on a payment plan for their
unpaid court fees. During the day, these same men transported prisoners.
In the 1970s, a special Warrant Unit was created in the Philadelphia
courts to actively pursue people with open warrants. Its new captain
prided himself on improving and updating the unit’s tracking system,
and getting the case f les onto a computer.
By the 1990s, every detective division in the Philadelphia Police Department
had its own Warrant Unit. Today, the Federal Bureau of Investigation,
the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives,
and the US Marshals all run their own separate Warrant Units out of
the Philadelphia force as well.
As the number of police of cers and special units focused on rounding
up people with warrants increased, the technology to locate and
identify people with warrants improved. Computers were installed in
police cars, and records of citizens’ legal histories and pending legal
actions became synchronized—f rst across the city’s police force and
then among police departments across the country. It became possible
to run a person’s name for any kind of warrant, from any jurisdiction in
the country, almost instantly.
The number of arrests an of cer or a unit makes had been a key indication
of performance since at least the 1960s.4
When technology improved,
taking people in on warrants became a ready way for police to show they
were actively f ghting crime. Those of cers or units who cleared more
warrants or arrested more people were informally rewarded; those who
cleared or arrested fewer people were encouraged to catch up.
In interviews, Philadelphia police of cers explained that when they
are looking for a particular man, they access social security records,
court records, hospital admission records, electric and gas bills, and
employment records. They visit a suspect’s usual haunts (for ex ample,
his home, his workplace, and his street corner) at the times he is likely to
be there, and will threaten his family or friends with arrest if they don’t
cooperate, particularly when they themselves have their own lower-
level warrants, are on probation, or have a pending court case. In addition
to these methods, the Warrant Units operating out of the Philadelphia
Police Department use a sophisticated computer- mapping
program that tracks people who have warrants, are on probation or
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Chapter One
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parole, or have been released on bail. Of cers round up these potential
informants and threaten them with jail time if they don’t provide
information about the person the police are looking for. A local FBI
of cer got inspired to develop the computer program after watching
a documentary about the Stasi—the East German secret police. With
another program, of cers follow wanted people in real time by tracking
their cell phones.
* * *
On 6th Street, the fear of capture and conf nement weighs not only on
young men with warrants out for their arrest but also on those going
through a court case or attempting to complete probation or parole
sentences. The supervisory restrictions of probation and parole bar
these men from going out at night, driving a car, crossing state lines,
drinking alcohol, seeing their friends, and visiting certain areas in the
city. Coupled with an intense policing climate, these restrictions mean
that encounters with the authorities are highly likely, and may result
in a violation of the terms of release and a swift return to jail or prison.
The threat of conf nement similarly follows men on house arrest or
living in halfway houses. Those out on bail understand that any new arrest
allows a judge to revoke the terms of their release and return them
to conf nement, even if the charges are later dropped. And many young
men, with and without legal entanglements, worry about new charges.
At any moment, they may be stopped by police and their tenuous claim
to freedom revoked.
When Mike, Chuck, and their friends assembled outside in the midmornings,
the f rst topics of the day were frequently who had been
taken into custody the night before, and who had outrun the cops and
gotten away. They discussed how the police identif ed and located the
person, what the charges were likely to be, what physical harm had
been done to the man as he was caught and arrested, what property the
police had taken, and what had been wrecked or lost during the chase.
Police, jail, and court language permeated general conversation.
Chuck and Mike referred to their girlfriends as Co- Ds (codefendants)
and spoke of catching a case (to be arrested and charged with a crime)
when accused of some wrong by their friends and family. Call list, the
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The 6th Street Boys and Their Legal Entanglements
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term for the phone numbers of family and friends one is allowed to call
from prison or jail, became the term for close friends.
The f rst week I spent on 6th Street, I saw two boys, f ve and seven
years old, play a game of chase in which one boy assumed the role of
the cop who must run after the other. When the “cop” caught up to
the other child, he pushed him down and cuf ed him with imaginary
handcuf s. He then patted down the other child and felt in his pockets,
asking if he had warrants or was carrying a gun or any drugs. The child
then took a quarter out of the other child’s pocket, laughing and yelling,
“I’m seizing that!” In the following months, I saw children give up
running and simply stick their hands behind their back, as if in handcuf
s; push their body up against a car without being asked; or lie f at
on the ground and put their hands over their head. The children yelled,
“I’m going to lock you up! I’m going to lock you up, and you ain’t never
coming home!” I once saw a six- year- old pull another child’s pants
down to do a “cavity search.”
By the time Chuck and Mike were in their early teens, they had
learned to fear the police and to f ee when they approached.
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A young man concerned that the police will take him into custody
comes to see danger and risk in the mundane doings of everyday life.
To survive outside prison, he learns to hesitate when others walk casually
forward, to see what others fail to notice, to fear what others trust
or take for granted.
One of the f rst things that such a man develops is a heightened
awareness of police of cers—what they look like, how they move, where
and when they are likely to appear. He learns the models of their undercover
cars, the ways they hold their bodies and the cut of their hair,
the timing and location of their typical routes. His awareness of the
police never seems to leave him; he sees them sitting in plain clothes at
the mall food court with their children; he spots them in his rearview
mirror coming up behind him on the highway, from ten cars and three
lanes away. Sometimes he f nds that his body anticipates their arrival
with sweat and a quickened heartbeat before his mind consciously registers
any sign of their appearance.
When I f rst met Mike, I thought his awareness of the police was a
special gift, unique to him. Then I realized Chuck also seemed to know
when the police were coming. So did Alex. When they sensed the police
were near, they did what other young men in the neighborhood did:
they ran and hid.
Chuck put the strategy concisely to his twelve- year- old brother, Tim:
If you hear the law coming, you merk on [run away from] them niggas. You
don’t be having time to think okay, what do I got on me, what they going to
The Art
of Running
TWO
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Chapter Two
24
want from me. No, you hear them coming, that’s it, you gone. Period. ’Cause
whoever they looking for, even if it’s not you, nine times out of ten they’ll
probably book you.
Tim was still learning how to run from the police, and his beginner
missteps furnished a good deal of amusement for his older brothers
and their friends.
Late one night, a white friend of mine from school dropped of Reggie
and a friend of his at my apartment. Chuck and Mike phoned me
to announce that Tim, who was eleven at the time, had spotted my
friend’s car and taken of down the street, yelling, “It’s a undercover!
It’s a undercover!”
“Nigga, that’s Alice’s girlfriend.” Mike laughed. “She was drinking
with us last night.”
If a successful escape means learning how to identify the police, it
also requires learning how to run. Chuck, Mike, and their friends spent
many evenings honing this skill by running after each other and chasing
each other in cars. The stated reason would be that one had taken
something from the other: a CD, a f ve- dollar bill from a pocket, a small
bag of weed. Reggie and his friends also ran away from their girlfriends
on foot or by car.
One night, I was standing outside Ronny’s house with Reggie and
Reggie’s friend, an eighteen- year- old young man who lived across the
street. In the middle of the conversation, Reggie’s friend jumped in
his car and took of . Reggie explained that he was on the run from his
girlfriend, who we then saw getting into another car after him. Reggie
explained that she wanted him to be in the house with her, but that he
was refusing, wanting instead to go out to the bar. This pursuit lasted
the entire evening, with the man’s girlfriend enlisting her friends and
relatives to provide information about his whereabouts, and the man
doing the same. Around one in the morning, I heard that she’d caught
him going into the beer store and dragged him back home.
It wasn’t always clear to me whether these chases were games or
more serious pursuits, and some appeared more serious than others.
Regardless of the meaning that people ascribed to them at the time or
afterward, these chases improved young men’s skill and speed at getYou
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The Art of Running
25
ting away. In running from each other, from their girlfriends, and in a
few cases their mothers, Reggie and his friends learned how to navigate
the alleyways, weave through traf c, and identify local residents willing
to hide them for a little while.1
During the f rst year and a half I spent on 6th Street, I watched young
men running and hiding from the police on 111 occasions, an average of
more than once every f ve days.2
Those who interact rarely with the police may assume that running
away after a police stop is futile. Worse, it could lead to increased
charges or to violence. While the second part is true, the f rst is not. In
my f rst eighteen months on 6th Street, I observed a young man running
after he had been stopped on 41 dif erent occasions. Of these, 8
involved men f eeing their houses during raids; 23 involved men running
after being stopped while on foot (including running after the
police had approached a group of people of whom the man was a part);
6 involved car chases; and 2 involved a combination of car and foot
chases, where the chase began by car and continued with the man getting
out and running.
In 24 of these cases, the man got away. In 17 of the 24, the police
didn’t appear to know who the man was and couldn’t bring any charges
against him after he had f ed. Even in cases where the police subsequently
charged him with f eeing or other crimes, the successful getaway
allowed the man to stay out of jail longer than he might have if
he’d simply permitted the police to cuf him and take him in.3
A successful escape can be a solitary act, but oftentimes it is a collective
accomplishment. A young man relies on his friends, relatives,
and neighbors to alert him when they see the police coming, and to
pass along information about where the police have been or where and
when they might appear next. When the police make inquiries, these
friends and neighbors feign ignorance or feed the police misinformation.
They may also help to conceal incriminating objects and provide
safe houses where a young man can hide. From f eldnotes taken in September
2006:
Around 11 a.m., I walked up the alleyway to the back of Chuck’s house. Before
I reached the porch, Chuck came running down the iron stairs, shoutYou
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Chapter Two
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ing something to a neighbor. Reggie followed him, also shouting. Their
mother, Miss Linda, came to the top of the second- f oor balcony and told
me the law was on the way, and to make sure that Reggie in particular did
not come back until she gave the green light. I recalled that Reggie had a
warrant out for failure to pay court fees, and would doubtless be taken in if
the cops ran his name.
I watched Chuck and Reggie proceed up the alleyway, and then Chuck
turned and yelled at me to come on. We ran for about three blocks, going
through two backyards and over a small divider. Dogs barked as we went
by. I was half a block behind and lost sight of Chuck and Reggie. Panting,
I slowed to a walk, looking back to see if the police were coming. Then
I heard “psst” and looked up to see Chuck leaning out the second- f oor
window of a two- story house. A woman in her f fties, who I immediately
guessed to be a churchgoer, opened the door for me as I approached, saying
only, “Upstairs.”
Chuck and Reggie were in her dressing room. This quite conservative-
looking woman had converted what is usually the spare upstairs bedroom
into a giant walk- in closet, with shoes, purses, and clothing arranged by
color on the kind of white metal shelves that you buy and install yourself.
Our getaway had produced a mild euphoria. Reggie brushed past Chuck
to examine the shoe collection, and Chuck wiped his arm of dramatically,
teasing his younger brother about how sweaty he was.
“Look at yourself, nigga! You don’t run for shit now with that little bit
of shell in your shoulder,” Reggie responded, referring to the partial bullet
that had lodged just below the back of Chuck’s neck when he was shot the
month before.
Chuck laughed. “I’m in the best shape of my life.” He explained that his
shoulder hurt only when he played basketball.
Reggie sat on a small leopard- print stool and said, “Name a fat motherfucker
who runs faster than me. Not just in the ’hood but anywhere in
Philly.”
“Oh, here you go,” Chuck complained.
Chuck joked about the extensive shoe collection, saying you’d never
know Miss Toya was like that. Reggie pulled out a pair of suede high heels
and attempted to get one onto his foot, asking me to do up the straps.
He got on her computer and started browsing pit bull websites, then
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The Art of Running
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YouTube videos of street f ghts. Chuck cringed and exclaimed loudly as
Kimbo, a well- known street f ghter, hit his opponent repeatedly in the
eye, revealing bloody and battered tissue that Chuck called “spaghetti and
meatballs.”
I asked Chuck why he made me run, and consequently dirty my sneakers,
when I’m not even wanted.
“It’s good practice.”
Reggie grinned and said, “You be taking your fucking time, A.”
“You’re no track star,” I replied.
“What!? I was haul- assing.”
Chuck got on the phone with his mother and then a neighbor to f nd
out how many police were on his block and for whom they had come.
Apparently they were looking for a man who had f ed on foot after being
stopped on an of – road motorbike. They didn’t f nd this man, but did take
two others from the house next door: one had a bench warrant for failure
to appear, and the other had a small amount of crack in his pocket. Into the
phone Chuck was saying, “Damn. They got Jay- Jay? Damn.”
About an hour later, his mother called to tell Chuck that the police had
gone. We waited another ten minutes, then left for Pappi’s, the corner
store. Chuck ordered Miss Toya a turkey hoagie and BBQ chips and brought
them to her as thanks. We then walked back to the block with Dutch cigars
and sodas.
Running wasn’t always the smartest thing to do when the cops came,
but the urge to run was so ingrained that sometimes it was hard to
stand still.
When the police came for Reggie, they blocked of the alleyway on
both ends simultaneously, using at least f ve cars that I could count
from where I was standing, and then ran into Reggie’s mother’s house.
Chuck, Anthony, and two other guys were outside, trapped. Chuck and
these two young men were clean, but Anthony had the warrant for failure
to appear. As the police dragged Reggie out of his house, laid him
on the ground, and searched him, one guy whispered to Anthony to be
calm and stay still. Anthony kept quiet as Reggie was cuf ed and placed
in the squad car, but then he started whispering that he thought Reggie
was looking at him funny, and might say something to the police.
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Chapter Two
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Anthony started sweating and twitching his hands; the two young men
and I whispered again to him to chill. One said, “Be easy. He’s not looking
at you.”
We stood there, and time dragged on. When the police started
searching the ground for whatever Reggie may have tossed before getting
into the squad car, Anthony couldn’t seem to take it anymore. He
started mumbling his concerns, and then he took of up the alley. One
of the of cers went after him, causing the other young man standing
next to him to shake his head in frustrated disappointment.
Anthony’s running caused the other of cer to put the two young
men still standing there up against the car, search them, and run their
names; luckily, they came back clean. Then two more cop cars came up
the alley, sirens on. About f ve minutes after they f nished searching the
young men, one of the guys got a text from a friend up the street. He
silently handed me the phone so I could read it:
Anthony just got booked. They beat the shit out of him.
At the time of this incident, Chuck had recently begun allowing
Anthony to sleep in the basement of his mother’s house, on the f oor
next to his bed. So it was Chuck’s house that Anthony phoned f rst
from the police station. Miss Linda picked up and began yelling at him
immediately.
“You fucking stupid, Anthony! Nobody bothering you, nobody looking
at you. What the fuck did you run for? You a nut. You a fucking nut.
You deserve to get locked up. Dumb- ass nigga. Call your sister, don’t
call my phone. And when you come home, you can f nd somewhere
else to stay.”
* * *
When the techniques young men deploy to avoid the police fail, and
they f nd themselves cuf ed against a wall or cornered in an alleyway,
all is not lost: once caught, sometimes they practice concerted silence,
create a distraction, advocate for their rights, or threaten to sue the police
or go to the newspapers. I occasionally saw each of these measures
dissuade the police from continuing to search a man or question a man
on the street. When young men are taken in, they sometimes use the
grate in the holding cell at the police station to scrape their f ngertips
down past the f rst few layers of skin, so that the police can’t obtain
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The Art of Running
29
the prints necessary to identify them and attach them to their already
pending legal matters. On four separate occasions I saw men from 6th
Street released with bloody f ngertips.
AVOIDING THE POLICE AND THE COURTS WHEN SETTLING DISPUTES
It’s not enough to run and hide when the police approach. A man intent
on staying out of jail cannot call the police when harmed, or make use
of the courts to settle disputes. He must forego the use of the police
and the courts when he is threatened or in danger and f nd alternative
ways to protect himself. When Mike returned from a year upstate, he
was rusty in these sensibilities, having been living most recently as an
inmate rather than as a fugitive. His friends wasted no time in reacquainting
him with the precariousness of life on the outside.
Mike had been released on parole to a halfway house, which he had
to return to every day before curfew. When his mother went on vacation,
he invited a man he had befriended in prison to her house to play
video games. The next day, Mike, Chuck, and I went back to the house
and found Mike’s mother’s stereo, DVD player, and two TVs gone. Later,
a neighbor told Mike that he had seen the man taking these things
from the house in the early morning.
Once the neighbor identif ed the thief, Mike debated whether to call
the police. He didn’t want to let the robbery go, but he also didn’t want
to take matters into his own hands and risk violating his parole. Finally,
he called the police and gave them a description of the man. When
we returned to the block, Reggie and another friend admonished Mike
about the risks he had taken:
REGGIE: And you on parole! You done got home like a day ago! Why the
fuck you calling the law for? You lucky they ain’t just grab [arrest] both
of you.
FRIEND: Put it this way: they ain’t come grab you like you ain’t violate shit,
they ain’t f nd no other jawns [warrants] in the computer. Dude ain’t
pop no f y shit [accused Mike of some crime in an attempt to reduce his
own charges], but simple fact is you f led a statement, you know what
I’m saying, gave them niggas your government [real name]. Now they
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Chapter Two
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got your mom’s address in the f le as your last known [address]. The
next time they come looking for you, they not just going to your uncle’s,
they def nitely going to be through there [his mother’s house].
In this case, their counsel proved correct. Mike returned to the halfway
house a few days later and discovered that the guards there were
conducting alcohol tests. He left before they could test him, assuming
he would test positive and spend another year upstate for the violation.
He planned to live on the run for some time, but three days later the police
found him at his mother’s house and took him into custody. We had
been playing video games, and he had gone across the street to change
his clothes at the Laundromat. Two unmarked cars pulled up, and three
of cers got out and started chasing him. He ran for two blocks before
they threw him down on the pavement. Later, he mentioned that their
knowledge of his mother’s new address must have come from the time
he reported the robbery, and he bemoaned his thoughtlessness in calling
them.
Young men also learn to see the courts as dangerous. A year after
Chuck came home from the assault case, he enrolled in a job training
program for young men who have not completed high school, hoping
to earn his high school diploma and gain a certif cate in construction.
He proudly graduated at twenty- two and found a job apprenticing on a
construction crew. Around this time he had been arguing with his baby-
mom, and she stopped allowing him to see their two daughters, ages
one and a half and six months. After considerable hesitation, Chuck
took her to family court to f le for partial custody. He said it tore at
him to let a white man into his family af airs, but what could he do? He
needed to see his kids. At the time, Chuck was also sending thirty- f ve
dollars per month to the city toward payment on tickets he had received
for driving without a license or registration; he hoped to get into good
standing and become qualif ed to apply for a driver’s license. The judge
said that if Chuck did not meet his payments on time every month, he
would issue a bench warrant for his arrest.4
Then Chuck could work of
the traf c tickets he owed in county jail (f nes and fees can be deducted
for every day spent in custody).
Five months into his case for partial custody in family court, Chuck
lost his construction job and stopped making the payments to the city
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for the traf c tickets. He said he wasn’t sure if he had actually been issued
a warrant, and unsuccessfully attempted to discover this. He went
to court for the child custody case anyway the next month, and when
his baby- mom mentioned that he was a drug dealer and unf t to get
partial custody of their children, the judge immediately ran his name in
the database to see if any warrants came up. They did not. As we walked
out of the courthouse, Chuck said to me and to his mother:
I wanted to run [when the clerk ran his name], but it was no way I was getting
out of there—it was too many cops and guards. But my shit came back
clean, so I guess if they’re going to give me a warrant for the tickets, they
ain’t get around to it yet.
The judge ruled in Chuck’s favor and granted him visitation on Sundays
at a court- supervised day- care site. These visits, Chuck said, made
him anxious: “Every time I walk in the door I wonder, like, is it today?
Are they going to come grab me, like, right out of the day care? I can just
see [my daughter’s] face, like, ‘Daddy, where you going?’”
After a month, the conditions of his custody allowed Chuck to go
to his baby- mom’s house on the weekends to pick up his daughters. He
appeared thrilled with these visits, because he could see his children
without having to interact with the courts and risk any warrant that
might come up.
* * *
If, in the past, residents of poor Black communities could not turn to
the police to protect themselves or settle disputes because the police
were so often absent and uninterested, now it seems that residents face
an additional barrier: they cannot turn to the police because their legal
entanglements prevent them from doing so. The police are everywhere,
but as guarantors of public safety, they are still out of reach.
The hesitancy of legally precarious men to turn to the authorities has
some important implications. First, steering clear of the police and the
courts means that young men tend not to use the ordinary resources of
the law to protect themselves from crimes committed against them.5
While those on probation or parole may make tentative use of these resources
(and sometimes regret it later, when the police arrest them usYou
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Chapter Two
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ing new information they provided), men with warrants typically stay
away. During my f rst year and a half on 6th Street, I noted twenty- four
instances of men contacting the police when they were injured, robbed,
or threatened. These men were either in good standing with the courts
or had no pending legal constraints. I did not observe any person with
a warrant call the police or voluntarily make use of the courts during
the six years of the study. Indeed, these young men seemed to view the
authorities only as a threat to their safety.
Ned, age forty- three, and his longtime girlfriend Jean, age forty- six,
lived on Mike’s block. Jean smoked crack pretty heavily, although Chuck
noted that she could handle her drugs, meaning she was able to maintain
both a household and her addiction. Ned was unemployed and for
extra money occasionally hosted dollar parties—house parties with a
dollar entrance fee of ering drinks, food, and games for a dollar each.
He also engaged in petty fraud, such as intercepting checks in the mail
and stealing credit cards. The couple’s primary income came from taking
in foster children. When Ned and Jean discovered they might be
kicked out of their house because they owed property taxes to the city,
Jean called Reggie’s cousin, telling him to come to the house because
she had some gossip concerning his longtime love interest. When he arrived,
a man in a hoodie robbed him at gunpoint. Reggie later remarked
that his cousin should have known better than to go to Ned and Jean’s
house: as the only man on the block with a warrant out for his arrest
at the time, he was an easy target for a couple under f nancial strain.
If young men known to have a warrant become the target of those
looking for someone to exploit or even to rob, they may resort to violence
themselves, for protection or for revenge.
One winter morning, Chuck, Mike, and I were at a diner having
breakfast to celebrate that the authorities hadn’t taken Mike into custody
after his court appearance earlier that day. Chuck’s mother called
to tell him that his car had been f rebombed outside her house, and
that f ref ghters were putting out the blaze. According to Chuck, the
man who set f re to his car had given him drugs to sell on credit, under
the arrangement that Chuck would pay him once he sold the drugs.
Chuck hadn’t been able to pay, however, because the police had taken
the money from his pockets when they searched him earlier that week.
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This was the f rst car that Chuck had ever purchased legally, a 1994
Bonneville he had bought the week before for four hundred dollars
from a used- car lot in Northeast Philadelphia. He didn’t speak for the
rest of the meal. Then, as we walked to Mike’s car, he said:
This shit is nutty, man. What the fuck I’m supposed to do, go to the cops?
“Um, excuse me, of cer, I think boy done blown up my whip [car].” He going
to run my name and shit, now he see I got a warrant on me; next thing
you know, my Black ass locked the fuck up, you feel me? I’m locked up
because a nigga f rebombed my whip. What the fuck, I’m supposed to let
niggas take advantage?
Chuck and Mike discussed whether Chuck should take matters into
his own hands or do nothing. Doing nothing had the benef t of not
placing him in more legal trouble, but as they both noted, doing nothing
set them up to be taken advantage of by people who understood
them to be “sweet.”
A few days later, Chuck drove over to 8th Street with Mike and another
friend and shot of a few rounds at the home of the man who he
believed was responsible for blowing up his car. Although no one was
injured, a neighbor reported the incident, and the police put out a body
warrant for Chuck’s arrest for attempted murder.
Hesitant to go to the police or to make use of the courts, young men
around 6th Street are vulnerable to theft or violence by those who know
they won’t press charges. With the police out of reach, they sometimes
resort to more violence as a strategy to settle disputes or defend themselves.6
THE NET OF ENTRAPMENT
It isn’t dif cult to imagine that a young man worried that the police
will take him into custody learns to avoid both the cops and the courts.
But young men around 6th Street learn to fear far more than just the
legal authorities. The reach of the police extends outward like a net
around them—to public places in the city, to the activities they usually
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Chapter Two
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involve themselves in, and to the neighborhood spots where they can
usually be found.
Three hospitals serve the mixed- income Black section of the city
within which 6th Street is located. Police of cers crowd into their waiting
rooms and hallways, especially in the evenings and on the weekends.
Squad cars and paddy wagons park outside the hospital, of cers
in uniform or in plain clothes stand near the ambulances, and more off
cers walk around or wait in the ER. Some police come to the hospitals
to investigate shootings and to question the witnesses who arrive there;
others come because the men they have beaten while arresting them
require medical care before they can be taken to the precinct or the
county jail. Sitting in the ER waiting room, I often watched police off
cers walk Black young men out the glass double doors in handcuf s.
According to the of cers I interviewed, it is standard practice in the
hospitals serving the Black community for police to run the names of
visitors or patients while they are waiting around, and to take into custody
those with warrants, or those whose injuries or presence there
constitutes grounds for a new arrest or a violation of probation or
parole.
Alex experienced this f rsthand when he was twenty- two years old
and his girlfriend, Donna, was pregnant with their f rst child. He accompanied
her to the hospital for the birth and stayed with her during
fourteen long hours of labor. I got there a few hours after the baby
was born, in time to see two police of cers come into Donna’s room to
place Alex in handcuf s. As he stood with his hands behind him, Donna
screamed and cried, and as they walked him away, she got out of the bed
and grabbed hold of him, moaning, “Please don’t take him away. Please,
I’ll take him down there myself tomorrow, I swear—just let him stay
with me tonight.” The of cers told me they had come to the hospital
with a shooting victim who was in custody, and as was their custom,
they ran the names of the men on the visitors’ list. Alex came up as having
a warrant out for a parole violation, so they arrested him along with
two other men on the delivery room f oor.
I asked Alex’s partner about the warrant, and she reminded me that
the of ense dated from Christmas, when the police had stopped Alex as
he pulled up to a gas station. Since his driver’s license had been revoked,
driving constituted a violation of his parole.
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After the police took Alex into custody at the maternity ward, it
became increasingly clear to his friends on 6th Street that the hospital
was a place to be avoided at all costs. Soon after Chuck turned
twenty- one, his twenty- two- year- old girlfriend was due with their second
child. Chuck told her that he would be at the hospital, even though
he had a detainer out for a probation violation for breaking curfew. He
stayed with her up until the point that she was getting in her aunt’s car
to go to the hospital. Then at the f nal moment, he said she should go
ahead without him, and that he would come soon.
Later, Chuck sat with me on the steps and discussed the situation.
“I told her I was on my way,” he said. “She mad as shit I ain’t there. I can
hear her right now. She going to be like, “You broke your promise.” I’m
not trying to go out like Alex [get arrested], though. You feel me?”
As we spoke, his girlfriend called his cell phone repeatedly, and he
would mute the sound after one ring and stare at her picture as it came
up on the screen.
Just as a man worried the police will pick him up avoids the hospital
when his child is born and refuses to seek formal medical care when he
is badly beaten, so he won’t visit his friends and relatives in prison or
jail. Some prisons make it a general practice to run the names of visitors;
others employ random canine searches of visitors’ cars, and run
the plates and names from the parking lot.
Funerals also become risky for men worried that the police may take
them. Each of the nine funerals I attended for young men who had been
killed in the 6th Street neighborhood featured police of cers stationed
outside with a tripod camera to f lm the mourners as they f led in. More
of cers stood across the street and parked on the adjacent blocks. When
I asked an of cer of the Warrant Unit about funerals, he replied that
they were a great place to round up people for arrest. “But we try to stay
a block or two away, so we don’t get our picture in the paper.”
Like hospitals and funerals, places of employment become dangerous
for people with a warrant. Soon after Mike got released on parole to
a halfway house, he found a job through an old friend who managed a
Taco Bell. After two weeks, Mike, twenty- four at the time, refused to return
to the house in time for curfew, saying he couldn’t spend another
night cooped up with a bunch of men like he was still in jail. He slept
at his girlfriend’s house, and in the morning found that he had been
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issued a violation and would likely be sent back to prison, pending the
judge’s decision. Mike said he wasn’t going back, and they were going to
have to catch him. Two parole of cers arrested him the next day as he
was leaving the Taco Bell, where he had gone to pick up his paycheck.
He spent a year back upstate for this violation.
When Mike got booked at the Taco Bell, Chuck chewed him out thoroughly.
Didn’t he remember the time Chuck got taken?
Chuck started working at the local McDonald’s when he was nineteen.
Later that year he caught a probation violation for driving a car,
his driving privileges having been revoked as part of his probation sentence.
Though he had a warrant, Chuck kept working, saying that if the
police came he would simply run out the back door.
A couple of weeks later, a former employee got into a f ght with three
other workers, and the police shut the McDonald’s down while they
questioned witnesses and looked for the women involved. When the
f ght began, Chuck had been in the storeroom, talking on the phone to
his girlfriend. He came out, he said, and saw six police of cers staring at
him. At this point he phoned me to come pick up his house keys, fairly
certain he would be taken into custody. When I got there, it was too
late—Chuck was leaving in the back of a squad car.
A man worried that the police are hunting him—or at least may
take him into custody should they come upon him—also comes to see
friends, neighbors, and even family members as dangerous. First, he
must avoid people who are “hot.” After Reggie robbed a convenience
store and the security camera footage appeared on the nightly news,
the cops came looking for him with much more determination than
when he only had a warrant out for a probation violation. He became so
hot that other men on the block didn’t want to be seen with him, worried
that he’d bring heat on them. Mike gave me this advice:
I’ll only tell you this one time, A. Do not be around Reggie. He’s hot right
now, he’s on the run. Don’t get caught up in it. They’re going to come for
that nigga, and I don’t want you nowhere around there. Don’t let him get
in your car, don’t even talk on the phone. If he calls you, bang on [hang up
on] that nigga. They probably tracing the calls, and you could fuck around
and catch a ya’mean [be arrested on conspiracy charges, for harboring a
fugitive, etc.] or something. Don’t come through the block, don’t even wave
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The Art of Running
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at the dude. I already told that nigga don’t call your phone no more, but
just in case.
Young men’s distrust extends beyond those who are particular targets
of the police. Cops may exert signif cant pressure on a man’s relatives
or partner to provide information about him. Out of frustration
and anger at his failures as a father, spouse, brother, or son, his partner
or family members may freely call the police on him, taking advantage
of his wanted status to get back at him or punish him.
Whether a man’s friends, relatives, or girlfriend bring him to the
attention of the authorities because the police pressure them to do so
or because they leverage his wanted status to control or punish him,
he comes to regard those closest to him as potential informants. Like
going to the hospital or calling the police, spending time with friends,
family, or romantic partners places men at risk.
CULTIVATING AN UNPREDICTABLE ROUTINE
Mike, Chuck, and their friends came to see danger and risk in the routine
doings of everyday life. They learned to fear the police, and to regard
the courts, the hospitals, their workplaces, their residences, and
even their own family members as potential paths to conf nement. To
limit the risks that mundane places, relations, and people posed, they
learned to practice concerted avoidance: to run and hide from the police,
steer clear of hospitals, skip work, and hang back from their families
and close friends.
Another strategy that young men on 6th Street adopt is to cultivate
a secretive and unpredictable routine. I f rst noticed this strategy when
Ronny shot himself in the leg when he was f fteen. Six police of cers
were occupying the ER lobby when he arrived; two of them quickly
handcuf ed the young man who had brought him in.
Ronny’s grandmother, aunt, cousin, and sister sat in the lobby and
waited for news. Some of the young men from 6th Street who had warrants
at the time didn’t show up at all, explaining to others that they
couldn’t take the chance, even though they “loved that lil’ nigga” and
wanted to be there. The men who did come, including Mike, stayed
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Chapter Two
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outside the hospital, hovering at the edge of the parking lot. They discussed
which local police of cers were inside, and what their chances
were of going in to see Ronny without being spotted. One of Ronny’s
friends waited for a few minutes some yards away from the emergency
room doors, heard the status report, and left. He returned periodically
throughout the night, motioning through the doors for someone in the
waiting room to come out and give him an update. Mike asked me to
stay and keep in touch with him via cell phone:
MIKE: Yo, just stay here till you hear something. I’m about to leave out.
ALICE: Okay.
MIKE: I’m not trying to get locked up of of Ronny and then they run my
record and I got, like, three warrants out for me, you feel me?
When Ronny’s cousin was shot and killed later that year, the men
from 6th Street attended his funeral in the same fashion that they had
gone to the hospital—quickly and quietly, ducking in and out:
REGGIE: We couldn’t really stay, you know, at the funeral or whatever, you
know they’re on my ass [the cops are looking for him]. But we ducked in
and out and saw the body and everything. We ain’t go to the gravesite
though, but we saw his [the dead man’s] grandmom, and she saved us a
plate [of food] from after [the get- together at her house]. Lucky it was
so many people at the church, because the cops was def nitely out, boy.7
Cultivating unpredictability not only helps with evading the police;
it also helps to reduce the risk of friends and family informing. Simply
put, a man’s neighbor, girlfriend, or mother cannot call the police on
him if she doesn’t know where he is.
Chuck, twenty at the time, explained the dipping and dodging sensibility
to his thirteen- year- old cousin:
The night is really, like, the best time to do whatever you got to do. If I
want to go see my moms [mother], see my girl, come through the block and
holla at my boys, I can’t be out in broad day. I got to move like a shadow,
you know, duck in and out, you thought you saw me, then bam, I’m out
before you even could see what I was wearing or where I was going.
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The Art of Running
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Young men are so wary that their relatives, girlfriend, or neighbors
may set them up that they may take any request from those close to
them to show up or stop by as a potential threat. Mike noted:
Nine times out of ten, you getting locked up because somebody called the
cops, somebody snitching. That’s why, like, if you get a call from your girl,
like, “Yo, where you at, can you come through the block at a certain time,”
that’s a red f ag, you feel me? That’s when you start to think, like, “Okay,
what do she got waiting for me?”
When Chuck’s nineteen- year- old neighbor had a bench warrant out
for failure to appear in court, he was determined, he said, never to go
back to jail. He slept in a number of houses, staying no more than a few
nights in any one place. On the phone, he would lie to his family members,
girlfriend, and fellow block members about where he was staying
and where he planned to go next. If he got a ride to where he was staying,
he requested to be dropped of a few blocks away, and then waited
until the car was out of sight before walking inside. For six months,
nobody on the block seemed to know where he was sleeping.
Young men looking over their shoulder for the police f nd that a
public and stable daily routine becomes a path to conf nement. A stable
routine makes it easier for the police to locate a man directly, and makes
it easier for his friends and family to call the police on him. Keeping a
secret and unpredictable schedule—sleeping in dif erent beds, working
irregular hours, deceiving others about one’s whereabouts, and refusing
to commit to advance plans—serves as a generalized technique of
evasion, helping young men avoid getting taken into custody through
many of the paths discussed here.
PAYING TO PASS UNDETECTED
When Mike and Chuck and their friends had a little money, they spent
some of it securing an array of underground goods and services that
would help protect them from the authorities or postpone their admission
to jail and prison.
One major item they sought was a clean ID.
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Chapter Two
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Many readers may not be aware of how often they are asked to present
some form of ID, or to hand over a credit card or proof of address,
throughout the course of a day. Those who have these things, and who
are free from the threat of the police, tend not to think about it when
these documents are required of them. For young men around 6th
Street concerned that the police are tracking them or will take them
into custody on the spot, legitimate identif cation is the source of considerable
concern.
On the one hand, Mike and Chuck and their friends feared discovery
and didn’t want their identity known. They hesitated to carry ID, to tell
people their real name, or to write that name down. Around 6th Street,
it is considered improper for even close friends to ask each other their
last names, and young men routinely give fake names to people they
meet, just to be on the safe side. Close male friends sometimes go years
without knowing each other’s last names. Yet at the same time that
young men wish to conceal their identity, and fear using it, they need
proof of it for all kinds of life’s necessities, but can’t get it. The formal
documents needed to apply for a job, enter a building with a guard in
the lobby, buy a cell phone, or put a car in the shop elude them through
a complex combination of their poverty, residential instability, and legal
entanglements and fears.
For the eleven years that I have known Reggie, he has been sitting in
jail or prison, dealing with a pending court case, a warrant, or a probation
or parole sentence, or working through some combination of the
three. During a rare month that he was newly paroled from prison and
had no pending court cases or warrants, he asked me to help him obtain
a state- issued ID. Not a driver’s license, which seemed an almost unattainable
goal, but a non- driver’s state- issued identif cation card. In addition
to allowing him to apply for jobs, visit family and friends in jail,
and check into hotel rooms, this ID would mean that when Reggie got
stopped by the police, they could run his name immediately and verify
that he had no pending warrants.
We f rst needed to apply for his birth certif cate, which his mother
had only a vague memory of possessing before she left the homeless
shelter in which the family had spent the f rst few years of Reggie’s
life. Obtaining this document required many trips to the government
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The Art of Running
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of ces downtown and other proofs of identity: a social security card
and two pieces of mail (not letters but something more formal, such
as a bill). After three weeks of collecting these items and two long days
spent in fruitless trips to the Division of Vital Records downtown, Reggie
shook his head, noting that ID is basically for rich people. “Because
you have to have ID to get ID,” he said. “Just like money.”
Having gotten nowhere, we found a man in the 6th Street neighborhood
who specialized in applications for birth certif cates and other ID.
People showed him their proofs of identity and he sent away for their
birth certif cates from the downtown of ce, taking forty dollars for this
service. Ultimately, this man wasn’t satisf ed with any of the documents
Reggie could come up with to apply for the birth certif cate, and f nally
suggested we use a close relative’s death certif cate to prove his identity
and residence. His mother at f rst refused to allow Reggie to take the
death certif cate out of the house, so we were stalled once again.
After six weeks of hard ef ort and considerable expense, Reggie had
a birth certif cate, two pieces of mail that would count for his proof
of address, and a social security card. With these precious documents
in hand, we drove to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
As we approached the parking lot adjacent to the building, Reggie
began to move around in his seat, f dgeting and adjusting his clothing.
Once I’d parked the car, he made no move to get out. I turned to him
and asked if he wanted me to go in f rst and get a ticket for the line. He
sat silently for a while and then began to explain his concerns. Showing
up and applying for this ID would lead employees to run his name
and bring up some outstanding ticket or warrant. He eyed the security
guards warily, saying that undercovers probably hung out at the Department
of Transportation as well. “It’s like, I’m home now, you feel
me? I don’t want to be back in there tomorrow . . .”
We sat in the DMV parking lot for over ten minutes while Reggie attempted
to get up the courage to walk through the door. In the end, he
couldn’t go through with it, so we drove back to the block.
Like Reggie, a great many people living in the 6th Street neighborhood
don’t have government- issued ID, fear using their ID if they do
have one, or have ID but can’t do much with it because of their unpaid
tickets, outstanding warrants, or the restrictions of their probation or
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Chapter Two
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parole. Local entrepreneurs recognize this core problem of poor and
legally compromised people, and attempt to solve it in two ways: f rst
by selling fake IDs and documents, and second by supplying the goods
and services that typically require ID as part of the sales transaction,
with no questions asked.
In the early 2000s, Mike and his friends bought fake licenses, social
security cards, car insurance and vehicle registrations, and birth certif
cates. Merchants around 6th Street of ered these goods under the
table, if customers made the request appropriately. Salesmen on foot
also of ered these items as they made their rounds at bars, barbershops,
and corner stores.
Mike used fake registration and car insurance documents when he
got stopped in the early 2000s. The police didn’t run his real name and
so didn’t discover that he had no license or registration for the car. Nor
did they f nd out that he was on probation and prohibited from driving
a car in the f rst place. Chuck was once able to get through an entire
court case using a fake name and identif cation he had purchased from
a man operating a stand outside a sneaker store. This fake identity allowed
him to be tried for the case at hand without his previous cases
coming into play.
Improved law enforcement technology has made it more and more
dif cult to use a fake identity to get through police stops. Indeed, giving
a false name to the police has become all but impossible: beginning
in the mid- 2000s, squad cars were equipped with computers for running
IDs. Philadelphia police around 6th Street now refuse to accept
a driver’s license or non- driver’s state ID, asking instead for the man’s
photo number. This number is issued at a person’s f rst arrest, and as
one of cer told me, “Any guy who says he doesn’t have one is lying.”
Through the photo ID number, the of cer can pull up an extensive description
of the man, along with pictures of his face and body, from the
computer in the police car. Some police cars in Philadelphia are now
also equipped with f nger print machines, so that a man’s prints can be
run quickly and on the spot without the trouble of taking him down to
the police station.
As another strategy for passing under the radar, young men around
6th Street pay those with legitimate identities to put things in their
name, such as apartment leases, utility bills, even accident claims. This
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makes it signif cantly harder for the police to track them. Before Mike
was sentenced to a year and half in prison, he was doing very well f –
nancially. He had two used cars in two dif erent women’s names, lived
in an apartment in a friend’s name, had a gun registered to a friend of
his uncle, had a cell phone in his children’s mother’s name, owned a
dirt bike in the name of the previous owner, and rented furniture in
his mother’s name. In exchange for borrowing their identities, he gave
these relatives and neighbors cash, food, drugs, and DVDs. Some also
had occasional use of the items.
Five times over the six years I spent in the neighborhood, I observed
people stopped by the police successfully use the name of another person
they knew to be “clean.” Once Mike gave a friend’s name to get
through a traf c stop and then went to court to pay the tickets for the
moving violation, still using the man’s identity. As compensation, Mike
lent this man his leather Eagles jacket for a season.
A number of neighborhood businesses allow people to make purchases
with no questions asked. Wanted people seek places to shop
that don’t require any documentation, because getting an ID in the
f rst place could lead to an arrest; buying things using an ID would
make it easier for the police to track them; and their dealings with the
criminal justice system have rendered unusable the identif cation they
have (for example, their licenses are suspended). These places where
items ordinarily requiring identif cation may be bought without showing
ID, signing one’s name, or showing proof of insurance are known
as ducky spots.
A man concerned that he may be taken into custody also fears using
the hospitals, and so purchases a variety of medical goods and services
from people in the neighborhood who work in health care and who
supply drugs, medical supplies, and their general expertise to legally
precarious community members. Chuck paid a neighbor working as a
custodian at the local hospital around forty dollars for antibiotics when
his foot got infected after he ran through some debris during a police
chase. After two weeks of severe tooth pain, Chuck’s neighbor, a twenty-
year- old man, pulled his own molar with a pair of pliers and paid his
cousin, who worked at a doctor’s of ce, eighty dollars for a course of
antibiotics. Reggie broke his arm when he tripped over the curb while
running from a man trying to stab him. His neighbor brought over maYou
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Chapter Two
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terial for a cast from his job at the VA hospital, heated it in a pan of water
on the stove, and made a hard splint that Reggie wore for f ve weeks.
Reggie gave him a large bag of marijuana as compensation.
Mike and Chuck and their friends around 6th Street also paid friends
and neighbors for their silence and cooperation, and for news about the
police. In a community f lled with suspects and fugitives, every resident
is a potential conduit of information, either for the police or for
the men they’re after. Mike and his friends tried to ensure that neighbors
who could alert the authorities to their whereabouts or activities
were instead helping them hide.
In the same way that payments for sex can be placed on a continuum
from prostitution to marriage, the money that legally entangled people
pay others in the neighborhood to help protect them from the authorities
ranges from explicit, short- term, quid pro quo exchanges, in which
a set fee is paid for a single piece of information or a single refusal to
talk to the police or testify as a witness, to longer- term relationships, in
which the arrangement is largely tacit, and the legally precarious party
provides extended f nancial support in exchange for silence, watchfulness,
and general help in evading the authorities.8
The most extended relationship of this kind that I observed on 6th
Street involved two brothers who sold marijuana in the area. The pair
had grown up in the neighborhood but had long since moved away.
They didn’t mention their business or anybody else’s illicit doings over
the phone, they came and went quickly, and to my knowledge, no person
on 6th Street had ever been to their house—or even knew where
it was.
When the two brothers came around in their dark SUV to drop of
drugs or pick up payments, they gave back to the community. They
helped pay for the funerals of three young men who were shot and
killed during my time there. They also contributed grocery money
to the mothers of the deceased, rent money to their girlfriends, and
haircut money for their sons. They gave cash to people who had recently
come home from prison: a kind of get- started money. They put
money on the books of neighborhood men who were f ghting cases in
county jail.9
As these two brothers coached and mentored younger guys on the
block, they often discussed the importance of giving as a core obligaYou
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tion to those less fortunate. But they also occasionally mentioned that
their generosity encouraged others to protect them from the authorities.
In particular, they made sure that those neighborhood residents
with frequent dealings with the police didn’t feel angry or resentful
toward them. The older brother explained it like this to a younger boy
on the block:
What makes a nigga call the cops? Hate [ jealousy]. It’s only a matter of
time before they see your picture or your name comes up [during a police
questioning]. You want them to pass right by [the picture], you want them
to choose the other guy, the guy who never did nothing for them.
Mike and Chuck regarded this practice with admiration, acknowledging
that it’s smart to send money to a man in jail who, if he gives
you up, will see his commissary account quickly dry up. But like a marriage,
this relationship requires consistent income, and most men in
the neighborhood have only sporadic work in either the formal or the
informal economy, with quite uneven and low returns.
Mike and Chuck certainly couldn’t af ord to maintain long- term relationships
in which a steady f ow of cash or other resources guaranteed
the ongoing cooperation of neighborhood residents. But they did
occasionally scrape together enough money for one- time payments,
mostly to witnesses during trials.
According to Mike, about two years before we met, he had been walking
home from a dice game with a large wad of cash when a man put a
gun to his head and ordered him to give up his money.10 Mike told me
that he refused, and attempted to draw his own gun when the man shot
him. Other accounts have it that Mike attempted to run away and shot
himself by accident, whereupon this man took his money and then
stripped him of his sneakers and watch. Whatever the details of this
encounter, Mike emerged from it with a bullet lodged in his hip. His
mother looked after him for f ve months while he was unable to walk,
and then drove him to the outpatient clinic twice a week for months
of physical therapy.
By the time we met, Mike could walk normally, though he said his
leg hurt when he ran or stood for long periods, or when the weather
changed. He believed this man had left the neighborhood, but about a
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month later he thought he spotted him driving around in a Buick. Mike
told me that the man looked at him, he looked at the man, the man
tensed, and Mike opened f re. Mike said, “I ain’t know if he was going to
start chopping [shooting], you know, thinking I was going to come at
him. Better safe than sorry.”
Two days later Mike saw him again, this time while driving with
Chuck and another friend. Although I wasn’t present, Chuck told me
immediately afterward that the men in both cars opened f re, shooting
at each other as they drove by in opposite directions. I couldn’t conf rm
the shots that Mike, Chuck, and another friend f red, but the glass in
the side and back windows of Mike’s car was shattered, and I counted
seven bullet holes in the side doors. Mike quickly towed the car to a
friend’s garage, worried that the police would see it if they hadn’t been
alerted to the shootout. This was around noon.
That afternoon, Chuck and this friend came to my apartment, took
some wet (PCP), and lay on the couch and f oor with covers over their
heads.11 They didn’t eat, drink, or get up for almost twenty- four hours,
occasionally murmuring curses at Mike about how close they had come
to death.
Two nights later, the police came to Mike’s old address, his uncle’s
house, to arrest him for attempted murder. Mike’s uncle phoned his
mother to let her know they were coming for him, so Mike left her
place and hid out in various houses for the next two weeks, including
my apartment for four days. The police raided his mother’s house twice,
then his grandmother’s house, and then his children’s mother’s house.
After two weeks he scraped together what money he could, found a lawyer,
and turned himself in. He didn’t know who had called the police,
but the lawyer showed us the testimony of the man who had robbed
him, explaining that this man would be the main witness at the trial.
When Mike made bail, the man got in touch with him through a
mutual acquaintance. He explained that he wanted only three hundred
dollars, which was what it would cost him to repair the shattered windows
in his car. Mike considered this a very low sum to get out of an
attempted murder charge and happily paid him. He also paid for a hotel
room for this man to stay in on the appointed court dates, in case the
police came to his house to escort him to court.12 This man then failed
to show up as a witness for three court dates, and the judge dismissed
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the case. To my utter astonishment, Mike and this man now appeared
to be “cool.” The night after the case ended, we had drinks with the man
and played pool together at a local bar.
People in legal jeopardy can pay others not to show up as a witness at
a trial; they can also pay people in the neighborhood to alert them if the
police are coming, or can pay those who know of their whereabouts, activities,
or identity not to give this information to the police. With such
a large number of wanted people in the neighborhood (as well as people
committing illegal acts who are liable to be arrested should those acts
be brought to the attention of the authorities), 6th Street engages in a
brisk trade in this kind of information and cooperation.
It should be noted that the payments legally precarious people make
to the purveyors of false documents, or to those who might inform or
testify, are in addition to the money they pay to lawyers and to the state
directly in court fees and f nes, bail, probation and parole costs, and
tickets. These payouts for their continued freedom represent no small
portion of their income.
INFORMING
If a young man exhausts the avenues discussed above, he may attempt
to avoid conf nement by giving the police someone they want more
than they want him. In contrast to f eeing, avoidance, cultivating unpredictability,
or paying to pass undetected, this strategy carries heavy
social judgment. Indeed, informing is understood to be such a lowly
way to get out of one’s legal problems that men tend not to admit when
they have done it. Since young men and women typically inform inside
police cars or interrogation rooms, behind closed doors, it was dif cult
for me to study.
Chuck and Mike were close friends with a young man named Steve,
who was about a year older than Chuck and a year younger than Mike.
He lived across the street from Chuck with his mother and grandmother,
his father having moved down south when he was a small
child. Steve’s mother worked in administration at Drexel University,
so the family was better of than many of the others on the block. With
his small build, light skin, and light eyes, Steve looked sneaky, Chuck’s
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mom said, someone to keep your eye on. He was also notoriously hotheaded,
pulling out his gun at inappropriate moments, like birthday
parties for Mike’s children.
Chuck and Mike hadn’t thought that anyone could make Steve give
up the bachelor life, but after high school he fell in love with Taja, a
young woman who had grown up a few blocks away. Their stormy romance
lasted longer than anyone expected—longer than they expected,
they sometimes laughed. For almost the entire time I knew Steve and
Taja, they were trying hard to have a baby, but Taja would miscarry every
time Steve got locked up: three times in their six- year relationship.
Steve was a drug user more than a drug seller; when we met he was
nineteen, and under house arrest awaiting the completion of a trial for
possession of drugs.
In the spring the police stopped Steve while he was carrying a gun,
and charged him with possession without a license to carry. He made
bail, but then got picked up soon after for drinking while driving, revoking
his bail. Steve sat in county jail as the court dates dragged on.
To our great surprise, Steve came home on house arrest three months
later, still in the middle of his trial dates. He explained that the court released
him for the remainder of the proceedings because the jails were
overf owing, and the judge determined that he didn’t pose a f ight risk.
In conf dence, Mike admitted to me that he did not believe Steve,
since he’d never heard of a person coming home on house arrest during
a trial for a gun case. He suspected that Steve had likely cut a deal to be
at home during the lengthy court proceedings, most likely by giving up
somebody the police seemed more interested in.
A week later, a local man on trial for murder phoned Reggie and
told him that his lawyer had shown him Steve’s statement. Apparently,
Steve had signed an af davit that he had been present at the time of the
murder. A younger friend of Reggie’s was at his house when he got the
phone call, and soon began spreading the news that Steve was a snitch.
Faced with the public and personal disgrace of his betrayal, Steve
spent three days threatening violence against Reggie’s young boy, and
then he told him to come to his house so they could discuss it. As the
young man entered, Steve began yelling, “Who the fuck told you I was
a rat, nigga? Who?”
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“You just going to sit here and act like you ain’t say shit,” the young
man said coolly. “They got your statement on f le.”
Steve said he would kill him, and the young man made a move toward
Steve. Mike attempted to pull the two apart, but Steve pulled his
gun and pistol- whipped the young man in the face and then in the back
of his head.
“You been home less than a week!” Chuck admonished, as the young
man covered his bloody face with his hands. “You can’t pistol- whip a
nigga that calls you a snitch. Plus, that makes you look like you really
did do that shit.”
“You ain’t mature in jail at all,” Mike added.
Mike asked the young man if he could go to the hospital, and he
replied that he had a couple of open cases, but no warrants. We took
him to the ER for stitches. Mike, who had a bench warrant for failure to
appear in court, hovered in the parking lot, checking in every half hour
or so via cell phone.
To my knowledge, this young man never again mentioned that Steve
had snitched. A few days later there was another shootout, and the
whole af air took a backseat in the local gossip.
Most of the time, young men don’t resort to violence to rebuild their
reputations after they snitch. Instead, they attempt to regain the trust
and goodwill of the person they wronged.
When he was sixteen, Ronny and a few other young men from 6th
Street drove to Montgomery County late one night and tried unsuccessfully
to break into a motorcycle store. When they couldn’t get in,
they returned to their ’89 Bonneville, only to f nd that the car wouldn’t
start. Ronny called Mike to come get them.
When Mike got the call, he and Chuck and I were watching movies
in the apartment. It was around 2:00 a.m. I heard Mike on the phone to
Ronny as follows: “Where the fuck is that at? Okay. Gimme like, a hour
[to get out there].”
Mike turned to me.
MIKE: This lil’ nigga out in the middle of nowhere. Car ain’t starting. We
still got them cables [ jumper cables]?
ALICE: No. Who is he with?
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Chapter Two
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MIKE: The boy Dre, couple other niggas.
ALICE: Why is he out there?
MIKE: I don’t fucking know—probably because he trying to steal something.
I’ma beat his lil’ ass to the ground when I see that nigga. Now I
got to get up. [shakes his head as he puts on his boots] Fuck it. I’ma just wear
my long johns.
ALICE: I’ll see you later.
Mike cursed the boys but went out anyway to retrieve them, saying
that he couldn’t refuse his young boy anything. Chuck and I waited until
around four. Mike didn’t come back. The next afternoon, I got a call
from a cop at a Montgomery County police station, asking if I knew a
man named Keshon Jackson. After a beat I realized that this was likely
the fake name that Mike had used when he got booked so that any outstanding
warrants wouldn’t come up.
Apparently, when Mike pulled up, the dealership’s silent alarm had
already gone of , and the cops were waiting behind a hill for the boys to
try to break in again. The cops ran out from behind the hill and chased
Mike and Ronny, along with the other boys, across covered pools and
sandboxes and through bushes. Two of the boys got away; Ronny, Mike,
and another young man were caught and taken into custody.
According to the signed af davit that Mike’s lawyer read to us later,
Ronny and his friend, both sixteen, were separately interrogated and
agreed to name Mike as the one who had put them up to it. In exchange,
the police dropped the charges against the minors and drove Ronny and
his friend home. Mike, who was twenty- one at the time, was charged
with attempted breaking and entering, vandalism, and trespassing.
When Ronny got back home, he fervently denied that he had informed,
claiming he would never betray Mike like the other boys had.
But Mike had seen the police report. On the phone to me from jail, he
said he was deeply hurt by Ronny’s betrayal, since he considered Ronny
a younger brother:
Even if they [the police] was telling him like, look, just say it was Mike and
we’ll let you go home tonight, he should have played his part [remained
silent; done the right thing] just on the strength of everything I done been
through for that lil’ nigga. Almost everything he got on his back was shit
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The Art of Running
51
I passed of [gave to him], you feel me? Any time he need a couple dollars,
who he coming to? He ain’t going to his nut- ass pop, he ain’t going to
Nanna [his grandmother]. He come straight to me like, “Yo, Mike. Let me
hold [borrow] this, let me hold that.” I done broke him of , like, so much
change. Who he think keeping him fed out here? Nigga, you ain’t eating
[making money] by yourself! Ain’t no other motherfucker out here looking
out.
Mike spread the word that Ronny had snitched. It was worse than
that, in fact, because Ronny had blamed Mike for a crime that he didn’t
even commit. For almost two weeks, Ronny didn’t come out of his
grandmother’s house except to go to school. Then he took Mike’s gun
and robbed a house in Southwest Philadelphia. He sold the TV, stereo,
and jewelry, and paid Mike’s bail.
Mike came home and still refused to speak to Ronny. He wouldn’t
allow Ronny to come to the apartment where he was staying, though
Ronny came to the door a number of times.
By the time Mike drove out to Montgomery County for the preliminary
hearing, he and Ronny appeared to be on better terms. In fact,
Ronny accompanied him to all the subsequent court dates to show his
support. As we were walking out of the courthouse on one of these occasions,
Mike said to me:
I know, you know, he a snitch, but that’s my little nigga. I raised that nigga
from this tall. Plus, like, he don’t have no real family, like, his pops gone, his
mom out there in the streets. Nigga had to look out for himself.
The support Ronny gave Mike during his court dates, and the money
he risked his life to obtain to pay Mike’s bail, seemed to have prompted
a reconciliation between them. Though Mike treated Ronny somewhat
coldly in the following months, he stopped telling people that Ronny
had snitched.
Two years later, Mike was in state prison for a gun case, and Ronny’s
botched motorcycle theft came up in conversation in the visiting room.
Mike and I had a good laugh about how stupid Ronny and his friends
had been to try to break into the motorcycle store, and Mike recalled
that he had run across a covered pool for the f rst time in his life. Then
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Chapter Two
52
Mike cursed Ronny’s friend for snitching on him. He said that if he ever
saw the kid again, he’d beat the shit out of him. I didn’t mention that
Ronny had snitched, too, and Mike didn’t, either.
Five years after this initial snitching incident, Mike was back home,
and Ronny got into a f ght with a young man who, after Ronny had
beaten him soundly, began talking about how Ronny had snitched on
Mike a while ago, though “a lot of niggas don’t know that.” Mike handed
Ronny his T- shirt to clean himself of and said to the of ending young
man, “Get your fucking facts straight, nigga. Everybody knows Ronny
ain’t do that shit.”
Ronny’s strategy to repair his public persona and his relationship
with Mike after he had informed on him was to post Mike’s bail, attend
his court dates, and slowly regain his trust and forgiveness. He also
denied that he had snitched, and after a time Mike denied it along with
him, even sticking up for Ronny when others tried to revisit this piece
of history.
* * *
For young men around 6th Street who worry that the police will take
them into custody, the everyday relations, localities, and activities
that others rely on for their basic needs become a net of entrapment.
The police and the courts become dangerous to interact with, as does
showing up to work or to places like hospitals. Instead of a safe place
to sleep, eat, and f nd acceptance and support, their mother’s home is
transformed into a last known address, one of the f rst places the police
will look for them. Close relatives, friends, and neighbors become
potential informants.
One strategy for coping with the risky nature of everyday life is to
avoid dangerous places, people, and interactions entirely. Thus, a young
man learns to run and hide when the police are coming. He doesn’t
show up at the hospital when his child is born, nor does he seek medical
help when he is badly beaten. He doesn’t seek formal employment. He
doesn’t attend the funerals of his close friends or visit them in prison.
He avoids calling the police when harmed or using the courts to settle
disputes. A second strategy is to cultivate unpredictability—to remain
secretive and to dip and dodge. Thus, to ensure that those close to him
won’t inform on him, a young man comes and goes in irregular and
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The Art of Running
53
unpredictable ways, remaining elusive and untrusting, sleeping in different
beds, and deceiving those close to him about his whereabouts
and plans. He steadfastly avoids using his own name. He also lays out
a good deal of money to silence potential informants and to purchase
fake documents, clean urine, and the like. If a man exhausts these possibilities
and does encounter the police, he may f ee, hide, or try to bargain
for his freedom by informing on the people he knows.
The danger a wanted man comes to see in the mundane aspects of
everyday life, and the strategies he uses to avoid or reduce these risks,
have some larger implications for the way he sees the world, the way
others view him, and consequently the course his life may take. At a
minimum, his hesitancy to go to the authorities when harmed leads
him to become the target of others who are looking for someone to prey
upon. His fear of the hospital means that he doesn’t seek medical care
when he’s badly beaten, turning instead to underground assistance of
questionable repute.
More broadly, a man in this position comes to see that the activities,
relations, and localities that others rely on to maintain a decent and respectable
identity become for him a system that the authorities exploit
to arrest and conf ne him. Such a man f nds that as long as he is at risk
of conf nement, staying out of prison and maintaining family, work,
and friend relationships become contradictory goals: engaging in one
reduces his chance of achieving the other. Once a man fears that he will
be taken by the police, it is precisely a stable and public daily routine of
work and family life, with all the paper trail that it entails, that allows
the police to locate him. It is precisely his trust in his nearest and dearest
that will land him in police custody. A man in legal jeopardy f nds
that his ef orts to stay out of prison are aligned not with upstanding,
respectable action but with being a shady and distrustful character.
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55
To round up enough young men to meet their informal quotas and
satisfy their superiors, the police wait outside hospitals serving poor
Black communities and run the IDs of the men walking inside. They
stop young men sitting on the stoop and search their pockets for drugs.
But the police also deploy a less direct strategy to make their stats: they
turn to girlfriends, mothers, and relatives to provide information about
these young men’s whereabouts and activities.
The reliance on intimates as informants is not the dirty dealing of a
few rogue cops or the purview of a few specialized of cers. Police don’t
reserve this treatment for the families of those few men who make
their most wanted list. In our 2007 household survey of the 6th Street
neighborhood, 139 of 146 women reported that in the past three years,
a partner, neighbor, or close male relative was either wanted by the police,
serving a probation or parole sentence, going through a trial, living
in a halfway house, or on house arrest. Of the women we interviewed,
67 percent said that during that same period, the police had pressured
them to provide information about that person.
As the police lean on women to help round up their partners, brothers,
and sons, women face a crisis in their relationship and their selfimage.
Most help the police locate and convict the young men in their
lives, and so must f nd a way to cope publicly and privately with their betrayals.
A rare few manage to resist police pressure outright, garnering
signif cant local acclaim. A greater number work to rebuild themselves
and their relationships after they have informed, which is sometimes
successful and sometimes not. These cases are considered at the end.
When the Police
Knock Your Door In
THREE
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Chapter Three
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GETTING THE NEWS
The journey from intimate to informant (or, in rarer cases, from intimate
to resister) often begins when a woman discovers that the man in
her life has become wanted by the police, or has become more legally
precarious than he had been.1
On an unusually warm Sunday afternoon in March, Aisha and I sat
on the wide cement steps of her four- story subsidized apartment building.
Her boyfriend, Tommy, leaned on the railing beside her, chatting
with a neighbor who had stopped on his way home. Aisha’s aunt and
neighbor sat farther up the steps, waiting for their clothes to f nish at
the Laundromat across the street. We passed around a bag of jalapeño
sunf ower seeds and kept our eye out for Aisha’s cousin, who was supposed
to be coming back with a six- pack from the corner store. Time
dragged on, and Tommy remarked that she’d probably taken our pooled
money and gone to the bar.
As we sat watching the kids play and spitting the shells into little
piles beside us, Tommy unfolded a notice he had received that day from
family court, a notice that he must appear before a judge because the
mother of his two- year- old son was asking for back payments in child
support. If he came to court empty handed, he told us, the judge might
take him into custody on the spot. If he didn’t show up, a warrant might
be issued for his arrest for contempt.
“She just mad you don’t mess with her no more,” Aisha said. “She
knows you pay for all his clothes, all his sneaks. Everybody knows you
take care of your son.”
“When is the court date?” I asked.
“Next month,” Tommy answered, without looking up.
“Are you going to go?”
“He don’t have six hundred dollars!” Aisha cried.
We tried to calculate how many days in jail it would take to work
of this amount, but we couldn’t remember if they subtract f ve dollars
or ten dollars for each day served. Aisha’s aunt said she thought it was
less than that. Aisha concluded that Tommy would lose his job at the
hospital whether he spent two weeks or two years in jail, so the exact
amount he would work of per day was of little consequence.
Tommy looked at Aisha somberly and said, “If I run, is you riding?”
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When the Police Knock Your Door In
57
“Yeah, I’m riding.”
A neighbor’s f ve- year- old son started to cry, claiming that an
older boy had pushed him. Aisha yelled at him to get back onto the
sidewalk.
“If they come for me, you better not tell them where I’m at,” Tommy
said quietly.
“I’m not talking to no cops!”
“They probably don’t even have your address. They def nitely coming
to my mom’s, though, and my baby- mom’s. But if they do come,
don’t tell them nothing.”
“Shoot,” Aisha said. “Let them come. I’ll sic Bo right on them.”
“Yeah?” Tommy grinned appreciatively and nudged Aisha with his
shoulder.
Aisha’s aunt turned and eyed her skeptically, shaking her head.
“I’m not letting them take him,” Aisha f red back. “For what? So
he can just sit in jail for four months and lose his job? And don’t see
his son?”
Aisha and Tommy began dating shortly after I f rst met her, when
she was a high school freshman. What she liked about him then was
that he was gorgeous, for one, and dark skinned, even darker than she
was. Tommy, she said later, was not only her f rst; he was also her f rst
love. They kept in touch for years afterward, though Tommy had a child
with another woman, and Aisha began seriously seeing someone else.
When Aisha turned twenty- one, this second man was sentenced to f fteen
years in a federal penitentiary in Ohio. About six months later,
Aisha and Tommy got back together. Soon after that, Tommy began
working as a custodian at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.
When he got the call for the job, they cried and hugged in the living
room. Aisha had never dated a guy with a real job before, and became
the only woman in her extended family with this distinction.
* * *
“If they lock me up, you going to come see me?” Tommy asked her.
“Yeah, I’ma come see you. I’ma be up there every week.”
“I know that’s right,” Aisha’s neighbor said. “Them guards up there
going to know your name. They going to be like, ‘You always coming up
here, Aisha!’”2
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Chapter Three
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We laughed quietly.
Later that evening, two of Aisha’s girlfriends came by. She told them
about her conversation with Tommy: “He talking about, ‘if I run, is you
riding?’ Shoot, they ain’t taking him! They’re going to have to kill me
f rst.”
For Aisha, the news that Tommy may be taken came as a crushing
personal blow. But it was also an opportunity to express her devotion,
meditate on their relationship, and contemplate the lengths she would
go in the future to hold it together.
Other women considered their family member’s pending imprisonment
in more political terms. Mike’s mother, Miss Regina, was in her
late thirties when we met. A reserved and proper person, she had made
good grades in high school and got accepted to a local college. She became
pregnant with Mike that summer. The way she told it, Mike’s father
was the f rst person she had ever slept with, and she hoped they
would get married. But the man became a heavy crack user, and was in
and out of jail during Mike’s early years. By the time Mike was ten, Miss
Regina told his father to stop coming around.3
By all accounts, Miss Regina worked two and sometimes three jobs
while Mike was growing up, and she raised him with little help from her
own parents. Mike got into a lot of trouble during his high school years,
but managed to get his diploma by taking night classes.
By the time Mike came of age, the drama with the mother of his two
children and his frequent brushes with the authorities had caused Miss
Regina “a lifetime of grief.” By twenty- two, Mike had been in and out of
county jail and state prison, mostly on drug charges.
When we met, Miss Regina was working for the Salvation Army as a
caretaker to four elderly men and women whose homes she visited for
twelve- or eighteen- hour shifts three times a week. She had moved to
Northeast Philadelphia a few months before we met, noting that the
6th Street neighborhood had become too dangerous and dilapidated.
The house she was renting was spotless; she even had a special machine
to clear away the smoke from her cigarettes.
Miss Regina had just gotten home from work, and had started a load
of laundry in the basement. Her mother and I were watching the soap
opera Guiding Light on the plush loveseat in the living room when the
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When the Police Knock Your Door In
59
phone rang. From the kitchen Miss Regina yelled, “I don’t believe this.”
She passed me the phone; it was Mike, who told me his PO (probation
of cer) had issued him a warrant for breaking curfew at the halfway
house last night. He had come home from prison less than a month ago;
this violation would send him back for the remainder of his sentence,
pending the judge’s decision. When we hung up, Miss Regina lit a cigarette
and paced around the living room, wiping down the surfaces of
the banister and TV stand with a damp rag.
“He’s going to spend two years in prison for breaking curfew? I’m not
going to let them. They are taking all our sons, Alice. Our young men.
And it’s getting younger and younger.”
Miss Regina’s mother, a quiet, churchgoing woman in her sixties,
nodded and mumbled that it is indeed unfair to send a man to prison
for coming home late to a halfway house. Miss Regina continued to
pace, now spraying cleaning solvent on the glass table.
Let me ask you something, Alice. When you go up the F [local slang for
the Curran- Fromhold Correctional Facility (CFCF), the county jail], why do
you see nothing but Black men in jumpsuits sitting there in the visiting
room? When you go to the halfway house, why is it nothing but Black faces
staring out the glass? They are taking our children, Alice. I am a law- abiding
woman; my uncle was a cop. They can’t do that.
On seventy- one occasions between 2002 and 2010, I witnessed a
woman discovering that a partner or family member had become wanted
by the police. Sometimes this notice came in the form of a battering
ram knocking her door in at three in the morning. But oftentimes there
was a gap between the identif cation of a man as wanted and the police’s
attempts to apprehend him. Before the authorities came knocking,
a letter would arrive from the courts explaining that a woman’s
f ancé had either missed too many payments on his court fees or failed
to appear in court, and that a bench warrant was out for his arrest. Or a
woman would phone her son’s PO and learn that he did indeed miss his
piss test again, or failed to return to the halfway house in time for curfew,
and an arrest warrant would likely be issued, pending the judge’s
decision. At other times, women would f nd out that the man in their
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Chapter Three
60
lives was wanted because the police had tried and failed to apprehend
him at another location.
In f fty- eight of the seventy- one times I watched women receive this
news, they reacted with promises to shield their loved one from arrest.
In local language, this is called riding.
Broadly def ned, to ride is to protect or avenge oneself or someone
dear against assaults to person or property. In this context, to
ride means to shield a loved one from the police, and to support him
through his trial and conf nement if one fails in the f rst goal of keeping
him free.4
It may come as a surprise that the majority of women I met who
learned that a spouse or family member was wanted by the police initially
expressed anger at the authorities, not the man, and promised
to support him and protect him while he was hunted. In part, I think
these women understood how easy it was to get a warrant when you are
a Black young man in neighborhoods like 6th Street; they understood
that warrants are issued not only for serious crimes but for technical
violations of probation or parole, for failure to pay steep court f nes and
fees, or for failure to appear for one of the many court dates a man may
have in a given month.5
A second and related reason for women’s anger
is that the police have lost considerable legitimacy in the community:
they are seen searching, questioning, beating, and rounding up young
men all over the neighborhood. As Miss Regina often put it, the police
are “an occupying force.” A third reason is more basic: no matter what
a woman’s opinion of the police or of the man’s actions, she loves him,
and does not want to part with him or see him subjected to what has
been referred to as the pains of imprisonment.6
Riding is easy to do in the abstract. If the authorities never come
looking, a woman can believe that she will hold up under police pressure
and do her utmost to hide the man and protect him. So long as the
threats of police pressure and prison are real but unrealized, a woman
can believe in the most idealized version of herself. The man, too, can
believe in this ideal version of her and of their relationship.
A few days after Tommy received the notice from family court, he
went to the police station and turned himself in. The police never came
to question Aisha. They did come for Miss Regina’s son, Mike.
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When the Police Knock Your Door In
61
WHEN THE POLICE COME
I’d spent the night at Miss Regina’s house watching Gangs of New York
with Mike and Chuck for maybe the hundredth time. I had fallen asleep
on the living room couch and so heard the banging in my dream, mixed
in with the title page music, which the DVD played over and over.
The door busting open brought me fully awake. I pushed myself into
the couch to get away from it, thinking it might hit me on the way down
if it broke all the way of its hinges. Two of cers came through the door,
both of them white, in SWAT gear, with guns strapped to the sides of
their legs. The f rst of cer in pointed a gun at me and asked who was in
the house; he continued to point the gun toward me as he went up the
stairs. I wondered if Mike and Chuck were in the house somewhere, and
hoped they had gone.
The second of cer in pulled me out of the cushions and, gripping
my wrists, brought me up of the couch and onto the f oor, so that my
shoulders and spine hit f rst and my legs came down after. He quickly
turned me over, and my face hit the f oor. I couldn’t brace myself, because
he was still holding one of my wrists, now pinned behind me. I
wondered if he’d broken my nose or cheek. (Can you break a cheek?) His
boot pressed into my back, right at the spot where it had hit the f oor,
and I cried for him to stop. He put my wrists in plastic cuf s behind my
back; I knew this because metal ones feel cold. My shoulder throbbed,
and the handcuf s pinched. I tried to wriggle my arms, and the cop
moved his boot down to cover my hands, crushing my f ngers together.
I yelled, but it came out quiet and raspy, like I had given up. My hipbones
began to ache—his weight was pushing them into the thin carpet.
A third cop, taller and skinnier, blond hair cut close to his head, entered
the house and walked into the kitchen. I could hear china breaking,
and watched him pull the fridge away from the wall. Then he came
into the living room and pulled a small knife from its sheath on his
lower leg. He cut the fabric of the couch, revealing the foam inside.
Then he moved to the closet and pulled board games and photo albums
and old shoes out onto the f oor. He climbed on top of the TV stand and
pushed the squares of the drop ceiling out, letting them hit the f oor
one on top of the other.
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Chapter Three
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I could hear banging and clattering from upstairs, and then Miss
Regina screaming at the cop not to shoot her, pleading with him to
let her get dressed. All the while, the cop with his foot on me yelled
for me to say where Mike was hiding. It would be my fault when Miss
Regina’s house got destroyed, he said. “And I can tell she takes pride in
her house.”
TECHNIQUES OF PERSUASION
If the police decide to go after a man, chances are they will ask his relatives
and partner where he is. Because these intimates are immersed
in the lives of their legally precarious family members and partners,
they tend to have considerable knowledge about their activities and
routines. They know where a young man shops and sleeps, where he
keeps his possessions, and with whom he is connected.
These days it isn’t dif cult, expensive, or time consuming for the
police to identify family members who may have information about
the whereabouts or incriminating activities of a man they are after. Nor
does it require direct knowledge of the neighborhood or its inhabitants
gained through close association. Rather, information about a man’s
relatives, children, partner, and relationship history can now be easily
retrieved with a few keystrokes.
When the police arrest and process a man, they ask him to provide a
good deal of information about his friends and relatives—where they
live and where he lives, what names they go by, how to reach them. The
more information he provides, the lower his bail will be, so he has a
signif cant incentive to do this. By the time a man has been arrested a
number of times, the police have substantial information about where
his girlfriend works, where his mother lives, where his child goes to
school.
Once a man has become wanted, the police visit his mother or girlfriend,
and try to persuade her to give him up. In the words of one
former Warrant Unit of cer, “We might be able to track people with
their cell phones or see every guy with a warrant in the neighborhood
up on the computer screen, but when it comes down to it, you always
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When the Police Knock Your Door In
63
go through the girlfriend, the grandmother, because she knows where
he is, and she knows what he’s done.”7
After the police locate a family member or partner, they employ a series
of techniques to gain the woman’s cooperation. These begin when
the police are searching for a man or arresting him, but may continue
through his trial and sentencing as they attempt to gather information
that will facilitate a conviction.8
The most direct pressure the police apply to women to get them to
talk is physical force: the destruction of their property and, in some
cases, bodily injury. From what I have seen around 6th Street and
nearby neighborhoods, police violence toward women occurs most
frequently during raids. During these raids and also during interrogations,
they deploy a number of less physical tactics to get uncooperative
women to talk. The major three are threats of arrest, eviction, and
loss of child custody.
Threats of Arrest
During raids and interrogations, the police threaten to arrest women
for an array of crimes. First, they explain to a woman that her ef orts to
protect the man in her life constitute crimes in their own right. When
Chuck’s mother, Miss Linda, blocked the police’s entrance to her home
and waved an of cer away as he pulled up her carpet and opened up
her ceiling, the of cers explained that they could charge her with assault
on an of cer, aiding and abetting a fugitive, and interfering with
an arrest. They also told her that she would face charges for the gun
they found in her house, since she didn’t have a permit for it. (In fact,
in Philadelphia a permit is required only for carrying.) When Aisha’s
neighbor said she would refuse to testify against her son, of cers told
her that she would go to jail for contempt. Once she agreed to cooperate,
they informed her that if she changed her statement she would be
jailed for lying under oath.
Beyond her ef orts to protect the man in question, the police make
it clear to a woman that many of her routine practices and everyday
behaviors are grounds for arrest. Over the course of raids and interrogations,
the of cers make women realize that their daily lives are full
of crimes, crimes the police are well aware of, and crimes that carry
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high punishments, should the authorities feel inclined to pursue them.
When the police came for Mike’s cousin, they told his aunt that the
property taxes she hadn’t paid and some long- overdue traf c f nes constituted
tax evasion and contempt of court. The electricity that she was
getting from her neighbor two doors down, via three joined extension
cords trailed through the back alley (because her own electricity had
long been cut of , and for the use of which she was babysitting her
neighbor’s two children three times a week), constituted theft, a public
hazard, and a violation of city code.
The police also explain to a woman that she can be charged for
the man’s crimes. Mike’s girlfriend told me she was sure she would
be charged for possessing the gun or the drugs if she didn’t give Mike
up, since the police found them in her house and car. The police also
threatened to bring her up on conspiracy charges, claiming that they
had placed a tap on her cell phone and so had proof that she was aware
of Mike’s activities.
Police raids also place a woman’s other male relatives in jeopardy.
When Mike had a warrant out for his arrest and the police were showing
up at his mother’s house, she became very worried that her f ancé,
who was driving without a license and who was also selling small quantities
of marijuana as a supplement to his job at the hospital, would
come under scrutiny. Because it is very likely that the other men in a
woman’s life are also facing some violation or pending legal action (or
engaged in the drug trade or other illegal work), the police’s pursuit of
one man represents a fairly direct threat to the other men a woman
holds dear.
Finally, the police tell a woman that if her present and past behavior
is insuf cient grounds for arrest, they will use every technology at their
disposal to monitor her future activities. Any new crimes she commits
will be quickly identif ed and prosecuted, along with any future crimes
committed by her nearest and dearest. If she drives after she has been
drinking, if she smokes marijuana, if her son steals candy from the
store—they will know, and she or he will go to jail.
The threat of arrest and imprisonment is a powerful technique of
persuasion, and perhaps more so when deployed on women. Fewer
women than men go to prison or jail, making it a scarier prospect.
Women don’t receive the same degree of familial support available to
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When the Police Knock Your Door In
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men, as visiting people in prison is considered women’s work, done for
men by their female partners and kin, and men are less able to visit.9
In the 6th Street neighborhood, people tend to regard imprisonment
as more of an indictment of a woman’s character and lifestyle than
a man’s, partly on the grounds that police routinely stop and search
men, while women must do something more extreme to get the police’s
attention.
Threats of Eviction
In addition to threats of arrest and imprisonment, the police threaten
to evict women who do not cooperate.10 They told my next- door neighbor
that if she didn’t give up her nephew, they would call Licensing and
Inspection and get her dilapidated house condemned. And when the
police came to Steve’s grandmother’s house looking for him, they noted
that the electricity and gas weren’t on, the water wasn’t running, and
the bathtub was being used as an outhouse. These violations of the municipal
health and building codes would easily constitute grounds for
the city to repossess her property. The of cers also informed her that
the infestation of roaches, mice, and f eas in the house were suf cient
grounds for the landlord to revoke her lease. Further, since she had
placed the bail for Steve in her name, his running meant that the city
could go after her for the entire bail amount—not just the 10 percent
she put up, which meant the city could also take her car and her future
earnings. When the police came to Aisha’s neighbor’s house looking for
the neighbor’s on- again, of – again boyfriend, they informed her that if
she didn’t give him up, they would come back late at night in a full raid.
Since her apartment was subsidized, she could be immediately evicted
for harboring a fugitive and putting her neighbors at risk. She would
lose her present accommodations and all rights to obtain subsidized
housing in the future.
Child Custody Threats
Another tactic that the police use to persuade women to talk is to
threaten to take away their children. When the police raided Mike’s
neighbor’s house, they told his wife that if she didn’t explain where
to f nd him, they’d call Child Protective Services and report that the
windows were taped up with trash bags, that the heat had been cut
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of and the open stove was being used as a furnace, and that her children
were sleeping on the sofa. Of cers also found marijuana and a
crack pipe in the house. If she continued to be uncooperative, this evidence
would build a powerful case for child neglect and unf t living
conditions. That evening, the woman packed up her three children and
drove them to Delaware to stay with an aunt until the police activity
died down.
Most of the threats police make to women over the course of a raid,
a stop, or an interrogation are never realized. Consequently, when a
woman attempting to protect a man from the authorities does get arrested
or evicted, or loses custody of her children, the news spreads
quickly. Anthony had a cousin who lived in Virginia; she was sentenced
to f ve years in prison for conspiracy to sell drugs and possession of an
illegal f rearm after she refused to serve as a witness for the case against
the father of her child. With both her parents in prison, the four- yearold
daughter was sent to Philadelphia, where she was passed from relative
to relative. Two of Miss Linda’s neighbors got evicted from their
government- subsidized housing for harboring a fugitive and interfering
with an arrest when the police entered their home searching for a
man who had robbed a bank. Families around 6th Street often recalled
such stories when they anticipated a raid, or after some interaction
with the police.
Presenting Disparaging Evidence
In order to get her to provide information, the police may injure a
woman or destroy her property. If she persists in protecting the man,
they threaten to arrest her, to publicly denounce her, to conf scate and
appropriate her possessions, to evict her, or to take her children away.
We might call violence and threats external forces of attack, as they operate
from the outside to weaken the bonds between the woman and the
man the police are after.
The authorities also work within the relationship, by presenting the
woman with information about the man that shatters her high opinion
of him and destroys the positive image she has of their relationship. We
might call this an internal attack, as it works to break the bonds between
men and women from the inside.
The police’s presentation of disparaging evidence operates as a comYou
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When the Police Knock Your Door In
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plex, two- way maneuver. First, they demonstrate to the woman that
the man she is trying to protect has cheated on her. They show her his
cell phone records, text messages, and statements from women in the
neighborhood. The improvement of tracking technologies means that
no large ef ort need be made to furnish these pieces of evidence: they
can be quickly gathered at a computer. If the police have no concrete
evidence, they suggest and insinuate that the man has been unfaithful,
or at least that he doesn’t truly care about her but is simply using her.
At this point the of cers explain that at the f rst opportunity, this man
who does not love her will give her up to save his own skin, will allow
her to be blamed for his crimes. Perhaps he has already done so.
Just as the of cers are explaining to the woman how her partner has
been unfaithful and duplicitous, and would easily let her hang for his
crimes, so they present the man with evidence of her betrayals. They
show him statements she signed down at the precinct detailing his
activities, or the call sheet f lled out at the Warrant Unit, where, after
repeated raids on her house, she phoned to tell authorities where he
was hiding. They may also show him evidence that she has cheated on
him, which they collect by tracking her cell phone, bills, and purchases,
or from statements given by other men and women who are part of the
couple’s circle.
In short, the police denigrate the man and the relationship to the
point that a woman cannot protect him and continue to think of herself
as a person of worth. In anger and hurt, and saddled with the new
fear that this man who doesn’t love her may try to blame her for his
misdeeds, leaving her to rot in prison, a woman becomes increasingly
eager to help the police.
Moral Appeals
The previous techniques of persuasion work by weakening the bonds
between the woman and the man the police are pursuing. Moral appeals
to the value of imprisonment operate on the opposite principle:
they rely on the strength of the woman’s attachment, and play on her
resolve to help and protect him. Specif cally, moral appeals involve adjusting
what the woman believes to be the right thing to do concerning
the man she loves.
Before the police come knocking, a woman may believe that it is best
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Chapter Three
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for the man in her life to stay out of prison. He will go crazy in his cell,
he will get stabbed, or get AIDS, or have an unhealthy diet. The prison
won’t see to his medical needs, like his diabetes or the worrisome bullets
lodged in his body.11 He will lose his job if he has one, or f nd it more
dif cult to f nd work once he comes home. Being in a cell day after day,
cut of from society, with guards barking orders at him, he will become
dehumanized, and normal life will become unfamiliar to him. To keep
him from this fate, sacrif ces must be made.
The police explain to the woman that this logic is f awed. In fact,
the man would benef t from a stay in prison. He needs to make a clean
break from his bad associates. It is not safe for him on the streets; he
might be killed if he continues to sell drugs, or may overdose, if his proclivities
run that way. He is spiraling deeper and deeper into dangerous
behavior; jail will be a safe haven for him. Going to prison will teach
him a lesson; he will emerge a better man, one more capable of caring
for her and the children. The drama must end, they tell her, his drama
and the drama that comes because of all the police activity. He has too
many legal entanglements, too many court cases, warrants, probation
sentences. He will be better able to f nd work without the warrants. It
would be better if the man simply got it over with and began his life
afresh. She can help him; she can save him before it is too late. He will
thank her one day for this tough love.
A variant on this line of persuasion is that while it may not be best
for the man to go to prison, it will be best for the family as a whole. Protecting
the man means that she risks losing her children and her home;
the bail in her name means that she could go into debt to the city and
be jailed if she cannot pay it. His actions also expose her children to bad
people and bad things. As a responsible mother, sister, or daughter, she
should save her family and turn him in.
Promises of Conf dentiality and Other Protections
The police’s techniques of persuasion are often bolstered by promises
that no information she provides will be shared with the man or with
anyone else among her acquaintance. In twenty- one of the twenty- four
raids that I witnessed, of cers told family members that the man would
never be made aware that they had given him up. During the two questionings
I was involved in, the police assured me of my conf dentiality,
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and when women recounted their own interrogations, they mentioned
that the same promise was made to them the majority of the time.
The Multipronged Approach
Violence, threats, disparaging evidence, moral appeals, and promises of
protection are analytically separable, but the police often deploy these
techniques in tandem, each serving to strengthen and reinforce the
other.
It was dif cult for me to observe women’s interrogations, because
they were conducted behind closed doors at the police department,
and women were reluctant to recount their experience once they got
back home. For these reasons, I have used my own interrogation as an
example.
This interrogation is notable because the police made use of many
of the techniques described above, despite having very little to work
with: they did not know what my relationship was to the men they were
interested in; I was not living in public housing; I had no children; and
neither I nor anyone in my immediate family had an arrest history or
pending legal problems.
I had dropped Mike and Chuck of on 6th Street and was heading toward
the airport to pick up a friend. Two unmarked cars come up behind me, a
portable siren on top of the f rst one, and I pull over. A cop walks over to
my window and shines a f ashlight in my face; he orders me to step out of
the car and show him my license. Then one of the cops tells me I am coming
with them.
I leave the car on 2nd Street and get into the backseat of their car, a
green Lincoln. The white cop in the back with me would have been skinny
if not for the bulletproof vest, holster, gun, nightstick, and whatever else
he had in his belt. He cracks bubble- gum hard and smells like the stuf
Mike and Chuck use to clean their guns. On the way to the precinct, the
white cop who is driving tells me that if I am looking for some Black dick, I
don’t have to go to 6th Street; I could come right to the precinct at 8th and
Vine. The Black cop in the passenger side grins and shakes his head, says
something about how he doesn’t want any of me; he would probably catch
some shit.
At the precinct, another white guy pats me down. He is smirking at me
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Chapter Three
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as he touches my hips and thighs. There is a certain look of disdain, or perhaps
disgust, that white men sometimes give to white women whom they
believe to be having sex with Black men—Black men who get arrested,
especially.
They take me up the stairs to the second f oor, the Detective Unit. I sit
in a little room for a while, and then the two white cops come in, darkgreen
cargo pants and big black combat boots, and big guns strapped onto
their legs. They remove the guns and put them on the table facing me. One
cop leafs through a folder and puts pictures in front of me of Mike, then
Chuck, then Reggie. Most of the pictures are of 6th Street, some taken
right in front of my apartment. Some mug shots. Of the forty or so pictures
he shows me, I knew about ten men by name and recognize another ten.
They question me for about an hour and a half. From what I remember
many hours later:
Is Mike the supplier? Do you think he’ll protect you when we bring him
in? He won’t protect you! Who has the best stuf , between Mike and
Steve, in your expert opinion? We know you were around here last week
when all that shit went down. (What shit?) We saw you on 2nd Street,
and we know you’re up on 4th Street. What business do you have up 4th
Street? I hate to see a pretty young girl get passed around so much. Do
your parents know that you’re fucking a dif erent nigger every night?
The good cop counters with: All we want to do is protect you. We are
trying to help you. We’re not going to tell him you gave us any information.
This is between us. No paper trail. Did you sign anything when
you came in? No. Nobody knows you are even here. The bad cop: If you
can’t work with us, then who will you call when he’s sticking a gun to
your head? You can’t call us! He’ll kill you over a couple of grams. You
know that, right? You better hope whoever you’re fucking isn’t in one of
the pictures you’re looking at here, because all of these boys, see them?
Each and every one of them will be in jail by Monday morning. And
he’ll be the f rst one to drop your name when he’s sitting in this chair.
And then it’s conspiracy, obstruction of justice, harboring a fugitive,
concealing narcotics, f rearms. How do you think we picked you up in
the f rst place? Who do you think is the snitch? What is your Daddy going
to say when you call him from the station and ask him to post your
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When the Police Knock Your Door In
71
bail? Bet he’d love to hear what you are doing. Do you kiss him with that
mouth?
* * *
To fully grasp the ef ect of these techniques of persuasion on women,
we must understand the broader context of police violence in which
they occur.
Between November 2002 and April of 2003, I spent a large part of every
day with Aisha and her friends and relatives, who lived about f fteen
blocks away from 6th Street. From the steps of her building or walking
around the adjacent blocks, on fourteen occasions, a little more than
twice a month, we watched the police beat up people as they were arresting
them. Here is one account from the fall of 2007:
It is late afternoon, and Aisha and I are sitting on the stoop, chatting with
her aunt and her older cousin. Aisha’s mother sits next to us, waiting for
her boyfriend to come with f ve dollars so that she can f nish her laundry.
A white police of cer jogs by, his torso weaving awkwardly, his breath
coming loud enough for us to hear. Then I notice a young man running
a little ahead of him, also out of breath, as if he had been running for a
long time. The man slows to a walk, and leans down with his hands on
his knees. The cop approaches him, running in this stilted way, and grabs
the back of his neck with one hand, pushing him down to the ground.
Drawing his nightstick, he straddles the man in a half crouch, and begins
hitting him in the back and neck with it.
Two of Aisha’s neighbors get up of the steps and quietly approach the
scene, keeping some yards away. Aisha makes no move to get up; nor does
her aunt or cousin. But we lean over to see.
Police cars pull up to the corner with sirens and lights on, f rst one then
another, then another, blocking the street of . They handcuf the young
man, whose face is now covered in blood, especially the side that had been
scraped across the cement.
The police move the man to the cop car, and one cop places his hand
on top of the man’s head to guide him into the backseat. Then they look
around on the ground, apparently searching the area for something. Two
of the cops speak into walkie- talkies.
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“He must have had a gun or drugs on him,” Aisha’s aunt says.
“I didn’t see nothing,” a neighbor replies.
When the police cars begin to pull of , a neighbor says that she saw one
cop punch the man in the face after he was already cuf ed.
Aisha’s cousin, a stout young man of nineteen, gets up of the steps.
“Yo, I’m out, Aisha. It’s too hot on your block.”
“Okay,” she laughs. “Tell your mom I said hi.”
An elderly woman comes out after a few minutes with a bucket of
bleach and water and pours it over the sidewalk, to clean the blood. Aisha
and I go back to talking about her boyfriend, who has just received a
sentence of f fteen years in federal prison. As the day goes on, I notice that
Aisha and her family make no mention of what we have seen. Perhaps
because they don’t know the man personally, this event is not important
enough to recount to those not present when it occurred.
That summer was punctuated by more severe police action. On a
hot afternoon in July, Aisha and I stood on a crowded corner of a major
commercial street and watched four of cers chase down her older
sister’s boyfriend and strangle him. He was unarmed and did not f ght
back. The newspapers reported his death as heart failure. In August,
we visited an old boyfriend of Aisha’s shortly after he got to county
jail. Deep lacerations covered his cheeks, and his eyes had swollen to
tiny slits. The beating he took while being arrested, and the subsequent
infection left untreated while he sat in quarantine, took most of the
vision from his right eye.
In interviews, Warrant Unit of cers explained to me that this violence
represents of cial (if unpublicized) policy, rather than a few cops
taking things too far. The Philadelphia police I interviewed have a liberal
understanding of what constitutes reasonable force, and a number
of of cers told me that they have orders from their captains that any
person who so much as touches a cop “better be going to the hospital.”
In sum, the police apply a certain amount of violence to women to get
them to talk, but substantially more to men as they chase them down
and arrest them. The violence that women witness and hear about f xes
what the police are capable of doing f rmly in their minds. This knowledge
likely spurs their cooperation, should the police desire it.
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BECOMING A SNITCH OR AN ABANDONER
As the police roll out their techniques of persuasion, as they raid a
woman’s house and pull her in for questioning, the woman’s public
reckoning begins. Relatives, neighbors, and friends watch to see how
she will hold up as the police threaten to arrest her, to evict her, or to
take her children away.
When the raids and interrogations begin, many women f nd that
they cannot live up to the hopes they and others had for their conduct.
Rather than be the man’s “ride- or- die chick,” they implore him to turn
himself in. Rather than hide him and help him survive, they kick him
out of the house and cut of all contact, perhaps leaving him without
food or shelter. Rather than remain silent in the face of police questioning,
they give up all the information they can.
Shortly after Mike’s baby- mom, Marie, had given birth to their second
child, the police came to his mother’s house looking for him on a
gun charge. When Marie heard this news, she called me on the phone
to discuss it and, in between her screams and cries, explained her concerns
for him:
You remember last time? He stopped eating! And then they put him in the
hole [solitary conf nement] for no reason. Remember how he was in the
hole? I can’t take those calls no more. He was really losing it. No sunlight.
Nobody to talk to. Plus, he could get stabbed up, or get AIDS. How I’m supposed
to take care of the baby? They don’t care he got a bullet in his hip.
Won’t none of them guards pay attention to that, and I can tell it’s getting
ready to come out [push through the skin].
Firm in her conviction that Mike would suf er in jail, and determined to
keep her growing family together, Marie promised to do whatever she
could to protect him from the authorities.
Then the police paid a visit to Marie’s house. They came early in the
morning, waking up the baby. They didn’t search the house, but sat and
talked with her about the necessity of turning Mike in.
I came over that afternoon. Visibly shaken, Marie seemed to have
adopted quite a dif erent view of things:
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MARIE: He needs to get away from these nut- ass niggas out here, Alice. It’s
not safe for him on the streets; he could get killed out here. He needs to
go in there, get his mind right, and come out here—
MARIE’S MOTHER:—and act like a man.
MARIE: Yes. Because the drama has to stop, Alice. He has too much stuf
[legal entanglements]. He needs to go in and get all that taken care of.
How he supposed to get a job when he got two warrants on him? He
needs a fresh start. He ain’t going to like it, but he going. Soon as I see
him [I’m calling the number on the card the police gave me].
In fact, Marie did not call the police on Mike right away; she tried to
persuade him to turn himself in. Mike refused, and Marie continued to
try to “talk some sense into him” over the next few days. She called the
number on the card on the f fth day, after a second visit from the police.
As they drove him of in handcuf s, we sat on the stoop and talked.
MARIE: I know he not going to take my visits right away but I don’t care,
like, it had to be done. It’s too much drama, Alice. He can call me a
snitch, I don’t care. I know in my heart—
MARIE’S MOTHER:—that was the right thing to do.
After Marie got Mike taken away, he castigated her daily from jail
and spread the word that she had snitched. This, she said, was nothing
compared to the internal anguish she felt over betraying the father of
her two children, and her most trusted friend. The pains of his conf nement,
she explained, rested on her shoulders:
Every time he hungry in there, or he lonely, or the guards is talking shit to
him, that’s on my head. Every time he miss his son—I did that to him.
THE TRUE RIDER
Overwhelmingly, women who come under police pressure cave: they
cut of ties to the man they had promised to protect, or they work
with the police to get him arrested and convicted. When this happens,
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When the Police Knock Your Door In
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women suf er public humiliation and private shame, and face the diff
cult task of salvaging their moral worth in the wake of their betrayals.
Most often, the relationship is permanently ruined; to salvage her dignity,
the woman may start over with a new man in a new social scene—
perhaps a few blocks away, or better yet, in another neighborhood. Four
times I observed women pack up and move after being publicly labeled
a snitch.
I witnessed a number of situations in which the police pressure
never materialized. The man turned himself in, or wasn’t pursued after
all, or the police caught up to him quickly and so didn’t get around
to putting pressure on his girlfriend or relatives. In these cases, the
woman doesn’t have to manage her spoiled identity or reconstruct her
relationship, because she didn’t have to resort to betraying her boyfriend,
brother, or son.
In other cases, a woman is able to support and protect the man because
the police don’t connect her to him, and therefore don’t put pressure
on her or her family directly. Because a man’s main girlfriend and
close relatives tend to be known to the police and targeted for information,
he often f nds his inner circle untrustworthy, while someone with
whom he has a weaker connection—a new friend, an old girlfriend, or
a more distant cousin—turns out to be the true rider.
Most of the time, women who are identif ed by the police cave quickly
under their pressure. But a few women around 6th Street showed remarkable
strength in resisting them. Miss Linda’s ability to resist police
pressure was widely recognized in the 6th Street community. As Mike
once proclaimed to a small crowd assembled on her steps after a raid,
“She might be a thief and her house might be dirty as shit, but Miss L
ain’t talking. She don’t care if they bang her door in, she don’t give a fuck!”
Miss Linda would often say that she rode hard for her three sons because
she had more heart than other women, but the truth of the matter
was that she also had more practice. Chuck, Reggie, Tim, and their
friends and associates brought the law to her house on at least twenty-
three occasions during my six years on 6th Street.12
When her middle son, Reggie, was seventeen, the police stopped him
for loitering on the corner, and he allowed them to search him. An off
cer discovered three small bags of crack in the lining of his jeans, and
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Reggie started running. The cops lost him in the chase, and an arrest
warrant was issued for possession of drugs with intent to distribute.
That evening, Miss Linda prepared her house for the raid she seemed
sure was coming. She located the two guns that Reggie and his older
brother, Chuck, had hidden in the ceiling, and stashed them at a neighbor’s.
She did the same with Chuck’s bulletproof vest, his bullets, and
the tiny plastic baggies he used to hold the small amounts of crack he
was selling at the time. She took her marijuana stash, along with her
various crack- smoking paraphernalia, to her boyfriend’s house three
blocks up. And after some ef ort, she secured accommodations for
Chuck’s close friend Anthony, who had been sleeping in their basement
and had a bench warrant out for failure to appear. She let her neighbors
know that the police were coming so that their sons and cousins could
go elsewhere for the night. (This was in case the police got the wrong
house, which had happened before, or in case they decided to search the
houses nearby.) She dug out the sixty dollars Reggie had hidden in the
wall, as the police typically take whatever cash they f nd. She persuaded
her father, Mr. George, to sleep at his girlfriend’s place that night, in
case “the law gives him a coronary.”
Though Miss Linda had instructed Reggie to leave the house before
midnight, he fell asleep by accident, and was still there when a three-
man SWAT team busted the door in at about four in the morning. (The
door remains broken and unlocked to this day.) Miss Linda had slept on
the couch in preparation and, unsure if Reggie was still in the house,
launched into a heated argument with the of cers to delay their going
upstairs. This ruse proved successful. According to Reggie, he was able
to leave through a window in his bedroom and run through the alley
before they could catch him.
The next night, three of cers returned and ordered Reggie’s younger
brother, Tim, and Mr. George to lie facedown on the f oor with their
hands on their heads while they searched the house. According to Tim,
an of cer promised Miss Linda that if she gave Reggie up, they would
not tell him that she was the one who had betrayed him. If she did not
give her son up, the of cer said he’d call Child Protective Services and
have her youngest son taken away, because the house was infested with
roaches, covered in cat shit, and unf t to live in. On this night, she again
refused to tell the police where Reggie was.
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When the Police Knock Your Door In
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Shaken but triumphant, Miss Linda came out early the next morning
to tell her friends and neighbors the story. We sat on her iron backporch
steps that look out onto the shared alleyway.
MISS LINDA: I do my dirt, I’m the f rst to admit it. Some people say I’m a
bad mother. You can say what you want about me, but everybody knows
I protect my sons. All three of them. These girls out here can talk all
they want, but watch when the fucking law comes BAM! knocks they
door in. Don’t none of these girls know about that. They can talk, but
won’t none of them ride like me. Only some females is true riders, and
I’m one of them females. [Takes a drag from her cigarette, nods her head
conf dently. Grins.] They can come back every night.
When her cousin came to sit with us, Miss Linda repeated the story,
adding that she had deliberately worn her sexiest lingerie for the raid,
and had proudly stuck out her chest and butt when the of cer was cuf –
ing her against the wall. She acted this out to shrieks of laughter. She
said that she told a particularly good- looking of cer, “Honey, you so
f ne, you can search me anytime!”
Later in the day, more police of cers came to search the house, and
while they were pulling it apart once again, Reggie phoned to see if
they were still there and if his mother was alright. Sitting not two feet
from one of the of cers, she coolly replied, “Yeah, Mom- Mom. I got to
call you back later, because the police are here looking for Reggie. You
haven’t seen him, have you? Okay, alright. I’ll call you back later. I’ll pick
up the Pampers when I go food shopping.”
When the police left, Miss Linda told me: “Big George [her father]
is going to tell me to clean this shit up as soon as he comes in. But I’m
not cleaning till next week. They’re going to keep coming, and I’m not
putting this house back together every fucking morning.”
I was there two nights later when the police raided Miss Linda’s
house for the third time. On this night, three of cers put plastic cuf s
on us and laid us facedown on the living room f oor while they searched
the house. Despite her previous boasts of telling of the police and
propositioning them with “I got three holes, pick one,” Miss Linda cried
and screamed when they dropped her to the f oor. An of cer mentioned
that the family was lucky that Mr. George owned the house: if it were a
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Chapter Three
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Section 8–subsidized building, Miss Linda and her sons could be immediately
evicted for endangering their neighbors and harboring a fugitive.
(Indeed, I had seen this happen recently to two other families.)
Upstairs, the police found a gun that Miss Linda couldn’t produce a
permit for; they arrested her and took her to the police station. When
Tim and I picked her up that afternoon, she said she was told that she
would face gun charges unless she told the police where to f nd Reggie.
They also promised her anonymity, though she said she didn’t believe
them for a second.
By her own and Tim’s accounts Miss Linda had been quite stalwart
up until this point, but the third raid and the lengthy interrogation
seemed to weaken her resolve. When Reggie came around later to pick
up the spaghetti she had prepared for him, she begged him to turn
himself in. He refused.
A week later, Miss Linda was coming home from her boyfriend’s
house and found her TV and clothing dumped in the alleyway. Her father,
Mr. George, told her that he would no longer allow her to live there
with Tim if she continued to hide Reggie from the police:
This ain’t no damn carnival. I don’t care who he is, I’m not letting nobody
run through this house with the cops chasing him, breaking shit, spilling
shit, waking me up out of my sleep. I’m not with the late- night screaming
and running. I open my eyes and I see a nigga hopping over my bed trying
to crawl out the window. Hell, no! Like I told Reggie, if the law run up in
here one more time I be done had a stroke. Reggie is a grown- ass man [he
was seventeen]. He ain’t hiding out in my damn house. We going to fuck
around and wind up in jail with this shit. They keep coming, they going to
f nd some reason to book my Black ass.
Mr. George began calling the police whenever he saw Reggie in the
house, and Miss Linda told her son that he could no longer stay there.
For two months, Reggie lived in an abandoned Buick LeSabre parked
in a nearby alleyway.
Here under extreme duress, Miss Linda nonetheless refused to tell
the police where to f nd Reggie. And though she ultimately begged him
to turn himself in, and then kicked him out of the house when her
father threatened to evict her, she never gave her son up to the poYou
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When the Police Knock Your Door In
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lice. While Reggie was sleeping in the Buick, she kept in close touch
with him, supplying him with food almost every evening. Her neighbors
and family, and Reggie himself, seemed to believe that she had
done the best she could, better than anyone else could have done. The
evening the cops took Reggie in, I sat with Miss Linda and some of
her neighbors. She poured Red Irish Rose wine into small plastic cups
for us.
MISS LINDA: Well, at least he don’t have to look over his shoulder anymore,
always worried that the law was going to come to the house. He
was getting real sick of sleeping in the car. It was getting cold outside,
you know, and plus, Reggie is a big boy and his neck was all cramped up.
And he used to come to the back like: “Ma, make me a plate,” and then
he’d come back in twenty minutes and I’d pass him the food from out
the window.
Brianna, Chuck’s girlfriend, responded, “You ride harder than any bitch
out here, and Reggie knows that.”
THE RIDER REBORN
Veronica was eighteen when she met Reggie, who was nineteen. She
had been dating one of Reggie’s friends, though not seriously, and this
man never had much time for her. He would leave her with Reggie
while he was busy, and as Reggie put it, one thing led to another. Soon
Veronica was spending most evenings at Reggie’s. Chuck and Tim were
starting to call her Sis.
“At f rst I couldn’t fall asleep,” she told me a few weeks into this relationship.
“I was scared the bugs would crawl on me at night. You really
have to love a Taylor brother to sleep in that house.” Indeed, the kitchen
crawled with roaches, ants, and f ies; the f oors themselves looked like
they were moving, as if you were in some psychedelic bug dream.
One night, Veronica woke up thinking that the roaches were crawling
on the bed again, only to see Reggie scrambling to make it out the
window while yelling at her to push him through. This was not easy,
as Reggie is a young man of substantial girth. Then two cops busted
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Chapter Three
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through the bedroom door and threw Veronica out of the bed. They
cuf ed her to the bed frame for an hour while they searched the house,
she told me the next day, even though it should have been plain to them
that Reggie had f ed through the still- open window, which naturally
would be shut in February. She said they told her they’d f nd out every
illegal thing she did, every time she smoked weed or drove drunk, and
they’d pick her up every time they came across her. They would put a
special star in her f le and run her name, and search her and whoever
she was with whenever they saw her. They told her they had tapped her
cell phone and could bring her up on conspiracy charges. Despite these
threats, Veronica couldn’t tell them where Reggie had run, because she
simply did not know.
Later that day, Reggie called her from a pay phone in South Philly.
Veronica pleaded with him to turn himself in. He refused, and she told
him then and there that they were through.
Reggie put Veronica “on blast,” telling his friends, relatives, and
neighbors that she had cut him loose when the police started looking
for him. He then began seeing Shakira, a woman he had dated in high
school.
The next day, Veronica called me in tears: Reggie had told everyone
on the block that she wasn’t riding right, that she didn’t really give a
fuck about him, and that she was out as soon as shit got out of hand.
He told her he would never have expected it, thought she was better
than that.
As Veronica retreated from 6th Street, Shakira stepped up to help
Reggie hide. She met him at his friend’s house, and spent the next few
days holed up in the basement with him. She arranged for a friend to
bring them food. In the meantime, the police raided Miss Linda’s house,
Veronica’s house, and Reggie’s uncle’s house. But they didn’t visit Shakira’s
house or question her family, which seemed to allow her to preserve
her role as a brave and loyal person. I went to see her and Reggie
on the third day.
SHAKIRA: I been here the whole time, A. When they [the police] came to
his mom’s we was both there, and he went out the back and I been here
this whole time.
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REGGIE: She riding hard as shit.
ALICE: That’s what’s up [that’s good].
REGGIE: Remember Veronica? When she found out the boys [the police]
was looking for me, she was like: click [the sound of a phone hanging
up]. She’d be like, “I see you when I see you.” Shakira ain’t like that,
though; she riding like a mug [motherfucker, i.e. very hard]. She worried
about me, too.
We didn’t hear from Veronica for a few weeks, and then the police
found Reggie hiding in another shed nearby. They came in cars and
helicopters, shutting down the block and busting open the shed with
a battering ram.
When Reggie could make a phone call, he let Veronica know that he
wasn’t seeing Shakira anymore. Veronica wrote him a letter, and then
she started visiting him. It took three hours on the bus to get to Northeast
Philadelphia where the county jails are, because the routes don’t
line up well. Veronica had never visited a guy in jail before, and we’d
often discuss what outf t she could wear to look her best while complying
with the jail’s regulations.
As Veronica made the weekly trek to the county jail on State Road,
Reggie’s friends stayed home. They didn’t write; they didn’t put any
money on his books.
Every day, Reggie voiced his frustration with his boys over the phone
to me:
Niggas ain’t riding right! Niggas ain’t got no respect. G probably going to
do it [put money on his books], but Steve be f ajing [bullshitting; lying].
When I come home, man, I’m not fucking with none of these niggas. Where
the fuck they at? They think it’s going to be all love when I come home,
like, what’s up, Reggie, welcome back and shit. . . . But fuck those niggas,
man. They ain’t riding for me, I got no rap for them when I touch [get
home]. On my word, A, I ain’t fucking with none of them when I get home.
I would be a fucking nut for that. Brandon especially, A. I was with this
nigga every day. And now he’s on some: “My bad, I’m fucked up [broke].”
Nigga, you wasn’t fucked up when I was out there! I banged on that nigga,
A [hung up on him].
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Despite their continued promises to visit and to send money, after
three months not one of Reggie’s boys had made the trip. Only Veronica
came. She wrote him about two letters every week, with him writing
two or maybe three letters back. Sometimes she and I would go together
to visit him. On Reggie’s birthday, Veronica wrapped a tiny bag
of marijuana in a twenty- dollar bill and smuggled it to him in the visiting
room.
One afternoon, Veronica and I were sitting on Miss Linda’s secondf
oor porch playing Spades with her. Though usually quiet, Veronica
spoke for the longest I’d heard:
Ain’t none of his boys go visit him, none of them. . . . The only people that
visit is me and Alice. Like, that should tell him something. Your homies
ain’t really your homies—I’m the only one that’s riding. I’m the only real
friend he got. Who’s putting money on your books? They said they was going
to put some on there, but they ain’t do it. The only money he got on his
books is from me and you.
It seemed that Veronica, who had dropped Reggie while he was on
the run, who was humiliated as a weak and disloyal person, was now,
through the work of visiting and writing letters, reborn a faithful and
stalwart companion.
A woman can also salvage her relationship and self- worth by gradually
letting the details of a man’s conf nement fade, and joining with
him to paint her conduct in a more positive light. Eight times I noted
that a woman visiting a man in custody would join with him to revise
the events leading up to his arrest and trial in ways that downplayed
her role in his conf nement.
When Mike was twenty- four and his children were three and six
years old, he began dating a woman from North Philly named Michelle.
Within a month they had become very close: Michelle’s three- year- old
son started calling Mike Daddy, and Michelle’s picture went up on
Mike’s mother’s mantelpiece next to his graduation picture and the
school photos of his son and daughter. He started spending most
nights at her apartment.
Michelle was the f rst Puerto Rican woman Mike had ever dated, and
he had high hopes that her ethnic background would signify strong
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When the Police Knock Your Door In
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loyalty. “With Spanish chicks,” he said, “it’s all about family. Family is
everything to them. Black chicks ain’t like that. They love the cops.”
Michelle and Mike both explained to me that Michelle was nothing
like the mother of Mike’s children, Marie, who so frequently called the
police on him. Since Michelle’s father and brothers sold drugs, she was
used to the police and the courts, and wouldn’t cave under their pressure.
With strong memories of her mother struggling with her father’s
legal troubles all through her childhood, Michelle told me that she was
a second- generation rider. She also said that she loved Mike more than
any man she had ever met, including her son’s father, who was currently
serving ten years in federal prison.
Michelle’s loyalty would be tested three months into their relationship.
Mike missed a court appearance, and a bench warrant was
issued for his arrest. Upon hearing the news, Michelle assured me that
nothing—not the cops, not the judge, not the nut- ass prison guards—
would break them apart.
At around four o’clock the following Friday morning, she phoned me
sobbing: the cops had knocked her door down and taken Mike. He tried
to run, and they beat him out on the sidewalk with batons. She said
they beat him so badly that she couldn’t stop screaming. Why did they
have to do that? They had already put him in handcuf s.
At the precinct, the police kept Mike cuf ed to a desk for eighteen
hours in the underwear they had found him in. The next morning, they
brought Michelle down to the station and questioned her for three
hours. Then they showed Mike Michelle’s statement, which detailed his
activities, his associates, and the locations of his drug- selling business.
When he got to county jail, he wrote her a letter, which she showed me:
Don’t come up here, don’t write, don’t send no money. Take all your
shit from my mom’s, matter of fact, I’ll get her to drop that shit of . You
thought I wasn’t going to f nd out that you a rat? They showed me everything.
Fuck it. I never gave a fuck about you anyway. You was just some
pussy to me, and your pussy not even that good!
Mike spread the word that Michelle was a snitch, and this news was
the hot topic for a few days between his boys on the block and those
locked up.
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Incensed and humiliated, Michelle explained to me that Mike had
no right to be angry with her. He clearly didn’t care about her. In fact,
despite all his claims to the contrary, the police had shown her the text
messages and phone calls that proved he was still seeing Marie. Not
only that, but Mike had tried to pin the drugs on her and to claim that
the gun in the apartment belonged to her father. Michelle wrote him a
scathing letter back:
I should have known that you were still messing with your baby- mom. I
felt like a fool when they showed me your cell phone calls and texts at 2
and 3 in the morning. And don’t even try to tell me that you were calling
your kids, ’cause no 7 year old is up at 2 a.m. Did you think I wasn’t going to
f nd out you tried to put that shit on me? I read every word. That bitch can
have you.
With concrete evidence of Mike’s inf delity, Michelle came to see
that Mike did not value or respect her: their relationship had been a
sham. She began to regard her past association with him as sordid and
shameful, and her present ef orts to protect him humiliating. At the
same time, the police were showing Mike that she had betrayed him.
Injured and humiliated, he rebuf ed and belittled her just as she faced
indisputable evidence of his duplicity, and confronted the possibility
that this man who didn’t love her might let her hang for his crimes.
Two days later, the cops took Michelle out to the suburbs where Mike
had been selling. According to the police report, she gave up his stash
spot, his runner, and all the customers she knew about.13
A friend of Mike’s explained it like this:
The girl said, “Fuck it, I’ve only known him for three months, I want to
keep my kid.” Plus, her mom is in a nursing home, and she has custody of
her two little sisters, so you know they told her they was going to kick her
out the spot (the Section 8 building) and take her son and her sisters and
shit. She has too much on the line. That bitch ain’t think twice. She was
like: What do you want to know?
After Mike’s mother and grandmother and I attended his court dates
and saw Michelle’s statement, Mike declared that she was a snitch, and
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When the Police Knock Your Door In
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stopped talking to her for a while. The news spread quickly to Mike’s
boys—both those on the block and those locked up.
Though at f rst Michelle was able to justify her actions by noting
that the police had threatened to take her children away and that Mike
had in fact been cheating on her, these details seemed to have been forgotten
in the neighborhood’s collective memory as the weeks dragged
on, and she increasingly came to feel that she had betrayed a good man.
As his trial dates came and went, she began visiting him more often,
and sending money and letters. Slowly, Michelle and Mike began to
reconcile.
Some months later, Mike and I were chatting in the visiting room.
He mentioned that the girlfriend of one of his friends had recently testif
ed against that man in court. “She’s a fucking rat,” Mike said. “She
don’t give a fuck about him.” We debated the circumstances of this,
and I commented on how dif cult it is to remain silent when the police
threaten to evict you or take your kids. As an example, I noted that
while Michelle clearly loved Mike, she had informed on him under just
this kind of police pressure.
At this point our weekly gossip turned into a heated argument.
Other visitors in the room began to stare as Mike forcefully explained
to me that Michelle had not snitched. In fact, it was the woman in
whose house he had been renting a room that had given the statement
against him.
“You supposed to be keeping tabs! Like, that’s your job. You’re getting
stupid. You used to remember every fucking thing.”
“I really thought it was Michelle,” I replied limply.
“What the fuck good are you if you can’t even get basic shit right?”
My conf dence as the group’s chronicler quite shaken, I apologized
profusely. At his next court date a month later, I asked Mike’s lawyer to
show me the statement again. Checking over the lengthy police report,
I realized that my notes were accurate. Michelle had informed on Mike,
on three separate occasions. I wasn’t sure whether she had convinced
Mike that she had remained silent, or they were both simply trying to
put it behind them, but I decided it would be best not to bring it up
again.
On our next visit, Mike lamented that one of his boys was continuing
to call Michelle a snitch.
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“Niggas is gonna hate,” he said. “That’s been my whole life, since
middle school. Everybody wants what I got.”
I nodded my head in solidarity.
THE DIZZYING JOURNEY FROM RIDER TO SNITCH
Many women in the 6th Street neighborhood view the forcible and unexpected
removal of a boyfriend, brother, or son to be, as Mike’s girlfriend
once put it, “the end of everything.” When a woman gets the
news that the police may be after the man in her life, she may take it as
her obligation to help him hide from the authorities. Through protecting
him, she makes a claim for herself as a loyal girlfriend or a good
mother, an honorable and moral human being.
If the police never come looking for the man, she can continue to believe
that she would do her utmost to shield him from the authorities,
should the occasion for bravery and sacrif ce arise. But if the police do
come, they typically put pressure on her to provide information.
For the police and the district attorney, the task of turning intimates
into informants is mostly a technical problem, one of many that arise
in the work of rounding up and processing enough young men to meet
informal arrest quotas and satisfy their superiors. But the role the police
ask women to play in the identif cation, arrest, and conviction of
the men they love presents deeper problems for women: problems for
their sense of self.
To be sure, some of the women I came to know on 6th Street didn’t
seem to care very much whether their legally entangled family members
or neighbors were in jail or not. Some even considered the conf nement
of these troublesome young men a far preferable alternative to
dealing with them on the outside. But those who took these positions
tended to keep their distance from the men the police were after, and
consequently tended not to know enough about their whereabouts to
be very useful to the authorities. It is the women actively involved in the
daily af airs of legally precarious men who prove most helpful in bringing
about their arrest, so those women who consider the possible conf
nement of a son or boyfriend a grave event, a wrenching apart of their
daily life, are the ones the police enlist to capture and conf ne them.
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When the police begin their pressure, when they raid a woman’s
house or pull her in for questioning, a woman faces a crisis in her relationship
and in the image she has of herself: the police ask her to help
imprison the very man she has taken it as a sacred duty to protect. Not
only do the police ask her, they make her choose between her own security
and his freedom. For many of the women I have come to know on
6th Street, this choice is one they are asked to make again and again. It
is part of what enduring the police and the prisons is about.
Relatives and neighbors looking in on this crisis from the outside
may see a woman’s options in stark terms: she can prove herself strong
in the face of threats and violence and protect the man, or she can cave
under the pressure and betray him. If she withstands the police, she will
garner public acclaim as a rider. If she caves, she will suf er humiliation
as an abandoner or an informant.
But as a woman comes under increasing police pressure, her perspective
on right and wrong begins to shift. As the police roll out their
techniques of persuasion, she f nds herself increasingly cut of from
the man she loves, and interacting more and more with the authorities.
The techniques they use to gain her cooperation turn her basic
understandings about herself and her signif cant others upside down.
She learns that her children and her home aren’t safe, nor are the other
people she holds dear. She begins to see her daily life as an almost endless
series of crimes, for which she may be arrested at any moment the
police see f t. She learns that the man she loves doesn’t care about her,
and comes to see her involvement with him as sordid, shameful, and
pathetic.
As the police show the woman that her boyfriend has cheated, or
that her son may try to blame her for his crimes, she comes to realize
that protecting him from the authorities may not be such a good idea
after all. Threatened with eviction, the loss of her children, her car, or
all future housing benef ts, her resolve to shield him weakens. By the
time the police assure her of conf dentiality, she begins to see the merits
of working with the authorities.
* * *
There is an excitement surrounding wanted men. They are, in a certain
way, where the action is.14 But wanted men also stop coming around
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Chapter Three
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as much or as routinely. Their contributions to the household, though
perhaps meager to begin with, may cease altogether. Their life on the
run may be exciting, but it is a holding pattern; it has no forward motion.
To some degree, a man’s wanted status demands that a woman live
in the present, and this present is a dizzying and uncertain one.
Out of this morass, the police of er the woman a dubious path: she
can turn against the man; she can come over to their side. As she begins
to orient herself to the their way of thinking, she f nds a way out of the
dizzying holding pattern created by the man’s evasion and the police’s
pressure. She is now able to chart some forward path, and leave the
upside- down world the raids and interrogations have created. Maybe
he will hate her and she will hate herself, but at least she is moving
forward.
As the police make it harder for her to remain on the man’s side, they
construct a vision of what life would be like without him, independent
of the involvement with crime and with the police that he requires.
They create a distinctive path for the woman that involves a change in
how she judges herself and others.
A woman who contemplates changing sides discovers that a number
of lines of action become available to her. She may urge the man to turn
himself in, or, if pressure persists, she may give him an ultimatum: give
yourself up or I will. She may openly call the police on the man, in plain
view of their mutual family and friends. She may turn him in secretly,
and attempt to conceal that she has cooperated with the authorities.
Alternately, she may cut of ties with him, refuse to speak to him anymore,
or kick him out of the house.
During this process, the pressure imposed by the police allows the
woman to reconcile herself to her behavior, and the police’s techniques
of persuasion come in handy as justif cations for her actions. But when
the man is taken into custody and the pressure from the police lifts, it
becomes increasingly dif cult for the woman and for the rest of the
community to accept what she did. She must now deal head- on with
the public humiliation and private shame that come with abandoning
or informing on the man she professed to care for.
It is in the nature of policing that of cers tend to interact most with
those in whose behavior they f nd fault, such that the woman’s encounYou
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When the Police Knock Your Door In
89
ters with the police begin when she refuses to comply and end when
she comes over to their side. That is, her intense and intimate association
with the authorities lasts only for the duration of their denigration
and her resistance. Once she cooperates and gives the man up, the
police abandon their interest in her. At the moment she changes sides,
she f nds herself surrounded by neighbors and family who mock and
disdain her, who consider her actions immoral and betraying.
Throughout this process, the woman takes a journey rife with emotional
contradictions. The news that the man in her life has become
wanted prompts a renewal of her attachment, such that she strengthens
her commitment to him just as he ceases to play an active role in
her daily life, to furnish her with any concrete future, or to assist her
f nancially. When the man is taken into custody and the pressure to
inform on him lifts, a woman can pledge her devotion once more and
make amends. Unlike life on the run, his sentence or trial has a clear
end point. She can coordinate her life around the visiting hours, and
the phone calls in the morning and evening. She can make plans for
his return.15 But since she has contributed to his conf nement, her attempts
to repair the relationship coincide with his most heated anger
against her. Even if he forgives her, a woman can renew her commitment
to him, and return to regarding him as good and honorable, only
after he has left her daily life most completely, as he sits in jail or prison.
Once a woman’s son or partner is incarcerated, she may come full
circle. As she did when she f rst got the news that the authorities might
come looking, she returns to thinking that the police, the courts, and
the prisons are unjust, and she will do just about anything to protect
and support the man she loves.
A few skilled intimates do not travel the path the police put forward,
as they are able to resist the pressure in the f rst place. They learn to anticipate
raids, and to mitigate the damage that a raid may cause. They
learn to make a scene and become a problem for police by vocally demanding
their rights, by attracting a large audience, or by threatening
to sue or go to the newspapers. They practice concerted silence, learning
how to reveal as little as possible. They distract the of cers from
the direction the man ran, or the box in which incriminating evidence
may be found. They also make counterof ers, such as sexual favors, or
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Chapter Three
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provide information about someone else the police might be interested
in. Their refusal to cave under pressure means that their conduct calls
for little explanation, and their relationships need few repairs.
Though some women manage to redeem their relationships, their
reputations, and their sense of self after they cooperate, and a rare few
are able to withstand police pressure and garner some honor and acclaim,
it must be said that the police’s strategy of arresting large numbers
of young men by turning their mothers and girlfriends against
them goes far in creating a culture of fear and suspicion, overturning
women’s basic understandings of themselves as good people and their
lives as reasonably secure, and destroying familial and romantic relationships
that are often quite fragile to begin with.
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91
The police and the courts are certainly making life dif cult for families
in the 6th Street neighborhood: breaking loved ones apart, sowing
suspicion and distrust. But residents aren’t simply the unwilling
pawns of oppressive authorities. Both men and women at times actively
make use of the form this intervention takes, appropriating their
legal en tanglements for their own purposes. In their ongoing struggles
to negotiate family and work, and to make claims for themselves as
honorable people, young men and women turn the heavy presence of
the police, the courts, and the prisons to their advantage in ways the
authorities neither intended nor expected.1
JAIL AS A SAFE HAVEN
Prisons were designed to be so unpleasant that even those living in
quite harsh conditions outside their walls would f nd them a deterrent
from crime.2
To be sure, young men around 6th Street usually take great
pains to elude the police and stay out of jail. But conf nement begins
to look more attractive to them during times of sustained violent conf
ict. When the 6th Street Boys found themselves under threat from
other groups of young men from neighboring blocks, they sometimes
manipulated their legal entanglements so as to get taken into custody
voluntarily, in ef ect using jail as a safe haven from the streets.
During a dice game one evening, Tino put a gun to Jay- Jay’s head
and demanded all his money. Tino had moved to 6th Street only a few
Turning Legal Troubles
into Personal Resources
FOUR
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Chapter Four
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months before, so Chuck and Mike considered him only a candidate
member of the group—a recent transplant on probationary status. JayJay,
who was originally from 4th Street but a frequent guest on 6th,
didn’t think that Tino was seriously trying to rob him, and told him
to stop playing. Tino had been “wetted” (that is, taking wet [PCP]) all
weekend and was now humiliated by Jay- Jay’s refusal to take his robbery
seriously; he demanded again that Jay- Jay give him everything in
his pockets. Jay- Jay again refused.3
By this time, Chuck and Reggie were
yelling at Tino to put down the gun. Steve, also wetted out that night,
was laughing—he didn’t think that Tino had what it took to rob Jay- Jay
or to shoot him, and said so. Tino pulled the trigger and Jay- Jay fell to
the pavement.
Later, sitting in the basement with Chuck, Reggie, Steve, and me,
Tino held his knees and rocked back and forth, repeating, “My intentions
wasn’t to shoot him. My intentions wasn’t to shoot him.”
Steve f red back, “You was wrong. No two ways about it. You was
wrong.”
Reggie’s phone rang three times that night with messages from the
4th Street Boys: “It’s on.”
Jay- Jay’s death triggered what is called a war, a series of shootouts
between members of one block and those of another. In this case, JayJay’s
boys from 4th Street and the Boys Across the Bridge joined forces.
They began driving up and down 6th Street and shooting at the 6th
Street Boys.
At f rst the 6th Street Boys hesitated to go to 4th Street and shoot
at the men attacking them. Steve mentioned many times that since
Jay- Jay had been killed, the 4th Street Boys had every right to shoot at
them. But Steve’s and Chuck’s families were in danger: Steve’s brother
had stopped going to baseball practice, and his sister, who slept on the
living room couch right by the window, had to move down to the basement.
A bullet went right past Tim’s knee while he was watching TV.
These young men wouldn’t stop, the guys thought, until they f red back.
Most of the 6th Street Boys weren’t present for this war. Mike, Ronny,
and Anthony were in prison or jail, and Alex had moved of the block
and was working at his dad’s heating and air- conditioning repair shop.
After he killed Jay- Jay at the dice game, Tino moved to North Philadelphia,
where he went into hiding for three months. This meant that only
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Turning Legal Troubles into Personal Resources
93
Chuck, Reggie, Steve, and Steve’s younger cousin were left to f ght two
blocks of young men by themselves. After a couple of weeks, Chuck and
Steve had both been shot—Chuck in the neck and Steve in the thigh.
Fresh bullet holes dotted f ve houses on Chuck’s street.
As the weeks went by, I watched the remaining members of the
6th Street Boys get taken into custody—not in connection with these
shootings, but for quite minor probation and parole violations, or for
bench warrants for not showing up at court or for failure to pay f nes
and fees.
A few days after he was shot, Steve paid an unscheduled visit to his
probation of cer and asked to be tested for drugs. His urine test came
back positive for marijuana, a result he had skillfully evaded in many
previous tests. The PO issued him a warning for the positive test, letting
him know that the next time he failed the test he would go back to jail
for the violation. Two weeks later, Steve returned and was again tested
for drugs. This time the judge sent him back to jail for six months.
Steve’s younger cousin went to the police station and turned himself
in on a bench warrant he had been issued ten months earlier for not
paying his court fees. The of cer who took the report later told me that
the judge had of ered to release him and put him on a payment plan
for the court fees, but he declared that he was never going to pay the
money and that they might as well keep him until he worked of the
court fees and costs in jail. (The judge had ruled that his fees would be
reduced by ten dollars for every day he spent in custody.) Chuck had no
warrants pending and wasn’t on probation at the time, so he remained
on the block a few weeks after Steve and his cousin got taken into custody.
Then he drove a friend’s of – road motorbike past the police station
and allowed himself to be chased for two blocks before he stopped the
bike and put up his hands. The police charged him with f eeing the police
and driving an of – road bike on city streets, and took him in. This
left Reggie, who had a body warrant out for his arrest for a robbery.
After a week on his own, he went down to the local police station and
turned himself in.
The four members of the 6th Street Boys who were present on the
block during this war may have allowed themselves to be taken into custody
for reasons having nothing to do with the conf ict. It is also possible
that they didn’t elect to get taken into custody and were caught,
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Chapter Four
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but these alternative explanations seem unlikely. Steve’s cousin freely
turned himself in on a low- level bench warrant and then refused to accept
the judge’s of er that would have allowed him to remain out of jail.
This was the f rst time I had known Steve’s cousin to turn himself in.
Steve appeared at his probation of cer’s without being asked, and then
volunteered for a drug test—the only time he had done so in the three
years I had known him. He had managed to pass all his drug tests and adhere
to other requirements of probation in the previous eight months.
Chuck, who rode an illegal motorbike past the police station, may have
been doing so for the thrill of publicly evading the authorities. Mike, for
one, delighted in outrunning the cops before an audience of neighbors,
family members, and women. But Chuck had no history of driving of –
road motorbikes near police of cers, let alone driving by police stations
on them.
I believe that Reggie was the last person to get himself taken into custody
because he already had a body warrant out for his arrest for armed
robbery; he worried that if he turned himself in, he’d sit in jail during a
lengthy trial and then possibly serve a number of years in prison. Chuck,
Steve, and Steve’s cousin, who turned themselves in more quickly, faced
only a few months in jail apiece for their less serious violations: just
enough time to let the violence on the street subside. Reggie tried to
stay out as long as he could, but with dwindling numbers of the group
still out on 6th Street it became too dangerous to try to make it on his
own. A few years of prison seemed like the better option.
Three members of the group who were already in custody admitted
to me that they were glad to be locked up so that they didn’t have to
participate in this war. This also led me to think that Chuck, Reggie,
Steve, and Steve’s cousin got arrested deliberately, using their wanted
status to get out of harm’s way.
* * *
Sometimes women, too, used jail as a safe haven, calling the police on
their sons or partners when they decided the streets had become too
dangerous.
When Steve got into an altercation with a guy from 4th Street, his
girlfriend, Taja, called the cops and told them where they could f nd
Steve; he had a warrant out for violating his parole. Taja told me that
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Turning Legal Troubles into Personal Resources
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she’d have called the cops on the men who were trying to shoot him but
feared retaliation, so instead she told the police to come get Steve. In
her mother’s kitchen, she and I talked over her decision with her sister:
TAJA: I miss him or whatever, but better that than I get the call like, “Yo,
come to the hospital.” Right?
HER SISTER: Niggas is trying to get at him [kill him]. You did what you
needed to do.
Though Steve’s girlfriend may have saved his life, he refused to speak
to her for over a month while he sat in jail, refusing her visits and returning
her letters. This, she said, hurt her deeply. Still, she remained
adamant that she had done the right thing, and after a few months in
jail he began to forgive her.
While men may quietly turn themselves in to save themselves from
mortal danger, women looking to prevent the men in their lives from
getting killed f nd that jail isn’t such an easy option. Even if a man
would, in his heart, rather be locked up than face a gun battle in the
streets, he cannot admit this openly, and so makes quite a public show
of his displeasure with the woman who put him there. For women, using
jail as a safe haven for partners or relatives in danger comes with a
heavy price.
THE BAIL OFFICE AS A BANK
After a man’s trial ends, he or his family are entitled to 80 percent of
the bail they put up for his release. Bail money becomes available six
months after the close of a case, and must be claimed within a year;
otherwise it goes into the city’s cof ers.
Instead of recovering the bail money right away, people sometimes
leave it at the bail of ce until they have a particular need for it, ef ectively
using the bail of ce as a short- term bank.
Like most young men on 6th Street, Chuck didn’t have a bank account.
He attempted to squirrel away money in his mother’s basement,
in various holes in the walls, and on his person, but his mother would
often f nd the wads of cash and spend them on drugs. When his girlYou
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Chapter Four
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friend Brianna was pregnant with their f rst child, Chuck had three
cases end within a span of a few months. Instead of collecting the bail
money immediately, he kept it at the bail of ce, checking in on it periodically.
When Brianna gave birth to their baby girl, he cashed it out,
and spent the bulk of the twelve hundred dollars on a stroller, crib,
breast pump, baby clothes, and groceries.
Young men around 6th Street also leverage their bail money to obtain
informal loans. Mike once got a loan for one thousand dollars from
the local marijuana dealer, under the arrangement that Mike would pay
it back with interest when his bail came through a few months later.
He used his bail papers as proof that this money was indeed coming to
him, and on the day the money was available, he and the dealer went
down to the of ce together to retrieve it.
Bail money accrues no interest while it sits at the bail of ce; what’s
more, 20 percent of the original amount paid cannot be recovered. Even
so, leaving the money at the bail of ce often seems like a better alternative
than withdrawing it, given how hard it is to keep money safe and
to control how one’s money gets spent. In this way, bail provides some
banking privileges and even some informal credit to men who otherwise
don’t have access to conventional bank accounts.
BEING WANTED AS A MEANS OF ACCOUNTING FOR FAILURE
Once a man f nds himself in legal jeopardy, being a dependable friend,
spending time regularly with his partner and family, going to work, and
calling the police when threatened or harmed are no longer safe options.
These actions may expose him to the authorities and lead to his
conf nement. Yet when wanted men (or social analysts, for that matter)
imply that being wanted by the police is the root cause of their inability
to get a job, see their children, trust the police, or live in an apartment
in their own name, they may be stretching the facts. Long before the
rise in imprisonment rates, Black men distrusted the police and faced
substantial dif culties in f nding work and participating in their families’
lives.4
While a compromised legal status may exacerbate these diff
culties, being wanted also serves as a way to save face and to explain
personal inadequacies.
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Urban anthropologist Elliot Liebow wrote that the unemployed men
he spent time with in the late 1960s accounted for their failures with
the theory of manly f aws.5
Instead of admitting that their marriages
failed because they couldn’t support their spouses, they explained that
they were too manly to be good husbands—they couldn’t stop cheating,
or drinking, or staying out late. This reasoning allowed them to
save face in light of their failure to secure a job and provide for wives
and children. For the young men of 6th Street, who also f nd themselves
unable to secure a decent job, being on the run takes the place of,
or at least works in concert with, the manly f aws described by Liebow
as a means to retain self- respect in the face of failure. In this way, a warrant
becomes a resource in addition to a constraint.
* * *
Steve had eight warrants issued on him during the time I knew him,
mostly for probation violations, unpaid court fees, and failure to appear
for court dates. When he had a warrant out for failure to pay $141
in court f nes and fees, he repeatedly mentioned how he couldn’t get
work because of it:
If I had a whip [car], I’d go get me a job up King of Prussia [a mall in a
neighboring county] or whatever. But I can’t work nowhere in Philly. That’s
where niggas be fucking up. You remember when Chuck was at McDonald’s?
He was like, “No, they [the police] ain’t going to see me, I’m working
in the back.” But you can’t always be back there, like sometimes they put
you at the counter, like if somebody don’t show up, you know what I mean?
How long he worked there before they [the police] came and got him? Like,
a week. They was like, “Um, can I get a large fry and your hands on the
counter because your Black ass is booked!” And he tried to run like shit,
too, but they was outside the jawn [the restaurant] four deep [four police
of cers were outside] just waiting for him to try that shit.
Though Steve often invoked his warrant as an explanation for his unemployment,
the fact was that he didn’t secure a job in the six years
that I knew him, including the many periods during which he had no
warrant out for his arrest.
Jamal, eighteen, moved into the neighborhood with his aunt, and
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after a while became Reggie’s young boy. Like the other guys, he often
talked about his court cases or mentioned that he had to go see his
probation of cer. One afternoon, Steve, Mike, Chuck, and I were sitting
on Chuck’s back- porch steps when Reggie drove up the alleyway and
announced, “Yo, the boy Jamal, he clean, dog! He ain’t got no warrant,
no detainer, nothing. He don’t even got, like, a parking ticket in his
name.” Reggie told us that he’d just been to see Jamal’s mother across
town, and she’d complained to him that her son hadn’t yet found a job.
She informed Reggie that Jamal had no pending cases or anything else
“in the system that would hold him,” so he should have had no problem
f nding employment.
Reggie then talked about what he would do if he had his warrant
lifted, as the guys suspected Jamal had:
I wish I would get my shit [warrant] lifted. I’d be bam, on my J- O [ job],
bam, on my A- P [apartment], bam, go right to the bank, like, “Yeah, motherfucker,
check my shit, man. Run that shit. My shit is clean, dog. Let me
get that account.” I be done got my elbow [driver’s license] and everything.
Here Reggie explains how his wanted status blocked him from getting
jobs, using banks, obtaining a driver’s license, and renting an apartment.
Yet the things he thought a “clean” person should do weren’t
things that he himself did when he was in good standing with the authorities
over the the years that I have known him; nor were they things
that most of the other men on the block did. Alex, Mike, and Chuck
sometimes got jobs when they didn’t have warrants out for their arrest,
and Chuck even got a job once when he did have one. But others, like
Reggie and Steve, remained unemployed whether they had warrants or
not. None of them obtained a valid driver’s license in the six years of
the study.6
Only Mike and Alex secured their own apartments during
this time, but they kept them for less than three months. None of the
men opened a bank account, to my knowledge.
* * *
Being wanted, then, can work as an excuse for a wide variety of unfulf
lled obligations and expectations. Having a warrant may not be the
reason why Steve, for example, didn’t look for work, but police of cers
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Turning Legal Troubles into Personal Resources
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do in fact come to a man’s workplace to arrest him, and some of the
men, like Chuck, experienced this f rsthand. In the context of their ongoing
struggles, the explanations young men give for their failures to
f nd a job, see their families, secure an apartment, apply for a driver’s
license, or open a bank account amount to reasonable half- truths that
can convincingly account for these failures, in both their minds and
those of others who have come to see their own lives in similar terms.7
THE THREAT OF PRISON AS A TOOL OF SOCIAL CONTROL
Many women in the 6th Street neighborhood devote themselves to the
emotional and material support of their legally compromised partners
and kin, taking the protection of their partners and male relatives from
the police as part of their sacred duty as mothers, sisters, partners, and
friends. But these relationships don’t always run smoothly. Sometimes
men break their promises; sometimes they cheat, in plain view of the
neighborhood gossips, bringing humiliation to women; sometimes
they become violent. At this point women may f nd that a man’s legal
precariousness can come in handy as a weapon against him. In anger
and frustration at men’s bad behavior, women at times harness a man’s
warrant or probation sentence as a tool of social control, to dictate his
behavior or to punish him for various wrongs.
When I met Alex, he was twenty- two and living with his girlfriend,
Donna, who later became pregnant with his second child. Alex was
serving a two- year parole term and had recently gotten a job at his father’s
heating and air- conditioning repair shop. He was spending less
time on the block than he used to, when he was unemployed and selling
marijuana.
The repair shop closed at f ve o’clock. Donna worked in a liquor store,
which closed some hours later. On Thursday and Saturday nights, she
also tended bar at the KatNip. This meant that after he got of work,
Alex could go and visit his old friends from 6th Street before Donna
had the chance to haul him back home. Sometimes he would stay on
the block drinking and talking until late at night.
Donna frequently argued with Alex over what time he got home and
his drunken condition. During these f ghts, she occasionally threatened
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Chapter Four
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to call his parole of cer and claim that Alex had violated his parole.
She also threatened to report him if he broke up with her or cheated on
her, or if he didn’t contribute enough of his money to the household.
The 6th Street Boys often joked that Alex couldn’t stay out past eight
o’clock, because Donna would call the PO and report him for staying out
past curfew.8
As the night went on, Mike would say, “Okay, Alex, better
get your fat ass home before your mizz [missus] pick up the phone!”
Aside from this ability to call the parole of cer and notify him of a
violation—which could easily send Alex back to prison—Donna also
had the advantage that Alex was paroled to her apartment. This meant
that she could phone the parole of ce and tell them she no longer wanted
Alex to live there. In this case, he would be placed in a halfway house.9
In the early morning after a party, Mike and I drove Alex back to
Donna’s apartment. She was waiting on the step for him:
DONNA: Where the fuck you been at?
ALEX: Don’t worry about it.
DONNA: You must don’t want to live here no more.
ALEX: Come on, Don. Stop playing.
DONNA: Matter of fact, I’ll give you the choice. You’re going to sleep in a
cell or you want to sleep in the halfway house.
MIKE: You drawling [acting crazy], Donna, damn!
DONNA [to Mike]: Ain’t nobody talking to you, nigga!
ALEX: Come on, Don.
DONNA [to Alex]: Uh- unh, you not staying here no more. I’m about to call
your PO now, so you better make up your mind where you going to go
[either jail or a halfway house].
ALEX: I’m tired, man, come on, open the door.
DONNA: Nigga, the next time I’m laying in the bed by myself, that’s a wrap
[that’s the end].
ALEX: I got you!
Later that day, Donna phoned me to vent. She listed a number of reasons
why she needed to threaten Alex like this. If she didn’t keep him
on a tight leash, he’d spend all his money on lap dances or on drugs or
alcohol. And, she explained, he might violate his probation and spend
another year in jail:
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I can’t let that nigga get locked up for some dumb shit, like he gets caught
for a DUI or he gets stopped in a Johnny [a stolen car] or some shit. What
the fuck I’m supposed to do? Let that nigga roam free? And then next
thing you know, he locked up, and I’m stuck here by myself with Omar
[their son] talking about “Where daddy at?”
Donna seemed to view her threats as necessary ef orts to rein Alex
in. Threatening to call the police gave her some chance of keeping him
home with her instead of out in the street, where he might get into
trouble. His presence in the house also meant that she’d have more
help with their two- year- old son. And the more time he spent at home
with her, the less money he would be spending on beer or marijuana or
other women. If his paycheck got diverted to other expenses, it would
be dif cult for her to pay the bills. Donna also indicated that she missed
Alex and wanted to spend more time with him.
To Alex, her threats seemed manipulative and underscored the unfair
balance of power:
I fucking hate my BM [baby- mom]. Just because she can call the law she
think she in control, like she can just run all over me. One day she’s going
to get it, though. She’s going to see [she will lose me to this poor treatment
and regret it].
Yet Alex was determined to complete his probation, and believed
that in order to do this, he must comply with Donna’s demands. He remarked,
“It’s better for me to be locked up in her house than locked up
in that house [ jail].” With her power to call the police and land him in
prison, he also thought there was little he could do to f ght back when
she did things like take his house keys, put holes in his tires, or throw
his clothes out the second- story window: “I can’t do nothing, you understand.
I just got to wait.”
Mike and Chuck were sure that Alex would continue to live with
Donna even after f nishing his parole, but he proved them wrong. A
week after he completed that two- year term, he left her house and
rented his own apartment.
Marie, the mother of Mike’s two children, lived on Chuck’s block in a
house with her mother, grandmother, and f ve other relatives. She, too,
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used the threat of the police to gain some measure of control over her
partner. The couple had started dating in high school; their son was
born during their senior year, and their daughter two years later.
A few years after their second child was born, Mike began openly
seeing a woman named Chantelle. He claimed that he and Marie had
broken up and he could do as he wished. Marie, however, hadn’t agreed
to this split, and maintained that they were still together and that he
was in fact cheating. “He don’t be telling me we not together when he’s
laying in the bed with me!” she lamented.
Mike began riding past Marie’s block with Chantelle on the back of
his ATV motorbike. Marie was infuriated by the insult of her baby- dad
riding through her block with another woman for all her family and
neighbors to see, and told him that he could no longer come to visit
their two children. Mike and Marie spent many hours on the phone
arguing over this. Mike would plead with her to see the children and
she would explain that in order to do this, he’d have to tell Chantelle
that it was over.
Chantelle wanted to f ght Marie, and almost did so one afternoon.
Marie was standing outside her house with seven relatives behind her,
waving a baseball bat and shouting, “Get your kids, bitch. I got mine”
(meaning that she had more claim to Mike than Chantelle did, because
they shared two children). One of Chantelle’s girlfriends and I held
Chantelle back while she took of her earrings and screamed, “I got your
bitch, bitch!”10 and “I’ma beat the shit out this fat bitch.”
Marie began threatening that she would call the cops on Mike if he
continued to see Chantelle, since he had a bench warrant out for his
arrest. For a time, Marie and Mike’s conversations on the phone would
end like this:
MARIE: Alright, nigga. In f ve minutes the cops is going to be up there.
MIKE: You’re not calling the cops.
MARIE: You still fucking her?
MIKE: I’m doing what I’m doing.
MARIE: Do you see the [police] car outside? It should be there by now.
Despite her threats, Marie tried a number of tactics to get Mike to
stop sleeping with Chantelle before she resorted to actually calling the
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103
police on him. She poured bleach on the clothes that he kept at her
house so that he didn’t have nice clothes to wear when he went out with
the other woman. She took her house keys and drew a white line in the
paint on his car, and then she threw a brick through his car window. She
attempted to throw hot grease on him when he came into the kitchen,
but he ducked, and most of it missed him. She began prank- calling
his mother, Miss Regina, pretending to be Chantelle, in an attempt to
f nd out how close Chantelle and Mike had become, and what this new
woman’s relationship was with Mike’s mother.
After the hot grease and the prank phone calls, Mike consulted his
mother and his friends Chuck and Steve. All agreed that Marie needed
to be taught a lesson—even Miss Regina, who in Mike’s words is “not
a violent person.”
Mike paid a woman who lived down the street a large bag of marijuana
to beat up Marie. According to him, he and this woman drove to
the bus stop and waited until Marie appeared. Then the woman got out
of the car and beat Marie against a fence. Mike stayed in the car and
called to her to hit Marie again and again. Mike said that Marie didn’t
f ght back, only put her arms up to block the blows to her face.
A few days after the swelling around Marie’s eyes and cheeks had
gone down, Mike and I were sitting on a neighbor’s porch steps. A police
car pulled up, and two of cers arrested him on the warrant. He
didn’t think to run, he told me later, because he only had a bench warrant
and assumed they were coming for two young men sitting next to
us, who had recently robbed a convenience store.
While Mike sat in the police car, Marie came out of her house and
talked at him through the window in a voice loud enough for the rest of
us to hear: “You not just going dog me [publicly cheat on or humiliate
me]! Who the fuck he think he’s dealing with? Let that nigga sit for a
minute [stay in jail for a while]. Don’t let me catch that bitch up there,
either [coming to visit in jail].”11
During the f rst few weeks that Mike was in jail, he refused to speak
to Marie or allow her to visit him. In a letter to his mother, he wrote, “I
love Marie, but she loves the cops too much, so I think I’m going leave
her and be with Chantelle.”
Yet as the trial dragged on, Mike started asking me if Marie knew
about the court dates and if she’d be there. On the dates that he wasn’t
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Chapter Four
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brought out of the holding cell and into the courtroom, he’d call me
later to ask if Marie had shown up. On the day of his sentencing a year
and a half later, Marie appeared in the courthouse in a low- cut top with
a large new tattoo of his name on her chest. When Mike came into the
room, they locked eyes and both began to cry. On the way out of the
courthouse, Miss Regina joked, “I don’t know why I bothered to come
today. I should have gone to work. All he was looking at was that damn
Marie.”
So Mike forgave Marie for calling the cops on him when he had a
warrant, though he’d sometimes bring up this betrayal in later years
when they were f ghting.
* * *
Marie had gotten Mike taken into custody for a warrant on a case he already
had pending, but at times I observed women going a step further:
bringing new charges against a man because of some personal wrong.
Lisa was in her late thirties and lived on Mike’s block with her two
nieces. Her son was a car thief and typically spent only a couple of
weeks in the neighborhood between stints in jail. Lisa had a crack habit,
and sometimes allowed Mike and his friends to hang out or sell out of
her house in exchange for money and drugs. She was also a part- time
student at Temple University, though the guys joked that she’d been in
school for nearly two decades.
Lisa and Miss Linda were such good friends that Miss Linda’s sons
Chuck and Reggie stayed overnight at Lisa’s house many times when
they were growing up, and considered her something of an aunt. Then,
when he was eighteen years old, Reggie got Lisa’s sixteen- year- old
niece pregnant. He refused to help pay for her abortion or even to acknowledge
that he had impregnated her. Lisa declared that she “wasn’t
fucking with Reggie no more,” meaning that she was cutting of the
long- standing relationship between their families. Her two nieces
threatened to have him beaten up by various young men they were
involved with. Because Reggie usually hung out on the corner only two
houses away, this became a frequent conf ict.
That same spring, the war with 4th Street was under way. The 4th
Street Boys had united with the Boys Across the Bridge and were driving
through 6th Street, shooting at Reggie and his older brother, Chuck.
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Turning Legal Troubles into Personal Resources
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On one of these occasions, Reggie f red two shots back as their car sped
away. These bullets hit Lisa’s house, breaking the glass in the front
windows and lodging in the living room walls. Although no one was
wounded, Lisa’s two nieces had been home at the time. They phoned
their aunt, who called the police. She told them that Reggie had shot
at her family, and the police put out a body warrant for his arrest for a
double count of attempted murder.
After f ve weeks, the police found Reggie hiding in a shed and took
him into custody. Miss Linda and Chuck tried to talk Lisa and her nieces
out of showing up in court so that the charges would be dropped and
Reggie could come home.12 From jail, Reggie phoned Anthony, his
mother, and me, and discussed this in a four- way conversation:13
REGGIE: The bitch [Lisa] know I wasn’t shooting at them [her nieces]. She
knows we’re going through it right now [are in the middle of a series
of shootouts with young men from another block]. Why would I shoot
at two females that live on my block? She knows I wasn’t shooting
at them.
ANTHONY: You might have to pay her a couple dollars and put her up in
the ’tel [to ensure that she won’t be home if the police should try to
drag her in to testify].
REGGIE: She just mad because her son locked up. She’s hurting right now,
so she’s trying to take it out on me.
MISS LINDA: What you really need to do is call that bitch up and tell her
that you apologize [for not taking responsibility for the pregnancy].
REGGIE: True, true.
Reggie did apologize to Lisa and her nieces—before the court date—
and spread the word that he was responsible for getting Lisa’s niece
pregnant. Lisa and her nieces didn’t show up for three consecutive
court dates, and after f ve months Reggie came home from jail. Lisa
seemed pleased with this result:
You not just going get my niece pregnant, then you talking about that’s
not your child, you know what I’m saying? That nigga used to be over my
house every day when he was a kid. [Meaning that because Reggie had
known their family for so long, he should have shown more respect.] Fuck
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Chapter Four
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out of here. No. I mean, I wasn’t trying to see that nigga sit for an attempt
[an attempted murder conviction], but he needed to sit for a little while.
He got what he needed to get. He had some time to sit and think about his
actions, you dig me? He done got what he needed to get.
* * *
From these examples, we can see that young women and men around
6th Street sometimes reappropriate the intense surveillance and the
looming threat of prison for their own purposes. Even as women endure
police raids and interrogations, and suf er the pain of betraying
the man they’d rather protect, they occasionally make use of a man’s “go
to jail” card to protect him from what they perceive to be mortal danger.
In anger and frustration at men’s bad behavior, they can sometimes
use men’s precarious legal status to control them, to get back at them,
and to punish them for any number of misdeeds. In doing so, they get
men taken into custody, not for the crimes or violations the police are
concerned with, but for personal wrongs the police may not know or
care about.
Perhaps more remarkably, the young men who are the targets of
these systems of policing and surveillance occasionally succeed in using
the police, the courts, and the prisons for their own purposes. They
may check themselves into jail when they believe the streets have become
too dangerous, transforming jail into a safe haven. When they
come home from jail or prison, they may turn the bail of ce into a kind
of bank, storing money there for specif c needs later on, or using those
funds as collateral for informal loans. Young men even turn their fugitive
status into an advantage by invoking a warrant as an excuse for a
variety of unmet obligations and personal failings.
In these ways, men and women in the neighborhood turn the presence
of the police, the courts, and the prisons into a resource they make
use of in ways the authorities neither sanction nor anticipate. Taken
together, these strategies present an alternative to the view that 6th
Street residents are simply the pawns of the authorities, caught in legal
entanglements that constrain and oppress them.
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107
In the neighborhood of 6th Street and others like it, boys begin in
school, but many make the transition to the juvenile courts and detention
centers in their preteen or teenage years. By the time many young
men in the neighborhood have entered their late teens or early twenties,
the penal system has largely replaced the educational system as
the key setting of young adulthood. These boys and young men are not
freshmen or seniors but defendants and inmates, spending their time
in courtrooms instead of classrooms, attending sentencing hearings
and probation meetings, not proms or graduations.
As the criminal justice system has come to occupy a central place in
their lives and by extension those of their partners and families, it has
become a principal base around which they construct a meaningful
social world. It is through their dealings with the police, the courts, the
parole board, and the prisons that young men and those close to them
work out who they are and who they are to each other.
CHILDREN’S LEGAL WOES AS MOTHER’S WORK
When I f rst met Miss Linda, her eldest son, Chuck, was eighteen, her
middle son, Reggie, was f fteen, and her youngest son, Tim, was nine.
Chuck and Reggie were already in jail and juvenile detention centers,
respectively, but I was around to watch Tim move from middle school
to the juvenile courts as he turned twelve and thirteen. At this point
The Social Life
of Criminalized Young People
FIVE
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Chapter Five
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Miss Linda transferred much of her parental energies to this new setting.
The following scene is an excerpt from f eld notes:
We are sitting in small wooden chairs lined up in rows in Room K of the
Juvenile Courthouse, located at 18th and Vine in downtown Philadelphia.
The room has high, recessed ceilings and paneled walls. It is 9:10 in the
morning, and the room begins to f ll with boys and their mothers or guardians.
Miss Linda’s youngest son, Tim, 13 now, is sitting to my left with his
elbows resting on his knees, his hands making a cup holding up his head.
He checked his cell phone at the entrance and so has little to do now but
watch the other people or try to sleep.
Miss Linda sits on his other side and f dgets, moving her legs up and
down in quick motion.
Tim asks her if she still has any gum, and she says no, unless you want
half of what I got in my mouth. He shakes his head emphatically. She says,
“Don’t act like you don’t be taking the gum out of my mouth just ’cause
Alice here.”
My stomach is growling, and Tim turns to me and says, “That you?”
I nod. Miss Linda and I had split a 25- cent bag of corn chips this morning
as we waited for Tim to shower and iron his clothes, but that was
hours ago.
We watch the other boys f le in. They look to me to be 10, 11, and 12 years
old, a few of them, like Tim, in their early teens. Some of them are walking
in with their mothers and are coming from home to attend probation
hearings or to be tried for various crimes. Others are accompanied by
caseworkers and come from juvenile detention facilities. These boys hope
to be released today, so they carry on their shoulders large white cloth bags
containing their clothing and other meager possessions. By 9:30 there are
about 50 boys in the room and 5 girls. Two of the boys look Latino to me;
all the others are Black. A sea of silent Black boys waiting to be tried.
A white uniformed guard moves down the aisle and tells two boys to
take of their baseball caps, which they do grudgingly. One of the boys
reveals hair that had been braided a couple of months ago and badly needs
to be taken out and redone; he tries to smooth it out with the palm of
his hand.
The guard tells the woman behind us that she can’t eat those crackers
in the courthouse. She says, “This isn’t the courthouse; this is the waiting
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The Social Life of Criminalized Young People
109
room.” He says, “Ma’am, put the crackers away or go outside and eat them.”
She puts them in her pocket, and when the guard is a few rows behind us
she mumbles that she’s a diabetic and has to eat at certain times.
Mothers approach a middle- aged white man in khaki pants who sits at
a desk in the front of the room. They ask questions which I can’t quite hear
from the middle row where we are sitting. After a while the man stands
and says, “If you have court today, form a line to check in.” He holds a thick
printout with a long list of names and leafs through it, telling the boys in
line which courtroom they will have. He pauses to listen to a mother who
has approached him at the desk, who says her son was unable to come to
court today. She says something else, and the man replies loudly that he
doesn’t decide who gets a warrant and has nothing to do with warrants. He
looks up her son’s name on the sheets of paper and tells her which courtroom
to go to. One of the boys in line has a heavy metal leg restraint that
causes him to limp as he drags it along the f oor. Another is handcuf ed in
the front with a white plastic band.
We move to a small courtroom now, where we sit on long benches and
wait for a judge to appear and begin hearing the cases. In the rows around
us sit mothers and their sons, some with their younger children also. A
mother in front of us recognizes a woman in our row; they reach over the
bench and talk about mutual friends and relations, one mother saying,
“Yeah, he passed in May,” the other responding, “I’m sorry to hear that.”
Two guards stand at the front, and the public defenders and some case
managers sit in the f rst row. A thin white woman, who I assume is a public
defender, stands and turns toward us and calls a name; no one replies.
She calls another name, and a boy and his mother or guardian approach
her and speak in muf ed voices. Miss Linda recognizes one of the public
defenders as the lawyer who defended her middle son, Reggie, some years
back. The judge emerges from a door behind the bench, and the guard asks
us to stand and then to be seated.
Tim had caught this case last year when he attempted to leave school in
the middle of the day; his teacher pursued him out of the school and into
the street. Tim threw rocks at the teacher as he ran away, and though none
of these rocks hit the teacher, he pulled a hamstring while in pursuit, and
so the school police arrested Tim on charges of aggravated assault.1
Eventually, Tim’s name is called, and he walks with his mother to the
front of the desk. The judge asks if a certain person is here; I assume this
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Chapter Five
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is the teacher. The prosecutor says, “No, Your Honor, I do not believe he is
here, but I did reach him last night, and he told me he was planning to be
here.” The public defender, the judge, and the prosecutor all look at their
calendars and go back and forth for a while until they f nd a good date to
continue the case. The court clerk passes a paper to Miss Linda, and it is all
over. Tim and his mother move toward the door, signaling me to get up.
We walk quickly out of the room and through the building, past security,
as if staying any longer might cause the judge to change his mind or
f nd something in the f le indicating that Tim should be detained. When
you go to court, there’s always a chance that they might take you; we will
celebrate Tim’s continued freedom when we get home.
As we drive back from the juvenile court building, Miss Linda is smiling
and laughing. She calls her boyfriend on my cell phone, and says, “Yup. We
on our way home now. I knew he wasn’t coming.” If Tim’s teacher doesn’t
show up another two times, the case will be thrown out for lack of a witness
to the crime. We all know this, and it’s a very exciting prospect.
I drive up the back alley and park in the driveway Miss Linda shares
with the house connected to hers. Miss Linda and Tim walk up the iron
stairs to the balcony over the garage, and then into the house from the
back kitchen entrance. The sun has come out, and I sit on the iron steps.
From here you can see the backs of the houses from the next block over,
which share the alleyway.
Miss Linda comes out with a cup of Irish Rose and smiles. “I’m celebrating!”
she says. To a neighbor who has opened his back door she calls out,
“You want some?” He nods, and she says he’ll have to give her a dollar—a
dollar per cup. He laughs, and she tells him that she isn’t joking.
She hears the phone ring from inside the house and jumps up, saying it
might be Chuck. It isn’t, and I can hear her telling whoever it is that she’s
happy because she’ll get to keep her son here with her, at least for the time
being. “To keep it real,” she says, “one is enough. At least if Chuck and Reggie
are locked up, I know they good. When all three of my sons are home, I
can’t get no sleep. Let them come home when these streets cool down, you
feel me?”
The day is getting warmer now, and Miss Linda’s cat, named Rat,
emerges from the garage and f nds a place in the sun next to some empty
Hugs bottles and chicken bones and cigarette butts in the alleyway.
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The Social Life of Criminalized Young People
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Tim comes out of the kitchen and down the back steps with two paper
cups and passes me one, saying hum to get my attention.
Miss Linda hears the phone ring again—it is inaudible to me—and
jumps up to get it. She is rewarded this time, as it is Chuck calling from
CFCF (Curran- Fromhold Correctional Facility), the county jail. She talks
with him for a few minutes and then calls Tim over to speak to his brother.
Chuck is waiting to start trial for a case he caught for possession with
intent to distribute.
Tim sprints up the stairs. I can hear him laugh, and I assume he’s telling
Chuck about the good news today in court.
Tim talks to his brother for a few minutes and then calls me over to the
phone. I walk up the steps and through the kitchen, which smells of cigarette
smoke, cooking oil, and animal urine. In the living room, Miss Linda
is lying on the two- seater sofa, sipping her drink and watching court TV.
Tim says, “I love you, too” to Chuck before passing me the phone.
With a heavy addiction to crack and alcohol, Miss Linda was by many
accounts not an ideal mother. But she took pride in staying abreast of
her sons’ legal developments. This was no small or f nite task, as at
least one of her sons was in juvenile detention, jail, or prison at any
given time during the six years I spent with the family—save for a twomonth
period in 2007 when all three sons were at home.
In contrast to Miss Linda, Mike’s mother, Miss Regina, worked two
jobs and kept an exceptionally clean house. She also spent much of her
time dealing with her son’s legal af airs. When Mike was in his early
twenties, he caught a series of cases for drugs as well as gun possession.
In addition to attending Mike’s court dates and managing his probation
and parole, Miss Regina visited him in jail and prison, arranged for his
two children to visit, sent him packages and money regularly, accepted
his phone calls, and wrote him letters.2
As his sentencing date in the
federal courts approached, she also organized Mike’s friends, relatives,
and past employers to write letters on his behalf, and to attend the trial:
It is the day of Mike’s sentencing in federal court. He has been awaiting
trial in a federal holding cell for the better part of a year and had been in
county jail for another year before that.
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This morning, Miss Regina drove his uncle and aunt, and the mother of
his children, Marie, to the courthouse downtown. Also, she has arranged for
Mike’s grandmother to pick up Mike’s girlfriend and his girlfriend’s mother,
who live way out in the greater Northeast. I have come in my own car.
In the weeks before the sentencing, Miss Regina had succeeded in persuading
nine family members and friends to send letters on Mike’s behalf.
She gave us each a stamped envelope and typed up the letters that his
grandmother and uncle had written by hand.
Walking into the courthouse, Miss Regina gets a call from Mike’s lawyer,
who says there has been a last- minute time change—the sentencing
will now take place at 3 p.m. Frustrated but resolute, Miss Regina tells the
assembled group that we’ll be going to her house in North Philly to wait
it out. There she makes chicken and rice and salad, and entertains us with
pay- per- view. She practices what she’ll say if the judge calls on her.
At the sentencing, Mike emerges wearing the suit that Miss Regina sent
him. She remarks on how well it f ts and how it was right for her to go with
a size smaller than he had suggested. He smiles when he sees so many of
his family assembled. I haven’t seen him in over a year, since only direct
relatives were permitted to visit him in the federal holding cell. He looks
older, his beard grown out.
The judge, a middle- aged Black man with a stern gaze, asks the parole
of cer (PO) to stand. He asks if the PO has been in touch with anyone in
Mike’s family about his upcoming release. Because the time that Mike
has sat awaiting trial will be counted toward his federal sentence, he’ll
serve only eight months in the Federal Detention Center. So, he’ll be home
within the year. The PO says that Mike’s mother phoned him to give all
her contact information, and that she kept calling to check in and let him
know that she wanted to be “part of the process.” Miss Regina nods fervently
as he is explaining this.
The judge says that it is clear that Mike is a good person who has done
some bad things. He says the letters from Mike’s children made the biggest
impact on him; he could tell how much his children loved him and that
they actually wrote the letters themselves. Then he got out the letter from
Mike’s ten- year- old son and read it aloud to us. The last line was “So please
let my daddy come home, because my mother does not know how to raise
a boy, and I need my daddy.” Miss Regina mouths the words as the judge
reads the letter; she has read it so many times, she knows it by heart.
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The Social Life of Criminalized Young People
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The judge says that the maximum sentence for Mike’s of ense is 16
years. Given the two years he has already served awaiting trial and given
that he has such support from his family, Mike will receive only six months
in prison and six months in a halfway house, followed by three years on
federal probation. The judge asks Mike if he has anything to say, and Mike
says he is sorry for his actions and that he is glad to be given this chance.
Then the judge asks Miss Regina to stand as he tells Mike, “Now turn
around, and thank your mother for everything she has done for you.” Mike
is caught a bit of guard by this, and the judge tells him again to thank his
mother.
Mike turns to her, sobbing. She says, “It’s okay, baby.”
Like Miss Linda and Miss Regina, many women around 6th Street
f nd that their son’s legal proceedings structure their days, which are
punctuated by court hearings, bail payments, jail visits, and phone calls
to public defenders. Their days are also marked by the good or bad news
they receive concerning his fate with the courts, the parole board, and
the prisons. Staying on top of a son’s legal matters and supporting him
through the legal process can be a heavy burden, but it can also be a
rewarding way for women to spend their time. It is partly through their
ef orts to keep their sons out of jail and to support them once they have
been taken that women fulf ll their obligations as mothers.
PENAL TRANSITIONS AS SOCIAL OCCASIONS
A young man’s movement through the criminal justice system happens
in a series of phases: the police stop him, search him, and run his name
in their database; he catches a case, gets taken into custody, gets a bail
hearing, attends months or years of court dates, gets sentenced; serves
time, pays fees, and comes home on probation or parole. Along the way,
he may violate the terms of his supervision, for example by drinking or
staying out late, or get accused of a new crime, or fail to pay his court
fees and f nes, or fail to attend a court date, and be issued a warrant. As
he ages, he moves from juvenile detention centers to adult facilities,
and from shorter sentences in county jail to longer ones in state or
perhaps even federal prison.
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Over the course of a young man’s passage through these stages, a
number of events present themselves: bail hearings, trial dates, and
returns home after long stints locked up. These events serve as key social
occasions, for which a young man’s friends and family dress up
and argue over who should pay. People watch carefully to see who is in
attendance, who is sitting with whom, who organizes the event or sits
in the f rst row. If the mother of the man’s children is missing from the
benches of the courtroom, talk begins to circulate that she has indeed
left him for a man down the street. If a new woman is sitting next to
his mother in the f rst row, people acknowledge her as his main partner.
At these public criminal justice proceedings, the members of a man’s
social circle deduce where they stand in his life and where he stands in
the eyes of those around him.
One of the f rst signif cant social occasions that the criminal justice
system provides occurs when a young man gets booked. With a young
man suddenly taken from his home and placed in conf nement, the
question arises as to what will happen to the belongings he has left
behind. Who will care for these items? Who will take responsibility for
them or be allowed to use them? In the f rst hours or days of a young
man’s conf nement, a tremendous redistribution of his material possessions
takes place, and his partner, family, and friends watch to see
whom he chooses to manage this movement of goods and to whom
they will be given.
* * *
Mike’s mother, Miss Regina, usually coordinated his legal matters, organized
the attendance of his court cases, and kept the schedule for
jail visits, letting those who wished to see him know what his visiting
hours were and which dates had already been spoken for by others.3
Often, she also undertook the management of her son’s af airs while
he was away, and when he was f rst taken, she typically spent a number
of days taking care of what he left behind: cleaning out the apartment
he could no longer pay rent on, canceling his cell phone and paying the
cancellation fees, taking over his children’s school fees, and securing
his various possessions—cars, motorbikes, sneakers, speakers, jewelry,
CDs—or selling them to pay his bills.
But when Mike went back to prison on a parole violation in 2004,
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he appointed his new girlfriend, Tamara, to handle his af airs, mind
his possessions, and give some of them to specif c people. His mother
called me to discuss his decision:
MISS REGINA: I got no problem with Tamara; she’s a good person. But he’s
known her for two months, Alice. I’ve been taking care of his stuf for
years. Last time, the only thing I didn’t have here was the bike.
ALICE: Yeah, Marie [the mother of his children] had it.
MISS REGINA: And what happened to it?
ALICE: The cops took it.
MISS REGINA: Yup. Because her cousin was riding it around. You can’t ride
those bikes in town! Those are of – road bikes. Or if you do, you better be
faster than the cops!
ALICE: Right!
MISS REGINA: Me and you are the only ones that make sure everything is
still here when he comes home.
ALICE: Yep.
MISS REGINA: When he got locked up for that gun case, everything stayed
right here. Every shirt was ironed and waiting for him. Sneakers still in
the box. But like I said, if he wants Tamara to do it, that’s f ne. She can
pay all his bills and clean out that apartment and f nd somewhere to
put his car that don’t even run. Let her tow that car somewhere, that’s
f ne with me. I already told him I don’t want anything in that apartment.
Anything. And when he comes home and his TV gone and he
sees Ant wearing his clothes up and down the street, he better not come
complaining to me.
In some communities, the event that makes clear to a young man’s
family that he’s in a serious relationship is a school dance or graduation
ceremony to which he takes his new partner. Later, it might be a
family wedding out of town, a vacation, or a nephew’s christening. But
for Mike, the f rst event indicating to his mother that he had a serious
girlfriend came when he got taken into custody and designated Tamara
to handle his af airs.
Not only does the distribution of his possessions become a key task
for a trusted friend or family member, but the people to whom a newly
jailed man bestows his belongings are recognized by loved ones as his
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inner circle, the people he trusts and cares for the most. When Mike
violated his parole by drinking alcohol and got sent back to prison a
few years before, he phoned me shortly after his arrival to explain who
should get what:
MIKE: I told Chuck he can hold the AP [apartment] down for me till I get
back, so can you give him the key? I know his pops ain’t letting him
sleep at the crib no more. And he already got the keys to the Bonnie
[Pontiac Bonneville]. I told him to just ride out with that.
ALICE: Okay.
MIKE: Can you give my cell phone to Shanda? I told her you were going
drop it of to her—you know hers got cut of .
ALICE: Yeah. Probably tomorrow.
MIKE: My moms might want that car, though. If she call you about the car,
just tell Chuck I got to give it to her, you know.
ALICE: Okay.
MIKE: Ronny going to come by for my Xbox; I told him to call you before
he come to make sure you there.
The events marking a young man’s passage through the system
thus become times when private relationships are made public; when
a young man makes careful decisions about the relative ranking of his
social relations. But these occasions are not only times when private
relationships are made public, they are also times when a man’s general
social standing or level of familial and neighborhood support is made
manifest. For example, young men on 6th Street took the number in attendance
at another man’s sentencing as indication of his social standing,
a demonstration of how much “love” he has in the streets. From
f eld notes taken in 2009:
There was a big showing in room 405 today for Reggie’s Must Be Tried.4
I
drove his mother, Miss Linda, and their neighbor Anthony, who has two
bench warrants and took a real risk showing his support today. Reggie’s
older brother, Chuck, drove their youngest brother, Tim, who skipped class
today at his new school in order to come. Victoria, Reggie’s sometime
girlfriend, met us there. The judge, a stern- faced Italian man, dropped all
the charges—conspiracy, drug possession (when he arrived at the hospital
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he had some work [drugs to sell] on him), possession of a weapon—so now
it’s just attempted murder. On the way back, we heard from Reggie’s cousin
Keisha, who said she had gone to the neighborhood courthouse instead of
the courthouse in Center City. She met us back at the house and brought
some weed. All in all, it was quite festive and solidary. Reggie called from
jail and discussed the showing with me proudly, comparing it to Rocky’s
sentencing last month, where none of the people who had promised to attend
actually showed up.
PENAL EVENTS AS ROMANTIC SHOWDOWNS
As important social occasions, the events marking a man’s movement
through the criminal justice system can become public stages for runins
between women competing for his af ections.
When a man is on the outside, he has some chance of keeping the
women in his life from f nding out about each other. When he gets
booked, such a balancing act becomes much more dif cult. At his sentencing,
his longtime girlfriend comes face to face with his “jumpof
”—a woman she didn’t know existed. In the f rst days that he is
permitted to have visits in county jail, the mother of his child confronts
his new girlfriend, who had arrived f fteen minutes before she did and
took up his visiting hour. Women also look through the sign- in book at
the visitor’s desk to determine whether other women have been there.
These meetings can become dramatic events in which women size
each other up, try to determine where they stand in relation to each
other, and even demand that the man make a public statement about
their respective places. It is in the jail visiting room, the courthouse,
and the bail of ce that women triumph as a man’s main partner, or get
humiliated and cast aside.
* * *
When Mike was released from prison, he was sentenced to a halfway
house in North Philly, and there he met Tamara, a caseworker for the
residents. She was in graduate school as well, working on her master’s
degree. Tamara and Mike started dating, and when Mike later went back
to prison on a violation for breaking curfew, Tamara started coming to
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visit him. He was careful to ensure that she visited on separate days from
his baby- mom, Marie, who came once a week with his two children. But a
couple of weeks into his sentence, Tamara came on an of day, osten sibly
to visit her younger brother, who was also serving time at Graterford:
There was an important incident at Graterford today. Marie and I drove
up there to see Mike, and Tamara is sitting two tables over, playing chess
with her brother. So Marie and I are sitting there, and Tamara comes over
and says, “What’s up, Mike, how you doing?” and he says to Marie, “This is
Tamara, she works at the halfway house.” To Tamara he says, “This is Marie,
my kids’ mom.” At this Marie stands up and says, “Is that all I am to you?
That’s all I am? I ain’t drive f ve fucking hours for this shit.”
In almost a whisper Mike says, “Shut up and sit down before they cancel
this visit.”
“Who is she?”
“Nobody, just a friend.”
“You fucked her, didn’t you.”
“Oh, here you go. Why you always assume that?”
“Because I know you. I know you.”
“We don’t mess with each other, we just cool.”5
The rest of the visit, Marie is touching Mike and playing with his hair.
Tamara starts talking loudly to her brother so that we can hear, telling him
that she really likes Mike and hopes he isn’t still messing with his babymom.
Mike starts talking louder so that Marie can’t hear what Tamara is
saying, and looks at me pleadingly to do something about the situation.
When the guard indicates that the time is up, Marie stands and holds
on to Mike’s waist, looking up at him and leaning in for a kiss. Mike hesitates
and grins sheepishly, and then hugs her back and kisses her.
By the time we are waiting in the holding cell outside the visiting room
to be released, tears are streaming down Tamara’s cheeks.
A similar public reckoning took place when Aisha attended her boyfriend
Trey’s sentencing in the federal courts in 2009. In this case, she
clearly lost to Trey’s baby- mom:
Aisha called me today, sobbing loudly. I left class and came over right
away. Second time I’ve seen Aisha cry in seven years, the f rst time being
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at the funeral of her sister’s boyfriend, whom the police strangled to death
in front of us. Trey’s sentencing was today, and to the heavy news of his
15- year bid in federal prison was added the injury of his baby- mom showing
up and sitting with Trey’s mother. When Aisha got there, his BM was
already there in the second row, talking quietly with his mom and aunt.
Aisha said his mom didn’t even greet her, acted as if she didn’t know her,
like they hadn’t been talking every day this whole year he’s been away.
Given her anger and hurt, I am surprised by how sensitive Aisha is to
Trey’s mother’s position. She said that his mother probably just didn’t
know what to do with the two of them in the same room.
Aisha said she wasn’t sure if she should leave, but in the end she decided
to stay, sitting in the back row. His BM ignored her the whole time he
was up there, making all the sounds and gestures when he came out that
women make to indicate that it is their man standing up there. Then his
BM spoke to her as they took the stairs down.
“She asked me right to my face if I was a dyke,” Aisha told me.
“Why would she think that?”
“Because that’s what Trey told her. He said we was just cool, I just be
sending him money and stuf .”
“What did you say?”
“I told her: I’m not a dyke; he told me he don’t mess with you anymore.”
Aisha said that the woman responded by showing Aisha her ring, saying,
“We are getting married as soon as he comes home.” Aisha looked at
Trey’s mother for conf rmation, and Trey’s mother refused to meet her
eyes, as if she were trying to be careful getting down the steps.
To Trey’s BM Aisha replied, “Well, better you than me, because I am not
waiting no 15 fucking years for him.”
Today, Trey has called twice and is trying to tell Aisha that he didn’t
even know that his BM would be there, and that he keeps telling her not
to come. He will take her of his visitor’s list wherever they take him. But
Aisha isn’t listening anymore. She tells Trey that she knows he is lying and
that he never would have told his baby- mom that she was a lesbian unless
he wanted to preserve his relationship with her. If he was really done with
her, he would have openly acknowledged that Aisha was his girlfriend. In
addition, there was the indisputable evidence of the seating arrangements
in the courtroom. If Aisha had been his girlfriend, then his mother would
have sat with her in the f rst row, and the mother of his children would
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Chapter Five
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have been sitting in the back, not the other way around. “Your mom was
sitting with her,” she says to him on the phone. “You can’t tell me they
didn’t come together.”
“All the months I wrote him and visited him and put money on his
books, and took his collect calls,” Aisha says to me. “I’m done.”
By way of neutralizing Aisha’s threat to the mother of his children,
Trey had told this woman that Aisha was a lesbian and hence they were
“just friends.” Meanwhile, he had been telling Aisha that things were
over between him and his baby- mom, and he simply saw her because
she had been bringing the kids to visit. When Aisha and Trey’s babymom
ran into each other at his sentencing, these separate narratives
collided: his baby- mom found out that Aisha was a genuine competitor,
while Aisha discovered that Trey and his baby- mom were still very
much romantically involved.
* * *
To say that the events accompanying a man’s movement through the
criminal justice system have become key social occasions isn’t to say
that the community has no other ways of going public with a new relationship,
sizing up rivals, or coming together. Cookouts and block parties
continue, as do funerals and christenings. Many young women and a
much smaller number of young men still graduate from high school. But
court sentences, bail hearings, and homecomings from a long sentence
have become frequent enough, and for enough people, that they now exist
alongside these older occasions, serving as signif cant social events
not just for young men and their immediate families but sometimes for
their larger networks of family, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances.
LEGAL WOES AS THE BASIS OF PERSONAL HONOR
Just as the criminal justice system now furnishes the social events
around which young people work out their relationships to one another,
it has provided the social material with which young people construct
themselves as brave and honorable. Contact with the criminal justice
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system is almost universally understood as something to be avoided.
The institution is, generally speaking, one that grants dishonor and
shame rather than pride or standing to those who pass through it. Even
so, the looming threat of prison, the movement of young men through
the courts and the jails, the assignment of a diminished and precarious
legal status to these young men, and the pressure on their loved ones
to provide information about them, all provide some opportunity for
bravery and honor.
* * *
In these f eld notes from the spring of 2007, Chuck’s friend Anthony
describes a number of his legal entanglements and brushes with law,
taking considerable pride in his own conduct:
Around 1 in the morning last night, Chuck and Anthony are sitting on
Chuck’s front stoop, passing a blunt (a cigar hollowed out and f lled with
marijuana) back and forth. We have just been to the bar, and Anthony, having
had more than a few shots of Hennessy, begins to pace around and talk
about his warrants.
“I ain’t sweating them, man,” he says. “I went to court with ya’ll, I be
driving around.” Here he refers to Reggie’s latest court date, which he
risked arrest to attend in solidarity.
Chuck tells Anthony that if he keeps talking loudly he’ll wake up Pop
George, Chuck’s grandfather.
“If the law come,” Anthony says, ignoring Chuck, “I’m out. You ain’t going
to see me no more.”
I tell Ant that if he has bench warrants, he should go to the Warrant
and Surrender Unit and get them taken care of. Chuck nods his head in
agreement. A few weeks ago Chuck had missed a court date, and he and I
had spent seven and a half hours in the basement of the Criminal Justice
Center getting the warrant lifted and a new date.
Anthony says, “I ain’t turning myself in. They going to have to come get
me. I ain’t making their job easier.”
Chuck tells him that as long as his warrants are only for failure to appear,
not a probation violation, he won’t get taken into custody; they’ll just
issue him a new date. Anthony asks how many men who came to the WarYou
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rant and Surrender of ce that day for a new date wound up getting taken
into custody on the spot. Chuck doesn’t answer, and Anthony repeats the
question.
Chuck laughs and says, “Three.”
Anthony acts out how surprised the men must have looked to see the
guards coming up behind them with the handcuf s.
Still pacing, Anthony says, “If they do grab me, I ain’t calling niggas,
like, I need this I need that, put bread on my billzooks [books—
commissary], write me, and all this. I’m just calling niggas like: what’s
going on out there?”
Chuck replies that Anthony will so call for money when he gets to jail,
just like everybody else.
Anthony shakes his head no, insisting, “I bids, nigga, I bids!” By this he
means that he handles his time in jail without complaint, like a pro.
Talk turns to the two women we’d seen at a bar earlier that night, one
of whom used to date Mike, and then Anthony brings it back to his legal
matters.
“All my cases was gun cases,” he says. “I never caught a drug case.”
I take this to mean that he is normally quite skilled at evading the
police, and only gets arrested when he is caught carrying a gun because of
the various beefs between 4th Street and 6th Street, which are beyond his
control.
Anthony continues: “I beats cases. [The s is for extra emphasis.] I’m 27
now, and I been in jail like four, f ve years, and I ain’t got NO convictions.”
He turns to me. “How many motherfuckers you know that’s my age, A,
and don’t got no convictions?”
I shrug.
“I’m old as shit not to have convictions.”
Anthony is now quite drunk and bragging about all kinds of things: the
women at the bar whom he could have slept with if he had wanted to, all
the free drinks the bartender gave him, his performance on the basketball
court earlier today. Chuck keeps telling him to keep quiet, because Pop
George will hear him. “As soon as he calls my name,” Chuck says, “it’s over.”
Ant starts saying, half- jokingly, that he is going to rob the next guy to
come up the block.
Chuck says, “Just don’t put my name in it. Don’t put me on your call
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123
list”—by which he means that when Ant gets booked, he better not mention
that Chuck had anything to do with the robbery.
Anthony replies, “I’m not getting booked!!”
Chuck repeats that he doesn’t want his name in it.
“You crazy,” Anthony says. “I never got locked up on 6th Street. When
I get locked up, I’m getting locked up on 4th and Castor, 6th and Elmsworth
. . .” By this I take him to mean that he knows his neighborhood and
its alleys so well that the cops would never catch him here. He also implies
that the 6th Street neighborhood contains so many people willing to help
him hide that he will always be safe.
Chuck laughs and tells Anthony to take his ass in the house.
Anthony replies, “When did I ever get booked on the 6?!”
Chuck says, “Yo, pipe down.”
Anthony nods emphatically, his point made.
A neighbor pulls up with a woman in his car, and the talk turns to who
is out creeping, that is, cheating on their spouse.
On this night, Anthony took pride in how he approached his time on
the run, and how he typically handled the months or years in jail awaiting
trial. He also boasted about his lack of convictions, the f rst time I’d
heard someone bring this up. His account of his conduct throughout
his legal woes was of ered as a testament to his good character, but also
as an indirect way of indicating his respect in the community. Because
Anthony’s ability to evade the police depended on the willingness of
others to open their doors to him and to keep silent in the face of police
questioning, the length of his time on the run, the number of his
cases that got thrown out for lack of witnesses, and the rarity of his
arrests occurring in the 6th Street neighborhood showed the esteem
with which neighbors and friends held him.
Getting arrested is nothing to be proud of, but news may travel of
a young man’s bravery during the beating that sometimes accompanies
the arrest—like it did when Ronny neither cried nor begged when
the police broke his arm with their batons. An arrest warrant is certainly
bad news, but surviving on the run requires skill and cunning,
for which a person can be admired and granted some degree of respect.
Given the number of restrictions a man on probation or parole has, and
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the frequency in which these supervisory sentences result in a violation
and a subsequent return to jail or prison, merely continuing to live on
the outside can be seen by others as a signif cant accomplishment.
COMMITMENT AND SACRIFICE IN A FUGITIVE COMMUNITY
Just as young people work out their social relations in the courtroom or
construct an honorable identity by handling their legal woes with dignity,
so too do they demonstrate their devotion by taking legal risks on
one another’s behalf. With police stops and searches a daily occurrence,
and many residents either going through court cases or risking arrest
on sight, there is simply not enough safety from the authorities to go
around. Saving oneself may mean giving up a brother, son, or best friend.
In the context of legal insecurity, people show their love and commitment
to one another by protecting those close to them from the police,
sometimes at the cost of their own safety. Some of these gestures are as
small as telling a cop that they didn’t see which way a man went. Some
are bigger, like when a man with a warrant risks an encounter with the
police to attend the birth of his child. And some are as big as of ering
oneself up for another’s arrest. Small or large, all these gestures carry
deep meaning, becoming rituals that people perform to show respect,
to demonstrate love or intimacy, to uphold the revered status of others,
and to identify themselves as good people. In this way, people construct
a moral world through the looming threat of prison, f nding opportunities
for acts of protection and sacrif ce that bind them to others.
One major risk young men take on behalf of those they hold dear is
to attend the funerals of close friends who have been shot. Police usually
show up at these services to videotape the mourners with a tripod
camera.
Recall that when Ronny’s cousin was shot and killed, Reggie attended
the funeral although he had a warrant out for his arrest. Reggie
phoned me afterward specif cally to let me know he had taken this risk
on behalf of his deceased friend.
Indeed, a certain amount of this kind of legal risk- taking is expected
in very close relationships, such that when a man fails to sacrif ce his
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personal safety to fulf ll his social obligations, it is taken as an indication
of self shness, or a sign that he isn’t suf ciently invested in the
relationship.
* * *
When Brianna, Chuck’s girlfriend, was due with their f rst child, he
promised to attend the birth despite having a low- level warrant out for
his arrest. In the end he stayed home, later sitting with me and lamenting
how angry Brianna would be that he had failed to show up as he had
promised. He wasn’t wrong about her reaction—when I arrived at the
hospital to see her and the new baby, her mother and aunt were sitting
next to her bed, discussing his failures as a father and partner:
BRIANNA: He don’t care. I mean, he care, but he don’t care enough. He
going to say [he was saying], “If I get locked up, how I’ma take care
of the baby?” It’s not like they got him on a body [a murder case] or
something—if they did come grab him [arrest him at the hospital], all
he would do is sit for a quick three months [the minimum for a probation
violation]. The longest it would be would be like six months. Plus,
it’s not even a guarantee that they would come grab him.
BRIANNA’S AUNT: Keisha baby- dad was up here last month [for the birth
of their baby] and he came home. That nigga had a couple jawns [warrants]
on him.
BRIANNA: He just don’t want to be up there no more [in jail] because he
was there like all last year.
BRIANNA’S MOTHER: But think about it, like, in ten years when he looks
back, he’s going to wish he saw his baby born, he’s not going to care that
he was sitting [was in jail] for a couple months.
BRIANNA: Exactly.
Chuck’s decision to stay home hurt his baby- mom, not only because
he had failed to attend the birth of their daughter, but also because
he had refused to risk his own safety on behalf of his new family. For
Brianna, his willingness to take this risk stood as a folk test of his attachment
to her. His failure to show up was a hurtful act, a demonstration
of his lack of commitment.
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Though young men with warrants or under court supervision are
expected to risk their own safety for the people they love, a man may
also measure his feelings for a woman according to how little legal risk
he allows her to take on his behalf. Mike and Chuck agreed that they’d
ask only “hood rats” to smuggle drugs into the visiting room when they
were in county jail, never a relative or a real girlfriend, as the risk of
arrest was too great. They looked down on other, younger men who
thought nothing of having their main girlfriend or baby- mom run balloons
of marijuana or pills into the visiting room.6
Protecting a loved one from arrest could serve as an apology as well,
healing the breach of past wrongs. Chuck and Reggie’s mother, Miss
Linda, was a consistent user of crack, and would periodically take the
money from their pants pockets while they slept (this is called “digging
in pockets”). It got to the point that the brothers came up with a series
of hiding places in the house, including a hole in the wall and a loose
f oorboard. Typically, they had only small sums, but one winter night,
their mother discovered four hundred dollars in Chuck’s back pocket.
Chuck told Mike and me that when he woke up and found the money
gone, he confronted Miss Linda, who f atly denied taking it. Chuck
declared that he was f nished with her, that this was the last time—
he would be sleeping at friends’ houses or his girlfriend’s house from
now on.
At the time, Chuck was buying drugs with Mike and Steve; they
were pooling their money so they could buy a larger amount at a lower
price. They were buying on consignment, receiving the drugs f rst and
making payment after the sales. The four hundred dollars was Chuck’s
portion of the money they owed their supplier or “connect.” This
meant that Mike, Steve, and Chuck couldn’t pay him back—and worse,
couldn’t get any more drugs to sell. They were concerned about what
their connect would do to them, and also how they’d make any money
in the future.
MIKE: I told you not to sleep at your mom’s, nigga! You a nut for that.
You a fucking nut. Who she give it to [which drug dealer did she give
the money to]? I’ma fuck that nigga up, man. I told those niggas from
John Street don’t go around there, don’t serve her [sell drugs to Chuck’s
mother]. How many times I got to tell them don’t serve her?
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True to his word, Chuck stopped sleeping at Miss Linda’s and didn’t
answer when she called his cell phone. This went on for two weeks,
until the police showed up at Miss Linda’s door, looking for Chuck’s
younger brother Reggie. The of cers came to the house four times over
the next two weeks. Each time, Miss Linda refused to give them any
information, though she said they threatened to take her youngest son,
Tim, away and cut of her welfare. Chuck began phoning to check on
her and see how she was doing. When the police stopped coming, he
moved back home.
It seemed as if by protecting Reggie from the police, and by withstanding
the violence of the raids, Miss Linda made amends for the
money she’d stolen. The f rst night that Chuck was back sleeping at her
house, she beamed: “I always protect my sons. You can say a lot of things
about me, but I’m not letting them take my babies.”
Just as protecting someone from arrest is considered an act of commitment
and af ection, carelessly putting others at risk is taken to be a
sign of negligence, an indication of a person’s bad character.
It is a warm spring day, and Anthony and I are sitting on Miss Linda’s
steps along with a few neighbors and friends. Miss Linda pokes her head
out the kitchen door and says her stomach is talking; she asks Ant to go
and get hoagies. She tells him she also wants three bags of pork rinds.
Her youngest son, Tim, who is f fteen now, gives Anthony two dollars for
loosies (single cigarettes) and says that he wants his change back, and that
Ant better not smoke any of them before he gets back. I get up and say, “I’ll
go with you,” and Miss Linda jokes, “Yeah, you better go, ’cause Ant ain’t
got no money.” As we get up to go, Miss Linda starts trying to persuade a
neighbor to play spades with her, a dollar a hand. He is protesting that he
has to go to work soon.
Anthony and I walk down the alley and over to Pappi’s store. Ant puts
the pork- rind chips on the counter and says, “Let me get three.” Pappi’s son
passes him three single cigarettes, which cost a dollar f fty. I pick up the
hoagies from the back counter where Pappi’s youngest daughter is on the
grill, and she hands them to me silently.
As Anthony and I walk out of the store, we see two cop cars stopped
about f fty yards to the left. Two people, a young man and a young woman
who look no older than 15, stand facing the side of one of the cars, with
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their arms up over their heads and their forearms leaning on the car. A
Black, heavy- set cop in his forties is patting down the young man while a
thinner white cop in his midthirties stands nearby.
As he crosses the street in front of me, the white cop looks at Ant, who
immediately starts running toward Miss Linda’s house. The cop starts
of after him and by the time I catch up, Anthony is walking out of Miss
Linda’s house in handcuf s, followed by the cop. The cop is on the radio
asking for someone to search the bushes in the front of the house; he
thinks Anthony threw a gun there.
Anthony is yelling that his lip is busted and bleeding. Then he turns
to me and says, “It’s cool, A, I’ma be home in a minute. It’s cool,” to which
Miss Linda replies, “Shit. He ain’t staying here.”
The cop puts Anthony into the backseat, placing his hand on top of
Ant’s head as he gets into the car. Anthony is talking at me through the
closed window, but I can’t hear him; I shrug at him and shake my head.
Two more squad cars pull up into the alleyway with sirens blaring and
lights f ashing. Neighbors are coming outside or leaning out of their windows
to look.
The cop who chased down Anthony asks Miss Linda her name, whether
this is her house, and what her relationship is to Anthony. She f atly denies
that he lives with her and says he is just someone she knows from around
the neighborhood. The cop asks her for his name, and she says, “Ask him
what his name is.” The cop asks her who I am to her, and Miss Linda replies,
“That’s my fucking white girl. Is it a problem?” The cop tells her not to use
profanity and to take a seat.
Miss Linda begins yelling at Anthony through the closed window of the
police car: “Don’t you ever bring the law to my house! That’s what you get,
nigga! That’s what the fuck you get. Don’t think I’ma take your calls, either;
don’t even bother putting this number on your list!”
The cop tells us not to go back inside, and I wonder where Tim is. It
seems to take a long time for the police to f ll out the paperwork, and a
small crowd has now gathered at the end of the alley.
When the police leave, Miss Linda goes inside and calls to Tim, who
has been hiding in a fallen wall of the basement. “Ain’t nobody looking for
you,” she says as he crawls out.
Miss Linda is now convinced the police will come back that night and
raid the house. She grabs her glass pipes and her marijuana stash from
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the top shelf of the glass china cabinet in the dining room and phones
Mike, asking him to come for Chuck’s gun. She leaves to put her contraband
in her secret hiding spot and returns a few minutes later, looking
calmer, though she continues to say over and over how this has messed
up her whole day. Then Reggie calls from jail, and she picks up the phone
and says:
“This dickhead runs into the house! Brings the cops all in here. They
found the holster, the bullets. Don’t ask me which fucking bullets; I don’t
know which bullets. Mike needs to get back here and get all the shit out of
here, before they come back again. Because they def nitely coming back—
if not tonight, tomorrow night.”
After pouring another drink and taking a drag from a neighbor’s
cigarette, she starts talking about past raids on her house. Then she says,
“Anthony’s problem is he is self sh. He don’t think. They almost took my
son today, and I just got him back two fucking weeks ago [from juvenile
detention]. Not even two weeks.”
And so the giving and taking of legal risk becomes a way that people
in the neighborhood of 6th Street def ne their relationships, honor or
dishonor someone, and draw moral distinctions among one another.
Giving up another person under pressure is seen as a shameful act of
betrayal. Doing so voluntarily is considered an act of retribution, or the
start of an open conf ict. The unintentional bringing of “heat” is taken
as a sign of negligence or of bad character.
* * *
From these examples, we can see that the heavy presence of the police and
the looming threat of prison enter into the rituals of gift- giving that unite
people. Like the giving of food, shelter, or child care,7
protecting loved
ones from the police, or risking arrest on their behalf, becomes part of
an ongoing give- and- take that creates and sustains social relationships.
This brings us to an interesting wrinkle. Despite the norm of silence
and the high value placed on protecting others, doing so—particularly
at personal expense—doesn’t always ref ect well on the person making
the sacrif ce. Someone can put herself at risk too freely, or for people
with whom she is not perceived to be on terms intimate enough to
merit the gesture, thus diminishing the value of the protection and
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that of the giver. Sometimes people are perceived to protect others in a
desperate or manipulative way, to increase their intimacy with someone
who may not otherwise be interested in a closer connection. Such
was the case when Chuck’s ex- girlfriend allowed him to stay at her
place for a month while he was on the run, without asking for anything
in return but his company.
Protecting others, or risking one’s safety for their wellbeing, is hazardous
to the giver not only because of the risk of arrest or other harm,
but also because either action signals a strength of attachment that
may later be mocked. For instance, a woman may risk arrest on behalf
of her boyfriend by sneaking drugs into jail, only to f nd out that this
man has cheated on her, or has told others that she means little to him.
A man may protect a friend with whom he has been arrested, only to
learn later the friend gave him up quickly when the police of ered him
a deal. Hence, protecting others opens a person up to the humiliation
of being scorned or used.
THE MORAL AMBIGUITY OF ENCOUNTERS WITH THE LAW
We have seen how the looming threat of prison can provide opportunities
for someone to demonstrate love, af ection, or antagonism toward
others; make claims about his own character or sentiments; or draw
conclusions about other people’s.
When Anthony ran into Miss Linda’s house as the police chased him,
he had clearly placed others at risk, and Miss Linda’s anger was understood
to be an appropriate reaction to his thoughtless actions. But often
it is not so clear who has placed whom at risk, or how much risk an
individual had really added to what a person already faced. If someone
has protected another and risked arrest to do so, disputes may arise
concerning how much protection was given, or how serious the risk really
was. The giver may feel that the recipient has undervalued the gesture,
that he’s squandered his safety on someone who didn’t appreciate
it. Or the recipient may feel that the giver is trying to claim credit for a
gesture that wasn’t intended to be benevolent. Because police encounters,
court hearings, and probation meetings have unpredictable outcomes,
it’s not always obvious how a given brush with the authorities
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would have gone if a person had acted dif erently. The functionality of
run- ins with the law as expressive opportunities in social relationships
is complicated by the inherent ambiguity of these encounters.
The following extended excerpt from f eld notes reveals this ambiguity:
We are going OT—out of town. I am driving with a girlfriend of mine from
school, who sits across from me in the passenger seat. Mike and Chuck
are sitting in the backseat. They are smoking an L (a marijuana cigarette),
passing it back and forth and ashing it out the window.
A cop car f ashes us to pull over. My girlfriend yells, “Oh, shit!” and
gets a bottle of perfume out of her purse; she begins spraying the car and
the rest of us. “Grass,” from the Gap. Mike throws the butt of the L out the
window as we pull over onto the gravel.
Two white police of cers come to the car and ask me for my license and
registration. I ask them why I am being pulled over, and one says that I was
going over the speed limit. They walk back to their car to run my name and
the tags. As we are waiting, Mike asks how fast I’d been driving, and I feel
that he’s accusing me. Chuck says quietly, “She wasn’t going more than like
a pound,” which means f fty.
One of the of cers comes back to the window and says that he smelled
marijuana when he approached the vehicle, and asks us all to get out of the
car. They tell my girlfriend and me to stand over to the side, and they tell
Mike and Chuck to face the car, put their hands up on the hood, and spread
their legs. One of cer is radioing for a female cop to come and search us,
though in the end he never bothers with it. He pats Mike down as he is
pressed up against the car.
The of cer who had been on the radio begins searching the car. I watch
as he pulls the contents out of the side door pockets and from under the
seat. Mostly papers of mine from school. I think about what could incriminate
us there. In the side door pocket on the driver’s side, the of cer f nds
some needle- and- tube contraption. He sort of chuckles and holds it up to
the other of cer like he’s found something good. I explain that it is part
of the kit Mike’s baby- mom is learning from in her studies to become a
nurse’s assistant, which is in fact exactly what it is. He lets it go.
The of cer searching Mike demands to know who was smoking marijuana,
who it belonged to. Mike says loudly, “It was mine. It was mine.” The
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of cer asks, “Where is it?” Mike says, “There ain’t no more, I smoked it all.”
As the of cer turns toward us, Mike says to him, “They don’t have nothing
on them, they don’t even smoke weed.”
After Mike declares that it was his marijuana, the of cer searches
him again, opening the pockets of his jacket and jeans. A small bag of
marijuana falls out. The of cer puts handcuf s on him and says that he
will be taken to the police station and charged. He tells the three of us
to go, without ever touching me or my girlfriend. I ask if we can stay and
wait to hear where they are taking Mike, but they say no, and order us to
drive away.
Later, Mike tells me that at the precinct they made him pull up his testicles
and cough, and a small bag of cocaine dropped from his anus. Now
he’s being charged with possession of marijuana and possession of cocaine,
though very small amounts of both. Later, I ask Chuck if he had drugs on
him, and he nods. In the lining of your jeans? He nods again. But they
hadn’t searched him.
I know that Mike must be bailed out quickly if he’s going to make it out
on bail at all, because he’s on probation in Bucks County. At some point the
detainer from that probation will show up in the system, and then his bail
will be denied, because a person on probation isn’t allowed to make bail in
another case.
Chuck falls easily asleep, not seeming concerned. My girlfriend and I
stay up all night, going to dif erent houses and collecting money. When I
get the call from Mike the next morning that he has had the bail hearing
and we need to come to the courthouse with $500, we are ready, and post it
within the hour. I drive out to the county jail alone. I wait for many hours
for Mike to be released, twisting my hair in ringlets and trying to ignore
a young man who keeps asking if I am here for my boyfriend. Then Mike
comes out, and we drive home.
As soon as he walks out the door, I am full of descriptions of recent
events—how we found out what police station he was being held at, who
we got the money from, how we ran to the courthouse before anyone
found out about the detainer to post the bail, how quickly I drove to the
county jail to get him, how long I waited, who was in the waiting room,
how I dodged their advances, and so forth.
Mike stops me f nally, telling me to be quiet, looking frustrated and
angry.
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“What are you mad for? I spend two days making sure you come home,
and now you have attitude?”
Mike explains that I don’t appreciate the gravity of what has happened,
of how close I’d come to being arrested. He had prevented this by taking
the blame himself, which he didn’t have to do.
I protest that since it was in fact his marijuana and cocaine, and he was
the one who’d been smoking in the car, I shouldn’t have to thank him for
keeping me safe from an arrest.
He counters with the argument that his actions during this police
encounter dif ered from his habitual practice. He says that when the cops
come, people typically remove the drugs from their person and place them
in the car if they can’t toss them successfully from the vehicle. The drugs
get found in the car, nobody admits guilt, and down at the police station
the chips fall where they may. Most of the time, Mike explains, this means
that the driver takes the fall, even if he wasn’t the one carrying the drugs.
By not placing the drugs in the car, and by vocally admitting his guilt at
the start of the search, he’d spared the rest of us from arrest, and me—the
driver—in particular.
Mike then explains that he wouldn’t have done this for just anyone; in
fact, if Chuck had been the only other person with him, he wouldn’t have
admitted to anything. But he felt like I had really been there for him, and
so he wanted to do this thing for me, to show me that I was appreciated.
He seems angry that I don’t understand the weight of this gesture, and
frustrated that he has to explain it to me.
The next day, Chuck and I discuss what happened, and when I mention
that Mike had taken the blame on our behalf, Chuck frowns and says,
“That’s what he’s saying?” He then explains that when Mike said he could
have tossed the drugs in the car, leading me, the driver, to potentially take
the blame, he was lying, because he hadn’t actually thought of that at the
time. Chuck claims that Mike hadn’t remembered he was carrying the
weed bag until it dropped out of his pocket while the cop searched him. He
hadn’t remembered he had the small bag of cocaine, either, until he was in
the back of the police car. If he had remembered these items before he was
searched, Chuck says, he probably would have tossed them both in the car,
no matter what the consequences.
“But what about when he said that we didn’t have anything on us, when
he said it was his weed?” I ask. Clearly this was an instance of Mike’s taking
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the blame squarely and gallantly on his shoulders, saving the rest of us
from a potential arrest. Chuck then explains that Mike’s speaking up actually
didn’t protect us. If he hadn’t spoken up, we might all have been taken
to the police station and questioned. But my girlfriend and I wouldn’t have
been charged with anything, Chuck says, since we were clean—we had no
drugs on us, we didn’t have any warrants, we weren’t on probation (which
we would be violating by driving), and no drugs were in fact found in the
car. He says, “They was going to let you go regardless.” He then explains
that Mike probably f gured that since I’d been questioned only once before,
and wasn’t practiced in withstanding threats from police, he couldn’t
count on my silence. Especially not my girlfriend’s, Chuck points out.
“Who is Mike to her?”
“Now he wants to act like he did that shit for you,” Chuck says. “But
think about it: like, if you going to get booked, it’s better to get booked
alone.”
To work out whether Chuck’s account is valid, I try to think of what my
friend from school could have possibly told the police about Mike. Well,
at least his real name. In the hope that his other cases wouldn’t come into
play and to make it harder for them to f nd him once he made bail, Mike
had given the two of cers a fake name and had scraped his f ngertips of on
a metal grate in the cell so that they couldn’t f nd him through his prints.
After a few days, Mike still seems angry with me that I didn’t express
gratitude for the sacrif ce he’d made on my behalf, and that I didn’t accept
his version of events. I speak to Aisha on the phone, relaying the events of
the past days to her, describing what Mike had done and how close we had
come to being arrested. I make sure Mike is within earshot while I talk to
her, and this seems to patch things up between us. Chuck says nothing else
to me about it.
From these f eld notes, we can see that it can be quite unclear who
has taken the blame for whom, or how much risk there really was in
the f rst place. I believed that Mike had taken blame that was rightfully
his, but he felt that he had made a signif cant sacrif ce for me, and
that I didn’t understand the situation enough to appropriately value
his gesture. I began to be convinced by Mike’s arguments until I talked
with Chuck, who had a dif erent interpretation from either of us. Chuck
agreed with Mike that keeping drugs on you instead of throwing them
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in the car should be understood as a gesture of sacrif ce, protecting the
driver at your personal expense. That is, he didn’t dispute that passengers
in a car ordinarily drop the drugs, leaving the driver holding the
bag. What Chuck was disputing was whether Mike had remembered that
he had drugs on him. If he’d actually forgotten, then he’d kept the rest
of us safe unintentionally and was now trying to get credit for it. Furthermore,
by quickly admitting to the police that he was carrying the
marijuana and we weren’t, Mike actually wasn’t preventing our arrest.
According to Chuck, what he was preventing was the possibility that
we’d talk. Mike was trying to avoid putting us in a position where we’d
compromise his freedom.
Added to these interpretations is a fourth, which I came up with
while rereading my f eld notes a few days later. The person who actually
may have benef ted from Mike’s impromptu confession was not
me or my friend from school but Chuck, who did have drugs on him,
and likely would have been searched next if Mike hadn’t spoken up and
claimed responsibility when he did. Chuck would have been in a much
more vulnerable position to inform on Mike to reduce his own charges,
so Mike’s taking the blame prevented that from happening. Neither
Chuck nor Mike mentioned this, at least not while I was present. In fact,
Mike specif cally told me that he wouldn’t have taken the blame if only
Chuck had been in the car.
From this single police stop, a great many interpretations of the risks
involved and the motivations behind the actions of the parties present
can be put forth. One reason it may have been important for Mike to
provide a version of the events that involved his taking the blame for
us is that a person’s character is def ned in part by whether he will risk
arrest to protect the people he cares about. Residents of the 6th Street
neighborhood tend to downplay how much they put others at risk, and
to exaggerate their acts of protection and sacrif ce. Men spread the
news widely when they testify on behalf of a friend on trial, wanting
others to know of their loyalty and good character. On the other hand,
people suspected of caving under police pressure vehemently deny having
done so, though the strength of the denial is at times taken as a sign
of guilt in itself.
The inherent ambiguity and uncertainty of encounters with the police,
trial dates, probation hearings, and the like make these events dif –
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cult ones on which to base decisions about people’s characters, feelings,
or motivations. And yet, in part because these events are so uncertain
and ambiguous, they leave considerable room for interpretation, sometimes
allowing those involved to construct a version of events in which
they behaved bravely and honorably.
THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM AS A SOCIAL WORLD FOR YOUNG ADULTS
In the hyper- policed Black neighborhood of 6th Street, the penal system
has become a central institution in the lives of young people and
their families, coordinating social life and creating a meaningful moral
framework through which young people carve out their identities,
demonstrate their attachment to one another, and judge one another’s
character.
The events marking a young man’s passage through the system come
to serve as collective rituals that confer identity and establish relationships.
The sentencing hearing, initial jail visits, and homecomings
serve as important social events, indicating how popular he is or how
much status he has, as well as where people stand in his life.
By protecting one another from the authorities or risking arrest on
one another’s behalf, members of the 6th Street community demonstrate
their attachment to their family and friends and lay claim to
decency and honor. Risking arrest to attend a family function or hiding
a wanted relative or partner in one’s home becomes an act of love and
devotion, binding people together. Such risk- taking can also serve as
an apology, healing the wounds of a past wrong. Indeed, how people
conduct themselves given their own legal entanglements and those
of others becomes a source of distinction, marking them as brave or
weak, responsible or reckless, loyal or disloyal, or at least providing the
resources for so claiming. In the 6th Street neighborhood and many
like it, the criminal justice system now sets the terms for coming of age;
it is a key stage on which the drama of young adulthood is played, not
only for the young men moving through it but for their parents as well.
To be sure, around 6th Street and other segregated Black neighborhoods
like it, the drama of youth continues to play out on the street
corner, in class, and on the football f eld. But it also plays out—and for
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some it mainly plays out—in bail of ces, courtrooms, and jail visiting
halls. As boys around 6th Street become young men, many make
the transition from home and school to detention centers and jails.
The police and the courts increasingly take up their time and dictate
their activities; their daily round consists of writing letters to the parole
board or waiting in line at the probation of ce, making phone calls
to the house arrest monitor, and meeting with the “back judge” from
prior cases.
But to say that the penal system has become a central institutional
basis for adolescence and young adulthood is not to say that it is equal
to the other institutions which might occupy young people’s time and
form the basis of their social identities and relationships.
The events marking a man’s passage through the penal system may
become occasions for his girlfriend to dress up and do her nails, but a
trial is not a school dance. These are rituals of diminishment and degradation,
not celebration or accomplishment. Even if a young woman
can emerge proudly from a sentencing hearing because she sat in the
f rst row with the young man’s mother, this doesn’t change the fact that
she is watching the young man she loves being taken away to prison.
Mothers may express their parental care and support by attending
their son’s court dates and by visiting him in jail, but these activities
don’t provide the same gratif cation they might experience attending
a school basketball game, recital, or play. Even a mother who can take
some pride in the attention she pays to her son’s legal matters must
face other, unpleasant emotions: distress for this to be happening,
pain for what her son will go through in jail or prison, shame for what
the boy has gotten himself into, guilt for having failed to prevent it.
While families certainly celebrate a young man’s homecoming from
jail, dismissed case, or successful completion of a probation or parole
term, they rarely do so with a cake and balloons. These happy moments
are tinged with the unavoidable fact that even good news from the
courts isn’t something to be truly proud of. Unlike a graduation or a
f rst day on the job, they aren’t moves up so much as a clearing of legal
en tanglements, a resetting of the young man’s life at zero. Now perhaps
he might begin to make some progress in the domains that af ord him
some standing and stability—the domains of school, work, and family,
in which he has fallen woefully behind.
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The issue of agency also persists. Teenagers everywhere may feel
that decisions are being made for them, and that they don’t have as
much control over their lives as they would like. But school and jobs do
af ord them some chance to work hard and reap the benef ts of their
ef orts. In contrast, much of a young man’s passage through the penal
system reminds him every day that he is at the mercy of larger forces
that do not wish him well.
The seemingly arbitrary nature of the criminal justice system, from
the moment the police stop a man to the moment his parole sentence
ends, leaves a young man feeling that he cannot actively determine
how his life turns out. At any moment he may be taken into custody,
while the man standing next to him is not. Once he catches a case, he
begins attending court dates, perhaps one a month for what may turn
into more than a year of continuances and postponements. Each time
he enters the courthouse, he has little idea whether the authorities will
decide he should be taken into custody on the spot and continue his
case from jail, or whether he will simply be given a new court date and
sent home. Uncertainty persists as to whether this day will mark an
ending to his legal woes or his last day as a free man. The dif erence
between a case getting thrown out and moving forward may have very
little to do with the young man’s conduct—he has only to wait and
worry. If he is sitting in jail, he often has no idea how long he’ll be
there. Even when issued a f xed sentence, he doesn’t know when he’ll
be paroled, and if granted parole, he may wait months for his papers to
come through.
Young men cannot control when or where the criminal justice system
may take them, nor can they control who attends the events marking
their passage through it. Though surely high school of ers signif –
cant opportunities for humiliation and conf ict, a man sitting in jail or
prison has less say over who attends the major events in his life than he
would in, say, planning his prom date. And so these occasions become
times of tension and humiliation, not just for the man in question but
for his signif cant others, creating problems in relationships perhaps
more often than do the rituals that we typically associate with coming
of age.
The criminal justice system furnishes a good deal of expressive
equipment for a man to demonstrate his love, honor, attachment, or
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open hostility, but upon closer inspection these are also wanting. The
uncertainty of encounters with the police makes it hard for these to
become the moments when his character is decided on, and the looming
threat of prison makes it dif cult for him to conduct himself as he
might wish.
The act of informing, when done freely and without pressure, can be
rightfully taken as an act of aggression, or a payback for some wrong.
But people aren’t always given the free choice to inform or to keep silent.
Rather, informing happens under duress, so people are betraying
those they’d rather protect, and their character is becoming established
during a situation over which they have little control and certainly
haven’t freely entered into. Whereas many of us living in other communities
are able to construct an identity as a good person without risking
much of our safety or security to do so, young people on 6th Street f nd
that their character becomes f xed in moments of fear and desperation,
when under the threat of violence and conf nement they must choose
between their own safety and the security of someone they hold dear.
* * *
Thus, the moral world that people weave around the courts, the police,
and the threat of prison involves suspicion, betrayal, and disappointment.
To repair the damages that so frequently occur to the self and to
relationships, young men and women try to cover up the bad things
they are made to do, or spin them in a positive light. Relationships
between friends, partners, and family members require a good deal of
forgiving and forgetting. Still, people create a meaningful social world
and moral life from whatever cards they have been dealt, and young
people growing up in poor and segregated Black neighborhoods, under
heavy policing and the threat of prison, are no exception.
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Most of this book has concerned young men who are the targets of the vast
criminal justice apparatus, and those very close to them. But the movement
of large numbers of these young men through the courts, the jails, and the
prisons touches many more people beyond those directly involved. In
the 6th Street neighborhood, a lively market has emerged to cater to
the needs and wants of those living under various legal restrictions. A
good number of young people have found economic opportunity by
selling their friends and neighbors sought- after goods and services for
hiding from the police or circumventing various legal constraints.
Some of these young people got their start by doing a favor for a
friend or relative, and later realizing they could charge for it. Others
found that their legitimate jobs furnished the opportunity to help legally
precarious people in a particular kind of way. Meanwhile, some
young people working from within the criminal justice system earned
additional income under the table by smuggling a number of restricted
goods and services to inmates. Taken together, the underground market
catering to the needs and wants of those living under various legal
restrictions has created substantial economic opportunity for young
people living in communities where money and jobs are scarce.
TURNING A PERSONAL CONNECTION INTO A LITTLE INCOME
When I met Jevon, he was a charming eight- year- old who wanted to
be a movie star. He’d quote whole sections of The Godfather or Donnie
The Market in
Protections and Privileges
SIX
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Brasco and swear he’d make it big one day. People often said that Jevon
sounded like his older relatives. He would entertain himself by pretending
to be his cousin Reggie or his uncle when their girlfriends
phoned, causing a number of misunderstandings and, in one case, a
big argument. Shortly after Jevon turned thirteen, his muscles started
to grow, and to his great satisfaction, a thin mustache began to form on
his upper lip. Most important, his voice broke. This was the key thing,
his voice dropping. Now he could impersonate his relatives and neighbors
with astonishing accuracy.
Around this time, Jevon’s older cousin Reggie got released from jail
and placed on probation at his mother’s house. His probation of cer
would call a few evenings each week to make sure Reggie was in the
house for his nine o’clock curfew, a constraint on his freedom he deeply
resented, particularly after he met and fell for a girl living a few blocks
away. Reggie started paying a neighbor ten dollars per night to sit in
Miss Linda’s house and answer the phone when his probation of cer
called, so that he could go out with his new girlfriend. This scheme had
been successful once, but on the second phone call the PO had grown
suspicious and had asked where Reggie had been sent as a juvenile offender.
Reggie’s neighbor couldn’t answer that question, so the PO told
him that the next time Reggie was caught out after curfew, he’d be going
back to jail.
Reggie and I were sitting on the stoop facing the alleyway and discussing
this while some younger boys played a pickup game with the
alley basket. Hearing the tail end of our conversation, Jevon left the
game and came over to us. With impressive conf dence, he told Reggie
that he could take the PO calls for him: not only could he do Reggie’s
voice better than anyone, but he already knew most of the details of his
cousin’s life, and could quickly learn the rest.
“What’s my date of birth?” Reggie asked.
“February 12, 1987.”
“What was the f rst case I caught?”
“For weed, when you was like ten.”
“How many months did I do up Forrest?”
“You never went to Forrest. You was in Mahanoy.”
“What’s the last birthday I spent home?”
“Shit. Probably when you was like nine.”
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Reggie grinned. “What’s my social?”
“I don’t know.”
Reggie told Jevon his social security number.
“Okay,” Jevon said.
“Repeat it back,” Reggie insisted.
Jevon repeated it perfectly.
* * *
Reggie gave Jevon’s acting skills a try that night, leaving around seven
and returning at two in the morning. Jevon reported that everything
had gone according to plan: the PO had phoned, asked what halfway
house he’d been sent to, what his f rst baby- mom’s mother’s name was,
and what part of his body the guard had injured while Reggie was a teenager
in county jail. Jevon had answered all these questions correctly.
Jevon launched his enterprise by charging his cousin f ve dollars a
night, but at his mother’s urging switched to asking for f ve dollars an
hour. Reggie seemed to resent this rate increase, but admitted that nobody
else could come close to his voice, which had the heavy nasal quality
of a young Biggie Smalls. When Reggie missed several payments,
Jevon of ered his services to his uncle and then to a neighbor, both of
whom were also on parole, and eager for a stand- in to answer calls from
their PO.
Responding to curfew calls required a number of skills beyond the
mimicry of voices: punctuality, conf dence, a good memory, and the
ability to imagine what someone who has recently come home from a
long sentence might sound like and say to his PO. Jevon took this all
on as any professional actor might, and seemed to delight in his roles.
He also took careful notes about the conversations in a little book, so
that the next time a man saw his PO he’d know where their relationship
stood.
Over time, Jevon developed quite a client base. In his sophomore
and junior years of high school, I watched him bring in upwards of one
hundred dollars a week. As his graduation neared, though, he seemed
to grow tired of sitting in houses all evening and night. After a futile attempt
to forward the calls to his cell phone, and another failed attempt
to train one of his friends to do the job, he stopped “the phone hustle”
and went to work as a mall security guard.
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Like Jevon, a number of young people I got to know were making a
little money by providing goods and services to friends and to friends
of friends who were living under various legal restrictions. One important
service was the smuggling of money and drugs to those constrained
the most: inmates.
Twenty- four- year- old Shonda got her start by doing a favor for
someone close to her.
“You have to wrap the bill around the weed,” she explained to me as
we sat at her grandmother’s round kitchen table. “That way you keep
the weed together and you cover the smell.”
“Okay.”
“And you have to do it a day, two days in advance, because they got
the hand machines now.”1
Shonda f rst smuggled drugs into jail at the age of eight, when she
helped her mom pass a crack- f lled balloon to her dad, a heavy user who
was on trial for aggravated assault. Her mom’s method was to insert
the balloon like a tampon, then adjust and pull it out in the visiting
room. Shonda’s job was to watch the guards and give her mother the
green light. Sometimes she handed the balloons from her mother to
her father. Her dad would swallow them, and either throw them up or
pass them once he got back to the cell block.
After her mom broke things of with her dad, Shonda stopped going
to the prison to visit him. There followed a long stretch—about seven
years—in which Shonda’s life was not punctuated by trips to jails or
courthouses. Then during her junior year of high school, her boyfriend
caught a gun case. She returned to county jail to visit him. When she
was twenty- three, her baby- dad got booked for armed robbery, and she
was back again.
Shonda was unemployed when her baby- dad got taken into custody,
so her household income evaporated. In addition to taking over the
groceries, the diapers, and all the bills, she now had the added expense
of sending money to her baby- dad in jail so that he could buy soap,
shower shoes, and better food inside. He also asked her to bring in
marijuana and tobacco. After a few weeks, she started smuggling small
quantities of marijuana into the visiting room along with cash, which
he used for buying items like cigarettes from other inmates.
To of set the high costs of visiting him and keeping him in relative
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comfort while inside, Shonda began taking in packages for other men
at the county jail; she either visited them herself or took a girlfriend
with her while she visited her baby- dad. We met in this way. Reggie
had been on trial for possession of drugs and for f eeing the police, and
found out from his cellmate that a woman named Shonda would bring
in marijuana for f fty dollars. His mother met up with her one Wednesday
afternoon, paid her the money, and gave her a small bag of weed to
smuggle in for him. I tagged along.
On one of the f rst days I spent with Shonda, she put together three
packages: one for her baby- dad, one for his cellmate, and one for a man
with a bullet lodged in his back who said that marijuana was the only
drug that dulled the pain. Her younger sister came with us to the jail
and called the cellmate out into the visiting room so that she could pass
of the package for him at the same time Shonda was visiting with her
baby- dad. After this half- hour visit, Shonda got a new ticket and waited
another f ve hours to visit the third man. On this last visit of the day,
she acted as if she were visiting an old family friend, and passed of the
small bag of marijuana this man’s girlfriend had sent him for the week.
Assembling a package was a four- part process for Shonda. First, she
pounded the marijuana down to get the air out, creating a tiny and
dense cube. Next, she covered it in one layer of plastic wrap, taping the
packet together to form a rectangle of about one inch by three- quarters
of an inch. Then she took a dollar bill—though sometimes it was a ten,
other times a twenty—and folded it tightly around the packet, making
the total package about as thin as a Ritz cracker. Finally, using doublesided
tape, she made the package sticky on both sides so that the man
could hide it securely between his wrist and his jail ID band.
The sudden appearance of hand- screening machines at CFCF led
Shonda to take extra precautions in planning her package deliveries.
A few days after the machine appeared, I was visiting Reggie and
watched as frightened women passed a bottle of hand sanitizer around
the waiting area, scrubbing their hands and arms free of any incriminating
specks of contraband. That day, the smell of sweat mixed with
that of the ammonia used in cleaning the waiting room. Even women
like Mike’s mother, who weren’t smuggling in packages, worried that
they had touched drugs recently and would be denied entry or worse,
get arrested.
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The heightened risk didn’t stop Shonda from bringing in packages
for cash: she needed the money. After the screening machines came
in, she began placing the packages between the inner and outer lining
of her panties, in that rectangular patch of cloth that seems made for
small quantities of contraband. In the bus on another trip to jail, she
explained to me that the guard on duty that afternoon wouldn’t touch
your coochie, just the inner thighs. As she explained this, I remembered
hearing Reggie and Mike describe how exciting it was, sitting in jail, to
hold a tiny square containing a drug that would make you forget where
you were, and smelling of woman.
“You have to put the package in before you go,” Shonda explained,
“because you have to wash your hands enough times so that you pass
the drug screen. And always put it in the lining, so it doesn’t fall out
while you wait.”
“Do you get scared?”
“You have to control your fear,” she said. “You have to pretend that
you don’t have anything on you, that you’re just a regular visitor. You
have to get to the point where it’s normal.”
Shonda told me that she made enough money to support both her
trips to jail and her baby- dad’s drug habit. Sometimes she could also afford
to put money on his books, but it wasn’t really enough extra money
to pay, for example, her phone bill.
If the money in smuggling is low, the risk of arrest is substantial,
with or without the drug- screening machines. In my years visiting
young men from 6th Street in jail and prison, I observed seven women
get handcuf ed and taken away after a guard found drugs on their person
during the pat- down in the search room. Two of these women had
come with their children, so Child Protective Services was called. One
woman I knew from the neighborhood lost custody of her child and
served a year in jail. Reggie seemed fairly unconcerned: “She should
have been more careful. That’s on her.”
Like Jevon, Shonda began her business by doing a favor for someone
close to her, and then started to charge a few people for the service.
Neither one made a lot of money this way, but Jevon seemed to relish
his acting roles, as well as the status it gave him around his older
neighbors and kin. Shonda expressed her satisfaction at helping people
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in great need, like the man who smoked the marijuana she smuggled in
to alleviate the pain of his bullet wounds. And they both really needed
the money, however little it was.
OPPORTUNITIES AT WORK
Some residents of 6th Street become part of this underground network
of support through opportunities provided by their legitimate jobs.
They f nd that the skills in which they were trained or the particular
goods or services their jobs make available prove useful to people with
legal entanglements, and that they can earn a little or even a lot of extra
money by helping these people out under the table.
Rakim, a rotund man in his forties, ran a photo stand in downtown
Philadelphia. The stand (or rather, mobile of ce), sat near the Philadelphia
customs of ce, and a large sign reading Passport Pictures, Cheapest
in the City welcomed patrons inside. Rakim’s customers entered at
the rear of the trailer and saw a row of plastic chairs, a tripod at one end,
and a white backdrop hanging from the other. Rakim charged f fteen
dollars for three passport- sized photos and took four shots, allowing
customers to choose from among them before printing.
On the f rst afternoon I went to see him, a mother and her teenage
son were sitting in the plastic chairs that formed a small waiting area.
They came, she told me proudly, because her son was going to London
for his junior year abroad. Ahead of her in line was an employee
of a large company about to spend two weeks in Canada for training.
A lawyer arrived next, needing a passport renewal for a vacation in
Argentina.
When these customers left, another customer came in, wearing a
torn jean jacket. Seeing me, he made a move to leave. Rakim said, “It’s
cool, she’s cool.” The man smiled and said, “I wasn’t sure.” He handed
Rakim a wad of crumpled bills, and Rakim passed him a small plastic
bag full of yellow liquid. The man gingerly accepted the bag and walked
into the tiny bathroom. He emerged a few minutes later, nodded to
Rakim, and walked out.
Rakim had begun working at this photo stand in the mid- 1990s,
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when he took over the business from his father. As he told it, the stand
did fairly well until 9/11. “People did not want to cross a border,” he explained.
“They did not want to get on a plane.”
During this slow period, Rakim’s cousin would stop by the trailer on
his way back from his weekly parole meetings, since the of ces of the
Probation and Parole Board are located not two blocks away, and they
would catch up for an hour or two. Then one week his cousin came in
a day early, visibly upset. He asked Rakim if he had smoked weed or
used any other drugs recently. When Rakim replied that he hadn’t, the
cousin confessed that he’d slipped up with drugs, and begged Rakim for
the use of his urine for the test the next morning.
“How would I give you my urine?” Rakim asked.
His cousin explained that he would heat it up at home, put it in a
Baggie taped to his inner thigh, and release it into the sample cup at
the parole of ce. Rakim agreed, so the next morning, his cousin took
Rakim’s urine to the parole of ce meeting and passed the drug test with
it. Later, when his cousin asked for the favor again, Rakim told him it
would cost him twenty dollars. This arrangement went on for some
months, until the police caught the cousin driving a car and the judge
returned him to prison for the parole violation.
While inside, Rakim’s cousin told a friend about the photo booth,
and when this friend came home he stopped by on the way to his parole
appointment. News spread, and Rakim’s urine business grew.
I met Rakim through Chuck’s close friend Steve in 2007. At the time,
Steve had been trying to complete a two- year probation sentence while
battling a serious addiction to PCP. One afternoon, he came back to
the block, favoring his left leg and wincing as he walked. When I asked
what was wrong, he said simply, “The piss was too hot.” Mike explained
that Steve had been buying urine from a guy downtown, and it had
burned the skin on his inner thigh, where he had taped the bag.
I asked Rakim about this during our interview, and he knowingly
nodded his head.
I had trouble with the temperature at f rst. Guys were burning their legs,
because the cof ee warmer was too hot. I had to keep antibiotic ointment
and gauze bandages in here because guys were coming back with their skin
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peeling of on the plastic bag. So I got one with an adjustable temperature,
and I keep it at 100 degrees. Problem solved.
A year into this side business, Rakim had three cof ee heaters going,
and was contracting out to two women to provide supplemental urine.
He told me he didn’t know of anyone else who sold urine for use at
this probation and parole of ce, noting that you needed a place where
people could come inside and safely “put on” the urine. “So if you’ve got
a hotdog stand, a lottery and magazine stand, you can’t do this.” He explained
that most guys on probation or parole get urine from relatives
or partners, but that this is an unsatisfactory solution:
Your girl can always give you her piss, right, but you’ve got to take it from
West Philly, North Philly, all the way downtown. You’ve got to carry it on
the bus, keep it warm, keep the bag from breaking. And then, you never
know if the urine is clean. Your girl says she’s not using, but you can’t watch
her every second. Maybe she doesn’t want to tell you she’s been using, so
she gives you the urine and hopes it will come back okay. Then you’ve got
problems with your PO and problems in your relationship. You’re back in
jail, you’re blaming her, now ya’ll are on bad terms. . . . If you come to me,
you don’t have any of that. Hell, I sometimes have women come to me for
their boyfriends! Because they don’t want him to know what they’re doing,
you know? So they buy it from me and give it to him like it’s theirs.
Another item that people with certain kinds of jobs are able to supply
is fake documents. In 2006, a rumor started to circulate that a woman
who had recently been transferred to the PennDOT (Pennsylvania Department
of Transportation) nearest to 6th Street was accepting one
thousand dollars for making driver’s licenses for people who didn’t actually
qualify for them (or who were too concerned about their pending
legal issues to try). Mike reasoned that since the tickets on his license
amounted to more than three thousand dollars and his parole sentence
prevented him from getting a license anyway, it made f nancial sense to
pay this woman the thousand bucks. He never did save enough money
to purchase the license, but through his negotiations with her I learned
that a number of other men in the neighborhood had obtained one,
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including Chuck and Reggie’s uncle, who had a warrant out for a parole
violation dating back to 1983. This woman never agreed to talk with me,
but two years later, when she was discovered and arrested, she claimed
she’d made over three hundred thousand dollars selling real identities
to people who don’t otherwise qualify for them. Nobody could f gure
out who was carrying these phony licenses, or just how many people
had them.
More commonly, people help those facing dif culties with obtaining
formal identif cation by providing the goods and services that typically
require ID, with no questions asked. That is, rather than supply the
ID itself, they instead supply the goods and services otherwise denied
to people without proper identif cation.
Pappi’s corner store sits at the corner of 6th and Mankin. A yellow
neon sign above the entrance reads Hernandez Grocery, Cigarettes Milk
Eggs Hoagies Lottery. A smaller sign below reads We Take Access Card.
Mr. Hernandez was known as Pappi, and around 6th Street his store
was the go- to place for loosie cigarettes, chips, drinks, and snacks. Since
the nearest grocery store was eleven blocks away, neighbors who didn’t
have a car or bus fare would do most of their grocery shopping at Pappi’s.
Bulletproof glass framed the counter, but Pappi kept a one- by- twofoot
space open so he could pass customers their cigarettes and lottery
tickets by hand.
“A turnstile,” he once told me, “would mean that I expect my customers
to pull a gun on me. Nobody would ever do that.”
Pappi used the bulletproof glass as a giant frame on which to showcase
pictures of his grandchildren and other children from the area.
Alongside his granddaughter and three grandsons were the faces of
his 6th Street customers and friends, in baby pictures, prom pictures,
graduation pictures, funeral pictures, and even jail visiting- room pictures.
Pappi prided himself that in f fteen years of business in an increasingly
violent and impoverished Black section of the city, he had
never been robbed.
Across from the main counter and perched above the doorway, a
small TV broadcast sports or the news. Customers sometimes stopped
to watch for a few minutes, commenting with Pappi on the stories.
They also asked Pappi how their friends and relatives were doing. Indeed,
the store served as a kind of informational hub for the 6th Street
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neighborhood. It was often the f rst place people went when they came
home from jail or prison. Though Pappi seldom spoke more than a few
words, he quietly kept up with a great many neighborhood residents,
and possessed that rare ability to make people feel noticed and genuinely
appreciated. He played baseball in high school, and forty years
later still cut an impressive f gure.
When Mike and Chuck and their friends were home from jail, we’d
visit Pappi’s four or f ve times a day to buy a soda, a loosie, or a bag of
chips. After a few months, Pappi gave me the nickname Vanilla, which
he later shortened to Nil.
Most days, Pappi’s college- aged son ran the cash register in the front,
taking lottery ticket numbers and selling drinks and snacks. His daughter
worked the grill and meat counter in the back, serving up hoagies or
grilled cheese. But in addition to common corner grocery store items,
Pappi also sold prepaid cell phones under the table. Depending on the
day, he might have a hookup for a used car rental with no questions
asked, or a “connect” to a local motel where you could check in without
showing ID or a credit card.
The goods and services Pappi sold under the table weren’t known by
the store’s normal customers. You had to ask for them, and you had to
be the right person asking in order to get them. But they weren’t exactly
illegal, either. These items ordinarily required the purchasers to provide
documentation of both their identity and their creditworthiness—a
state- issued identif cation card, proof of insurance or credit, or a bank
account.
Pappi supplied specialty goods and services to his customers, but he
also acted as a broker between legally compromised people and individuals
providing a range of goods and services they were seeking. One
of the people he connected his customers to was Jahim, who worked at
a garage a few blocks south. At this garage patrons could ask for Jahim,
and get their car serviced or repaired without presenting ID, insurance,
or any paperwork on the car whatsoever. Downtown on South Street,
a man named Hussein sold stereos and other electronics on payment
plans, allowing the customer to give any name whatsoever, and asking
for no ID to set up the arrangement. Bobby M on Third Street rented
out rooms without any proof of ID or credit. His rates were higher than
elsewhere, but he accepted a handshake rather than a lease.
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People working in the medical f eld also f nd that their jobs enable
them to provide under- the- table support to legally compromised
people. Indeed, a number of local women who worked in area hospitals
and doctor’s of ces provide medication and expertise to men too
scared to seek treatment at a hospital, where their names might be run
and warrants or other pending legal matters would come up.
The f rst time I witnessed this kind of underground health care was
the day Steve’s fourteen- year- old cousin, Eddie, broke his arm while
running from the police. An of cer had stopped him on foot just outside
Pappi’s, and after patting him down found a small amount of crack on his
person. Eddie took of when the of cer began taking out the handcuf s,
and he soon lost him in the alleyways. In his ef orts to escape, Eddie
had scaled a fence and landed badly. He walked into his grandmother’s
house panting and clutching his right forearm, the bone exposed.
After an hour on the phone, his grandmother told me triumphantly
that a woman was coming over to f x Eddie’s arm.
“Is she a doctor?” I naively asked.
“She’s a janitor,” his grandmother laughed. “But she works at the
hospital.”
* * *
Two hours later, Eddie’s arm was still bleeding, even though we’d
wrapped it in dish towels and propped it up on the high back of the
couch. Eddie had been taking swigs of Wild Irish Rose, and was now
cursing and singing in about equal parts.
The woman f nally arrived around midnight, wearing scrubs and
carrying a large plastic bag full of medical supplies. She unwrapped
Eddie’s arm and injected him with some kind of anesthetic. After a few
minutes of cleaning the wound and catching up with Eddie’s grandmother,
she told me to turn up the music. Then she asked his grandmother
to hold on to Eddie’s torso while she clutched his broken arm
between her thighs and pulled the bones back into place with both her
hands. Eddie screamed and struggled to get away, then cried for a good
ten minutes. The woman dropped two needles into boiling water on
the stove and used them to sew up the broken skin. With Eddie quietly
crying, she placed a bandage over the stitches, and then began wrapping
his arm in white cotton padding, placing rolled gauze in his hand
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for him to cup in a loose f st. She took some tougher foam material
from her bag and cut it to f t his forearm, then wrapped this in an ace
bandage. After about an hour, Eddie’s arm sat in a sling, and the woman
left instructions to change the bandages and check the wounds every
day. For her service, Eddie’s grandmother paid the woman seventy dollars
and a plastic bag f lled with three plates of corn bread and chicken
she had made that afternoon.
After this memorable event, I began to observe that a number of
other local residents who worked in the medical f eld supplied various
forms of of – the- books care to young men who avoided the hospital for
fear of encountering the police.
Aisha and Mike’s cousin Ronny, sixteen, had been boarding a bus
when the gun tucked into his waistband went of , sending a bullet into
his thigh. (He had begun carrying the gun when, coming home from a
two- year stint in juvenile detention, he found his neighbor and close
friend slain and the 6th Street Boys in a series of shootouts with the
4th Street Boys.) Having recently returned from the juvenile detention
center on three years of probation, Ronny refused to go to the hospital,
convinced that the trip would land him back in juvenile on a violation.
He spent the next f ve days bleeding on his grandmother’s couch, his
friends and family pleading with him to go to the hospital, but to no
avail. Then his grandmother located a woman working as a nurse’s aide
who agreed to remove the bullet.
She performed this procedure on the kitchen table. Ronny’s grandmother
shoved a dish towel into his mouth and asked me to turn up
the music to cover his screams. When the nurse’s aide f nished up and
Ronny appeared likely to survive, his grandmother paid her $150, and
the next day brought her some of her famous spicy fried chicken wings.
OPPORTUNITIES ON THE INSIDE
While some people supplying protections and privileges to legally compromised
people launch this enterprise through their personal contacts,
or by f nding that their job opens up ways to help and prof t from
these people, others come into contact with people living under legal
restrictions directly through their position within the criminal justice
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system. Certain court clerks, prison guards, case managers, and halfway
house supervisors leverage their professional positions to grant special
exemptions and privileges to defendants, inmates, and parolees who
can come up with the cash. And like those brokers of goods and services
who aren’t employed by the criminal justice system, these individuals
occasionally assist for personal reasons or simply out of a desire to help.
Janine f nished high school with great grades and then enrolled in
a two- year college to earn a certif cate in criminal justice. As she told
it, a lifetime of watching her brothers and father deal with the police,
the courts, and the prisons had convinced her that she’d be more qualif
ed for this kind of job than for medical work—the other sector of
the economy that seemed to be growing at the time. Upon graduation,
she tried to get a job as a prison guard, since the benef ts were great
and the wages good, but instead was hired by the scheduling of ce at
the Criminal Justice Center downtown. The job was pretty straightforward:
handle the scheduling of court cases, and manage the calendars
of the judges, district attorneys, and public defenders. Since each of the
hundreds of cases that came through the criminal courts each month
had upwards of twelve court dates before going to trial—or far more
likely: settling with the defendant, making a deal—this scheduling
provided fulltime work for Janine and two others.
Janine had been going through the cases one day when she came upon
a name that looked very familiar to her: Benjamin Greene. Benny—if
it was indeed the same person—had been the only guy who was nice
to her in middle school, when she was overweight and her mother’s
boyfriend was touching her at night. Benny would let her sneak into
his basement bedroom to sleep without asking anything from her. She
looked up his name on the court computer and saw his picture pop up
on the screen. It was Benny, sure enough, now f fteen years older.
Janine had heard that Benny had become a major dealer after high
school and was even wanted by the feds for a while. But this didn’t stop
her from remembering his kindness. Benny had a preliminary hearing
for a gun and drug case scheduled for the following week, so she waited
out in the hallway for him, approaching him shyly as he was leaving the
courtroom. “My heart was pounding,” she told me a couple of months
later while we had cof ee across the street from the courthouse. “I didn’t
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know if he was married, or had kids, or if he ever thought about me
anymore. But he looked the same, just with more hair [on his face].”
Within minutes of their meeting, Benny asked Janine if she could
help to get his case thrown out—if she could perhaps talk to the judge
or the district attorney. She refused to do this, but realized she could
arrange the judge’s schedule so that Benny’s court dates would be quite
far apart—four months instead of one or one and a half.
I met Janine through Benny; he came through the block one day
and told everybody listening that he’d gotten a girl who worked in the
courthouse to push his dates back. He acted as if he thought nothing of
exploiting her feelings for his own gain and spoke quite dismissively of
her. But when I had cof ee with Janine, she explained that Benny had
of ered to pay her handsomely for her ef orts to muddle the schedules;
in fact, he insisted on paying her each time she was successful.
“How much is he paying you?” I asked.
“Three hundred. Three hundred each time.”
“What are you doing with the money?”
“I’m paying of my student loans!”
Seeking additional verif cation that Janine was really receiving this
money, I asked Benny about it in private one afternoon. He admitted
he was paying her, and explained that this was in part because he didn’t
want to be indebted to her for the great favor she was doing him, especially
knowing how much she liked him.
A year later, Benny was still on the streets, thrilled to be spending
time with his baby- mom and two children. In the end, his court case
took three and a half years to process—a good year and a half longer
than any other case I’d seen. When Benny was f nally sent to state
prison, Janine told me that he wrote her that same week, thanking her
for giving him the extra time outside with his family.
If court clerks have a bit of leeway to grant certain defendants special
privileges such as extra time between trial dates, jail and prison
guards have considerably more. And though a number of legal restrictions
are imposed on those who are on probation or parole or going
through a court case, jail and prison inmates encounter a far greater
list of rules and prohibitions, opening up a much larger window of economic
opportunity for those working at correctional facilities. While
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certainly not all or perhaps even most guards participate in the informal
penal economy, at least some prof t from smuggling in everything
from knives to drugs to cell phones.
Twice I accompanied Miss Linda to meet a guard whom she paid
to smuggle in marijuana to one of her sons sitting in county jail. Another
time I accompanied Mike’s girlfriend to a meeting with a prison
guard who accepted a blow job and thirty- f ve dollars in exchange for
smuggling in three pills of oxycodone to Mike, which he took to ease
the pain from a severe beating received in the yard.
In 2011, I learned that Miss Linda had been paying a guard to smuggle
Percocet to her son Reggie in the prison yard. He had been sitting in
state prison for six months on a parole violation, this time for driving
a car without a license. Shortly after his arrival, a female guard threw a
bucketful of ammonia into his face, causing signif cant injury. My f eld
notes from that visit:
First time seeing Reggie since the ammonia incident. Wasn’t her fault, he
says—she was playing. The eyedrops the nurse provided weren’t working
to dull the pain, so the same guard who ruined his eyes started selling him
Percocet under the table for a small fortune. Three days ago, the guard got
transferred—apparently unrelated to having injured Reggie or the drug
smuggling—so now Reggie’s in severe withdrawal. “Like the f u,” he says,
“but ’way worse.” That’ll pass, but his blindness likely won’t. He’s hoping
to get another guard to sell him Percocet or oxycontin, but hasn’t found
one yet.
In addition to drugs, some guards do a good business in cell phones.
At CFCF in 2011, these were going for f ve hundred dollars. The family
or girlfriend of an inmate would meet the guard and pay him or her in
cash, which I observed on a number of occasions.
Guards also sell something less tangible to inmates and parolees:
private time with women.
Mike and I were sitting in the visiting room at Camp Hill state
prison, located two hours west of Philadelphia. We were eating microwaved
chicken f ngers from the turnstile snack machine and catching
up on neighborhood gossip. Mike pointed to a small room near the
drink machines. “See that?” he said. “There’s no camera in there. Niggas
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was taking they girls in there and smashing [having sex]; this guard was
taking, like, a bean [one hundred dollars] for f fteen minutes. He left,
like, right after I got here, so I never got to use it.”
When Mike f nished his three- year prison term, he got paroled to a
halfway house in North Philadelphia. There, too, certain guards were
willing to extend special privileges, for a fee. This North Philadelphia
halfway house held ten beds to a small room, but often twenty men
slept there. On the second night, Mike told me that he’d gotten no sleep
because one of his roommates had stabbed another, whom the man
caught trying to steal his shoes. On my f rst visit, a dense crowd of
young men greeted me as I walked through the doors of the compound,
clamoring with one another against the glass for a look at the outside.
After years behind bars, Mike found the halfway house untenable: “You
get the smell of freedom, but you can’t touch it or taste it.”
During the few hours he was permitted to leave during the day, Mike
began to get reacquainted with the city, learning what kinds of clothes
people were wearing nowadays, signing up for Facebook, and acquiring
an iPod. On the third day, he was given enough hours to visit his babymom,
Marie, and their two children. He seemed nervous about it, and
I tried to reassure him that after he saw them he’d feel more at ease.
When we spoke after the visit, Mike sounded worse. He learned that
his children were staying with their maternal grandmother, who had
also taken in her brother, a man in his sixties. Mike believed that this
uncle had the habit of asking children to sit on his lap and touching
them. Marie was employed by a local hospital as a nurse’s assistant and
would leave for work at f ve in the morning; this meant that his sevenyear-
old daughter and ten- year- old son were alone with their uncle for
two and a half hours before their grandmother would return from her
night shift and take them to school. What Mike wanted was to stay at
his baby- mom’s house overnight so that he could be there during those
two critical hours when his children were left alone with their uncle. I
imagine he also wanted to spend time with his baby- mom, though he
didn’t voice this reason when we discussed the situation.
The solution came when Mike discovered that a number of the halfway
house residents were paying a guard between one hundred and
two hundred dollars a night to allow them to leave at midnight and
return before the 8:00 a.m. count the next morning. In fact, so many of
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the men were paying of this guard for the privilege that when I would
come to say hello to Mike in the evening, I’d see one after another jump
into waiting cars outside the compound. I initially wondered if these
men had special evening passes, possibly to work a night shift, or perhaps
were choosing to leave the halfway house, violate their parole
terms, and go on the run. When Mike explained about the guard, I realized
that at least some of these men were paying to leave for the night
and sneak back in the next morning.
At f rst Mike’s baby- mom agreed to contribute a signif cant portion
of the payof , telling me she’d give any amount to know her children
were safe. By the second week, however, she refused to contribute any
more, saying that she couldn’t give over her entire paycheck just to secure
a night with Mike.
When Mike’s money for nightly payof s ran out, I asked him if he’d
introduce me to the halfway house guard who was taking the cash.
Since the guard was single and around my age, Mike invited him to go
for a beer with me, introducing me as his godsister, as he often did. He
also told the guard that I was writing his biography and might want to
talk with him about Mike’s experience in the halfway house.2
The guard agreed to meet me for drinks at the Five Points, a wellknown
“grown folks” bar. He wasn’t at all what I had expected: a quiet,
thoughtful man who showed me pictures of his three children while
sipping on an orange soda.
He began our conversation by saying that Mike was one of the guys
he worried about the most. If Mike could just get through these f rst
few weeks, he’d be okay.
The guard’s phone rang soon after we began talking. He picked up
and said, “Yeah, he’s a go.” I asked what the calls were about, and he
told me quite openly that he was helping some of the guys get out of
the house at night.
“What do you charge?” I asked.
“It depends,” the guard said. “If the guy is going out to sell drugs
and, you know, get the gun back that he left with his friend when he
got locked up, I charge two hundred dollars. Most of that goes to my
supervisor—they think he doesn’t pay attention, but he knows what
it is; he’s taking his cut. If the guy’s going to work or looking after his
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kids—you know, he’s a good guy—I charge a lot less, or I let him go for
free, and take care of my supervisor from the others.”
“Is it risky?”
“Put it this way: this is my third house. The f rst house got shut down
because the toilets were stopped up; for months they weren’t working,
and men were sleeping in their own shit, getting sick from it. The
second got shut down because the guards were selling guns, not just
guns—machine guns, M16s. [The guards were] using the men in the
house to run guns out of state, okay? You have no idea what goes on.”
“So letting men out at night . . .”
“It’s against policy. It’s a violation of their parole. But show me a
house in Philly where that’s not going on.”3
* * *
Faced with heavy surveillance and supervisory restrictions, some individuals
tangled up with the police, the courts, and the prisons seek
a number of specialty goods and services to evade the authorities or
live with more comfort and freedom than their legal restrictions allow.
A number of young people in the 6th Street neighborhood, as well
as people working as court clerks, prison guards, and halfway house
operators, are making a few extra dollars by providing an array of underground
goods and services to those individuals moving through
the criminal justice system. With the exception of prison guards, those
working in this market tend not to know one another or form much of
a collective body.
Some people sell specialty goods, such as drug- free urine or fake
documents, that legally compromised people need to get through police
stops or bypass their various restrictions. Others are f nding underground
ways to supply the basic goods and services that legally compromised
people f nd too dangerous to access through standard channels,
or are prevented from accessing because of their legal restrictions: car
repair, cell phones, even health care. Moreover, many things that clean
people hold as basic rights or free goods become highly sought- after
privileges for those under various forms of conf nement: f fteen minutes
of intimacy with a spouse within the prison walls, an evening away
from the home one is obligated through probation or parole restricYou
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Chapter Six
160
tions to return to, or a few more months outside jail before a sentencing
hearing. These, too, become commodities for which people with a
compromised legal status will dearly pay.
What do people participating in this underground market make of
what they are doing?
Rakim seemed to take a sympathetic attitude toward his clientele,
viewing his urine business as a necessary correction to an unjust system:
I’m not trying to help people break the law, but the parole regulations are
crazy. You fall of the wagon, have a drink, smoke weed, they grab you up;
you’re in for three years. Even if you start using drugs again, real drugs,
should you be sent back to prison for that? That’s not helpful at all. So you
come to me. For those times when you drink a little too much, or smoke
weed, you know, because anything at all in your system will set of the
machine.
Jokingly, he noted that this side business encouraged him to stay away
from drinking or using drugs: “When your urine is worth something,
you can’t just put anything in your body. If you sell one dirty bag,
you’re done.”
Rakim also described his ef orts to help men on parole in quite political
terms, insisting that the men he supplied with clean urine were
being wrongfully deprived of full citizenship rights. Indeed, some of
the other people helping to supply legally diminished young men regard
themselves as resisting police who act as an occupying force in the
Black community, and helping to combat a prison system that is a key
site for racial injustice. One parole of cer I interviewed referred to the
Underground Railroad when describing his ef orts to smuggle goods
to inmates. Others, like Janine who worked at the courthouse, seemed
moved by a personal relationship to make an exception for a particular
person.
In contrast, some of the prison guards I spoke with expressed considerable
hostility toward inmates, and frustration at the inherent
tensions in their jobs. One guard reasoned that the risk of physical
violence at the hands of prisoners justif ed the extra money he earned
selling cell phones and drugs to them. He and his coworkers viewed the
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money they earned from inmates under the table as a way of sticking it
to their employers and making lemonade out of lemons.
Still others may feel alternately sickened by the money they take
from desperate inmates and parolees, justif ed on personal or political
grounds, and guilty about the risks their services pose to people already
so vulnerable. During our chat over a drink, the halfway house guard
shared his complex and conf icting motives and feelings about taking
money to sneak men out at night:
It’s a broken system. On a good day, I think I’m doing something for
justice, something for the brothers. These men are locked up because they
didn’t pay their court fees, or they got drunk and failed [their piss test].
They’ve been locked up since they were kids. Then they come home to this
shit [the halfway house], sleeping one on top of the other, no money, no
clothes. And the rules they have to follow—nobody could follow those
rules. It’s a tragedy. It’s a crime against God. Sometimes I think, in f fty
years we are going to look back on this and, you know, that this was wrong.
And everybody who supported this—their judgment will come. So I think,
each night I give a man is a night he remembers he’s a human being, not an
animal. And most of these guys, they’ve got a few weeks or a few months
before they go back in. You can say a night out is a small thing, but it’s a
big thing, too. And each guy who sleeps out is one less guy in the rooms.
We’re f fty- three over capacity now.
On a bad day I think I’m taking from men who have nothing; I’m taking
from them to pay my kids’ tuition, pay the bills. That’s not right. And
whatever happens [to them when they leave the halfway house], that’s on
my head. They get rearrested, shot, I did that.
Regardless of the meaning that participants in the underground
market apply to these exchanges, or the stated or unstated reasons they
undertake them, we must acknowledge that the criminal justice arm
of the state extends beyond the persons who are the direct targets of
the police, the courts, or the prisons, and even beyond their families.
A large number of people provide underground assistance to men running
from the police or going through the courts and the jails. Through
these illicit exchanges, they, too, become involved in the “dirty” world.
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Chapter Six
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The assistance they provide may give them some sense of contributing
to those less fortunate, or even of participating in an underground
political movement against the overreach of the police and the prisons.
But they also come to rely on legally precarious people for income, and
by extension on the criminal justice system that seeks these people and
conf nes them. Through their f nancial dealings with people with warrants,
or who are in jail, or going through a court case, or out on parole,
these brokers of under- the- table goods and services also come to be
partially swept up into the criminal justice system, to know about it,
to interact with it, and to rely on it. And some f nd that their business
with those caught up in the system renders them vulnerable to arrest.
We might think of this as a kind of secondary legal jeopardy, a spilling
over of the legal precariousness that the young men who are the main
focus of this study face.4
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163
In the neighborhood of 6th Street, many young men become entangled
with the police, the courts, the parole board, and the prisons. Their
girlfriends and female relatives sustain raids and interrogations, and
spend some amount of time managing these men’s legal af airs. Still
others in the area come to orient themselves around the police and the
prisons because they are providing underground support to the legally
compromised people around them.
And yet, the neighborhood also contains many who keep relatively
free of the courts and the prisons, who go to school or work every day as
the police chase their neighbors through the streets. Not only women
manage to stay “clean.” While 60 percent of Black men who didn’t graduate
from high school have been to prison by their midthirties,1
this
means that 40 percent have not. Though many of the men who haven’t
been incarcerated are nevertheless caught up in court cases and probation
sentences, the neighborhood also includes a good number of
young people who successfully keep their distance from criminal justice
institutions that occupy the time and concern of so many others.
This chapter describes four groups of people in the 6th Street community
who are carving out a clean life for themselves as their friends
and family go in and out of prison and the police helicopters circle
overhead. Through these portraits, I describe the variety of relations
that clean people come to have with those involved with the police and
the courts, how they make sense of their situation, and how they view
those on the other side.
Clean People
SEVEN
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Chapter Seven
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INDOOR GUYS
In March of 2004, Mike got sentenced to one to three years in state
prison. As I traveled to visit Mike on the weekends, I kept in touch
with some of his friends and relatives who wanted to know how he
was doing. But having not yet formed independent relationships with
his friends and neighbors, I had no reason to hang out on 6th Street
in Mike’s absence. As I tried to f gure out how to return, I met another
group of guys who lived in an adjacent neighborhood, roughly f fteen
blocks away.
Lamar lived in a three- bedroom row home with an older man who
had some cognitive disabilities. Lamar’s mother had arranged for her
son to live with this man as part of a small caretaking business that she
operated from her house a few blocks away. The disability checks the
man received from the government were enough to cover the house’s
mortgage and his food, so in exchange for living there rent free, Lamar
made sure the man ate regular meals and didn’t burn the house down
with his smoldering cigarettes. In her own home, which she shared
with Lamar’s father, his mother housed three other men with similar
disabilities.
Most evenings after work, Lamar’s friends came over to his house
to drink beer and play video games. His job as a security guard on the
University of Pennsylvania campus meant regular hours and working
behind a desk, leaving him free after 5:00 p.m. and full of energy for the
evening’s video game matches. His house was an ideal bachelor pad—
warm and roomy but not too well kept, and with no spouse or mother
or children hanging about. The older man he watched spent most of
the time in his room, listening to records.
Lamar’s friends were roughly the same age as Mike and Chuck, and
they, too, hung out together as a unit—but they had no dealings with
the police or the courts and, from what I could tell, very few connections
with others who did. They had legal jobs: security guard, maintenance
man, and convenience store clerk; jobs with uniforms and IDs
and the formal paychecks large companies print out. When they lost
those jobs, they relied on the generosity of friends and family rather
than seeking income in the streets.
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Clean People
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These young men drank beer instead of smoking pot; many of them
had monthly or random piss tests at their jobs. And rather than shoot
the shit on the back steps or in the alleyway, they spent their leisure
time playing video games indoors. They didn’t need thermal wear or
heavy boots in the winter, because their houses were well heated and
they spent very little time outside.
As Lamar and his friends parked their cars and made their way toward
the house every evening, they passed another group of guys in
hoodies and black jeans standing on the corner. They didn’t talk to
these men, exchanging only a slight nod as they passed. I imagined
that these young men were much like the ones I had gotten to know
around 6th Street: caught up in the police and the courts, and likely
selling drugs hand to hand.
Lamar and his friends played just one video game—Halo. The game’s
premise was modern- day urban warfare: the players hid from the opposing
team and tried to kill them with machine guns. Lamar had two
small TVs going in the living room; these he connected to four controllers
each, so that eight of his friends could play against each other
simultaneously. Like many other single men in their twenties and early
thirties, the guys amused themselves with this game until the wee
hours three or four nights a week.
Much of the evening’s conversation concerned the game:
“Nigga, I told you he was coming around the corner! That’s it, you
done!”
“I ain’t fucking with you no more, man. I can’t keep taking these
hits . . .”
Lamar’s two closest friends were Darnell and Curtis. Darnell was a
rotund man in his midtwenties who worked as a manager at a health
research f rm just outside the city. He told me he made about forty
thousand dollars a year, which was less than half the salaries of his two
sisters, both of whom had advanced degrees and lived in the ’burbs.
Darnell’s girlfriend had a young son and, as she often reminded Darnell,
had put herself through college while raising him. She was now f nishing
a degree in legal services. Her baby’s father, who lived in Virginia,
earned almost six f gures, a point she frequently raised with Darnell
during their heated arguments over his lack of ambition. In contrast to
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the scene with his sisters and girlfriend, at Lamar’s house Darnell was
the richest and the best educated—in fact, other members of the group
periodically accused him of thinking he was better than they were and
sticking his nose in the air.
Lamar’s other close friend, Curtis, was in his late twenties and did
maintenance for a chemical plant in South Philly. He told me he had
been a drug dealer in his youth, but had abruptly quit when his daughter
was born. He spoke little; Darnell referred to him as a “deep well.”
The only woman who hung out with this group was a heavy and
very pretty woman named Keisha who worked as a phlebotomist at a
local hospital. After passing the six- month drug screen at her job, she
resumed her pot smoking, though Lamar made her take it out on the
back porch.
“I love blood!” she’d say after a few puf s. “It does something for me,
what can I say.”
From what I could gather, Keisha and Lamar had never been intimate,
but had been friends since childhood. After Lamar’s best friend
died in a car crash during their senior year of high school, Keisha had
taken his place as Lamar’s closest conf dant. She didn’t play video
games but hung out many evenings with the guys.
In addition to these close friends, Lamar’s game nights included two
of his cousins. One did heating and air- conditioning repair at the University
of Pennsylvania and lived with his girlfriend and their new baby
in a middle- class Black suburb just inside the city. He was also sleeping
with Keisha, this relationship having started long before he met the
mother of his child. Keisha had a live- in boyfriend, and saw Lamar’s
cousin on the weekends at Lamar’s house. His cousin explained to me
that Keisha could never be his of cial, full- time girlfriend, because she
hung out with men too much, plus she was a cheater. Keisha was also
about one hundred pounds heavier than his baby- mom, and he enjoyed
her fuller f gure in private more than in public. For her part, Keisha
seemed happy with her live- in boyfriend, so long as she could still see
Lamar’s cousin on the weekends.
Lamar’s other cousin was a thin young man of eighteen. This cousin
had grown up mainly in a group home, and was unemployed for most
of the time I knew him. Near the end of my time in the neighborhood,
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Clean People
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though, he landed a job at a downtown Wawa, a popular convenience
and hoagie chain. Lamar and I often visited him there, and sometimes
picked him up from his shift, since he had no car.
Bit by bit I came to learn about Lamar’s family. His mother, the
woman who owned the house in which he lived and who ran the caretaking
business, was actually his adopted mother—his birth mother
had given him up when he was a small boy, owing to her crack addiction
and poverty. Lamar’s father was a continuing crack user, and was
supported entirely by Lamar’s adopted mother, who cared for him as
well as three other men with mental disabilities. He’d come to Lamar’s
house about once a week to drink beer with the guys. He bobbed and
weaved and smiled a lot, and Lamar tolerated him with kindness and
patience. At one point when discussing with me his cousin’s upbringing
in the group home, Lamar said, “If not for my mom, that would have
been me. That woman’s a saint.”
One thing that distinguished Lamar and his friends from other
groups of guys who played video games together—for example, the
young men I’d encountered in the dorms of Penn’s campus—was that
they lived in a neighborhood in which lots of other young men were
getting arrested and locked up. Their indoor life, with its legal pastimes
and thrills, meant that they weren’t out in the streets. Indeed, when Lamar
or his friends would run into someone they hadn’t seen in a while,
their answer to the question “How you doing?” was often “Staying out
of trouble.” Perhaps this signif ed that although they might be unemployed
or not advancing in their careers, they weren’t out there getting
locked up, and this in itself was an accomplishment.
This isn’t to say that Lamar and his friends had no dealings with the
justice system whatsoever. A few months after we met, Lamar completed
the payments on some speeding tickets and recovered his driver’s
license. Another one of his friends had his license suspended for an
unpaid moving violation and was working on getting it back. But this
seemed to be the extent of their legal entanglements and civic diminishment.
After eight months spending most of my evenings at Lamar’s
house, I hadn’t taken a single f eld note that contained the word police.
No of cers busted down Lamar’s door. I never observed him receiving a
phone call that a friend or relative had gotten booked. Once in a while
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we heard sirens outside, but no one looked up from the video game to
investigate, even when they seemed close by. Whomever the cops were
looking for, it didn’t concern them.
One outdoor activity in the warmer months that did involve a few
brushes with the authorities was drag racing. Lamar and his friends
liked to refurbish old European cars, especially Volkswagens, and soup
them up to be racing cars. They spent hours adding accessories or
changing the suspension, and then we’d sometimes go out to the races
at the empty strips of road out past the airport. Some of the guys who
came to the races were Cambodian and Laotian, others Latino. Once we
also drove to a convention in Maryland. Drag racing could have gotten
them arrested or injured, but mostly Lamar’s friends came to the races
as spectators, to admire the other cars and watch the races. We always
managed to leave before the cops showed up, and compared to the professional
and leisure activities of the 6th Street Boys, the drag racing
seemed quite benign.
Nine months into my time with Lamar and his friends, I observed an
incident that revealed a great deal about where they stood in relation
to the guys I had come to know over on 6th Street. It was the only time
I saw any one of them come face to face with a man on the run.
Lamar called me one afternoon and said, “I got some news.”
“Oh yeah?”
“Yup. I just found out my mom died.”
“What? Oh my god. I’m so sorry.”
Turns out it wasn’t his mom mom who had passed but his birth
mother, a woman he barely knew.
Lamar went back and forth about whether to attend the funeral—
he’d been recently f red from his security guard job for lateness and
didn’t have money for a suit, or even black pants. Could he just wear
jeans? His friends and I f nally persuaded him to go, and to show our
support, his cousin, Keisha, and I came along. We all wore jeans.
The funeral was held in a very small church, the cof n made of simple
wood. Lamar hardly recognized anyone there, as most of the attendees
were from his birth mother’s extended family, which he had never gotten
to know. Later that day, he admitted to me that his adopted mother
had paid for the bulk of the funeral and burial costs, though she hadn’t
attended the service because she felt she might be unwelcome.
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Partway through the sermon, a man a bit younger than Lamar came
to sit next to us in the pew. He wore coveralls and smelled of marijuana
and clove cigarettes. His hair clumped haphazardly around his
face, and he peered around at the other funeral attendees with visible
concern. Lamar smiled an embarrassed and knowing smile, and told
us that this man was his brother. We introduced ourselves to him and
shook his hand.
“How you been doing?” this man asked Lamar.
“You know, staying out of trouble.”
“Yeah? That’s good, that’s good.”
“Yup. How you been doing?”
“Hanging in there. I can’t stay too long—I got, like, three warrants
on me.”
“Oh yeah?” Lamar said, with a small chuckle.
“Yeah. I just wanted to, you know . . .”
“Okay. Well, it was good to see you.”
“Yup . . .”
When the man left, I asked Lamar how long it had been since he’d
seen his brother.
“Maybe six years. No, longer than that, ’cause Dre [his best friend
from high school, who had been killed in a car accident] was still alive.
Must be like ten years.”
“Does he live nearby?”
“I have no idea. All I know is he better stay the hell away from me. I
can’t get mixed up in any of that. Dipping and dodging the police and
all that.”
“I know that’s right,” Keisha said.
Lamar’s cousin shook his head, acknowledging the importance of
steering clear of such people.
A CLEAN FAMILY IN ISOLATION
When I f rst met Miss Deena, she managed the basement level of a cafeteria
on the western edge of Penn’s campus. There, she directed ten
or so staf to serve sandwiches and boxed salads along with cookies,
fruit, and granola bars. We met in 2001, when she hired me to make
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sandwiches and ring up orders. At 4’9” and approaching sixty- f ve, she
commanded great respect from her employees, and led with a quiet and
dignif ed reasonableness.
Miss Deena lived with her daughter, Rochelle, and her daughter’s
son, Ray, in a long- established mixed- income Black neighborhood.
Rochelle was in her midforties, and recently laid of from a job as a
classroom assistant at an elementary school. Ray was a senior in high
school, and hoped to go to college.
Like many people devoted to taxing jobs, Miss Deena seemed lonely
and tired at home, uncomfortable even. She would return from her
shift looking exhausted and walking gingerly, her energy clearly spent.
After exchanging a few pleasantries, she’d change into her slippers, pat
her small dog Dutchess, make herself a bowl of leftovers, and retreat
upstairs to her bedroom, which her daughter and grandson dubbed
“the fortress.” Sometimes she’d contemplate visiting the retirement
community two blocks away to socialize; maybe she’d meet some nice
man at their bingo night. On Saturday afternoons, she’d often iron her
clothes for church, only to rehang them the next morning, not having
the energy to go.
Though Miss Deena was the f nancial provider in her household,
little of the respect she commanded at work seemed to extend to the
home she shared with her daughter and grandson. Rochelle and Ray
seemed to dominate the social life of the home, using the kitchen and
dining room to cook, go online, or watch TV. Occasionally, Miss Deena
would come down and try to chat with them, but she often dozed of
where she sat. Other times, she’d begin a story about the ceiling leak at
work or her troubles with diabetes, but her daughter or grandson would
interrupt her before she could f nish, or simply walk out of the room.
With shame, I also found myself guilty of this behavior; something
about her way of telling stories made it dif cult to stay focused.
From September to December of 2002, I spent two to three evenings
a week at Miss Deena’s house, f rst as a tutor for her two grandchildren,
then gradually also as a guest. With her grandson Ray, it was SAT prep,
college essays, and f nancial aid forms, to which his mother was tirelessly
devoted. And in my sessions with her granddaughter Aisha, who
stopped by Miss Deena’s after school, we concentrated on homework
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and strategies for staying away from the girls with whom she was getting
into f ghts.
The f rst encounter that I observed the family to have with a person
caught up in the criminal justice system occurred one Tuesday afternoon
in early November. The doorbell rang, and Ray got up to answer
it. He didn’t invite the man in but spoke to him outside, with the door
half- shut behind him. As he spoke to the man, Rochelle leaned toward
the door with what looked to me like trepidation.
“I just want to see if it’s who I think it is,” she said.
When Ray came back, she looked at his face and said, “I knew it.”
Ray told us that the man had asked for Tyrell, though he didn’t explain
to me who Tyrell was. Before Ray could tell us what else the man
had said, Rochelle launched into a series of stories about him: how
he and his wife would come over empty handed and eat up the whole
house; how his wife was “country” but street smart and eventually left
him; how he’d come by the house even then, just by himself; how he
had given a bath to his fourteen- year- old daughter when he said her
armpits smelled. From what I could gather, this man was a friend of
Tyrell’s, though it was still unclear who Tyrell was.
Apparently, this man who hadn’t been allowed inside had just returned
from jail, or perhaps a halfway house. Rochelle explained to me
how he had held a great job at the electrical plant, but lost the position
when he was charged with sexual harassment for picking up a female
coworker and moving her out of the way to get to the Coke machine.
Rochelle also didn’t like that he had once come to the house and insulted
Ray, telling him he should mind his manners and behave. How
dare he insult her son in his own house, in front of everyone! Rochelle
described the man as “sort of bipolar.” Miss Deena said simply, “We still
pray for him, but he can’t be trusted.”
Talk of the visit passed; the family resumed their previous conversations.
It wasn’t until a month later that I learned that the Tyrell this
man had asked for was Miss Deena’s son and Aisha’s father, currently
sitting in prison upstate. His crime, Rochelle told me, was dressing up
as her, his own sister, walking into her bank, and attempting to empty
her twelve- hundred- dollar savings account. “He had stockings on and
everything,” she laughed half- heartedly. “Even a wig!”
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For this attempted robbery, Tyrell had been in prison for f ve years.
It’s very likely that Miss Deena’s family had been making a special
ef ort to conceal the fact of their imprisoned family member from me
and spoke about him more frequently when I wasn’t around. But that
any knowledge of Miss Deena’s imprisoned son could be kept from
someone spending twenty hours a week in their living room, tutoring
this man’s daughter, is important information—a testament to their
success in carving out a life apart. In the families on 6th Street that I
would later come to know, it would have been impossible to conceal
such a thing, because daily life is f ooded with court dates, prison visits,
phone calls from probation or parole of cers, parole regulations, and
police raids.
Also signif cant was the deep embarrassment Miss Deena’s family
appeared to feel about Tyrell’s imprisonment. For many of the neighborhood
families jail and prison were simply the places where many
relatives were located.
Once the topic of Miss Deena’s imprisoned son had been broached,
he occasionally came up in conversation. On these days Rochelle would
shake her head about him, as if to say, “Yeah, he’s my worthless brother.
What can you do?”
For Miss Deena and Rochelle, Tyrell’s imprisonment seemed a quiet
sadness lurking in the background, a reminder of an earlier era in
which their lives had been more chaotic and troubled. Sometimes Miss
Deena expressed fears about the havoc he might wreak on their calm
and stable household if he returned to Philadelphia upon his release.
At other times, she expressed shame at how her son had turned out
and what he had done. Perhaps she also felt guilty that she could not to
steer him in the right direction. But Tyrell seemed more of an of stage
emptiness than a daily problem. Nobody went to visit him, and mostly
nobody wrote to him, though they did accept his phone calls every so
often and read his occasional letter.
One afternoon in December 2002, Aisha drafted a response to her
father:
5:30–8:00 pm Miss Deena’s House
Aisha lets me in, and I say hi to Dutchess. Miss Deena and her daughter
are downstairs in the kitchen when I get there. They are talking about
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someone in the hospital. Aisha is working on a letter to send to her
father. The letter explained that she was going to be a computer technician
when she grew up. Her father had requested this info, and she had
been worrying about her reply for some time. The letter also mentioned
that she wanted to bake pies and cakes and cookies as good as grandma’s.
Then it said she wanted to be just like her dad. At the very end, it said,
“You told me when you come home you want to start youre won business
[sic].” That was the last sentence. She signed it and I explained what a P.S.
was, which she said she’d like to do, and later we got an envelope from
her aunt.
Aisha didn’t spend much time talking to her father or writing to
him, nor did she ever visit him during the years he was away on the
sentence discussed here. But she did occasionally talk about how angry
she was at him, or ref ect on the things he had said, giving me the sense
that her father and his absence were never far from her thoughts.
For Miss Deena, her daughter, Rochelle, and Rochelle’s son, Ray, their
imprisoned family member seemed rarely to intrude into everyday life.
This isn’t to say that they didn’t think about him, worry about him, or
feel ashamed about him—just that on a day- to- day basis, they led their
lives separately from his and from the involvement in the courts and
the prisons that he required.
A GRANDFATHER LIVING APART
When his three grandsons were sitting in jail, the house quieted down
and Mr. George would come outside, sit on the porch, and drink a beer.
Sometimes he talked about the neighborhood’s better days or about
his childhood.
George Taylor, known as Mr. George to his grandsons’ friends, had
come up from Georgia when he was f ve. His mother and father worked
the cotton f elds south of Atlanta; like many sharecroppers, they often
came up short at the yearly settle, since the cost of the basic necessities
they had bought on credit from the plantation store was more than
what they cleared in the f elds. Mr. George remembers his father cursing
the owner of the small plantation for manipulating the numbers,
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which his father could not read, and the family leaving late at night for
the next farm, his mother hopeful that this one would be better.2
The Second World War meant opportunity up North, so with hundreds
of thousands of fellow f eld hands, Mr. George’s father boarded a
train to Philadelphia. He sent for his wife and three children later that
year, once he found work. This was 1943.
For most of Mr. George’s childhood, the family lived in a two- room
f at in South Philadelphia. His father shoveled coal down at the docks;
like many a stevedore, he showed up for work not knowing if he’d get
any and faced long hours of backbreaking labor if he did. Mr. George’s
mother cooked and cleaned house for two white families in downtown
Philadelphia. To his father’s shame, it was this money that really supported
the family. Neither job paid as much as had been promised when
the family made the move North during the war.
Mr. George’s parents fought a lot in their cramped apartment, but
the couple stayed together and had two more children. Mr. George
graduated from high school with strong grades and entered the US
Army in 1959. Anything to get out of the house, he explained.
Mr. George did well in his newly integrated unit and left the military
with a bad knee and an honorable discharge before the Vietnam War
began. It was a piece of luck that he never forgot. He applied for a job
with the postal service, and worked as a clerk at a branch in Southwest
Philadelphia from the age of twenty- one until he retired at sixty- f ve.
A few years after taking this job, Mr. George bought a three- bedroom
row home on a quiet, tree- lined block in the neighborhood of 6th Street,
right at the edge of the city limits. At the time, he was raising his young
daughter, Linda, alone. His wife had taken of with another man.
Mr. George and his daughter were among the f rst Black families
to move to the neighborhood, and after them came physicians, bank
tellers, government workers, and shop owners. Like Mr. George, these
middle- class families hoped to escape the crowded and run- down
ghetto by moving just past its outer edges.
The move to 6th Street represented the culmination of years of effort
for Mr. George and his family, but in many ways his military career,
his job at the post of ce, and now this spacious house in a good
neighborhood also exemplif ed the triumphs of the Civil Rights MoveYou
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ment. Gone were the days of separate drinking fountains, perpetual
debt, and police harassment. In one generation, the Taylors had moved
from second- class tenant farmers in the Jim Crow South to white- collar
respectability in the North.
Not that their new neighbors had exactly welcomed them with open
arms. One of the families that moved in shortly after Mr. George and
Linda got a brick thrown through their living room window, and Linda
refused to sleep in her own bedroom after that.
Mr. George hoped his daughter would grow up in an integrated community,
but by the 1980s every white family in the 6th Street neighborhood
had packed up and moved. Legal segregation had ended, but not a
single white student attended his daughter’s school. Even so, 6th Street
remained a middle- class area, less violent than other Black neighborhoods
nearby, with cleaner sidewalks and better- kept lawns.
In the mid- 1980s this, too, began to change. Developers started placing
low- income housing in the area, initiatives that the older residents
didn’t have the political power to resist. It was this second wave of less
ref ned residents, George felt, that set his daughter, Linda, down the
wrong path.
By her own account, Miss Linda’s father had spoiled her hopelessly
as a child, especially after her mother left. She came of age at the height
of the crack boom and dropped out of high school during her junior
year. The men she dated worked at the bottom of the crack business,
which at the time of ered decent wages and even the promise of wealth
to unemployed young men growing up around 6th Street. Many of her
boyfriends also shared her addiction. During a decade of hard living,
Linda gave birth to three sons: Chuck in 1984, Reggie in 1987, and Tim in
1991. By this time, the ghetto Mr. George had worked so hard to escape
seemed to have grown up around them.
By the late 1980s, the neighborhood of 6th Street and others like
it had a heavy police presence. At f rst Mr. George and his neighbors
viewed this as a welcome sign of change: the neighborhood had been
neglected by law enforcement for far too long. But as more and more
young men disappeared into jail and prison, Mr. George and his neighbors
started to question the motivation behind this ramped- up policing.
Some suspected that under the cloak of tough- on- crime rhetoric
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was white discomfort about Black civic and economic incorporation.
To put it more bluntly, they f gured that white people were not going
to accept Black people as full citizens without a f ght.3
When I met Mr. George’s family, the house he shared with his daughter
Linda and her three sons had deteriorated well past the point of
basic decency. Small roaches and ants crawled incessantly across the
countertops and f oors, over the couch and TV, and frequently onto the
house’s inhabitants. The house itself reeked of cigarette smoke, urine,
vomit, and alcohol. In the kitchen, cabinets were sticky with grease
and dirt; cat urine and feces covered a corner of the f oor. Ashtrays in
the kitchen, dining room, and living room collected mountains of old
cigarette butts and would frequently topple to the f oor, dumping their
contents into the carpet. Linda refused to throw the butts away, insisting
that they were her reserves when she had no money for cigarettes.
The upholstered couches, the living room carpet, and the walls were
stained a monochromatic brown—the aftermath of years of smoke and
dirt. A gaping hole in the f oor between the toilet and the tub in the
upstairs bathroom made washing up or relieving oneself quite perilous.
The f oor and wall tile had also crumbled away.
Yet the state of the house’s interior was hardly as disconcerting or
worrisome as the daily lives of its inhabitants. By my count, the police
came to the house thirty- two times over the six years I knew the Taylors.
After the police on one of these calls broke the lock on the front
door, Miss Linda started sleeping in the living room with a shotgun by
her side, in case someone should push the door open and try to rob the
family. Also during my time on 6th Street, each of her three sons got
into shootouts with other young men in the neighborhood, and for
a while afterward Miss Linda did not feel it was safe to walk outside
alone.
Amid this chaos, f lth, legal drama, and violence, Mr. George somehow
succeeded in living a life apart. He would leave in the midmorning
and return in the early evening, often bringing his longtime companion
home with him. The couple lived in a separate apartment on the second
f oor, complete with a kitchenette and bathroom Mr. George had built
himself during the 1980s. During the day, the heavy door to this apartment
stayed f rmly shut with the help of a deadbolt. In case his daughter
or grandsons should f nd their way in through the windows, Mr.
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George had padlocked his refrigerator. This way, the rest of the family
and whoever else they had running through the house couldn’t eat up
the groceries that his companion brought over on Sunday afternoons.
I had seen Mr. George’s apartment only once, when I came up the
stairs and knocked on the door to tell him that Brianna, Chuck’s girlfriend,
was giving birth. As he opened the door, I glimpsed shiny white
linoleum f oors and a spotless countertop. I’m not sure if he was able
to keep the roaches out—they had so deeply infested the rest of the
house—but I saw none on the walls or the f oor, and the room itself
smelled fresh, like clean laundry.
How did these two households coexist under the same roof? After a
few years of knowing the Taylors, I noted a number of tacit house rules,
which Linda and her boys more or less stuck to—or at least acknowledged
when breaking them. One rule was that no friends or partners
could live in the house. Mr. George wasn’t running a shelter or a hotel
for everybody in the neighborhood, he said. An exception was made
for Chuck’s two daughters, who frequently came to stay for weeks at a
time since shortly after their birth. Another rule was that Mr. George
would not tolerate loud noise inside the house or outside his window
after about 11:00 p.m. Often when we were sitting outside, Chuck or
Reggie would tell their friends to pipe down around this time. A third
house rule was that if the police ever came looking for one of the boys
or a friend of theirs, Mr. George would immediately pick up the phone
and alert the police the next time he saw the young man in question.
He refused to shield his grandsons from the law.
In supporting the family, Mr. George contributed a great deal: he
paid the mortgage, the heating, water, and phone bills. He would not,
he said, pay for collect calls from jail or prison and did not allow this
service on the landline, which he limited to local calls. He also gave
Linda money to buy food and other household items. And he allowed
his daughter and grandsons to live in his house rent free, though Miss
Linda sometimes persuaded her sons to pay rent directly to her without
relaying any to her father.
In the day- to- day activities of his daughter and grandsons, Mr.
George didn’t appear to intervene much. Miss Linda had free reign of
the house, which she considered hers to do with as she deemed f t. Her
father didn’t tell her to clean the house, nor did he tell her boys what
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to do or when to come in at night. So long as his daughter and grandsons
weren’t bringing the police to his door, what they did was their
business.
In their early teens, Chuck and his younger brother Reggie began selling
crack in the neighborhood. Their ready access to the drug seemed
to help control the chaos that their mother’s addiction had brought
into their lives. By supplying their mother, they could reduce the number
of food stamps she sold to get drugs, and keep her from trading or
selling of their possessions for crack. They could also reduce the number
of men she would have sex with in exchange for drugs. Sometimes
these men beat her, and Chuck would come home and get into f ghts in
an ef ort to defend her. Through much of this, I gathered, Mr. George
remained up in his apartment.
Mr. George and I had only a few lengthy conversations, but during
those he’d speak about the neighborhood’s early years and once in a
while about his childhood. He did not talk about the troubles with his
daughter and grandsons, and he dodged my questions about them the
few times I asked. I wanted to know about the period when his teenage
daughter became addicted to crack and gave birth to his three grandsons.
I also wanted to know when and how the house had deteriorated
to its present condition, and how he’d come to allow his daughter and
her sons to live there without having much to do with them.
I was able to piece together some of this family history through the
stories that Chuck and Reggie would occasionally of er. The excerpt
below is taken from f eld notes in the late summer of 2006, when Chuck
was twenty- two and Reggie was eighteen.
Chuck and I are on our way to visit Reggie at CFCF [Curran- Fromhold Correctional
Facility], the county jail on State Road. As we drive through West
Philly, we pass a park with a couple of swing sets and a basketball court.
“I used to play in this park,” Chuck comments.
“Did you used to live around here?”
“Yeah, for a little bit.”
I’m surprised by this. In four years of knowing the family, I had never
heard Chuck or his two younger brothers mention living anywhere but
their grandfather’s house on 6th Street. I say as much, and Chuck replies:
“We were staying here with Reggie’s dad. My grandpop kicked us out
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and shit, and we went to this homeless shelter for a minute [a little while]
and I guess my mom wanted to get out of there, so she called Reggie’s
dad and he came and got us. He used to live right there in that building.”
I look at the dilapidated gray and brown high- rise building and nod
my head.
“That was the f rst time I ever saw somebody get shot.”
Chuck pauses after this, and I wait to see if he will go on. He doesn’t.
“Who got shot?”
“Reggie’s dad.”
“Who shot him?”
“My grandpop.”
Another pause.
I ask, “Over what?”
“I remember I was happy as shit to leave the shelter, but then he used to
beat her, like, not just slap her, but really fuck her up, and I used to be mad,
like, and try to jump on him and pull him of of her.”
“So you used to protect her.”
“Not really. I couldn’t do no real damage, ’cause I was only like seven.
Yeah, seven, ’cause Tim was just born. One night, he was beating her and
he just kept going and then he started choking her and I called Pop- Pop
[Mr. George]. Pop- Pop came over there, shot him three times in the stomach.
Then he said get your stuf .”
“Then you went back to live with him on 6th Street.”
“Yep.”
“When you saw him get shot, were you scared?”
“No, I was happy. I was relieved.”
“Did Pop- Pop [Mr. George] catch a case?”
“No. Reggie’s pop never reported him. He never did no time or nothing.”4
From stories like these, I came to understand that while Mr. George’s
general policy was to live alongside his daughter and grandsons without
much interference, he would occasionally step in—sometimes for
their benef t, such as the time he rescued the family from an abusive
man and agreed to house them once again, and sometimes for his own,
such as in late 2006 when, after repeated raids on the house, he cleared
out his daughter’s belongings and told her she could not return if she
continued to hide Reggie from the police.
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After these raids, Chuck and Reggie were sitting in county jail and
state prison, respectively. A month later, their younger brother Tim got
booked outside the Chinese takeout store for resisting arrest and possession
of a small amount of crack. In the absence of his three grandsons,
the house became strangely quiet, and Mr. George began sitting
outside on the second- f oor porch. One evening the following fall, after
I’d come back from visiting Chuck in county jail, we sat down and had
a beer and a cigarette:
I’ll tell you. [shakes his head] I feel sorry for the man with sons. What’s the
use of raising a boy today? You feed him and clothe him and teach him
how to ride a bike and you done checked his tests, then at f fteen they
shipping him of to juvie. You don’t know when you going to see him again.
Maybe he makes it to 18 before they take him away. And once they grab
him, that’s it! Your son locked in a cage, just sitting. And the worst part
about it is, you still supporting him! Even though you can’t see him, you
can’t watch him go to school, go to work, have kids of his own, he can’t do
nothing but just sit, and you still supporting him. You put money on his
books, visitation, he come home for a few months, go back in. You worry
about him, what’s happening in there. You hope he come home and do
what he’s supposed to be doing. You hope and pray he don’t tear your life
apart, put you in jail. That’s the most you can hope for. Or you say I can’t do
it, I’m not getting involved. I wash my hands. They say it’s changed now
with Obama, it’s a new era. But can’t nobody protect our sons, not even the
president. I’m telling you, if I was thirty years younger, I’d be praying for
girls. If I had a son I’d be done lost my mind by now. I’d start mourning and
praying the day he was born.5
* * *
Each of the people described in the chapter thus far manage to insulate
themselves from the police, the courts, and the prisons as well as
from their legally entangled neighbors and family members. Some, like
Miss Deena and Lamar, accomplish this by cutting of ties to sons and
brothers who are either sitting in prison or living on the run. Others,
like Mr. George, continue to provide support from a distance, even if
that distance is only the space of a thick door and a deadbolt. The next
section concerns a young man who remained deeply connected to his
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neighborhood friends, yet managed to go to college and secure a wellpaying
job while they dodged the police and cycled in and out of jail.
A CLEAN MAN WITH DIRTY FRIENDS
Directly across the shared alleyway from Mr. George, his daughter, and
his grandsons on 6th Street lived a mother and her three children, the
youngest of whom was a young man named Josh. Josh was three years
older than Miss Linda’s oldest son, Chuck; the two had played together
as children and remained close all through high school. Josh’s mother,
who worked in administration at the Hospital of the University of
Pennsylvania, had two daughters with her f rst husband before marrying
a second time and giving birth to Josh. Neither marriage lasted
longer than a few years, so she raised the family on her Penn salary and
intermittent child support payments. When Chuck’s mother went out
searching for drugs, he would often walk across the shared alleyway
and eat at Josh’s. When Miss Linda didn’t come home for a few days,
he’d take his younger brother Tim with him, and spend a few nights
there.
When I started hanging out on the block, Josh was twenty years old,
and getting his degree in business administration from a historically
Black college in Upstate New York. When he returned home for the
holidays, he’d spend evenings with Chuck and his other neighbors. A
tall man who spoke quietly and laughed easily, Josh seemed eager to
reunite with his boys from back home, and quickly fell into their routine
of late- night drinking and marijuana smoking. For their part, these
young men seemed happy that one of their own had made it. They
didn’t expect him to partake in the drama of the streets. When they
were in shootouts, for example, nobody looked to Josh to strap up.
Right out of college, Josh moved back home and began working for
a doctor who was conducting trials for a pharmaceutical company. His
college girlfriend had moved back to Virginia and given birth to their
son, so he traveled back and forth a few times a year to visit them, and
his son came up for Halloween and most of the summer. Josh seemed
to always be talking about the boy, and to look forward to their visits.
They’d speak on the phone a few times a week.
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Josh worked long hours, so we didn’t see him much. Then the cops
stopped him while he was driving with two friends from 6th Street.
The of cers searched the car and found a small amount of cocaine behind
the front seat, and all three men were arrested. Josh made bail
quickly enough to keep his job with the doctor, and the case went to
trial a year later. The doctor let him take of work to attend the almost
monthly court dates, and at the sentencing persuaded the judge to give
Josh three years of parole instead of time in prison. Later that year, this
doctor also got the judge to expunge Josh’s record—the only time I
had heard of a judge doing this. Later, Josh described these events as a
turning point: if it were not for this man, he would have done time and
come home a convict.
In the summer of 2007, Chuck was shot and killed outside the Chinese
takeout store, where he had gone to buy dinner for himself and his
younger brother Tim.6
Tim had been standing just a few feet away and
watched his brother fall. The 4th Street Boy who shot Chuck had apparently
become fearful that Chuck, though unarmed, was going to shoot
him f rst. Actually, for the past two months Chuck had been working
hard to squash the ongoing conf ict between the 4th Street Boys and
the 6th Street Boys that had begun a few years earlier, when Tino killed
Jay- Jay at a dice game.
It could be that Chuck’s peacekeeping ef orts in this and other conf
icts made his death more of a blow for his family and friends and
for the neighborhood as a whole than the deaths of other young men
whose funerals we attended every few months. For Tim, Chuck’s death
meant the loss of the only father f gure he had known.
There was little time for Tim to grieve. With many of the core members
of the 6th Street Boys locked up that summer, the expectation to
avenge Chuck’s death landed squarely on his f fteen- year- old shoulders.
In anticipation of his retaliation, Tim received near daily calls and texts
from the 4th Street Boys that they were going to kill him, and by the
end of July he had been in three shootouts. It was a chilling way to
come of age, and one that those of us watching events unfold seemed
unable to stop.
At the time of Chuck’s death, Josh had already moved out of his
mother’s house on 6th Street and was living with a roommate in the
suburbs. He had landed a job doing administrative work for the medical
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research branch of a pharmaceutical company, and was earning a sixty-
thousand- dollar salary. He began getting calls at work from Tim, who
said that 4th Street was shooting at him and he needed a place to stay.
A couple of times, Josh took a long lunch break to pick Tim up on 6th
Street and take him to his apartment for safekeeping. Meanwhile, some
of Josh’s coworkers found out about his expunged record for cocaine
possession. To make matters worse, they overheard several of his conversations
with Tim about f ying bullets. Josh soon lost his job and
went on unemployment for a number of months, and then for a bit
longer when President Obama extended it. Didn’t help, he said later,
that he was the only Black man working on the f oor.
Josh could no longer af ord his apartment outside the city and
moved back in with his mother on 6th Street. In the f rst few months,
he’d frequently talk about the wrong moves he’d made, or how things
might have gone dif erently. He seemed to feel that he was largely responsible
for losing the job and had been insuf ciently appreciative
when he had it.
A few weeks after Josh moved back to the neighborhood, we were
walking to the corner store to buy beer when a young man of maybe
fourteen approached him in the checkout line.
“Heard you was back on the block. Welcome home.”
“Yeah, I just moved back not too long ago.”
“That’s what’s up. You back to take what’s yours, Old Head?”
Josh’s face crumbled, clearly humiliated at the suggestion that he
might go back to selling crack, as he’d done as a teenager.
“No, I’m not back back. I’m just job- hunting right now . . .”
“Okay, okay,” the young man replied, unconvinced.
When we got back to the block, Josh laughed it of , but in that moment
all the conf dence and pride of being the neighborhood success
seemed to f ood out of him. Years later, he would bring up this incident
as one of the most humiliating of his adult life.
During two years of unemployment, Josh occupied himself by looking
after the guys on 6th Street as well as their struggling family members.
He visited his friends in jail and prison; he wrote them letters and
accepted phone calls; he sent them some of his unemployment money
for their commissary.
After Chuck’s death, Josh tried to keep Tim from getting killed,
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which was more than a fulltime job. He also tried to persuade Miss
Linda to allow Tim to go to Virginia and stay with relatives, at least until
the drama died down. But she refused to let Tim leave, and accused
Josh of trying to take her last remaining son away from her.
Finally, Josh got Miss Linda to take Tim down South, away from the
dangers of 6th Street. On the morning of their departure, we sent them
of on a Greyhound bus with a cooler f lled with sandwiches, chips, and
fruit. But Miss Linda and Tim ran out of money two weeks later, and
came back home. Apparently Miss Linda could f nd no relative willing
to keep Tim, including his father, who had promised to do so before
they made the trip.
“He a fuckin’ nut,” Tim said, hiding his hurt.
Josh and I started traveling back and forth together to visit Reggie
and other incarcerated friends, pooling gas money and sharing
the driving. Together, we tried to keep Tim safe from the guys who
killed his brother. We hadn’t been close in the years before this, but
with Chuck dead, and many more of our mutual friends in jail, we were
united by our bond to the men no longer with us. We also commiserated
and joked about the dif cult relatives these friends had left behind,
with Chuck’s heavily crack- addicted mother, Miss Linda, being
f rst on that list.
As we drove together to jails and prisons, I soon realized that Josh
faced a series of dilemmas in dealing with men on the block as well as
with their relatives. These weren’t the same dilemmas that young men
dipping and dodging the authorities faced—they were particular to
a clean person with dirty friends, not unlike some of the dilemmas I
myself had experienced in the neighborhood over the years.
First was the dilemma of balancing his job and his middle- class
life with the chaos and emergencies of his poor and legally entangled
friends and neighbors. This he’d failed at when his ef orts to help Tim
after Chuck’s death cost him his corporate job.
But Josh’s clean identity also meant that people asked him to do
things that they couldn’t ask of dirty people. After Chuck died, his
paternal grandmother gave a speech at his midnight vigil, urging his
friends and neighbors not to retaliate. She seemed to mean it at the
time, but in private the next day she asked Josh to buy the guns that
the remaining 6th Street Boys would need to support the coming war
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with the guys who had shot her grandson. As the only member of the
6th Street Boys with no felony convictions, pending criminal charges,
or parole supervision, it fell on him, she said, to gear up. Josh was torn.
Should he buy these guns? Guns that would avenge his best friend?
These guns wouldn’t be just for vengeance, either. By this point the
friends of the man who had shot Chuck were driving by 6th Street,
shooting at innocent bystanders and leaving neighborhood residents
terrif ed to come outside. The 6th Street Boys needed something to f re
back with. In the end, however, Josh didn’t buy the guns—or if he did,
I never found out about it.
Another time, a guy on the block came to Josh and asked to borrow
three hundred dollars because the cops had taken the money he needed
to pay back his “connect” (supplier) when they stopped and searched
him. He said that the man he’d gotten the crack from would probably
kill him if he couldn’t pay him back. Should Josh give this man the
money and help him avoid a beating or even death? But then he’d have
access to more crack on commission, which could get him locked up, or
shot later on. In this case Josh didn’t loan the man the money, but he
did let him hide in his apartment for a week.
Bail was another tough decision Josh faced. These payments require
the payer to show ID at the bail counter, so the person who takes the
money to the basement of the Criminal Justice Center in downtown
Philadelphia needs to have a real ID, and one that isn’t going to return
holds or warrants when it’s run through the system. Not surprisingly,
then, when a young man on 6th Street got arrested, his family often
would gather the money and ask Josh to go to the of ce and pay it.
Should Josh help bail out his neighbors and their family members?
What if they were shot, or rearrested for an even worse crime, while
home? On the other hand, he also expressed his concern that if he
didn’t help the family get the young man out, whatever happened to
the young man in jail would be his doing, like the time a neighbor was
stabbed in the stomach in the jail cafeteria the week after Josh refused
to help his family make bail and get him home.
In July of 2011, Josh’s bad luck broke. After two full years of unemployment
at the height of the recession, he landed a job with another
medical company. Within six months he was promoted to assistant
director. He again became too busy to look after the 6th Street Boys or
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spend his days arguing with their dif cult and addicted relatives. He
got full custody of his son, who came to live with him in his mother’s
house.
* * *
Josh’s ties to dirty people clearly played a role in his losing a well- paying
management job in the suburbs. Being on intimate terms with legally
compromised young men also presented him with a series of ethical dilemmas
that those with their own legal entanglements didn’t face, and
which at times caused him considerable distress. On the other hand,
Josh’s devotion to the guys he had grown up with made the years of his
unemployment more meaningful and fulf lling than they otherwise
might have been. And this community welcomed him back whenever,
in the subsequent years, he was spit out of the formal labor market.
THE FANTASY (AND REALITY) OF BEING CLEAN
Those walking around with a warrant or a pending court case often
blame life’s disappointments on their legal entanglements. That is,
dirty people often imagine that if they could just get past these dif culties,
many of their other problems would go away: life would be easier,
or better, or not so disappointing. Just as people in prison plan the good
times they will have when they get out, or the straight line they will
walk upon release, so those on the outside often talk about all the great
things they will do once their warrant is lifted, their case dismissed, or
their probation term ended. As a corollary, they sometimes assume that
clean people have every opportunity for success open to them. In Mike’s
words, clean people attend more weddings than funerals. If clean people
aren’t leading the good life, it’s no one’s fault but their own.
These beliefs aren’t entirely untrue: research has shown that those
who have gone to prison do suf er from the experience, socially, civically,
and economically, as do their families. And because those who
avoid incarceration tend to be better educated, better employed, and
better paid, the perception that clean people are better of is also accurate.
But the rosy image that dirty people hold of clean people’s lives is
not always matched by their lived experience.
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For Miss Deena’s family, life was f lled with disappointments. But
they were the older, more hidden injuries of class, race, and gender,
not the more visible and readily blamable ones that accompany a compromised
legal status. A few of these disappointments are worth mentioning
here, as they have stayed with me despite the more traumatic
events I later encountered on 6th Street with the kinds of people Miss
Deena and her family were careful to avoid.
The f rst misfortune I witnessed at Miss Deena’s concerned her
grandson Ray. When we met, he was in his senior year of high school,
and studying hard in the hope of going to college. His best friend, Cory,
lived a few blocks away and spent a lot of time at Ray’s house, though he
was quite shy around Ray’s family. Ray’s mom once mentioned that she
was happy to feed Cory, because his family had a lot of kids and really
didn’t have the money for a growing boy.
Like many teenagers, Ray and Cory were looking forward to the
events and occasions that mark the coming of age: getting a driver’s
license, moving out of the house, going to college, and, of course, attending
the prom. What set Ray apart from Cory, and from many of
the teenagers I had come to know, was that at seventeen he seemed
convinced of his own bright future. Perhaps his mother truly had succeeded
in insulating him from the violence and poverty of neighborhood
life, or in carving out a path for him that would lead out of it. Ray
looked forward to graduation and to college with conf dence, as if both
were well within his reach.
Months before prom season, Ray began talking about the dance—
who he’d take and what he’d wear. He wanted matching outf ts for him
and his date, which he planned to design himself and get made by a local
tailor. When I’d come over for SAT prep tutoring, he would show me
his sketches of the dif erent outf ts, and I’d weigh in on the length and
fabric. The one he f nally settled on looked a bit like a Batman costume
to me, but he seemed very enthusiastic about it.
Ray was eyeing two girls to be his date: Charlene, his on- again, of –
again girlfriend, and Desiree, the girl who cut and braided his hair. He
had a big crush on Desiree, and was hoping to get up the courage to ask
her out in the coming months.
Every detail of the event was of great importance. One afternoon, we
had a lengthy conversation about corsages, in which Ray lamented that
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girls change their hair so often nowadays that it would be very hard to
plan the correct corsage in advance. His mother overheard our conversation
and joked that Ray inherited a love of nice clothes and fancy
occasions from her. She used to live for this kind of thing.
As the prom drew nearer, problems began cropping up in the plans. I
had taken Ray and Cory to the Department of Motor Vehicles a number
of times to work through the costly and lengthy process of obtaining a
driver’s license, but after we obtained the necessary doctor’s form and
assembled all the other required documentation, Ray failed the computer
permit test despite months of studying. A month later he failed it
a second time, dashing all hope of driving his date to the prom himself.
Cory had a learner’s permit, but it kept expiring because he couldn’t
af ord the thirty dollars to take the driver’s test. I took him twice to get
the permit renewed, but he f nally had to let it lapse when his doctor’s
form became invalid after one year. At that point, he couldn’t af ord a
new doctor’s form or the fee to take the driving test.
Around this time, Desiree’s boyfriend got shot in the hip, and according
to Ray, she entered a period of prolonged depression. She refused
to go to the prom with Ray or with anyone, preferring to “practically
live” at the hospital.
As if this weren’t enough, a week later Ray had to abandon his plans
for a custom- made suit when he discovered that the tailor wanted three
hundred dollars to make it. In fact, he couldn’t af ord to buy a regular
suit and shoes, or even to rent them. Finally, he admitted to me that
even if he somehow came up with the money to rent a suit, he wouldn’t
be able to f nd a date who could af ord her own sixty- dollar ticket. He
couldn’t pay for another person’s in addition to his own.
Ray and Cory began saying that they didn’t want to go to the prom
after all. The weekend before the event, Ray told me they were planning
on going to an “anti- prom” party at a friend’s house, which was inf –
nitely preferable to the corniness of a prom being held in “a warehouse
in South Philly.”
“I never wanted to go,” Cory informed me. “I’m not into the school
thing, that’s Ray.” Later he said, “There ain’t nobody to go with! All the
pretty girls graduated last year.”
When I asked Ray’s mom about the prom, she mentioned nothing
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about the high cost, saying only, “Yeah, I guess he doesn’t want to go
anymore, he thought it would be stupid. I kept telling him he’d regret it.”
On the night of prom, Ray called me around 9:30.
“Are you busy?” he said.
“No.”
“Can you give us a ride to South Philly?”
“For what?”
“For the prom.”
“I thought you were going to that other party.”
“He’s not having it. His mom came home, I think.”
“Oh.”
“So will you take us? It’s just on 16th and Passyunk.”
“How are you going to get in?”
“We’re not going in the prom. This girl I know is having an after- party
down the shore, so I’m gonna meet everybody there.”
“Okay, what time?”
“Now? If you aren’t doing anything . . .” Ray said, rather sheepishly.
I picked up Ray and Cory, who was wearing a pretty threadbare
sweatshirt. Ray carried a duf el bag, which I assumed contained their
change of clothes and maybe some alcohol. They gave no explanation
for their change of heart, nor did I ask for any. We drove to the prom
location, which did indeed seem to be a warehouse, and parked in the
large lot, full of cars and even a few limos.
“Can you pull up closer?” Ray said.
“To what?”
“To the door!”
“Okay.”
We waited pretty quietly for about ten minutes as Ray and Cory
watched the two large metal doors on a dimly lit side of the concrete
building. Then the doors opened and a young woman in a sheer purple
dress came out, walking carefully and adjusting her hair. Cory and Ray
leaped out of the car and then stopped short, hesitating to approach
the door, and f nally leaned against the car. I realized then that Cory was
clutching a disposable camera. Young women in dresses and heels began
to emerge with their dates into the night, and Cory and Ray talked
in whispers about who looked good, and who had come with whom.
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They saw a couple they knew, and walked over shyly to say hi. Ray shook
the guy’s hand, and Cory told the girl how nice she looked.
This continued for about forty minutes, and halfway through Cory
used up his roll of f lm. He seemed happy to be posing with the girls in
all their f nery.
Then Ray saw a girl he liked, and he turned to us with an embarrassed
smile. Cory whispered, “Go up to her!” which he f nally did. The
girl give him a hug, keeping a fair distance between them so as not to
smudge her makeup or dislodge her hair, and he came back smiling.
Then he spotted the group who were having the party down the shore,
and asked me to pop the trunk. As Ray got his bag, Cory opened the
passenger side of my car.
“What are you doing?”
“Getting in the car.”
“Wait, you’re not going to the after- party?”
Cory shook his head.
“So why did you come with Ray, then?”
“For the Let Out,” Cory said.
I looked confused.
“To see everybody come out,” he tried to explain.
It was an uncomfortable ride home. Cory looked bleakly out the
window most of the way, and I couldn’t think of a single topic to lift
the mood. All I could think was how adamantly he had argued that
he wanted no part of the prom, and then how he had come anyway,
to watch from the parking lot as his wealthier classmates made their
grand exit. I wished I hadn’t conveyed my expectation that he’d be going
to the after- party, because now he had that added shame. At one
point in the thirty- minute drive home, though, his face lit up a bit and
he said, “I got pictures with, like, eight dif erent girls.”
Both Ray and Cory graduated from high school that spring, and Ray
enrolled in a historically Black college down South. His mother and
grandmother proudly drove him down there in early September and
got his dorm room all set up. Then after six months, Ray dropped out—
the family could no longer af ord the tuition, and his student loans
weren’t nearly enough. Now he works as a security guard at the mall,
and as of this writing has paid of about half his college debt.
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The second disappointment that has stuck with me through the
years concerns Ray’s grandmother, Miss Deena.
One afternoon in late April of 2002, Miss Deena and I were in the
kitchen when she began to talk about how hard it was working at
the cafeteria. I asked her what she was doing that summer, hoping that
she’d be getting some time of . She conf rmed that she would be taking
some vacation days. I asked where she might spend them, and she said
she was thinking of visiting her sister in California, who said she would
pay for her ticket.
“California’s nice,” I say.
“Or I might go to Florida, to see my friend.”
“Oh yeah?”
“He asked me to marry him. We were going to get married, but then
we didn’t, and he moved to Florida.”
I had never heard anything about Miss Deena’s love life before. I am
embarrassed to say that at twenty years old, the idea that Aisha’s grandmother
might have a love life hadn’t occurred to me.
“When did he move?”
“About a few years ago, when he retired.”
“Oh.”
“He just got strange, so I didn’t go with him.”
The discussion turned to the summer cutbacks, and her concerns
about what would happen to her staf members if management laid
them of . She told me how in the summertime it’s really hard, because
the Penn students have gone home, and the area high school kids, who
are part of college prep programs, come in. And they are bad, really
bad. They get into f ghts in the dining room, all kinds of trouble. Then
Miss Deena circled back to her called- of engagement and the man who
moved away.
“He was a really nice man. I met him at the cafeteria. He collected
Westerns, loved Western movies—new ones, classic ones, those really
hard- to- f nd ones. But he didn’t watch them, he just collected them.
He was going to watch them when he retired. That’s what he got them
for. He had, like, must have been over two hundred. And I used to ask
to watch them, but after a while I just gave up because he really didn’t
want to watch them yet, he was saving them.”
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I nodded for her to go on.
“So he retired and we were planning to go to Florida. And then one
night, someone broke into his house and stole all his movies.”
“My god.”
“I asked him what he was going do if he found him, and he says,
‘Deena, I won’t tell you what I’ma do with him, but I will make it so’s he
don’t do that to nobody else.’”
“Wow.”
“And that scared me, ’cause I thought: what is he going to do to me
if I do something to upset him or make him mad?”
“Right.”
“And then he bought some barbed wire, you know that wire that
you get all caught up in that they use for fences and everything, and
he bought that new kind, the kind that really gets you so’s you can’t
get out, and do you know, Alice, he put it all over his living room and
his house, he lined the walls all up and down, so he could only use the
kitchen and the bathroom and the upstairs, and you couldn’t hardly get
around down there at all.”
“He didn’t hurt himself?”
“Well, he knew where they was laid, I guess. So after that I said I can’t
marry you. You being really strange. I can’t trust you, so I’m not going
to go with you.”
“What did he say?”
“He says, ‘I’ma wait and see if you change your mind. I’ma give you
three weeks; if you don’t change your mind, I’ma go to Florida.’”
“Wow.”
“But I couldn’t change my mind, ’cause after all that, I didn’t know
what would happen, I didn’t know what he was going to do. So he came
to me after three weeks and says, ‘Deena, did you change your mind?’
and I says, ‘Nope, my mind’s the same.’ And he says, ‘Well, they’ll be
other prospects in Florida, anyway.’”
“Huh.”
“But I guess he didn’t f nd no other prospects yet, ’cause he wants me
to come visit this summer.”7
Miss Deena didn’t make it to Florida that summer to see her former
f ancé, or to see her sister in California. Instead, she got laid of from
the cafeteria—seven months before her retirement would have kicked
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Clean People
193
in. To this day, she receives no pension from the University, though she
worked there full time for twenty- two years. Her daughter, Rochelle,
and I were horrif ed, and made a number of futile attempts to right the
wrong. Miss Deena took it with stoic optimism. “At least I get to sleep
in now, and rest my feet.”
Those walking around with warrants and court cases and probation
sentences sometimes viewed people like Miss Deena and her grandson
Ray as the privileged and free: clean people who could go to school,
work legal jobs, and build a family, all without looking over their shoulder
or getting the rug pulled out from under them. The disappointments
that Miss Deena and Ray sustained over the time that I knew
them remind us that the constraints the criminal justice system imposes
are only additional to the poverty, poor schools, and unjust and
racist institutions that have long dampened the hopes and happiness
of Black families living in segregated Northern cities.
* * *
As the police chase neighbors and family members through the streets,
some residents in the 6th Street community are successfully living a
life apart from prisons, court dates, and probation regulations. They
negotiate relationships with their legally entangled friends, neighbors,
and relatives in ways that limit the risks they bring and the damage
they cause. Some clean residents go to school or work every day with a
relatively easy lack of awareness of the young men locked up or running
from the police; others manage a more concerted and sometimes painful
avoidance; and still others negotiate a complicated interweaving of
the dirty and clean worlds.
Miss Deena’s family steered clear of the dirty world by remaining
indoors, cutting themselves of from neighborhood life, sending their
son to a charter school outside the neighborhood, and cutting ties with
a son who had gone to prison. Lamar and his friends steadfastly avoided
young men who sold drugs or had warrants over their heads, drawing
a f rm line between their indoor lives and legal jobs and pastimes
and the guys out there on the corner who were dipping and dodging
the police. Mr. George didn’t cut himself of from his legally entangled
grandsons—in fact, he lived with them and supported them f nancially.
Yet he kept relatively free from their drama by building himself
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Chapter Seven
194
a separate apartment in the house, and keeping out of their af airs so
long as they abided by basic house rules. Josh succeeded in going to
college and securing a job as a project manager in the pharmaceutical
industry, all while remaining connected to his old friends from the
neighborhood as they went in and out of jail or lived on the run. These
relationships sometimes became highly problematic, but they also offered
him support and a rewarding way to help others.
The question of why some young men wind up in prison and others
do not is an age- old one, and I can’t pretend to fully speak to it,
let alone answer it, here. Certainly, it is poorer young men around 6th
Street who tend to f nd themselves arrested and sentenced to jail and
prison, though the crimes that start them of in the penal system are
often crimes of which richer young men, both Black and white, are also
guilty: f ghting, drug possession, and the like.
In a community where only few young men end up in prison, we
might speak of bad apples or of people who have fallen through the
cracks. Given the unprecedented levels of policing and imprisonment
in poor Black communities today, these individual explanations make
less sense. We begin to see a more deliberate social policy at work. In
that context, simply bearing witness to the people who are avoiding the
authorities and the penal system seems worth a few pages. The people
featured here are all, in a variety of ways, leading clean lives in a dirty
world. In so doing, they demonstrate that the criminal justice system
has not entirely taken over poor and segregated Black neighborhoods
like 6th Street, only parts of them.
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195
In the last third of the twentieth century, the Civil Rights Movement
helped forge a new Black middle class with considerable political and
economic power. At the same time, the United States embarked on a
new and highly punitive era in regard to poor communities of color—a
profound change in how American society governs segregated urban
areas and those living within them.
Around 6th Street, police helicopters circle overhead, police cameras
monitor passersby, and police routinely stop, search, and arrest people
in the streets. Many young men are going in and out of jail or attending
court dates; many others are living under probation or parole supervision,
under house arrest, or with open warrants out for their arrest.
When these young men are home, they live as suspects and fugitives,
afraid that any encounter with the authorities will send them back to
jail or prison.
In the popular imagination, to be on the run is a condition reserved
for those exceptional criminals who make the FBI’s Most Wanted lists.
Fugitives are the stuf of action movies and legends. Yet today, the
United States’ tough- on- crime policies have turned its poor and segregated
Black neighborhoods into heavily policed places where many
young men are using fake names, looking over their shoulder, and living
with the genuine fear that those closest to them may bring them
into the hands of the police.
Most of these men are out of work and spend some portion of their
time trying and failing to secure the lowest- paying part- time jobs.
Some are intermittently involved in the risky but ready drug trade, sellA
Fugitive Community
CONCLUSION
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Conclusion
196
ing small and sometimes larger amounts of marijuana, crack, or pills
hand to hand. Periodically they go hungry, and sleep in abandoned cars
or their neighbors’ unf nished basements.
Around 6th Street, young men’s compromised legal status transforms
the basic institutions of work, friendship, and family into a net
of entrapment. Hospitals become dangerous places to visit, as do jobs.
Their mother’s home becomes a last- known address: the f rst place the
police will look. As the police track these men through their known
addresses, bill payments, and cell phone activity and round them up at
the hospital, at work, and at family gatherings, they learn to cultivate a
lifestyle of secrecy and evasion, and to see those closest to them as potential
informants. As long as a man is at risk of conf nement, staying
out of prison and routine participation in family, work, and friendships
become contradictory goals—doing one reduces his chance of achieving
the other.
To be on the run is a strange phrase for legally compromised people,
because to be on the run is also to be at a standstill. Indeed, many on
6th Street use the terms caught up and on the run interchangeably. On
the one hand, young men are quite literally running from the police,
who chase them on foot or in cars, through houses, and over fences.
They are also running from the information in the police database
that designates them as arrestable on sight. At the same time, their
legal entanglements leave them stuck or caught in place. The policing
technology now in use to track people with legal entanglements means
that leaving the city or the state will not enable them to escape their
legal woes. Possessing few resources or skills they can take with them
to succeed elsewhere, they remain in the neighborhood, dependent on
the generosity of family and neighbors to hide them and help them
survive.
These young men are also at a standstill in the sense that their warrants
and court cases and probation and parole sentences loom over
them as barriers to advancement. They sense that they cannot proceed
with school or work until their legal issues are cleared up—until their
warrant is lifted or their court cases end. While employers hesitate to
hire a man on parole, they are perhaps even less inclined to take on
a man with an arrest warrant or pending court cases, often advising
him to come back after these are dealt with. The likelihood of a man
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A Fugitive Community
197
with pending legal entanglements being sent back to jail or prison also
makes it dif cult for partners and family members to build him into
their future. Even if he doesn’t get sent back to jail, the number of meetings,
court dates, and other appointments he must keep up with to continue
in good standing with the legal system can feel like a full- time
job, or at least a part- time job with unpredictable hours that undermine
regular attendance at school or work. In this sense, living on the run is
akin to treading water—continual motion without getting anywhere.
The authorities’ ef orts to hunt, capture, try, and conf ne large numbers
of young men in poor and segregated Black neighborhoods are
not only changing the way these men see themselves and orient to the
world around them. The heavy police presence and the looming threat
of incarceration are spilling out past their targets and tearing at the
fabric of everyday life, sowing fear and suspicion into the networks of
family and friends that have long sustained poor Black communities.
Under the threat of prison, a new and more paranoid social fabric is
emerging—one built on the expectation that loved ones may become
wanted by the police or may inform on one another to save their own
skin. It is woven in subterfuge and trickery; in moves and countermoves;
in the paranoiac practices of secrecy, elusion, misinformation,
and unpredictability. If there is solidarity, it is an occasional solidarity
against the police.
The pressure the police put on young men’s partners and relatives
to provide information about their whereabouts places women under
considerable duress. As of cers raid women’s houses, threaten to arrest
them or get them evicted, and take their children away, they must
decide between their own safety and the freedom of the men they hold
dear. Women’s pledges to protect the men in their lives dissolve under
sustained police pressure, and some f nd they become the unwilling
accomplices of the authorities. This descent from trusted partner to
snitch or abandoner causes considerable personal anguish as well as
public humiliation.
In ghettoized communities there has long been distrust between
men and women, and also between people living respectably and those
living on the edge. The divide between members of respectable society
and those oriented toward the fast life or criminal activity has long
been noted. But generosity and trust, and bonds of family and friendYou
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Conclusion
198
ship, also have endured through great duress. Around 6th Street, intensive
policing and the looming threat of prison are tearing at these
bonds, shutting people up in their homes, sowing suspicion and distrust
into friendship and family life. In this community, there is simply
not enough safety from the authorities to go around. Staying out of
jail may mean giving up a son or brother or right- hand man. A central
tension in the relationships of men and women on 6th Street involves
having to depend heavily on those whom they cannot trust, and wanting
to be trusted by people they may put at risk or deceive.
The long- standing divide between the respectable and the shady
members of the Black community has been at least partially supplanted
by a new line between clean and dirty people: those able to make it safely
through a police stop, and those likely to be seized. An underground
market has emerged to supply those seeking protection from the authorities
or a bit more freedom than their legal restrictions allow. The
buyers and sellers of these protections and privileges forge new bonds
together, though these transactional relationships also become complicated
by the threat of discovery and arrest.
Men and women also turn the heavy presence of police, the courts,
and the prisons to their advantage in ways the authorities never intended.
For young men, jail sometimes serves as a safe haven when
the streets get too dangerous. The bail of ce becomes a de facto bank,
and warrants become a ready excuse for failure. In times of anger and
desperation, women harness the threat of the police to control the
men in their lives; during calmer months, they build meaningful routines
around their son’s or partner’s bail payments, court dates, visiting
hours, and parole meetings.
The threat of prison and the heavy presence of the police and the
courts come to permeate the social fabric of the community in more
subtle ways, shifting the currency of love and commitment and creating
a new moral framework through which residents carve out their
identities and relationships. People express their devotion by refusing
to tell the police which way a friend went, or by of ering a nephew
wanted by the law a few nights’ safety on the couch. The events marking
a man’s passage through the criminal justice system—his f rst jail visits,
his bail posting, his sentencing—become de facto rites of passage
and collective events: the weddings, graduations, and school dances of
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A Fugitive Community
199
the fugitive community. The threat of prison also creates opportunities
for acts of bravery and loyalty: by protecting one another from arrest,
people make claims for themselves as honorable and decent, and demonstrate
the strength of their commitment to others.
And yet, it is important to remember that the world the criminal
justice system creates—of stops and searches, of stints in jail, of warrants
and court dates and parole meetings—is not total. While many
young people spend their days running from the police, making court
dates, and visiting their parole of cers, some residents continue to go
to school or work every day. Those with a close personal connection to
someone on the run or sitting in jail can still build distance from this
association, and carve out a life with little connection to the world of
cops, court dates, and jail time. Still, these people often work very hard
to avoid contact with the dirty world, and come to think of themselves
in relation to those enmeshed in it.
THE PROBLEM WITH INTENSIVE POLICING IN POOR URBAN NEIGHBORHOODS
Crime and violence are undeniable problems in poor urban communities.
Levels of homicide and gun- related violence in particular set
poor minority communities apart, creating pressure for some kind of
government action. Around 6th Street, the problems of drugs and violence
are real ones, and the young men described here are intimately
connected to them.
Some might say that in neighborhoods plagued by drugs and violence,
the police have little choice but to arrest large numbers of young
men and zealously run down outstanding warrants, particularly when
those on the run may carry guns, become involved in serious violence,
and/or deal drugs in the neighborhood. But around 6th Street the street
trade in drugs, neighborhood rivalries, and their potential for violence
are all deeply woven into community life. Under these conditions, the
role of law enforcement changes from keeping communities safe from
a few of enders to bringing an entire neighborhood under suspicion
and surveillance.
In this context, the highly punitive approach to crime control winds
up being counterproductive, creating entirely new domains of criminalYou
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Conclusion
200
ity. The level of social control that tough- on- crime policy envisions—
particularly in a liberal state—is so extreme and dif cult to implement
that it has led to a f ourishing black market to ease the pains of supervision.
A new realm of criminal activity is produced as young people
supply the goods and services that legally compromised people seek
to evade the authorities or live with more freedom and comfort than
their legal restrictions permit. This black market runs second to the
fugitive status as a kind of corollary illegality. Moreover, mothers and
girlfriends f nd themselves committing a seemingly endless series of
crimes as they attempt to hide, protect, and provide for their legally
entangled sons and partners. Thus, the great paradox of a highly punitive
approach to crime control is that it winds up criminalizing so
much of daily life as to foster widespread illegality as people work to
circumvent it. Intensive policing and the crime it intends to control
become mutually reinforcing. The extent to which crime elicits harsh
policing, or policing itself contributes to a climate of violence and illegality,
becomes impossible to sort out.
Another irony of tough- on- crime policies is that they are so disruptive
to the bonds of family, friendship, and community that they have
united drug dealers and working people around what all can agree is
the unjust overreach of the police, the courts, and the prisons. This is
not to say that law- abiding residents of the 6th Street neighborhood
are untroubled by the violence and drug selling in which many young
men in the neighborhood become engaged. They are troubled, and they
wish these young men would either leave or change their ways. Some
residents insist that their sons and nephews could get legitimate jobs
if they simply tried hard enough to f nd them. But police of cers’ public
violence and ef orts to pit neighbors and family members against one
another have caused working residents to regard them as an additional
problem, not a solution, and in this they f nd considerable common
ground with dirty members of the community.
From the perspective of 6th Street residents, distrust and anger at
the police are understandable. The police (along with courts, the jails,
and the prisons) are not solving the signif cant problems of crime and
violence but instead are piling on additional problems to the ones residents
already face.
This justif able anger does not mean that we should view the poYou
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A Fugitive Community
201
lice as bad people, or their actions as driven by racist or otherwise malevolent
motives. The police are in an impossible position: they are
essentially the only governmental body charged with addressing the
signif cant social problems of able- bodied young men in the jobless
ghetto, and with only the powers of intimidation and arrest to do so.
Many in law enforcement recognize that poverty, unemployment, and
the drugs and violence that accompany them are social problems that
cannot be solved by arresting people. But the police and the courts are
not equipped with social solutions. They are equipped with handcuf s
and jail time.
THE POLICE AND THE COMMUNITY
Here it might be worthwhile to comment on just how complex the relationship
actually is between members of the 6th Street community
and the criminal justice personnel who operate in that neighborhood
(or remove people from it). On some level the police are seen as a white,
anonymous occupying force that swoops into the area to round up
whichever young men are unlucky enough to cross their path. Fear and
hatred of the police are palpable, and it’s not uncommon for people’s
anger and resentment to boil over during police stops. But many residents
also count a few police of cers as neighbors and relatives. These
personal connections to the police force make it harder to see all of –
cers as outside invaders, though some cops who live in the community
are reviled just as much as the ones who do not, if not more so.
Another contradiction lies in the fact that young men getting
chased by the police may at the same time be romantically involved
with female members of the force. Women in the Black community
are signif cantly better educated and better employed than their male
counterparts, and a good share of them work in criminal justice. This
means that a number of romantic partnerships cross the line between
police and criminals. Such ties are only multiplied by the intimate association
in which young men like Mike and Chuck so often f nd themselves
with female halfway house operators, prison guards, and probation
workers. Another surprising fact here is that young men sitting in
jail or prison urge the women coming to visit them to apply for jobs in
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Conclusion
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law enforcement. Mike and Chuck and their friends understood better
than most that criminal justice is one of the few robust branches of
the economy, and a f eld in which those who do not have legal issues of
their own would be smart to enter.
Similarly, the moral view of snitching is quite f uid. A generalized
norm against informing certainly exists, but people call the police on
one another every day. What is even more interesting is that many
people who blatantly call police on others in the neighborhood are not
judged for it; this action is expected of them, and understood as part of
their character as upstanding, clean people.
THE FUGITIVE GHETTO IN HISTORICAL AND COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVE
What sense might we make of the heavily policed community of 6th
Street, and of the millions of Black young men going in and out of jails
and prisons today? Sociologist Loïc Wacquant and Civil Rights advocate
Michelle Alexander have drawn strong parallels between the current
levels of targeted imprisonment and earlier systems of racial oppression
such as slavery and Jim Crow, both of which denied Black people
basic rights such as voting, running for of ce, and free movement.1
Accompanying slavery and Jim Crow were policies that granted a
fugitive status to large numbers of Black men and women—during
slavery through the fugitive slave laws, and during the Jim Crow era
through the vagrancy statutes that suppressed large numbers of Black
people moving to the North during the f rst and second Great Migrations.2
The vagrancy statutes held that men could be arrested for being
unemployed and unhoused, as well as for drinking, loitering, disorderly
conduct, or associating with known criminals.
Though vagrancy statutes had existed in the United States since the
colonial era, widespread ef orts to round up men on vagrancy charges
occurred after the fugitive slave laws were struck down, as Black people
migrated to Northern cities after emancipation. In turn, these statutes
were stricken from the books in the 1960s and 1970s, just as the laws and
practices of the tough- on- crime era began to take ef ect.3
From this history it would seem that large numbers of Black people
in the United States have been assigned not only a diminished form
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A Fugitive Community
203
of citizenship but a fugitive status through slavery, sharecropping, the
Northern migration, and now through the systems of policing and penal
supervision accompanying the War on Crime. In this sense, what I
have described here represents only the latest chapter in a long history
of Black exclusion and civic diminishment in the United States.
Yet it would be incorrect to conclude that the history of US race relations
has been one of unrelenting domination. Instead, there have been
gains and reversals, and the quality of African American citizenship
has expanded signif cantly in recent decades. An important dif erence
between current levels of policing and imprisonment and earlier periods
of racial oppression is that heavy policing and high levels of imprisonment
are restricted largely to poor Black men and their communities,
as well as to many poor white and Latino men. Educated Black men and
their families are not enveloped in intensive penal supervision: they
may on occasion be subject to public police harassment and mistreatment,
but they are not spending their twenties sitting in jail, or living
on parole or with warrants out for their arrest.
* * *
If the current treatment of poor Black people in US cities bears at least
some similarity to earlier periods of racial oppression in the United
States, it might also remind readers of the experience of other groups
whose ethnicity, religion, caste, or sexual orientation has in various
moments placed them on the social and economic margins. Tools of
state oppression may vary, but the experience of persecuted groups
throughout history—from the Jews in Europe to undocumented immigrants
in the United States to people anywhere living under a repressive,
authoritarian, or totalitarian regime—shows astonishing threads
of commonality across time and space.
At the level of lived experience, these cases all involve the denial of
basic rights to large groups, and the risk of some extreme sanction—
conf nement, expulsion, deportation, torture, or death—becoming a
real possibility facing many people. The combination of restricted
rights and threatened extreme sanction criminalizes everyday life as
people work to circumvent their restrictions and avoid the authorities.
We frequently see curfews as well as identity checks and searches being
established, and the practices of evasion, hiding, and secrecy becoming
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Conclusion
204
techniques for daily living. A black market in false documents and prohibited
goods f ourishes. We also see the pernicious issue of informants,
both through the police’s ef orts to cultivate them and through people
turning each other in for their own gain. The authorities not only cultivate
professional informants but routinely pit close friends, neighbors,
and family members against each other, asking people to choose
between their own freedom and the security of those they hold dear.
Residents experience frequent acts of state violence in the streets—
people getting beaten, strangled, kicked, or even shot in public view, for
example—and see that the authorities are fairly useless for protection
or mediation, despite their omnipresence. Diminished rights and the
looming threat of extreme sanction are felt at the level of the community’s
social fabric—for example, the taking on of legal risk is understood
as a gesture of sacrif ce and personal attachment—and legal
restrictions and diminishments become key social distinctions, particularly
the divides between those more or less safe from the authorities.
To be sure, these cases involve as many dif erences as similarities.
In many instances, those seized by the authorities didn’t circulate back
into the general population; once they were gone, they didn’t return.
The fear of torture and death isn’t the same as the fear of prison or
deportation. But these cases share enough so that a deep knowledge
of one may teach us something about the experience of people living
in others. Certainly, the contemporary US ghetto can take its place
among them.
Taken in these terms, we might understand the US ghetto as one
of the last repressive regimes of the age: one that operates within our
liberal democracy, yet unbeknownst to many living only a few blocks
away. In a nation that has of cially rid itself of a racial caste system, and
has elected and reelected a Black president, we are simultaneously deploying
a large number of criminal justice personnel at great taxpayer
cost to visit an intensely punitive regime upon poor Black men and
women living in our cities’ segregated neighborhoods.
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205
Some say you should stop a research project when you stop learning
new things. I’m not sure it usually goes that way. At any rate, I never got
to a point of “saturation”; never felt that I’d understood enough and it
was time to leave and write up my f ndings.
In the end, I left when my funding ran out, and I had to write a dissertation
and get a job. By then it didn’t feel like I was leaving the 6th
Street Boys as much as the 6th Street Boys had left me—or rather, that
the group as we had known it had ceased to exist. By 2008 Chuck was
gone, along with two other members we’d also lost to shootings. Steve
committed suicide the following year, a tragedy that some attributed to
his growing addiction to PCP, and others to his inability to keep going
without Chuck. Mike went to federal prison, and when he came home
in 2011, he moved to another neighborhood and got a job washing cars.
Chuck’s middle brother, Reggie, and his youngest brother, Tim, were in
prison upstate on long bids. Anthony served a three- to f ve- year sentence
in state prison and was shot to death by the police shortly after
his return to 6th Street in 2013. According to neighbors, the police had
been working undercover, and when they ran up on Anthony in the alleyway
he shot at them, thinking they were 4th Street Boys. Alex has
long since moved of the block and out of the area.
I continue to see Aisha and some of her family when I return to Philadelphia,
and also visit Alex and Mike, who now hold regular jobs and
live with their children and partners. I stay in touch with Reggie and
Tim by letter and through phone calls, as well as by the occasional trip
Leaving 6th Street
EPILOGUE
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Epilogue
206
upstate when I’m in the area. Reggie and Tim have been bored enough
by their incarceration to ask how the book was coming along, so sometimes
we talk about that. But more than that, I believe we remain tied
to one another by times past, and by the memory of the men who are
no longer with us.
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207
For a decade of generosity and friendship, I thank Miss Deena and
her grandchildren, Aisha and Ray; Miss Regina and her son Mike; and
Ronny, Anthony, Steve, Josh, and the Taylor family: Mr. George, Miss
Linda, and her sons, Chuck, Reggie, and Tim. Over many years, Mike,
Chuck, and Reggie provided substantial research assistance and feedback
on the writing; Reggie gave his from a prison cell.
My parents, William Labov and Gillian Sankof , provided crucial
comments on drafts of the work, every step of the way to the f –
nal manuscript. Their unwavering support, as well as that of my sister,
Rebecca Labov, and the entire DelGuercio family, made the book
possible.
At Penn, Elijah Anderson supervised the undergraduate thesis I
wrote about the struggles of the 6th Street Boys. I hope these pages
make evident just how much his ideas continue to inspire me. David
Grazian, Charles Bosk, Randall Collins, and Michael Katz also gave
freely of their time and assistance, joining with Elijah to provide a vibrant
intellectual community for a young person to conduct urban ethnography.
Many of these early mentors continued to lend their advice
and support long after I left Penn, and I am in their debt.
At Princeton, Mitch Duneier devoted himself to my sociological
education with more care and attention than any graduate student deserves.
Ethnography is a tradition passed down from teacher to student
in a set of sensibilities and practices conveyed in of moments and parenthetical
conversations. Over many years, Mitch instilled these ethnographic
ways of being, transmitting the ideas of his teachers as well
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
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Acknowledgments
208
as his own. One lesson he stressed above the others: the importance of
investigating the social world while treating people with respect. His
contributions to the research and writing of this book are more than I
can express here; he is a teacher in the highest sense of the word.
Viviana Zelizer, Paul DiMaggio, Devah Pager, and Cornel West
joined Mitch to form a dissertation committee second to none. Marvin
Bressler, Bruce Western, Martin Ruef, Patricia Fernandez- Kelly, and
Sara McClanahan also gave generously of their time and advice. The
doors of these Princeton faculty members were always open to me, and
to them I owe this book’s core arguments.
Part of this work had its origins in a paper published in the American
Sociological Review. Editor Vincent Roscigno, coeditor Randy Hodson,
and reviewers Steven Lopez, Philip Kasinitz, Jack Katz, and Patricia
Adler gave me crucial feedback (and graciously disclosed their names
to me after the article was accepted).
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Scholars in Health Policy
Program and the University of Michigan provided the time and resources
I needed to revise the dissertation. In Ann Arbor, a terrif c
group of fellow postdocs pored over chapter drafts: Trevon Logan, Edward
Walker, Greggor Mattson, Sarah Quinn, Brendan Nyhan, Graeme
Boushey, Seth Freedman, Jamila Michner, and Christopher Bail.
At UCLA, a community of scholars dedicated to the study of social
interaction and urban life lent of ce space and encouragement to a
part- time visitor. For their support and advice, I am particularly indebted
to Jack Katz, Robert Emerson, Stefan Timmermans, and Brandon
Berry.
At the University of Wisconsin, Erik Olin Wright, Mara Loveman,
Joan Fujimura, Doug Maynard, John Delamater, Pamela Oliver, Monica
White, and Mustafa Emirbayer of ered generous comments. I am deeply
in their debt. Students in the undergraduate seminar “The Ghetto”
gave sound advice on early drafts. I thank Mitch Duneier for inviting
me to co- teach the course with him while I was a graduate student, as
well as our students in Princeton, Rome, and Krakow, and then in Madison.
I also thank the students in the ethnography seminar at Madison,
the participants in the CUNY Graduate Center Methods Workshop, the
Harvard Justice and Inequality Working Group, and the UCLA EthnogYou
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Acknowledgments
209
raphy Working Group for their close readings and helpful advice on
chapter drafts.
Over the course of this research and writing, a number of people
hosted conferences, read portions of the book, or took the time to mention
things about the project that signif cantly shaped my thinking.
Others extended friendship when I felt myself losing the struggle to
inhabit university classrooms and the 6th Street community simultaneously.
Among these generous friends and colleagues are Eva Harris,
Rebecca Sherman, Sara Goldrick- Rab, Hilary Levey, Alexandra Murphy,
Mafalda Cardim, Theo Strinopoulos, Kathleen Nolan, Forrest Stuart,
Colin Jerolmack, Joseph Ewoodzie, Jooyoung Lee, Jacob Avery, Mariah
Wren, Susanna Greenberg, Nikki Jones, Laura Clawson, Corey Fields,
Matthew Desmond, Anna Haskins, John Sutton, Mario Small, Loïc
Wacquant, Paul Willis, William Kornblum, Terry Williams, Megan
Comfort, Iddo Tavory, Fredrick Wherry, Brian Kelly, Cristobal Young,
Glenn Loury, Javier Auyero, Monica White, Marion Fourcade, and Diane
Vaughan.
Carol Stack, Howard Becker, and Herbert Gans have been invaluable
correspondents—I am grateful for all they taught me from afar. Howard
Becker, Robert Emerson, Jack Katz, David Garland, Bruce Western,
and Susanna Greenberg read the f nal manuscript with great care, each
providing comments that improved it considerably. Doug Mitchell deserves
his reputation as the heart of the editorial group at the University
of Chicago Press. Working with him, and with his colleagues Tim
McGovern and Levi Stahl, has been a great gift.
In the f nal stages of writing, I relied on the superb research and editorial
assistance of Morgen Miller, Martina Kunovic, Esther HsuBorger,
Heather Gordon, Katrina Quisumbing King, Sarah Ugoretz, Matthew
Kearney, and Garrett Grainger. Sandra Hazel at the University of Chicago
Press lent her considerable wisdom and editorial assistance to the
f nal manuscript.
This book is dedicated to Reggie and Tim’s older brother Chuck,
whose ready laugh and moral strength live on in our memories.
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211
To evaluate any work of social science, it helps to learn how the researcher
found out what he or she claims to know. For the study that
became this book, this means explaining how a white young woman
came to spend her twenties with Black young men dipping and dodging
the police in a lower- income Black neighborhood in Philadelphia.
In what follows, I describe how the study came about, how the research
was approached and conducted, what dif culties arose and how I tried
to overcome them, how the project developed, and how it ended. The
reader may also learn something about how my identity shaped what
I came to learn, what those inside and outside the group made of my
presence in the neighborhood, and how the years on 6th Street affected
me.
STARTING OUT
During my freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania, David
Grazian of ered an urban ethnography class to undergraduates. Dave
was a new hire from Chicago, steeped in a tradition of studying urban
life through f rsthand observation. Early in the course, he instructed
us to pick a f eld site where we would be able to observe social life and
take notes. My f rst choice was to work at TLA, an independent movie
rental store in downtown Philadelphia. I believe I was interested in the
relationship between the rather snooty staf , who carried on a nearconstant
internal conversation about obscure and artsy f lms, and the
A Methodological Note
APPENDIX
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Appendix
212
far less knowledgeable and ambitious customers, who glanced through
the of eat movies but usually chose from among the newest Hollywood
releases. This idea was an utter failure: the manager wouldn’t give
me a job, the stated reason being that I didn’t know enough about f lm.
The next place I tried was a large cafeteria building on the western
edge of Penn’s campus, where I ate with fellow students a few times a
week. There, too, I noticed an interesting tension between staf and customers:
the mostly white and fairly privileged Penn undergrads spent a
lot of time complaining about the older Black women who served their
lunch and dinner, though to me the staf seemed perfectly pleasant and
highly competent. I wanted to get a job there and understand what the
staf made of the students.
Success! I got the job the week after I applied.
I was hired by Miss Deena, a short and reserved Black woman in
her sixties who managed a largely Black staf on the basement level.
Miss Deena was entering her third decade of service at the university’s
cafeteria, and her f fteenth year in management. That fall I worked
under her twice a week, mostly making sandwiches and taking food
orders.
In the f rst week I learned that the cafeteria staf didn’t spend any
time worrying about their interactions with students. Instead, they
were embroiled in internal disputes over de- unionization. Penn had
stopped hiring student workers, and had begun changing over its almost
entirely Black cafeteria staf from a unionized labor force to parttime
employees working for a private food services company. As the
union workers retired or went on medical leave, the University replaced
them with women and men in their twenties who worked under twentyf
ve hours a week and were being paid through this outside company.
I watched Miss Deena patiently train these new employees who were
taking the place of her lifelong friends, and the conf icts between the
older unionized women and the younger part- time staf became the
focus of my f eld notes.
After a few months, it dawned on me that many of Miss Deena’s
employees—both union and nonunion—couldn’t read very well. I began
to notice the things she did to accommodate them, like of ering
job applicants the option of taking the employment forms home and
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A Methodological Note
213
returning them the next day instead of f lling them out on the spot.
The sandwich- making job required af xing a small white label to the
plastic wrap covering each sandwich to indicate whether it was turkey
and Swiss, ham and cheddar, peanut butter and jelly, and so on. The
salad- making job didn’t require labeling, as there were only two kinds
of salads, and they were easily distinguishable from each other. Miss
Deena separated the salad making and the sandwich making into two
rooms so that her staf could choose which room they wanted to work
in. Her staf gave lots of reasons for wanting to work in the room she
had designated for salads: because the chairs were more comfortable
there, or the music more to their liking. Alongside these perfectly legitimate
reasons were hidden ones: the salad room allowed a person to
work an entire shift without coming across any printed words.
When workers called in sick or had to care for their children, Miss
Deena was occasionally obliged to move someone from the salad room
over to the sandwich room. To deal with this eventuality, she organized
a system by which the sandwich labels went in manila folders marked
with drawings, so workers could memorize that turkey and Swiss went
with the star, and ham and cheddar with the smiley face. Those not attuned
to this system would sometimes return the labels to the wrong
folders, so Miss Deena checked the folders and re- sorted them at the
end of each day. One week, when she was out with kidney stones, I came
to work to f nd that forty peanut butter and jelly sandwiches had been
labeled turkey and Swiss.
Another problem for staf with lower levels of reading were the time
cards they had to use for clocking in and out; these sat in towering
rows in metal holders on the wall near management’s of ce on the f rst
f oor. With over seventy name cards lined up on the wall, and the names
written in a small cursive hand, it often took me more than a minute
to locate my own card. It wasn’t possible to memorize a card’s position
on the wall, because the upper- level managers removed the cards each
day to count the hours.
Staf members had dif erent ways of dealing with this problem. A
few of the older women would stand under the clock, telling anyone
who asked that the clock on the wall was fast, and that they were waiting
for their f nal hour to clear so they would get their full pay. While
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Appendix
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they waited, someone who was “taller” would of er to take down their
card for them, for which they got thanked politely.
The younger men who began arriving as members of the part- time
staf had a dif erent strategy for dealing with the time- card problem:
they would tell a friend on another f oor that they were leaving early
and ask him or her to punch them out at a later time. At f rst I thought
they were stealing time, but soon came to realize that more often than
not, they left when their shift ended, giving only the appearance of
logging more hours than they had worked. Stealing time was a way
to cover up the fact that they could not locate their name on the wall.
Not only did Miss Deena look the other way, she actively embraced
these strategies as a management technique. She personally clocked
out some of her employees, of ering to do this on her way to get extra
napkins or place food orders. As I continued to observe, I realized she
was also helping some of the staf on the f rst and second f oors to clock
in and out.
To the two white men sitting in the supervisor’s of ce on the f rst
f oor, the almost entirely Black staf appeared lazy, dif cult, or patently
dishonest. They saw the women refusing to work in the sandwich room
for all kinds of silly reasons, the young men stealing time, the older
women standing around the clock; and once after Miss Deena had gone
home, I heard them rail against her for putting up with such insubordination.
They also accused her of hiring her relatives and friends, though
I never observed her to do this. Despite the tension with the management,
Miss Deena seemed to take great pride and pleasure in her work.
As far as I could tell, most of her staf respected and trusted her.
* * *
I wrote up my f nal paper for David Grazian’s class and quit the cafeteria
job when the term ended.
The following fall, I asked Miss Deena if she knew anyone who
needed tutoring. She immediately volunteered her two grandchildren:
her daughter’s son, Ray, a senior in high school who lived with her
along with his mother, and her son’s daughter, Aisha, a freshman in
high school who lived with her mother and siblings a few blocks away.
Miss Deena said Ray was a good boy who was applying to college. Aisha,
on the other hand, was having considerable dif culty staying out of
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A Methodological Note
215
trouble. We agreed that I would tutor Ray and Aisha in English, history,
and SAT preparation.
What I can remember of my motivation for tutoring was that I
wanted to understand the lives of my fellow workers at home and in
the neighborhood, outside the mainly white campus where they came
for their jobs. After working alongside a number of people with quite
poor reading skills, I was also preoccupied with the problem of literacy.
In any event, tutoring seemed a decent reason for a young, middle- class
white woman to be spending time in a working- class- to- poor Black section
of the city.
The f rst time I drove to Miss Deena’s, I couldn’t f nd the right address.
As I walked around peering at the two- story brick row homes, a
young man stopped and asked me if I was a cop or a caseworker, there
apparently being no other reason that a person like me would be in the
area. I had grown accustomed to being the only white person working
at the cafeteria, but there the students and the surrounding area
were majority white. When I began coming to Miss Deena’s house for
evening tutoring, I entered a world in which white people were a tiny
minority.1
To my relief, Miss Deena’s family was warm and welcoming. Her
daughter, Rochelle, was a talkative and vivacious woman in her forties
who had worked as a teacher’s assistant at a day care downtown before
getting laid of . She and her son, Ray, both seemed to be acquainted
with the wealthy white section of the city in which I’d been raised, and
attuned to my gaps in cultural knowledge.
Miss Deena’s granddaughter, Aisha, was also very welcoming, but
seemed to have experienced little outside Black Philadelphia. Like
many who grow up in segregated northern cities, she spoke in what linguists
refer to as African American Vernacular English.2
Added to this,
she had the rapid and muf ed speech of a teenager. At the beginning
of this tutoring, I frequently couldn’t understand what she said, and
would awkwardly ask her to repeat it. Or I’d pretend to follow, and she’d
realize well into the conversation that I hadn’t understood her at all.
For the school year, I tutored Aisha and Ray at Miss Deena’s house
two and then three evenings a week. After a few months, I could follow
Aisha’s stories much better, and even our phone conversations had
become largely intelligible to me.
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AISHA’S FAMILY
After about four months, Aisha’s mother stopped by Miss Deena’s
house to meet me. A somewhat overweight woman in her late thirties
with a light complexion and cornrows in her short and thinning hair,
she looked as if she had seen it all before, or simply was exhausted by
her diabetes and caring for her three children. Our meeting was fairly
awkward on both sides, but at the end of it she told me I was welcome
to stop by the apartment a few blocks away. After spending months in
Miss Deena’s pristine home with its museum- like quiet and plastic-
covered furniture, this was a big breakthrough. A whole world of extended
family and neighbors was opening up to me.
I began spending time at Aisha’s place, and got to know her mother
and older sister as well as a number of her relatives, friends, and neighbors.
We would sit on the steps of her apartment building, cook food,
do laundry at the corner Laundromat, or walk to the Chinese takeout
store. As we went around the neighborhood, Aisha introduced me to a
cousin working as a deli clerk, an uncle selling DVDs from a stand on
the street, and another uncle who managed the corner seafood joint.
Her family had been in Philadelphia for many generations; she counted
what seemed to be a vast number of neighbors as close relations.
Slowly, I began to perceive the social distance between Aisha’s and
Miss Deena’s households. At Miss Deena’s the fridge was often full, the
family had no problems keeping the lights and gas on, and Ray spent
his evenings on SAT prep and college applications. I never observed
any member of the household to sit outside on the stoop, and relations
with neighbors were polite but brief. In my two years of spending
most weekday afternoons at their place, I observed them entertaining
guests only twice, and one of these was a relative from out of town. In
contrast, Aisha lived with her mother and sister in a four- story, Section
8– subsidized housing unit on a poorer block. A steady stream of
family and neighbors came into and out of the apartment, and Aisha’s
family also spent a lot of time at their neighbor’s, whose three kids they
considered part of the family.
Aisha’s mother admitted to me that she had sold drugs for a while
before going on welfare. While she had been out doing her thing during
Aisha’s childhood, Aisha’s maternal grandmother had taken over
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A Methodological Note
217
her care. She was a thin woman in her sixties with shockingly bright
dyed- red hair and a love of cognac. In middle school, Aisha would join
her at the corner bar, spending the evening laughing with fellow customers
and walking home with her grandmother late into the night. By
the time I met Aisha, she regarded this bar as a second home, coming
and going as she pleased, borrowing a dollar or grabbing a bite.
In those early months, Aisha seemed often on the cusp of expulsion
or dropping out; the week that we met, she had been suspended for
punching her teacher in the mouth. Later I would learn that she was
Miss Deena’s granddaughter through her errant middle son, who was in
prison upstate. The following year, in Elijah Anderson’s urban ethnography
class, I would learn about the tension between decent and street,
and the divides between Miss Deena’s and Aisha’s households began to
make a lot more sense.
MOVING TO THE NEIGHBORHOOD
In the middle of my sophomore year of college my lease was up, and
with encouragement from Aisha and her family, I started searching for
a place nearby. This proved dif cult: I could not f nd a real- estate agent
willing to rent to me in the Black section of the city of which Aisha’s
neighborhood was a part. Some agents never returned my call, while
others said I wouldn’t want the apartment that was listed or told me
it had been taken. Finally, Aisha’s older sister made some calls on my
behalf and came with me to the appointments.3
Once I’d moved into a one- bedroom a few blocks from Miss Deena’s,
I began to spend most days and evenings with Aisha’s extended family
and friends or at Miss Deena’s house, commuting to Penn for classes.
At this point I had become interested in the experience of mothers and
daughters, aunts and grandmothers—the domestic world of women
in Aisha’s community. My time on Penn’s campus was limited mostly
to the Sociology Department, where I tried to take classes in which I
could turn in a f nal paper based on the f eldwork I was doing. Though
I continued to tutor Aisha for three and a half more years until she
graduated from high school, my role was gradually changing from tutor
to friend and resident.
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MEETING THE 6TH STREET BOYS
In December of 2002, Aisha’s fourteen- year- old cousin Ronny came
home from a juvenile detention center. He was short for his age, and
the worn ends of his pants dragged and frayed in long trails behind
him when he walked. He had light skin and curly hair, a soft voice, and
a big grin when he saw Aisha. I hadn’t heard much about Ronny in his
absence, but on the day he returned, Aisha ran up the street to greet
him, hugging him and hanging on him the whole afternoon. It was the
f rst time I had heard her really laugh.
Ronny and Aisha were cousins because her aunt had taken him in
when his own mother had proved unable to care for him, due largely to
her crack addiction, Aisha told me. This aunt had died the year before
Aisha and I met, leaving Ronny to move in with his grandmother, who
didn’t seem to understand the f rst thing about him. The trips to detention
centers started shortly afterward.
When Ronny came home this time, he was a freshman in high
school, though he spent most weekdays outside the classroom, running
from truant of cers or serving suspensions. He was living with his
grandmother about f fteen blocks away from Aisha, in a neighborhood
called 6th Street. Ronny was a self- proclaimed troublemaker raised, as
he put it, by the streets. An impressive dancer, he’d sometimes jump
out of a car at the light to put on a quick show for whoever happened
to be walking by.
Upon hearing that Aisha was single, Ronny decided to set her up
with his friend Tommy, a quiet and dark- skinned young man of fourteen
who lived on 6th Street a few houses down. Tommy was tall, shy,
and very handsome—a perfect counterpoint to Ronny’s mischievous
exuberance. Aisha was smitten. She began taking the bus over to 6th
Street one or two afternoons a week. I came along, with Aisha introducing
me sometimes as her tutor, and sometimes as her godsister or
simply her sister.
The Date
One afternoon as we were hanging out on 6th Street with Ronny and
Tommy, Ronny told me that his old head Mike wanted to meet me.
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According to Aisha, who had heard it from Ronny, Mike had grown up
next door to Ronny’s grandmother, and he looked good.
Until that point, I’d resisted Aisha’s attempts to set me up with various
boys she knew, though I’d always declined politely, taking her of er
as a genuine gift of teenage friendship. But in the weeks leading up to
this discussion about Mike, I’d attended a birthday party for Aisha’s
younger brother, where I overheard a disturbing conversation between
her mother and another relative. After the cake, the woman quietly
asked Aisha’s mother what I was doing spending so much time with
Aisha and her girlfriends. Aisha’s mother answered f rmly that I was
her daughter’s tutor and also her nephew’s tutor, and that I lived down
the street. The woman asked what I was getting for all this tutoring,
and Aisha’s mother said she thought it was for school. Where does she
take her? the woman wanted to know. Aisha’s mom stated that I took
her to the library, the bookstore, and sometimes out for food. Does she
go with anybody? No, Aisha’s mother replied, I think she’s single. The
woman nodded, as if my lack of a boyfriend conf rmed some suspicion.
Aisha’s mother then said that I was “like a big sister” and “part of the
family.”
I left the party humiliated and distressed. Without coming out and
saying it, I imagined that the woman was implying that because I had
no boyfriend to speak of, I might have some interest in high school girls.
At least, it was strange that I was unattached, and spending so much
time with Aisha and her friends. Aisha’s mother’s behavior toward me
didn’t seem to change, but the idea that a rumor could circulate that my
motives toward Aisha and her teenage girlfriends were questionable
left me horrif ed. The next time someone of ered to set me up with a
guy, I instantly agreed. This someone was Ronny’s old head Mike.
When Ronny introduced us in January of 2003, Mike was a thin
young man of twenty- two—a year older than I was. We had a few
short phone conversations, followed by one excruciatingly awkward
date to the movies on 69th Street. It was a group outing: I brought
Aisha along, and one of her girlfriends; for his part, Mike brought his
two young boys Ronny and Tommy. We piled into Mike’s ten- year- old
Bonneville—more like a boat than a car—with the kids squished into
the back and me riding shotgun next to Mike. Aisha seemed thrilled
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Appendix
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to be on this date with Tommy, and the friend she brought along tried
her best to f irt with Ronny, though she was a good ten inches taller
than he.
One of the f rst things Mike told me about himself as we drove to
the movies was that he had recently f nished a long course of physical
therapy after a gunshot wound to the upper thigh. Did I want to see the
scar? With some apologies that he wasn’t trying to be ignorant by exposing
himself, he pulled down his jeans to show me where the bullet
had entered just below his hip bone. Later, I heard that he’d been shot
by a man who was trying to rob him after a dice game.4
We bought popcorn and Swedish Fish candy and played video games
while we waited for the movie to start. I was the only white person in
the theater but I was prepared for that, and nobody stared too much
or said anything particularly unsettling. Things started to go downhill
soon after the movie started, though. I’d suggested The Recruit, with Al
Pacino and Colin Farrell, thinking it would be a good action movie. It
turned out to contain not enough action or comedy, tons of boring dialogue,
and no Black characters whatsoever. Mike and Ronny fell asleep
within f fteen minutes. Aisha’s girlfriend got sick midway through—
perhaps from Twizzler and slushie overload—and so I spent a large part
of the movie in the bathroom with her. On the way home, I realized that
the showtime had been quite late, which had likely contributed to our
party’s younger members nodding of , so then I felt irresponsible as
well as lame. I said something about the movie on the drive home—I
didn’t write down what it was and can’t remember now—that caused
Ronny and Tommy to burst out laughing and Aisha to attempt a repair
on my behalf, saying, “She didn’t grow up around our way.”
After we dropped of the girls at home, I made a joke to Mike about
Ronny’s ill- conceived matchmaking.
“You ain’t ugly,” Mike said frankly. “And you got a nice lil’ body.”
“Thanks.”
“You just . . . you don’t know how to act.”
Mike then explained precisely what it would take for me to become
attractive to the men in his neighborhood—not just to an in- the- way
(no- account) guy but to a worthwhile suitor. First of , my clothes were
all wrong—they didn’t even match. My toenails were bare and uneven,
and what was I doing wearing f ip- f ops in January anyway? Maybe I
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A Methodological Note
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could answer this question for him: why did white people wear shorts
and sandals in the dead of winter? I needed sneaks—white Air Force
Ones would work, he mused. The way that I spoke was strange, and I
could stand to get a little more husky. Plus, I didn’t know how to walk
or hold my body right. I had a bad habit of staring at people, which was
rude, especially since I was a white girl. And I was trying way too hard
to be liked. I should stick up for myself when someone insulted me, not
stand there speechless and take it. And I should be a lot less generous.
Why was I of ering to pay so often? Finally, my hair looked like I’d slept
on it and left the house without even combing it through. For this critique
I at least had a counterargument:
“Well, yeah, I don’t comb it because it’s kind of curly . . .”
Mike shook his head in exasperation.
At this point I said something like, “Okay. Thanks for making me feel
even more strange and unappealing than I already did.”
The date was humiliating, but it gave me something to talk about
with Aisha and her family for a good two weeks. And it helped me get
over the deep anxiety the suspicious woman at the party had prompted
about how people might be perceiving my motives toward Aisha and
her friends.
Mike Takes Me under His Wing
The date had gone so badly that I assumed I wouldn’t be hearing from
Mike again. To my great surprise, he occasionally called me in the weeks
that followed. He’d ask how I was doing, and what the girls and I were
up to. Or he’d say he was on his way to work, which apparently was
a warehouse in Northeast Philadelphia. Once he told me he’d gotten
into a f ght, and his hand was sore. Sometimes he’d promise to stop
by Aisha’s block and say hi, perhaps with one of his young boys in tow,
though he never did. These f eeting exchanges fueled a great many conversations
with Aisha and her family: Would he call again? Did I truly
like him, or only feel interested because he was so hard to pin down?
I’m not sure if people’s behavior toward me changed, but I imagined
that this date with Mike helped something click for Aisha’s neighbors
and relatives. If I had been something of a puzzle before, now my presence
in the neighborhood made sense: I was one of those white girls
who liked Black guys.
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Shortly after our group outing to the movies, Ronny got into a f stf
ght with his sister’s boyfriend and got shipped back to a juvenile detention
facility on charges of aggravated assault. Aisha was crushed.
Mike bemoaned Ronny’s parting also, especially since his other close
friend and neighbor, Chuck, had gotten locked up recently. He was sitting
in county jail on charges of assault and f eeing the police, also for
a f ght in the schoolyard.
Perhaps it was partly because of this temporary gap in his social
circle that Mike began phoning me and telling me to stop by 6th Street.
Or maybe it had nothing to do with the absence of Ronny and Chuck;
maybe he simply liked having a white girl—however awkward and
poorly dressed—sitting on the alley stoops with him. Whatever his
motivations, I began hanging out with him at his uncle’s house, in his
absent friend Chuck’s house, and other homes around the neighborhood.
Bit by bit, Mike introduced me to other young men who were
part of his circle.
One night, he called me around ten to ask if I had a state ID. I said
I did. He then said, “Take this ride with me.” We drove down to the local
police station, where Mike indicated that I should sign for Chuck’s
younger brother Reggie to be released. He was being held for making
a terroristic threat and f ghting with a boy from school (the terroristic
threat purportedly had been “I’ma hurt you”). On the form, I wrote that
I was his mother, though it was plain to the women working behind the
counter that we weren’t related. When he emerged from the side door,
a heavy and dark- skinned f fteen- year- old towering over my f ve- foottwo-
inch frame, he grinned and greeted me with “Yo, Mommy! Thanks
for coming to get me.”
At this point I was still tutoring Aisha and her cousin Ray twice a
week. I believed that the study I was conducting concerned the world
of women: Miss Deena and her daughter, Aisha and her mother and
sister, the other teenage girls she hung out with, their neighbor across
the way, her three children, and so on. But more and more, my notes
began to concern Mike and his friends over on 6th Street—people who
sometimes overlapped with Aisha’s group of friends and family, and
sometimes didn’t.
There were probably a number of reasons why I began spending more
of my time with Mike and his friends, beyond the need to demonstrate
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that I wasn’t molesting teenage girls. For one, I had been reading All
Our Kin,
5 Making Ends Meet,
6
and No Shame in My Game,
7
and had learned
a lot about the lives of working poor people and women struggling on
welfare. I wasn’t sure how much my notes about Aisha and her family
and friends could add to what these books had already said. Mike and
his friends, on the other hand, were a mystery. They sort of had jobs,
but they also seemed to have income that they didn’t speak about. They
were getting arrested and coming home on bail and visiting their probation
of cers. They got into f ghts; their cars were stolen or seized by
the police. It was all confusion and chaos—I couldn’t follow what was
happening from minute to minute.
In late March of 2003, I asked Mike what he thought of my writing
about his life for my undergraduate thesis at Penn, due the following
spring. We agreed that I’d conceal his name and the neighborhood location,
and that I wouldn’t include any events he wanted me to leave
out. Over the next weeks, I broached the topic with Chuck, Steve, Alex,
Anthony, and some of the other young men who hung out together on
6th Street. Over time, I discussed it with their mothers, girlfriends, and
other relatives.
Mike Catches a Case
A few months into hanging out with Mike, he phoned me in a panic at
four in the morning to say that the police had just raided his uncle’s
house looking for him. He was at his baby- mom’s house, and his uncle
had just called to warn him that the law would probably be there next.
The police had issued a warrant for Mike’s arrest on a shooting charge.
He told me he hadn’t been involved in any shooting, and for the next
week he hid out in friends’ apartments, including mine, while he f gured
out what to do.
Since this was a “body warrant” for a new and signif cant crime,
rather than a bench warrant for, say, failure to appear in court, failure to
pay court fees, or technical probation and parole violations, a number
of police divisions started actively searching for Mike, raiding his family
and friends’ houses and interrogating and intimidating his uncle,
his mom, and the mother of his two children. After a few weeks of dipping
and dodging the police, he secured a lawyer and turned himself in.
From county jail he’d phone me for the ten minutes he was allotted in
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the morning and then again for ten minutes at night, and I’d three- way
his other friends or the girl he was dating, or we’d catch up on what was
happening back on the block.
Mike was being held at the Curran- Fromhold Correctional Facility
(CFCF, locally known as the F), which is the largest county jail in Philadelphia.
It’s a pink and gray building that sits on State Road in Northeast
Philly. As this was my f rst time visiting someone in jail or prison, I
was quite intimidated by the other women in the waiting room. A visitor
to CFCF can easily spend f ve hours waiting to be called, so there’s
a lot of time for women to talk and size one another up. Some of these
women knew each other, and sometimes they’d openly insult me or ask
who I was going to see and how we were related and was he Black.
My f rst attempts to visit Mike were unsuccessful: once I got turned
away because my clothing hadn’t conformed to jail visitor policy (no
white T- shirts, no f ip- f ops, no hoodies, no tops exceeding hip length)
another time because Mike’s visit period had already been used up a few
hours before, and the third time because the warden had canceled all
visits when the evening count of prisoners didn’t clear. I got the hang
of it after about a week.
A few weeks later, Mike got into a f ght with another inmate and
got sent to solitary conf nement. After he spent three days of solitude
in the dark, his mother, Miss Regina, and his grandmother raised the
f fteen- hundred- dollar bail to bring him home. Miss Regina and I went
to the bail of ce in the basement of the courthouse to pay it, and then
I waited for six long hours down at the county jail on State Road for
him to be released.
The night Mike came home, we drove back to the block around
2:30 a.m. With almost everyone asleep and the neighborhood quiet,
he couldn’t get anybody to wake up and celebrate his homecoming.
We drove around for a while, and then Mike told me to pull up next to
a dark truck. He knocked on the passenger door, and soon a man rose
from the seat cushions and opened it for us.
This was Anthony, a thin man of twenty- three with outgrown hair
who smelled of sweat and cigarettes. Apparently, he’d been living at
his aunt’s house on 6th Street, but she had kicked him out when she
caught him stealing money from her purse (accusations he vehemently
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A Methodological Note
225
denied). We shared a celebratory cigarette, and then Mike said goodbye
and Anthony went back to sleep. Mike shrugged. “He’s homeless, but
that’s our man, though.” When I asked later, he told me that Ant had
been living in various abandoned cars around 6th Street for over a year.
When Mike had f rst gotten the news that he was wanted on this
shooting charge, I was quite shaken, and thought the case was a unique
and signif cant experience in his life. When he came home on bail,
his f rst court date was scheduled for the next month, and as the date
neared I urged him strongly to buy a suit. When he refused, I attempted
to persuade him to at least locate some khakis and a tie. Instead, Mike
came to court wearing jeans, sneakers, and a well- pressed white T- shirt.
His initial hearing was at the small courthouse within the district
police station that served his neighborhood and many adjacent ones,
located about a mile from 6th Street. As we approached the cement
building, he recognized a man he knew and smoked a cigarette with
him while they exchanged some details about their respective cases.
As we walked into the building, he shook hands with more young men
he knew by name; by the time we were sitting in the benches on the defendant’s
side of the large wood- paneled courtroom, he’d greeted over
a dozen more young men awaiting trial. While we waited, he whispered
the back story on three of the cops who were standing against the wall
waiting to testify. He recognized two of the public defenders, and told
me which guys from the block had been assigned to them for various
cases they’d caught.
Another shock: compared with many of these young men, Mike’s
jeans and T- shirt looked like formal attire. Or at least, they were new
and clean and pressed. Some defendants had visible holes in their
clothing; others had matted- down hair or worn and dirty shoes without
laces. I began to understand that this case for attempted murder,
though not insignif cant for Mike, was nothing new—not to him or
the other guys he hung out with. In fact, this was the third criminal
case Mike had caught in the past two years. He had just f nished going
to trial dates for one of them and had recently completed probation
from the other. Gradually, I realized that a great many young men in
the neighborhood were getting arrested regularly, living with warrants,
going to court date after court date, and dipping and dodging the poYou
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lice. And judging by the clothing and shoes they could assemble for
their day in court, these men were poor—far poorer than Mike, whose
economic circumstances had seemed quite desperate to me previously.
NEGOTIATING A PLACE ON 6TH STREET
When I f rst began spending time with Ronny and Mike on 6th Street,
their neighbors and relatives often remarked on my whiteness and
asked me to account for my presence. I don’t think they wondered what
I was doing there as much as Aisha’s friends and neighbors had when I
met them, because I’d come in via Aisha and so was already connected
to Ronny and Mike through a series of family ties. Even before they
met me, their friends and relatives had “seen me around” with Ronny’s
cousin and aunts and grandmother for half a year. Then after Mike
came home on bail, he began referring to me as his godsister or simply
as his sister. Sometimes I also mentioned that I lived nearby.
Because Mike held some sway among the young men in the neighborhood,
being his adopted sister gave me a good deal of legitimacy.
It also seemed to establish that I wasn’t available for sex or romance,
as Mike simply wouldn’t put up with his sis “messing with a no- jobhaving,
in- and- out- of- jail- going, weed- smokin’ motherfucker.”
I’m not sure how to account for Mike’s adopting this protective
older- brother relationship with me. Sometimes he mentioned that as
an only child he’d often wanted a sister. At the time we met, Mike had
a great many women pursuing him: Marie, the mother of his two children,
other ex- girlfriends, and a number of neighborhood women he
was seeing casually. Like many other young men in the neighborhood,
he’d sometimes sleep with these women when he was broke, receiving
room and board or a small amount of cash, and often talked about sex
with them as something of a chore. So maybe he liked having a female
friend who wasn’t asking for sex. Or maybe on the whole he didn’t enjoy
sleeping with women very much. Whatever his reasons, getting adopted
by Mike as a kind of sister was a major stroke of luck.
As an adopted sis, cousin, and chronicler, my role with Chuck and
Mike and their friends might be similar to that of a female buddy at a
fraternity. Fraternity brothers distinguish between two types of women
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A Methodological Note
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who are attached to their group: buddies and slutties. Slutties are
women who sleep with fraternity members and are viewed as sex objects
to be shared around. Buddies are women who don’t sleep with
any of the members and serve as largely desexualized, gender- neutral
sidekicks.8
Often I was the only woman present in the group from 6th Street.
For his twenty- third birthday, Mike threw a party at a local motel.
He paid for the room and bought two hundred dollars’ worth of hard liquor
and another f fty dollars’ worth of marijuana for his guests. Steve
and Alex split the cost of a large birthday cake covered in green icing.
Nobody remembered to bring plates or forks, though, so the cake sat
uneaten until Reggie took a f stful, grinning and saying, “I’m fuckin’
hungry, man.” With Chuck locked up at the time, f fteen- year- old Reggie
was relishing the time with his brother’s friends.
Mike hadn’t invited any women to the party, so the event consisted
of f fteen of his friends crammed into the small room, drinking and
watching music videos on the television. As the night went on and
Mike got drunker, guys he barely knew started coming in and out of
the room, taking the half- full bottles of booze he’d spread out on the
windowsill. By 1:00 a.m., he was sitting below the windowsill with his
gun out in his lap, threatening to pistol- whip the next guy who came
in that tried to touch the booze he bought for his guests. He railed for a
while about how nobody had contributed any money to the room or to
the alcohol, only to a twelve- dollar fucking cake, and then he fell asleep.
I thought Mike had passed out completely, but then he began
screaming, “Where the fuck is my money at?” Apparently, someone had
taken the roll of bills he’d wedged into the side pocket of his jeans while
he slept drunkenly on the f oor.
Steve drew his gun and started pointing it at the party guests, demanding
that they return Mike’s money. I had never seen anybody pull
a gun before and took the opportunity to promptly leave the party. As
I made my way down the corridor to the elevator, Steve bounded up
behind me, apologizing profusely.
“My bad, Alice. I ain’t mean no disrespect. You understand, like, I
can’t just let niggas take advantage of my man. They think it’s sweet
[an easy target] ’cause he drunk, but it’s not sweet! I’m on they ass, A.”
“Yeah, I know. You’re a good friend, Steve. I was getting tired anyway.”
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Fifteen minutes later, Mike phoned triumphantly to say that the
money had “magically” reappeared on the bedside table, and all had
been forgiven. Did I want to come back to the party?
* * *
My role of sidekick and adopted sister to Mike didn’t mean that sex
or romance never came up. Occasionally when men were incarcerated,
they wrote me letters explaining that their conf nement had made
them realize that they were in fact romantically interested in me. In the
language of the community, I chalked this up as jail talk: in all but one
case, this interest, or at least its overt expression, ended when the man
came home and had access to a wider range of women.
Outside our circle, people had dif erent stories about what I was doing
on the block and what my relationships to Mike and Chuck and the
other young men were. The owner of the apartment I rented, a retired
Black man in his sixties, referred to Mike as my friend, indicating he
assumed we were romantic partners. Some of the 6th Street residents
also thought I was sleeping with one or even many of the 6th Street
crew, and some young men’s girlfriends remained perpetually suspicious
about this. While we were out in public or in court or in jail visiting
rooms, we sometimes let people assume that we were romantic
partners. Though they mostly ignored me during stops, interrogations,
and raids, the cops sometimes indicated that they believed I was looking
for drugs, or for sex with a Black man (in their words, “Black dick”).
In contrast, some people in the neighborhood assumed I was a lesbian,
which helped to explain why I liked to hang out with the guys. Miss
Regina would often say I was her son Mike’s right hand, and should
have been born a man. Some just seemed to think I was a bit of a loser,
unable to make friends with people like myself in the neighborhood I
had come from. Even when Mike and I began talking about the possibility
of my writing a book, and I discussed this with Chuck and others,
these interpretations and suspicions didn’t go away.
* * *
People have asked how I “negotiated my privilege” while conducting
f eldwork. Given that I am a white woman who comes from an educated
and well- of family, this is a good question. In fact, I had more priviYou
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lege than whiteness, education, and wealth: my father was a prominent
sociologist and f eldworker. Though he died when I was an infant,
his ideas hung in the air of my childhood household, and I had read
some of his books by the time I entered college. My mother and adopted
father were also professors and devoted f eldworkers: my mother
an anthropologist turned sociolinguist who had conducted studies in
Papua New Guinea and Montreal, and my second father a well- known
linguist who had done studies in Harlem and other parts of Manhattan
as well as Martha’s Vineyard and Philadelphia. Not only did my parents
give substantial f nancial support, they understood what I was trying
to do and brought their own experience to bear on the project I was
undertaking.
This peculiar background may have given me the conf dence and the
resources to embark on this research as an undergraduate, and consequently
the years to get established and take it in various directions.
The shadow of my late father may have pushed me to go further than
was safe or expected. Perhaps my background, and the extra knowledge
and conf dence it gave me, also contributed to professors encouraging
the work and devoting their time so freely to my education. It may
have also grounded me and kept me going in the face of the profound
discomfort that accompanies a new social milieu.
None of these advantages seemed to translate into what sociologist
Randall Collins refers to as situational dominance, or at least not very
often.9
On 6th Street I often felt like an idiot, an outsider, and at times a
powerless young woman. The act of doing f eldwork is a humbling one,
particularly when you’re trying to understand a community or a job or
a life that’s far away from who you are and what you know.10 In many
situations, my lack of knowledge put me at the bottom of the social
hierarchy. I hung out on 6th Street at the pleasure of Mike and Chuck,
along with their friends and neighbors and family. They knew exactly
what I was doing and what I had on the line; whether I got to stay or go
was entirely up to them.
Gaining a Basic Working Knowledge
My initial ef orts to describe what was happening for Mike and his
friends were at f rst greatly hampered by a lack of knowledge about the
neighborhood, the police and the courts, the local drug trade, and relaYou
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tions between men and women. My confusion in these early months
cannot be overstated; I couldn’t seem to follow events and conversations,
and people were often too busy or frustrated to explain things
to me when I asked. My sense of stupidity wasn’t just internal—people
would openly express their frustration and baf ement at how slow I
was to grasp the meaning of what was going on.
In part, I was struggling to overcome a language barrier. Mike and
Chuck used what linguists have called African American Vernacular
English, and unlike Aisha’s mother and aunt, they didn’t shift their
speech much for my benef t. They also employed more slang than Aisha
and her girlfriends did. I had to work hard to learn the grammar and
vocabulary they were using.
From a late night on Chuck’s back porch in the summer of 2005:
There are a few cars that drive by, and when they do, Chuck and Steve discuss
the clandestine doings of these neighbors. Chuck says to Steve, “You
see Lamar creeping? He probably came home, came right back out.” They
both laugh.
“Yo, you know who your young- boy, you know who your young- boy?”
Chuck says. “The boy Lamar your young- boy.”
“No he not!” Steve says, laughing and protesting. “I put all these niggas
on, A,” he tells me.
Steve leaves to see his girlfriend, saying, “I’m out, A. I’m ’bout to go get
me some cock.” I ask Anthony about this, and he conf rms that the word
cock can mean sex with a woman as well as male genitalia. In the discussions
about the neighbors’ late- night activities, I also learn four new words
for orgasm: to bust (buss), to yam, to chuck, and to nut.
The confusion ran deeper than this language barrier: I didn’t understand
the signif cance of events as they occurred, misinterpreting
people’s gestures and actions.
Once I saw Ronny in a f stf ght with some other boys, and along with
two young men standing nearby, I went over and tried to break up the
f ght. Only I was pulling Ronny away from another young man who was
also trying to break up the f ght, thinking he was the one Ronny was
f ghting. One of the other guys started shouting, “Not him! Not him!”
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What a fucking idiot, I thought. I can’t even tell which person is
f ghting and which person is pulling the f ghters away from each other.
The looks I got that afternoon humiliated me further.
Dealing with Dif erence
Some ethnographers maintain that their dif erence is an asset to the
research: their distinct background, gender, or race allows them to see
what the locals or natives cannot; their foreign identity gives them
some special status or opens certain doors; their situation as an outsider
prompts people to explain things that would otherwise go unsaid;
their novice mistakes and blunders reveal the social fabric that would
otherwise remain obscured.11
I didn’t take this approach. Or rather, I didn’t have this experience.
In some ways my identity was an encumbrance, and one I had to invest
signif cant time and ef ort to overcome. Particularly in the early
months on 6th Street, the presence of a white young woman seemed to
make people uneasy if not outright angry or visibly threatened. My lack
of familiarity with what sociologists St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton
referred to as the lower shadies of the Black community, my lack
of familiarity with the neighborhood, and my wholly dif erent family
background meant that I didn’t understand what was going on much
of the time, and so had to work hard just to keep up. My concern about
how my strange presence was changing the scene and my ef orts to reduce
its impact became preoccupations in their own right, distracting
me from understanding what daily life was like for Mike and his friends
and neighbors. If it is indeed true that an ethnographer’s mistakes are
revealing, I could not af ord to make them. Here an extra word during
a police stop could cost a man his freedom.
Like many outsiders have done, I learned to defuse tension by making
a joke out of my dif erence. Though in practice I was steadily adopting
more and more of Mike and Chuck’s attitudes and ways of doing
things, I learned to give verbal credence to expectations about my
white, college- educated preferences, like whiny rock music and sushi
and cut- up vegetables with no dressing. With those young men around
6th Street who seemed interested in f irting with me, I learned how to
negotiate a joking sexual banter, to strike a delicate balance of them
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wanting me around without feeling like they could approach me directly
about a romantic relationship.
In his study of street vendors in Greenwich Village, Mitch Duneier
notes that his status as a white and middle- class Jewish man wasn’t
f xed but became more or less salient depending on the circumstance.12
Likewise, my gender seemed to come into and out of focus depending
on what was going on. Sometimes my status as a woman seemed in
the forefront of people’s consciousness, like when the police had to call
a female cop to the scene in order to search me. But there were many
other times when it seemed I was taken almost as an honorary man,
permitted to hang around when men spoke about shootouts and drug
deals and robberies, or about romantic escapades with women other
than their main partner.
That I was Jewish, or rather, half- Jewish on my father’s side, didn’t
seem to register very much, perhaps because last names were so little
used. Reggie complained to me once about another guy who wouldn’t
share his prof ts after a gambling win, saying that the guy was “acting
like a Jew.”
“Do you know any Jews?” I asked.
“No. It’s a fucking expression.”
“You know I’m Jewish, right?”
“You ain’t a Jew. You white.”
“I’m half- Jewish, Reggie, swear to god.”
“Where’s your beard?” he laughed.
If my Jewish identity wasn’t readily recognized, certainly my whiteness
was. Though I have little way of proving it, I am fairly conf dent
that Mike and his friends and family spoke more about race, and about
the racial politics of policing and imprisonment, when I wasn’t around.
Sometimes they discussed these topics when I was with them, but not,
I believe, as freely or as frequently as they did in my absence.
If my being white was a permanent fact that nobody ever forgot,
it, too, seemed to come into and out of focus, as if my whiteness were
a property of the situation or interaction in play, not merely a trait I
possessed.
One winter, a pair of white female police of cers began appearing
around 6th Street, chasing young men in cars, stopping people on the
street and running their names, and searching houses. In a week they’d
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taken eleven young neighborhood men into custody on new arrests or
old warrants. Mike, Chuck, and their friends began referring to them as
The White Bitches, with a small apology to me after they did so.
ALEX: Just seen the White Bitches come through—no of ense, A.
ALICE: None taken. Where’d they go?
After a while the apologies stopped, and my being the same color and
gender as these most hated of cers seemed to move further down in
people’s consciousness.
Though I never exactly blended in on 6th Street, by showing up every
day, month after month, I became an expected part of the scene.
The Puerto Rican family who ran the corner grocery store began af ectionately
calling me Vanilla, which they eventually shortened to Nil.
After about a year, young men in the group began referring to me as
their sister, cousin, or “our homie” who “goes way back.” As Howard
Becker has pointed out, it’s virtually impossible for people to continue
to take special notice of something or someone they see day in and
day out.13
Yet even after people had gotten used to me, my whiteness became
problematic during certain occasions, at certain locations, and among
certain groups of people.
Prison and jail visiting rooms were among the easiest public places
for me, once I’d gotten the hang of them. The guards have seen it all
and don’t bat an eye when a white woman comes to visit a Black man. In
fact, many women coming to visit Black men in state prison are white;
even in county jail, my sense is that there are more interracial couples
than what would be found in public in Black or white neighborhoods. I
often f gured this was because a community’s interracial couples have
learned how to hide in public—for example, by going to the grocery
store late at night—but in a visiting room this is impossible. Or perhaps
inmates have more interracial relationships than their communities
do as a whole.
Courtrooms, bail of ces, and probation of ces were other public
spaces in which Mike and I tended to feel more at ease, at least those
located in downtown Philadelphia and in the district. Perhaps the
shared legal woes and the collective fear of jail time helped forge some
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bond between the white and Black people on the defendants’ side of
the courtroom. The easy conversations across racial lines might even
qualify these courtroom seating areas as what Elijah Anderson has
referred to as a Cosmopolitan Canopy—a place where many kinds of
people come together and keep their ethnocentric opinions in check,
treating one another decently.14
Venturing out together into white neighborhoods or into various
other buildings in Center City besides the courthouse could be dif cult.
As any interracial couple knows, the simple act of appearing together in
public can create a level of tension that is dif cult to bear. Often, people
would be so thrown of when Mike and I showed up together that we
learned to walk some distance apart from each other on the sidewalk,
so that passersby wouldn’t necessarily know we were together. We’d often
enter a store or bar or restaurant separately, so that clerks and hostesses
and security guards wouldn’t have to address us simultaneously.
When Chuck, Mike, or Reggie and I went into the city’s white neighborhoods,
those which Anderson refers to as more ethnocentric,15
sometimes people were openly rude, or would tell us that the kitchen
was closed or that we couldn’t enter. Sometimes we got the impression
that we were catching people on a very bad day. Beyond our skin
color, our ages and apparent class dif erences helped make these interactions
highly charged, though it was hard to know if these reactions
stemmed from the sight of Black young men with a white young
woman, a middle- class white woman with Black men who appeared
decidedly “ghetto,” or Black men in white spaces, period.
In addition to public spaces and white ethnic neighborhoods, large
social gatherings on 6th Street remained tense for me. In seven years I
attended nineteen funerals for young neighborhood men who’d been
killed by gunf re, as well as three funerals for older people. I learned
to dread these occasions, along with the far rarer event: weddings. Inevitably,
these occasions brought in strangers and relatives I’d never
met before, who demanded to know who I was and how exactly I was
connected to the deceased or the bridal couple. Large gatherings also
involved special activities or behaviors I hadn’t learned, and the chance
to screw them up before a large audience. And they involved the mixing
of many audiences; the public display of private relationships.
Methodologically, my task was not to let my comfort level guide
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the inquiry. That is, I tried to be careful not to give greater weight to
the places and situations where I was most at ease, or to the people or
places that gave an easier time to the biracial group that the 6th Street
Boys and I became whenever I was present.
While my race came into and out of focus depending on the context,
my behavior and appearance were gradually changing as well. Scholars
in the social constructionist tradition have written about race as a
performance versus race as cognition.16 In a similar approach, Reggie
sometimes took it as his mission to instruct me on matters of language,
dress, and movement, proudly proclaiming to others that he was turning
me “into a Black chick.” Of course he didn’t mean this literally; I
think he was referring to a set of behaviors, attitudes, and orientations
toward the world that a person can acquire.
I wasn’t always as dedicated a student as Reggie wished. When I
came back to the neighborhood after attending a family wedding out
of state, he accused me of sounding and acting like a white girl again, as
if those three days had undone all his careful teachings. The next summer,
I spent two weeks out of town with my parents, and Mike insisted
that this hiatus had “taken all the Black” out of me.
Becoming a Fly on the Wall
The most consistent technique I adopted to reduce the impact of my
dif erence was social shrinkage—to become as small a presence as possible.
If the goal was to f nd out what life for the residents of 6th Street
was like when my strange presence wasn’t screwing things up, then I’d
try to take up as little social space as I could.
Blending into the background became an obsession. When sitting
on a stoop, I’d sit behind a bigger person or I’d sit halfway inside the
house, so that people walking by wouldn’t necessarily see me. This is
something like how people learn to hide a deformed or scarred limb,
only I learned to do it with my whole body. I also learned to become a
quiet person, someone who doesn’t say or do much, who isn’t known to
have strong opinions.
I came up with tests for how well I was doing. If someone told a story
about a past event and couldn’t remember whether I had present for it,
then I knew I was doing fairly well. If Mike or Chuck began a distinctly
dif erent kind of conversation or used another tone of voice once I’d
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gone to bed or left the room, I inferred that my presence was in the
forefront of their awareness, and I had work to do.
Receding into the background became a technique to reduce my
inf uence on the scene but also to limit any risk I might be placing
people under. This was particularly concerning given that the older
policing literature says that the police start paying attention when they
see something out of the ordinary. Was I increasing Mike’s or Chuck’s
dealings with the police simply by hanging around? After a while I decided
that this wasn’t the case: the tough- on- crime policing approach
currently at work in Black neighborhoods like 6th Street doesn’t wait
for something out of the ordinary—police routinely swooped into the
neighborhood to make stops, conduct raids, and search men who were
walking around whether I was present or not. Still, it couldn’t hurt to
be as small a presence as possible.17
At a practical level, my goal of not altering the scene could be dif –
cult to work out. In order to understand whether one’s words or actions
are creating something strange and foreign, one must f rst learn what is
normal. In a scene so dif erent from any I’d known, it took months and
sometimes years for me to work this out.
Take violence. Young men on the block often made promises to beat
up or shoot someone who’d injured or insulted them or someone they
held dear. For instance, one afternoon Steve, Chuck and I were sitting
on a porch. Steve was rolling marijuana into a hollowed- out Phillies
cigar when Reggie came walking up the block.
REGGIE: I’m about to fuck this nigga up, man.
CHUCK: Who, Devon?
REGGIE: Yeah! I ain’t like that shit, man.
At f rst when Reggie or Mike would make these threats, I sat quietly
by, like a good f y on the wall, waiting to see what would happen. Later,
I learned that people within earshot of these threats often take it on
themselves to talk the person down or even to physically restrain him.
In fact, young men and sometimes women typically make it a point
to make these promises to f ght or to shoot when someone else was
around whom they can count on to hold them back; in this way a person
can preserve his honor without risking his life. Of course, this isn’t
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A Methodological Note
237
all show—often people promising to go and shoot genuinely want to,
at least for a time. At any rate, months later I realized that as a friend
or sis or cousin, men were expecting me to hold them back; to fail to do
this would put them in danger of having to make good on their promises.
So after a time I learned that taking someone’s car keys or hiding
a gun wasn’t changing the outcome of events as much as sitting idly by
would be. Blocking the door was the way to blend into the walls.
Roommates
When I met Mike, he’d been working nights at a warehouse in Northeast
Philadelphia—a great job paying $7.50 an hour that his mother
had found for him. He was supplementing this income with sporadic
work in the crack business, which also intermittently employed his
friends Chuck and Steve along with many other guys from the neighborhood.
Shortly after we met, Mike’s second child was born, and after
complications with the birth, he didn’t show up for two weeks of work.
He lost the warehouse job and moved to selling crack full time.
Later that year, Chuck returned from county jail. He had spent nine
months there awaiting trial for a school yard f ght in which he had
pushed a fellow student’s face into the snow. Unlike his younger brother
Reggie, Chuck had attended school regularly before he was taken into
custody; during the months he spent in jail awaiting trial, he lost a full
year of school. When he returned to his high school the following fall,
after the case was dismissed, he tried to register again as a senior. He
was then nineteen, and the secretary said he was too old to enroll.
In the weeks after Chuck came home, he and Mike drove around
looking for work. They applied online or in person at Target, Walmart,
McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Kmart, PetSmart, and Taco Bell. They listed the
landline at my apartment or my cell as their contact, since their cell
phones got shut of too often to be reliable conduits for job leads. They’d
come in and play the machine every evening, or ask me if anyone had
called when we met up in the afternoons. No employer ever did.
After weeks without a single job lead, Chuck, Mike, and their close
friend Steve pooled their money and bought some crack to sell. Some
days they’d begin cutting and bagging the drug around midday, and
then spend the afternoon and evening selling it hand to hand to people
in the neighborhood. Mostly these customers were frail and thin memYou
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bers of their parents’ generation, who I gathered had started smoking
crack when it was cool and popular in the ’80s. But many days Mike and
Chuck had no crack to sell: their supplier had gotten arrested or was
simply unavailable, or the money they owed this “connect” had been
seized from their pockets by the police during a stop and search, and
so they’d been unable to pay the man back and hence obtain any more
drugs. Sometimes they’d made enough money the previous week to get
by without selling any. Though they sometimes spoke of ambitions to
become major dealers, Mike and Chuck approached selling as a parttime
and undesirable income- generating activity. They picked up the
work when they had no other income or had exhausted the women or
family members who’d give them small bits of money to live on.18 Chuck
in particular frequently articulated his distaste for crack and for selling
it to people who, like his own mother, had been ruined by the drug and
couldn’t help themselves.
In the spring of 2003, Mike lost the lease to his apartment on 6th
Street, which his mother had left to him when she moved across town.
We packed up the apartment and he moved back in with his mom. During
this time Mike, Chuck, and Steve would stop by my place to hang
out or do their laundry. They’d often fall asleep watching movies on
the couch. Getting back to his mother’s at the end of the night was
a major inconvenience, so Mike began keeping more and more of his
possessions at my place. After a while I said that if he was going to
be crashing so much, he should contribute to the bills and groceries.
Gradually we became roommates, with Mike taking the pull- out couch
in the large living room and Chuck taking the smaller couch next to it.
Steve alternated sleeping at his grandmother’s house on 6th Street, his
girlfriend’s house a few blocks over, and our living room f oor.
Becoming a roommate was a gradual and unplanned thing, but it
greatly enhanced the depth of the study. I could now compare what
happened on the block with what happened at home, and for days on
end. I was also able to take notes as events and conversations took place,
often transcribing them on my laptop in real time as they were going
on around me. This meant, too, that Chuck, Mike, and other young men
could read over my shoulder as I was typing these f eld notes, correcting
something I’d written or commenting on what I was writing about.
A few times, Mike and Chuck read some of the notes as they watched
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A Methodological Note
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TV and remarked, “Yo. She gets every fucking thing!!” Very occasionally
someone would say, “Don’t write this down” or “I’m going to say some
shit right now, and I don’t want it to go in the book.” In these cases, I
took careful heed and did as people requested.
* * *
During these months, I was learning a lot about work at the lowest levels
of the local drug trade. I was also learning about relations between
men and women in the neighborhood. I was spending so much time on
6th Street that few people there hadn’t met me, and things were starting
to become much less awkward.
One problem I still encountered during this period was that Mike,
Chuck, their neighbors, and their relatives didn’t think I had any female
friends. When you get older and have a job and a family to attend
to, friends may not be such a big deal—but when you’re twenty- one
and friendless, especially in a community of dense social networks and
extensive family ties, being friendless can be a major point of shame.
Though I gradually developed close friendships with Reggie’s girlfriend,
Aisha’s older sister, and other women my own age, people wanted to
know where my friends were from my own community, friends who
looked like me. They’d ask whether I had any and who and where they
were, wondering out loud if in my community I was somewhat of a
lame, as I was here.
From time to time I’d mention various friends from high school and
even a few from college, but then Reggie or Alex would ask me to set
them up. As Mike’s sis I was of limits, but that didn’t go for my girlfriends.
Where were my girlfriends? And what about my younger sister?
Where was she? Did she like Black guys? Sometimes I was stricken
with the thought that I was keeping these social worlds apart in a way
that concretized the unequal status of Mike and Chuck and Alex, as if
I were saying that Black men from 6th Street weren’t good enough for
my white sister and friends. Other times I attempted mixed outings or
events with disastrous results.
At my twenty- second birthday party that year, white friends from
high school and grade school came to the apartment to throw a dinner
party. When Aisha and a number of her friends walked in, my best
friend from eighth grade immediately of ered them some brie and
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crackers. Aisha assumed that the round of cheese was cake, and spit
it out on the f oor when she tasted the sour rind. Then a high school
friend got so afraid when Mike and Chuck and Steve came in that she
left only a few minutes after their arrival, claiming to have a sudden
migraine. I was outraged and humiliated, and apologized profusely.
Walking in the Shoes
Beyond being a f y on the wall, I wanted to be a participant observer. I
wanted to live and work alongside Mike and his friends and neighbors
so that I could understand their everyday worries and small triumphs
from the inside. The method of participant observation involves cutting
yourself of from your prior life and subjecting yourself as much
as possible to the crap that people you want to know about are being
subjected to.19 How do you do this when nobody treats you the same
way? When you are a dif erent color, and class, and gender?
At a practical level, the divides between us made participant observation
a confusing endeavor. Should I try to take on the attitudes and
behaviors and routines of Mike and Chuck and their friends, though I
was clearly not a man? Or should I instead try to take on the role of a
woman associated with them? This made more sense, except that the
world of women was a separate sphere from the life of the street. Certainly,
the experience of a girlfriend or mother of a man on the run is
dif erent from the experience of this man, who is actually dodging the
authorities. Over time, I tried to take on some of both.
In her ethnography of police, Jennifer Hunt describes how the of –
cers she studied assigned one of three roles to the women in their lives:
good woman, slut, and dyke. Yet for her study she successfully operated
outside these categories, negotiating a new role “betwixt and between”
that was something like “street woman researcher.”20
Though I came to 6th Street as a young blond woman, my body,
speech, clothing, and general personality marked me as somewhat
strange and unappealing. After spending a few months with Mike and
his friends, I moved even further away from their ideals of beauty or
femininity, in part as a strategy to conduct the f eldwork, and in part
because I was, as a participant observer, adopting their male attitudes,
dress, habits, and even language.
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What about relations with the police? That the police consistently
ignored me when they approached Mike and Chuck and their friends
was in many ways very lucky. It certainly helped to reassure me that I
wasn’t placing anyone in greater danger just by hanging around. But it
also made it dif cult for me to experience searches, arrests, or jail time—
all fundamental experiences for these young men. Should I try to get
arrested on purpose? Even if I did, I’d go to a woman’s jail as a white
female, a f rst- time inmate, knowing nobody from my own community.
This seemed signif cantly dif erent from the experience that Mike and
Chuck and Reggie had when they got locked up. And given that the
police largely disregarded me, I might have to go to great lengths to
get taken into custody. This would seem like madness to the guys on
6th Street, who devoted so much energy to avoiding the authorities. It
might even cause them to question whether having me on the block
was a safe or reasonable thing.
Should I instead learn their techniques of evasion and do my best
not to get arrested? This would be comparatively easy, given the police’s
lack of interest in me, but at least here I would be taking on something
of how they saw the world and oriented themselves toward it. In the end
I went with this second approach, of learning how to spot undercovers,
anticipate raids, conceal incriminating objects or activities. “Approach”
may imply too much concerted ef ort—I believe I simply picked up this
orientation by spending time with Mike and Chuck and their friends.
Still, given that the young men I was attempting to understand got arrested
with great frequency, often had multiple criminal cases going at
once, and spent half their young adult lives in jail, in prison, or under
court supervision, I missed a lot by not moving through the criminal
justice system alongside them.
Selling drugs was another conundrum. I’d surely learn a lot by selling
crack alongside Chuck and Mike and Steve, but hustling was considered
largely men’s work, not the purview of women. It required skills
I didn’t have, like tough negotiating techniques and violence. On some
level, Chuck and Mike and their friends considered this work the work
of desperation, second only to robbing dealers at gunpoint. It was morally
polluted, not to mention legally and physically risky. They looked
askance at young men in the neighborhood who came from good famiYou
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lies but nevertheless wanted to try their hand at the game. This all led
me to think that as a woman and a person from a comparatively wellof
family, selling crack would appear to be a strange thing to do. On
the other hand, how else would I learn what it felt like to work in the
drug trade, especially in this Tough on Crime era in which arrests and
jail time are so routine? In the end, my participation was more like
what girlfriends and mothers who lived with men selling drugs were
exposed to.
Some aspects of life on 6th Street were easier to adopt, and involved
fewer moral dilemmas. After a couple of years, I abandoned my vegetarian
diet and started drinking wine coolers and liquors like Courvoisier
and Hennessy. I lived on very little money and unpredictable amounts
of it—not the same as being truly poor, but I certainly felt f rsthand the
strain of having bills to pay and no money to pay them with. One thing
I did not adopt was smoking marijuana—it inhibited my memory and
dulled my ref exes. Also, it hampered writing the f eld notes. I wrote
these most evenings and often throughout the morning and early afternoon
as well. They formed the main record available to me to make
sense of a complex world I was struggling to understand; I couldn’t
af ord for them to suf er.
I restricted my media to what Chuck and his friends watched, read,
and listened to. This meant mainstream hip- hop and R&B, and gangster
movies. Aside from coursework, I read what Mike and his friends
read: “’hood” novels while they were in jail, and the paper when someone
we knew had been killed.
I cut myself of from most of my previous friends in Philadelphia, restricting
my social life as much as possible to the world of 6th Street. Of
course, as I came to spend more and more time in that neighborhood,
my old friends cut me of , too—some of these relationships ended with
harsh words about the strange and risky life I was leading.
I learned how to sleep on cue and in short intervals, and amid the
clamor of others; to distinguish between gunshots and other loud
bangs; to run and hide when the police were coming; to identify the
car models, haircuts, and body language of undercover cops in plain
clothes. I learned how to get through a stop without placing myself or
anyone else at greater risk, and how to remain silent during an interYou
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rogation so as not to give up any information. I learned how to be a
woman closely linked to a man on the run, to go through his hunt and
capture and court dates and conf nement and release. Some of the ways
in which I gradually became more like Mike and Aisha and their friends
and family were deliberate and planned. Others, like my appreciation
for hip- hop and my fear of the police, developed organically over time.
It is virtually impossible for ethnographers to become full members
of a community not their own.21 It scarcely bears mentioning, then,
that this was also the case for me. Beyond the situations and events I
never experienced, my background and identity were so dif erent from
those of the people I was observing that I couldn’t always trust my reactions
to events and situations that I did experience f rsthand. That is, I
had to be cautious in generalizing from my reactions to the feelings or
experiences of others.
With all these frustrating barriers, a lot can be said for sustained
observation and involvement. If I didn’t understand exactly what Mike
and Chuck or their girlfriends and mothers were going through, I approximated
it in various ways. Certainly, I came closer to understanding
than when I started out.
THINGS TAKE A TURN FOR THE WORSE
In the last semester of my junior year of college in 2004, Mike’s case for
attempted murder was f nally coming to a close after a year and a half
of monthly court dates. Because he’d made bail before the detainer on
another case could come through, he was in a state of legal limbo—
not technically wanted but with a detainer out, and liable to get taken
into custody if the police stopped him or if he showed up in court. On
his court dates, his mother and I would wait nervously down at the
courthouse for his lawyer to appear. Mike would hover a few blocks
away, waiting to hear if the case was proceeding and he needed to come
in. If the lawyer didn’t show, Mike would get a warrant for failure to
appear, and then the cops would be really looking for him. Since the
lawyer Mike had paid dearly for was typically over forty- f ve minutes
late, this was harrowing.
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At the same time this was happening, Mike and I started noticing
that unmarked cars were following us around 6th Street and to
the apartment. Mike’s parole of cer conf rmed that the feds were indeed
considering a case against him. To make matters worse, Reggie
had come home from county and reignited the conf ict with the 4th
Street Boys, which his older brother, Chuck, had largely managed to
squash in his absence. Mike returned to the apartment one night with
seven bullet holes in the side of his car. We hid it in a shed so the cops
wouldn’t see. As he looked ahead to a long stay in state prison, and
negotiated this precarious holding pattern of making his court dates
without actually showing up, he took to wearing a bulletproof vest and
watching for any unknown cars on our block. Steve, Chuck, and Reggie
seemed increasingly concerned about getting shot as well. If we were
away from one another, we’d check in every half hour or so via text
message.
You good?
Yeah.
Okay.
At school, things were deteriorating at a rapid pace. I’d been taking
extra courses each semester and attending classes during the summer
so I could graduate a year early and get to grad school. But I started to
think that I wouldn’t make it through this f nal semester. It was becoming
hard for me to do anything but focus on the drama and emergencies
on 6th Street.
The f rst real sign I was slipping away from academic life was the
missed meetings. I had made an appointment with historian Michael
Katz, and then failed to either show up or cancel it. I remembered the
meeting only days later, and in the vague way you remember a dream,
or perhaps a movie you had seen years before while intoxicated or very
tired. Michael graciously agreed to another meeting, which I also forgot
about. I showed up a week later, hoping he might happen to be in
his of ce, which he wasn’t. What concerned me was not so much that
I’d missed these meetings with a professor I greatly admired, but that I
couldn’t f nd it in myself to feel bad about it. Amid the swiftly changing
fortunes and limited resources of Mike and Chuck and their friends
on 6th Street, a promise to be somewhere in the future is understood
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as a wish in the moment more than a concrete eventuality or binding
contract, and I was starting to absorb that same orientation.
It happened again with Elijah Anderson, who had agreed to supervise
my senior thesis, a paper based on the f eld notes I’d been collecting
while living with Mike, Chuck, and Steve. I got an e- mail from Eli
asking what had happened—apparently we had agreed to meet at the
Down Home Diner in the Reading Terminal. This missed meeting was
even more troubling than the one with Michael Katz, because I couldn’t
recall even having made the appointment. It became clear that my
memory itself was changing, not just my orientation to time and obligations.
The consummate f eldworker, Eli later wrote up the experience
in his book The Cosmopolitan Canopy.
22
That spring, I had to take a number of required courses I’d been putting
of , such as science and statistics. These were courses that had no
link to the f eldwork, no way to write it up and have it count toward the
grade. I registered for these dreaded requirements, but didn’t attend
the classes or even remember to drop them. This lapse scared me, too,
especially as Fs began appearing on my transcript.
The prospect of graduate school became my lifeline. I had applied to
UCLA and to Princeton with my fall grades, hoping they’d accept me
though I was only a junior, since I could show I had most of the needed
credits. I f gured that if I didn’t get in to either place, I would likely
drop out of Penn. There was no way I could complete another year of
school and continue in the 6th Street neighborhood, that was for sure.
At this point I was still taking daily f eld notes, but in most other ways
I was leaving the academic world behind. Its rules and obligations were
ceasing to matter. With the cops circling the apartment and the feds
looking into Mike’s case, the threats they had been making to arrest
me—for harboring fugitives, or interfering with an arrest, or holding
drugs in the apartment—were becoming more and more real. The likelihood
that I’d soon go to prison seemed about equal to the chance I
would make it to graduate school. After looking over my shoulder for
so long, the prospect of prison came almost as a relief.
In the spring of that year Mike’s attempted murder case closed after
more than a year of monthly court dates. On the advice of his lawyer,
he pleaded guilty for gun possession and took a deal for a one- to
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three- year term in state prison, shipping of to Graterford that night. In
a silent apartment f lled with Timberland boots, empty cartridges, and
a sizable gangster movie collection, I found out I had been accepted to
graduate school at Princeton.
REGROUPING
When Mike got taken into custody, I lost all three roommates, since
Chuck and Steve had been staying at the apartment at Mike’s invitation.
More than my roommates, though, I lost the right to hang out
on the block. I was still spending a lot of time in Aisha’s neighborhood
with her family and friends, and after Mike went upstate, I kept in
touch with a number of the guys from 6th Street who wanted to know
how he was doing. But I was, at the time, only Mike’s person—there was
no reason for me to hang out on 6th Street with him sitting in state
prison. I was cut of from the block before I had fully worked out what
was happening there.
To bide my time in the last months of junior year, I started hanging
out with a group of guys I’d met through a man who worked security for
a building on Penn’s campus. These young men lived in the same Black
section of Philadelphia, about f fteen blocks from 6th Street. But some
of them had legitimate jobs, and even proper addresses. They also had
driver’s licenses. Their routine of working a legal job during the day and
drinking beer and playing video games in the evening provided a nice
counterpoint to the insecurity and unpredictability of Mike’s group of
friends, and I welcomed the calm and safety of men whose only connection
to guns, drugs, or the police came in the form of video games.
CULTURE SHOCK
In September, classes at Princeton began, and I decided to continue
with my research in Philadelphia rather than relocate to New Jersey.
I began commuting from the 6th Street neighborhood to class a few
times a week. These day trips to the tree- lined campus, nestled in the
wealthy and white suburban town of Princeton, were not an easy adYou
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justment. The f rst day, I caught myself casing the classrooms in the Sociology
Department, making a mental note of the TVs and computers I
could steal if I ever needed cash in a hurry. I got pulled over for making
a U- turn, and then got another ticket for parking a few inches outside
some designated dotted line on the street that I hadn’t even noticed.
The students and the even wealthier townies spoke strangely; their
bodies moved in ways that I didn’t recognize. They smelled funny and
laughed at jokes I didn’t understand. It’s one thing to feel uncomfortable
in a community that is not your own. It’s another to feel that way
among people who recognize you as one of them.
I also began to realize how much I had missed by not living in the
dorms or hanging out with other undergrads during college. The Princeton
students discussed indie rock bands—white- people music, to me—
and drank wine and imported beers I’d never heard of. They had witty
chitchat and e- mail banter. They listened to iPods, and checked Facebook.
I’d also apparently missed f nding a spouse in college—many
of the students had brought one along to graduate school. And since
I’d been restricting my media only to what Mike and his friends read
and watched and heard, I couldn’t follow conversations about current
events, and learned to be silent during any political discussions lest I
embarrass myself. Moreover, I had missed cultural changes, such as nocarb
diets and hipsters. Who were these white men in tight pants who
spoke about their anxieties and feelings? They seemed so feminine, yet
they dated women.
More than discomfort and awkwardness, I feared the hordes of white
people. They crowded around me and moved in groups. I skipped the
graduate college’s orientation to avoid what I expected would be large
numbers of white people gathered together in a small space. In cafeterias
and libraries and bus and train stations, I’d search for the few Black
people present and sit near them, feeling my heart slow down and my
shoulders relax after I did.
Above everything, I feared white men. Not all white men: white
American men who were relatively f t, under the age of f fty, with short
hair. I avoided the younger white male faculty at all costs. On some
level, I knew they weren’t cops, they probably wouldn’t beat me or insult
me, but I could not escape the sweat or the pounding in my chest
when they approached. Of ce hours were out—I couldn’t be in a room
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alone with them. When I had to pass them in the hallways, I could feel
my heart racing, like I was getting ready to run. Very few professors of
color were in the Sociology Department at the time, so for advising I
stuck to women, non- American men, and men who had accents or who
were otherwise far outside the cop mold. Retired professors were good.
I took an independent study course with Marvin Bressler, a retired Jewish
professor in his seventies.
I also discovered that sudden noises, like a balloon popping or a pan
falling from the counter, left me panicked. So did quick and close movements.
I had been heading out of Princeton with another grad student
in a heavy downpour. At a traf c light, a fellow motorist walked over to
our car and knocked loudly on the driver’s- side window. I threw up my
arms to shield my face when she rapped on the glass, protecting myself
from whatever she meant to aim at us. When I realized why she’d come
up to us—simply to alert me that my headlights weren’t on—I began
to cry right in front of my passenger, who said kindly that at f rst she
hadn’t realized what the noise was, either. Later, Mitch Duneier and
I were entering a restaurant in New York when a f ock of birds f ew
out of the rafter, passing quite near us. I walked out of the restaurant
and stayed out for a number of minutes, my hand on my chest. Mitch
came out and gently remarked, “I’m sorry, that must have really scared
you. Do you want to eat somewhere else?” Around that time a friend
of Chuck’s had been shot and killed while exiting my car outside a bar;
one of the bullets pierced my windshield, and the man’s blood spattered
my shoes and pants as we ran away. I had been staying at Mitch’s
spare apartment in Princeton for a few days until things calmed down.
These visits to Princeton also made it clear that I’d developed substantial
confusion about my sexual and gender identities. After spending
six years in a Black neighborhood, hanging out with young men,
I’d come to feel almost asexual. During college, I dated no one; I’d
sometimes feel surprise when a mirror returned the image of a young
woman. Putting my gender and sexual identity aside seemed like an
easier path, given that I couldn’t live up to the 6th Street community’s
ideals of femininity: I wasn’t “thick” enough, I didn’t dress the right
way, I couldn’t dance. I was not Black. It was a shock when I began to
spend time again with middle- class white academics that some of them
found me young and at least somewhat attractive. More than this, they
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A Methodological Note
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were f xated on what sexual relationship I may or may not be having
with the guys on 6th Street, as if it were the f rst thing that popped into
their minds when they saw me and heard about the project.
There was also the confusion of thinking and seeing like Mike and
his friends.
Upon meeting my fellow grad students during the sociology orientation,
I quickly sized up the women in the cohort, and as one walked
away I turned to admire her. This is how we passed a lot of time around
6th Street: standing or sitting on the stoop, watching women walk by
and talking about their various attributes. This woman turned around
just as I was looking, and actually caught me staring. There was very
little else I could have been doing, and I’m fairly certain my face registered
open appreciation. I never did become friends with her, though
who knows if she even remembers this incident.
Social awkwardness and identity confusion aside, driving to New
Jersey a few times a week was in many ways a good thing. The hour- long
ride gave me some distance from the chaos and emergencies of 6th
Street, and a chance to think about what I was seeing.
I was also learning for the f rst time about mass incarceration. With
Devah Pager and Bruce Western both in the Sociology Department
at the time, the corridors of Wallace Hall were a hotbed of activity
on the causes and consequences of the prison boom. After muddling
through a slew of topics and themes, I came to see, through Devah and
Bruce’s inf uence and Mitch Duneier’s guidance, that my project could
be framed as an on- the- ground look at mass incarceration and its accompanying
systems of policing and surveillance. I was documenting
the massive expansion of criminal justice intervention into the lives of
poor Black families in the United States.
By the spring of my f rst year of graduate school, I was visiting Mike
in state prison on the weekends and spending my evenings in Philadelphia
with the group of guys I’d met shortly before I left Penn—the ones
who were working regular jobs. I’d learned a lot about how they dif ered
from Mike and his friends—for example, when one of them lost his
job, he didn’t move to selling crack but instead relied on the support of
friends and relatives. This group had virtually no legal entanglements
and didn’t run when the police approached. Some of them had brothers
or cousins whose lives more closely resembled those of Mike and his
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friends, but they made a considerable ef ort to avoid these men and the
risks that any association would pose.
* * *
One night, Chuck’s younger brother Reggie, now nearly eighteen,
phoned to tell me that a man who was loosely associated with the 6th
Street Boys had killed a man from 4th Street during a botched robbery
at a dice game. He insisted that I come immediately to his uncle’s basement,
where the guys were assembling to work out what to do next.
I sat on top of the washing machine for four hours and listened while
f ve men berated the shooter for his thoughtless actions, discussed
what the fallout would be from this death, and whether and when to
shoot at the guys who they knew without question were now coming
for them. In those four hours I learned more about gun violence than I
had in my previous three years in the neighborhood.
In the end, nobody strapped up. The plans f zzled, and we parted
ways around 3:00 a.m.23
Through this emergency, it seemed I’d somehow been asked to come
back to 6th Street—not as someone connected to Mike, but on my own
steam. Reggie seemed to feel that as at least a resident guest of 6th
Street and the group’s main chronicler, I shouldn’t miss these important
events.
Over the following weeks, young men from 4th Street drove through
the 6th Street neighborhood and shot up the block. Chuck took a partial
bullet in the neck, and Steve took a bullet in his right thigh. Neighbors
stopped going outside and instructed children to play indoors. From
prison, Mike sent heated letters home to Chuck and Reggie, voicing his
outrage that they’d allow me to be on the block during these dangerous
times. I was pretty pissed of about how Mike reacted, though looking
back I can understand how, sitting in prison, he may have felt that
the younger men no longer listened, or that the world was moving on
without him.
By that summer Mike and I had reconciled, and Chuck, Steve, and
Reggie were sitting in jail and prison. For four years of graduate school,
I continued to live near 6th Street, coming into the university two or
three times a week and spending much of the rest of my time hanging
out with whichever members of the group were home, as well as with
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Aisha and her family and friends. On the weekends, I visited incarcerated
members of the group in jails and prisons across the state. Chuck’s
and Mike’s families already knew me well, but I came to know the families
of other young men better as we dealt with the police together,
attended court dates, and made long drives upstate for visiting hours.
After serving his full sentence in state prison, Mike returned to 6th
Street in 2007. As often happens when a man comes home, he spent
the f rst couple of weeks admonishing his boys on the block for failing
to do enough for him while he was away—for not visiting enough, for
not writing back to his letters, for not sending money when they had
promised, and for sleeping with various girls he had dated and then
lying about it. As time went on, he seemed to forgive and forget; it appeared
things were back to normal.
That summer, Chuck gave me the nickname A- Boogie. It remains
the way many members of the group refer to me, like when addressing
letters from prison. Now when I go back to the block, people often say
I am from 6th Street, though that’s not literally true, as I never actually
lived on the street.
THE SHOOTING AND ITS AFTERMATH
In the summer of 2007, a tragedy rocked the 6th Street community and
altered the lives of the 6th Street Boys, as well as my own. For many it
represented a pivotal event, an event around which other events, relationships,
or habits came either before or after. For some, it even signaled
a f nal ending to a young adulthood spent in the streets, trying to
make it by selling drugs and dipping and dodging the police.
Around ten o’clock on a Wednesday night, Mike phoned me with the
news that Chuck had been shot in the head outside the Chinese takeout
store. As Mike had heard it, he’d been walking there to buy dinner for
himself and his youngest brother, Tim, who was with him and saw him
fall. I asked Mike how serious it was, remembering the time a bullet had
merely grazed the skin above Mike’s ear a few years before.
“He got shot in the head,” Mike said. “What the fuck do you think?”
I debated whether to go right to the hospital or drive for an hour to
pick up Mike from the suburb where he’d been staying. Finally, Mike
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persuaded me to get him, and I headed out. We drove back into Philly in
silence. The idea that Chuck might not make it was incomprehensible
to me, so I thought about his long recovery, with physical therapy and
pain and depression. I made a mental list of what I would do to lift his
spirits. I thought about the day before, when Chuck and I had shared a
quick meal of cheese fries and a cigarette, and made plans to visit his
middle brother, Reggie, in county jail. Chuck hadn’t seemed to feel that
tensions with 4th Street were particularly high that day; things had
been calmer for the past few weeks. Did they catch him of guard? I
thought about the times Chuck and I had driven to visit Mike in state
prison before Mike came home last month, and about how silly Chuck
would get in the visiting room, trying to make Mike laugh. And about a
few years ago, when the three of us had f rst become roommates.
As we approached the hospital, Mike told me that apart from Chuck’s
mom and girlfriend and baby- mom, females really shouldn’t be around
right now; it would be a whole bunch of niggas in there, since the shit
was fresh, talking about shit that females didn’t need to hear about.
He was right: as we pulled up, we saw a crowd of men on the corner
outside the ER. There were, by my count, twenty- seven young men
standing across the street from the hospital. And just as if 6th Street
had been fully transported downtown, two white cops stood across the
street, watching them and talking to each other. I recognized a number
of the guys and realized that some had open warrants or pending cases
and were risking a great deal to stand here, in plain view, obviously
linked to a man who had just been shot. An act of respect and love and
sacrif ce. A midnight vigil for Chuck.
Mike went over to stand with them, giving me another look to indicate
that I was in no way welcome to join. I parked and walked into the
ER instead. No one in the crowd of men said anything to me as I passed,
or even nodded.
The waiting room was full of cops and patients waiting to be
called—Chuck’s was one of three shootings that had come in that evening.
I gave his name to the woman behind the counter, and she told
me he was in the intensive care unit, and that only immediate family
could go in. Not wanting to walk again past the men outside, who had
become strangers now in downtown Philadelphia, and not wanting to
leave Chuck in this strange place, I got lost in the wings of the hospiYou
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A Methodological Note
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tal, f nally walking out another way. On the drive home, I pondered
whether Steve and the other guys had ignored me because they thought
I shouldn’t be there, or simply because in white Philadelphia we aren’t
supposed to know each other or stand together. Perhaps they’d just
been preoccupied with their grief, and with f guring out who had shot
Chuck: the conversations men hold when no women are present.
I’d been home for a while when Mike called to say that the cops had
cleared them of the sidewalk and told Chuck’s uncle and girlfriend,
who were waiting inside, that they had to go home. He said they’d all
gone back to Chuck’s mother’s house, where they would be sitting with
her until there was any news. Then he asked me if I had an update on
Chuck’s condition.
“I’m at home.”
“You left?”
“You told me not to be there.”
Mike made a noise to indicate that I didn’t understand anything,
and hung up. His surprise and annoyance that I’d left was enough encouragement;
I drove back to the hospital immediately.
Chuck’s family and friends and neighbors had gone. When I asked at
the desk, I was told that Chuck was no longer in the ICU; he was in the
NICU, the neuro intensive care unit. Seeing his description in the computer,
the white woman at the desk raised her eyebrows, and asked if I
knew him. What kind of a question was that? I said yes. She responded:
you know he got shot in the head, right? Yes. She asked who I was, and
without thinking I said what I say when I go to visit Chuck in jail: that
we’re cousins.
A white male doctor in his early thirties walked past the desk at that
point and asked if I needed directions, of ering to walk with me to the
NICU. It was now after 3:00 a.m. We walked together through closed
and empty wings, and I realized that I wasn’t scared of white men if
they were wearing a lab coat. I explained to him that my cousin had
been shot in the head. We moved through a bunch of security doors and
into the NICU, and then right to the door of Chuck’s room.
Chuck lay in the raised bed, his upper body covered in casts, a brace
closed around his neck. His face was propped up high, elongating his
neck, and thick white bandages covered his head. His face was bloated
and his expression unfamiliar, like it belonged to someone else. The
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small TV on the wall played commercials and he was propped up to face
the screen, as if he were watching them. The doctor gave me his card,
saying that if I needed anything I should ask for him.
As soon as the doctor left, the nurse told me I couldn’t be in the
room; Chuck’s condition was very critical. She explained that the family
spokespeople were his uncle and grandfather, that she could release
information only to them. I said okay. But nobody told me to leave, so
I stayed an hour, then another, there in the hallway outside Chuck’s
room. Like I was standing watch.
At around 6:00 a.m., a f ood of people rushed in with machines and
tense expressions, and someone asked where the number to the family
was. I yelled that I had it, and then a nurse picked up a speaker and yelled,
“Code Blue.” A man came in and said he was from the organ- donor program.
He told me that Chuck was brain- dead, his brain not functioning,
the bullet had gone in and split into a dozen pieces, too much blood.
Chuck had no heartbeat and they were trying to get it back, but only for
harvesting the organs because his brain was dead. I wondered: Like a
coma? Can’t they keep him alive with that? I called Miss Linda, Chuck’s
mother; I didn’t know whether Chuck was dead, and if he was I didn’t
want to be the one to tell her. So I handed the phone to the organ guy.
He told her that he was very sorry, but Chuck’s brain was dead, too many
pieces of bullet. He asked her if she’d like the organs to go to people who
needed them, and she said, as I told him she would, that no part of his
body would be going to anybody else.
I was asking to see him and they were telling me no, and I was crying,
squatting on the f oor among the medical staf , and then a guy told me
that Chuck’s heart had stopped. I was texting Mike that he was gone
and that no, they weren’t going to revive him; his brain was dead, it was
just the organs they were hoping to save. Mike said, “Don’t move. I’m
on my way.”
At this point it occurred to me that I’d snuck through a great deal of
hospital that night, and had absolutely no business being there. I asked
Mike via text if Miss Linda was mad that I’d stuck around. Mike said no,
and left it at that.
One of the nurses said I could go into Chuck’s room, so I crouched on
the f oor beside his bed. He’d been cleaned up again, the casts removed,
the blood no longer oozing from his head. I put my arm over the rail and
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A Methodological Note
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held his hand. I cried to him and told him that I loved him. I told him I
was sorry. A kind male nurse came in and gave me a chair, of ered apple
juice. I sat with Chuck for an hour, maybe more. I noticed his watch lying
on a white paper towel on the bedside table, and I remembered the
day he got it, and how much he liked it, even though it was very plain,
and I took it and put it in my purse, in the little pocket, and didn’t tell
anyone.
I was still there like that when Alex and Chuck’s on- again, of – again
girlfriend, Tanesha, entered the room. I immediately gave up my spot
next to Chuck, in the chair the nice nurse had brought in. Tanesha was
talking to him, and telling Alex and me what she saw: how he moved his
arm because he was f ghting, he always was a f ghter; how she had followed
the ambulance here. How could he leave her and leave his girls?
She noticed that his body was beginning to grow stif . Her legs were
shaking and she was crying softly, saying she couldn’t go to work today.
Said, “You are my baby, why did you leave me?” She said she should
have stayed last night. She told about how she had found Chuck on
the ground with Tim on top of him, how Tim had phoned her and said
come here, so she pulled back around and saw Chuck on the ground.
Tim still at the station, held for questioning. And his brother dead.
Later, the detectives came in: three white guys in plain clothes. Hearing
that I hadn’t been at the scene when Chuck was shot, they rolled
right past me, taking Tanesha and Alex outside the room for questioning.
Alex, who didn’t even live on 6th Street anymore, who now had a
regular job and hadn’t been anywhere nearby when Chuck was shot.
By this time I didn’t know exactly who’d killed Chuck, but I had a
pretty good idea. We’d spent much of every day together in the months
before he’d been shot, and I’d also been around for the previous war. I
was thinking I certainly could’ve helped narrow it down for the police,
if they’d bothered to ask me. But they didn’t, and so I was alone again in
the room with Chuck. I held his hand. I talked to him. Mike texted me
that the detectives grabbed him as he walked into the hospital, before
he could even get up to the room.
Then Tanesha walked back into the room with the detectives, and
said if she heard anything she would tell them. They gave her their card.
They asked her if she thought that Mike knew the shooter’s identity, to
go with her gut. She said she didn’t know. They left.
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Mike got released from questioning and came up to the room and
stood by Chuck’s bed. He looked at Chuck and gave a f rm nod of his
head and said, “It’s cool, it’s cool,” meaning: this will be handled; your
death will be avenged. Then while looking down at Chuck, Mike cried a
heaving, breathy cry. The sound of a person without much practice in
crying, I thought.
Sitting in the room around Chuck’s bed, we talked about bringing
Reggie home from county jail on a funeral furlough. I said that if Reggie
came home, all he was gonna do was go shoot someone, and Alex
said, “Please—somebody gon’ die regardless,” and Mike nodded his
head in agreement, and Tanesha, too. Alex counted one, two, three, four
with his f ngers. The number of people who would die. Then we talked
about where the hell Chuck’s baby- mom Brianna was. We thought she
might have been on a trip out of town, because Chuck’s mom had the
girls at her house for the week. Had anyone gotten in touch with Brianna?
Did she know?
More of Chuck’s friends and neighbors have come in the room at this
point. We didn’t think Chuck’s mother would come to the hospital—
Miss Linda didn’t like to leave the house except for her son’s court
dates, and in her state of shock and grief, she likely wouldn’t make it
over. After a couple of hours, some medical person came in and told
us they’d have to take the body away. I walked outside with this guy
and explained that we were waiting on Chuck’s mother, and that they
couldn’t move the body until she arrived. He agreed to keep Chuck in
the room for a couple more hours.
In the end, Miss Linda did come, accompanied by four young men
from the block. She walked into the room and said quietly, “Let me see
my son.” I was in the waiting room across the hall with Alex, who by
that time was snoring loudly. He’d been up since six o’clock the morning
before.
Then Reggie called my phone from jail.
“Reggie, do you know?”
“Yeah, I know. I got to come home to see my brother go in the dirt.”
I went into Chuck’s room, now crowded with people. Miss Linda was
sitting on the bed holding her son’s hand, whimpering softly and rocking
back and forth. She got on my phone with Reggie and said, “Uh huh,
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uh huh, uh huh, no, it was one bullet,” then the phone died, and she
passed it back to me. I pictured Reggie sitting in his cell grieving for his
brother. I was squatting on the f oor next to Chuck’s neighbor, who was
sitting on the chair. I’d asked the kind nurse to bring in apple juice and
more chairs. Tanesha was on the other side of the bed, another neighbor
sat on the f oor, and two other guys perched on the windowsill.
Miss Linda lay on top of her son and moaned, “Oh baby, oh my
baby.” She held his hand and repeated, “Squeeze my hand, baby. Chuck,
squeeze my hand.” She rubbed his arms rapidly and forcefully, as if to
warm his body. This made me cry and Tanesha cry. Then abruptly Miss
Linda got up and walked out. I followed her and held out my arms, and
she wept loudly into me. Tanesha came out and got on the other side
of her, and the two of us held her up. Miss Linda said she wanted to go.
Tanesha of ered to drive her, and asked me if I would walk them down
to the car. We were still holding Miss Linda up on either side. Miss
Linda then asked if I would come immediately to the house. I said yes.
I’d meant to follow Tanesha in my own car, but somehow I couldn’t
seem to leave Chuck. After putting quarters in the meter, I came back
to his room in time to see them putting him into the body bag, folding
him to one side then the other, a tag on his big toe. I waited for an hour
down at the ER to try to get his stuf back, but they told me that his
belongings had been brought to the police station, held for evidence.
Because of the nature of his death, they would be taking Chuck’s body
to the city morgue.
I charged my phone in the car, and as soon as it turned on, Miss
Linda called and asked if I was on my way. I said yes. She said that if I
couldn’t be there, I should give the money I’d promised her for Pampers
to Tanesha, who was looking after Chuck’s daughters until their
mother came back. She was worried about Chuck’s daughters. She was
without any of her sons. Reggie at CFCF on $10,000 bail. Chuck dead.
And Tim, f fteen, who had seen him die, still held at the police station.
Did he even know yet that Chuck hadn’t made it?
In the car I fought my own anxiety, the anxiety that always came
with large social gatherings on 6th Street. I remembered Mike telling
me that I couldn’t stand with the guys on the corner outside the hospital,
and going into the ER to work out some alternate role, to be helpful
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in my dif erence. I remembered Chuck’s girlfriend throwing daggers at
me with her eyes, clearly suspicious about our relationship but unwilling
to come right out and ask me about it. What right had I to be at the
hospital, the only person permitted to remain through the night? And
also the only one to escape police questioning? Chuck’s thirty friends
and relatives had been sent away, and his f fteen- year- old brother, who
had seen him fall, and who loved him like a son loves a father, held
for hours and hours at the police station. Had watched him fall, had
crouched over him screaming before running away, Tanesha said. But
I couldn’t leave Chuck alone at the hospital. I wanted to be there if he
made it through the night, and I wanted to be there if he died.
Late that afternoon, the police released Tim. He told us he hadn’t
eaten or slept in the full fourteen hours they’d held him. For the rest of
the day, he barely spoke, his eyes far away. In the evening we gathered
on Miss Linda’s porch steps, and Tim sat down and looked out at nothing,
tears slowly pooling and rolling down his cheeks. He brushed them
away the same way he brushed away f ies. Later, Tanesha and Mike and I
took him to a diner for pancakes and cheese grits and turkey bacon. As
we were leaving, I passed him the watch, its face now quite scratched,
and he nodded a silent thank- you and put it on his wrist.
* * *
In the days leading up to the funeral, Miss Linda phoned me to come
sit with her at the house and sometimes to stay the night. But she kept
having to defend the presence of a white girl to the larger family and to
people from out of town, and for this I felt ashamed and sorry. Chuck’s
father’s family demanded that Miss Linda get the house fumigated before
the funeral so the guests wouldn’t be subjected to the cockroaches
and f ies lining the walls while they ate and mourned. When the fumigator
guy arrived with his tank of insecticide, he demanded to know
outright what a white woman like me was doing in the house, prompting
Miss Linda to yell what had become her usual answer: “That’s my
fucking white girl. Is it a problem?” Chuck’s smallest daughter, only
six months old, was happy to get passed from woman to woman, but
instantly began crying when I held her, prompting massive embarrassment
on my part and a mixture of sympathy and curiosity from others.
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Didn’t I know how to take care of a baby? Or was she scared to be in a
white woman’s arms? Another child—the daughter of a cousin whom
I’d never met before—spotted me and immediately leaped onto my lap,
then clung to my leg for the rest of the evening. Her mother tried to pull
her of , which made her start to cry, prompting her mother to sheepishly
acknowledge: she likes white people.
Compounding the disturbance of my sheer presence were the mistakes
I made in the weeks following Chuck’s death. The f rst error was
hugging Chuck’s father when I saw him at the house. He’d left his wife
and kids to grieve with Miss Linda, an act she regarded as a strong
sign of his continued attachment to her, as well as of his love for his
f rstborn son. She’d banished her longtime boyfriend during his stay,
though he did attend the funeral.
On the f rst night of mourning, we were sitting around the table
outdoors, and Miss Linda was handing out the Rest in Peace T- shirts
she had purchased from a kiosk at the Gallery, a downtown mall that
caters to less af uent Black and white residents of the city. The T- shirts
showed Chuck’s smiling prom picture from the job training program
on the front, with dates of his birth and death below it, along with the
words “Gone but Never Forgotten.”
I saw Chuck’s father walk through the door. We both began to cry,
and as he approached I got up and hugged him. Not a long embrace, a
quick hug of sympathy.
Tanesha promptly informed Miss Linda that I had just hugged
Chuck’s father, and Miss Linda came over to yell at me and at him. He
tried to laugh it of and calm her down, but she didn’t calm down, not
for f fteen minutes. “You know I don’t play that!” she yelled.
How could I have forgotten that it’s simply not appropriate for a
young woman like me to embrace an older man who’s not a family
member? And no less the father of Miss Linda’s f rstborn? To think that
I had compounded Miss Linda’s grief with jealousy and conf ict—I left
that evening and planned to stay away until the day of the funeral. But
Miss Linda phoned me at f ve in the morning to say that she couldn’t
sleep, and asked me to come back and sit with her.
The family didn’t have enough money for the funeral home expenses,
so we called the morgue and asked them to keep the body for a
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Appendix
260
little longer. Days passed, and Reggie didn’t get the furlough—the cops
said it was too risky, given the circumstances of his brother’s death.
* * *
After most of the extra cops had left the neighborhood, the hunt was on
to f nd the man who had killed Chuck. Since Tim had seen the shooter
from only a few feet away, many knew the man’s name and the guys
he hung out with. But the man had gone deep underground—nobody
could f gure out where he was hiding. As Reggie berated his boys each
day from jail—what they weren’t doing, how slow they were to avenge
his brother’s murder, what he would do if he were home—the 6th Street
Boys acquired more and more guns, gearing up for what they assumed
would be coming: part three of the 4th Street War.
Many nights, Mike and Steve drove around looking for the shooter,
the guys who were part of his crew, or women connected to them who
might be able to provide a good lead. On a few of these nights, Mike had
nobody to ride along with him, so I volunteered. We started out around
3:00 a.m., with Mike in the passenger seat, his hand on his Glock as he
directed me around the area. We peered into dark houses and looked at
license plates and car models as Mike spoke on the phone with others
who had information about the 4th Street Boys’ whereabouts.
One night Mike thought he saw a 4th Street guy walk into a Chinese
restaurant. He tucked his gun in his jeans, got out of the car, and hid
in the adjacent alleyway. I waited in the car with the engine running,
ready to speed of as soon as Mike ran back and got inside. But when
the man came out with his food, Mike seemed to think this wasn’t the
man he’d thought it was. He walked back to the car and we drove on.
* * *
During the period surrounding Chuck’s death, I started studying shootouts
in earnest: how and when they happened and what the ongoing
conf icts looked like over time. But I don’t believe that I got into the
car with Mike because I wanted to learn f rsthand about violence, or
even because I wanted to prove myself loyal or brave. I got into the car
because, like Mike and Reggie, I wanted Chuck’s killer to die.
Perhaps Chuck’s death had broken something inside me. I stopped
seeing the man who shot him as a man who, like the men I knew, was
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A Methodological Note
261
jobless and trying to make it at the bottom rung of a shrinking drug
trade while dodging the police. I didn’t care whether this man had
believed his life was threatened when he came upon Chuck outside the
Chinese takeout store, or felt that he couldn’t af ord to back down. I
simply wanted him to pay for what he’d done, for what he’d taken away
from us.
Looking back, I’m glad that I learned what it feels like to want a
man to die—not simply to understand the desire for vengeance in others,
but to feel it in my bones, at an emotional level eclipsing my own
reason or sense of right and wrong. But to go out looking for this man,
in a car with someone holding a gun? At the time and certainly in retrospect,
my desire for vengeance scared me, more than the shootings
I’d witnessed, more even than my ongoing fears for Mike’s and Tim’s
safety, and certainly more than any fears for my own.
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PREFACE
1. US Department of Justice, “Prisoners 1925–81” (Washington, DC: Government
Printing Of ce, 1982), 3.
2. Christopher Uggen, Jef Manza, and Melissa Thompson, “Democracy and
the Civil Reintegration of Criminal Of enders,” Annals of the American Academy
of Political and Social Science 605 (2006): 285, 287–88.
3. US Department of Justice, “Correctional Populations in the United States,
2011” (Washington, DC: Government Printing Of ce, 2012), 1.
4. Roy Walmsley, “World Prison Population List,” 9th ed. (London: International
Centre for Prison Studies, 2011), 3, 5.
5. US Department of Justice, “Correctional Populations in the United States,
2011” (Washington, DC: Government Printing Of ce, 2012), 3.
6. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (New York: Harper and Row,
1973).
7. On the f rst page of his landmark study of social conditions in Philadelphia’s
7th Ward, W. E. B. DuBois included the footnote, “I shall throughout
this study use the term ‘Negro,’ to designate all persons of Negro descent,
although the appellation is to some extent illogical. I shall, moreover, capitalize
the word, because I believe that eight million Americans are entitled
to a capital letter.” I have capitalized the word Black in this work for the
same reasons, and to follow him. W. E. B. DuBois, The Philadelphia Negro
(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1899), 1.
8. The Pew Center on the States, “One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008”
(Washington, DC: Pew Charitable Trusts), 6.
9. Becky Pettit and Bruce Western, “Mass Imprisonment and the Life- Course:
Race and Class Inequality in U.S. Incarceration,” American Sociological Review
69 (2004): 151, 164.
NOTES
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264
Notes to Pages 1–3
INTRODUCTION
1. Katherine Beckett, Making Crime Pay (New York: Oxford University Press,
1997), 73; Jonathan Simon, Governing through Crime (New York: Oxford University
Press, 2007), 241.
2. Katherine Beckett and Theodore Sasson, The Politics of Injustice: Crime and
Punishment in America (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 2000), 5.
3. On the increasing economic hardship and spatial isolation faced by residents
of segregated Black neighborhoods in US cities after 1970, see Loïc
Wacquant and William Julius Wilson, “The Cost of Racial and Class Exclusion
in the Inner City,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social
Science 501 (1989): 8–25.
4. Urban ethnographies have documented laissez- faire and corrupt policing
in segregated Black neighborhoods from the late 1800s up until the 1980s.
On the police turning a blind eye to gambling and prostitution in the Black
community in the 1930s and 1940s, see St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton,
Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City (Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, [1945] 1993), 524. On widespread corruption among
city police during the 1960s, see Jonathan Rubinstein, City Police (New York:
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1973). On the failure of the police to intervene when
disputes arose among Black young men in the 1970s, see Elijah Anderson, A
Place on the Corner (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 2. On police
allowing open- air drug markets to f ourish in Black neighborhoods in the
1980s, see Terry Williams, Crackhouse (Reading, MA: Addison Wesley, 1992),
84. On the de facto system of justice that housing project leaders, drug
dealers, and a few corrupt police of cers enforced in the Chicago projects
in the 1980s and 1990s, see Sudhir Venkatesh, Of the Books: The Underground
Economy of the Urban Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).
5. Albert J. Reiss Jr., “Police Organization in the 20th Century,” Crime and Justice
15 (1992): 56.
6. Data on the number of police of cers in Philadelphia are taken from the
Federal Bureau of Investigation, Uniform Crime Reports (1960 through
2000). Population estimates of Philadelphia are taken from the US Bureau
of the Census.
7. For a detailed investigation of the creation and spread of tough crime policy
and its connection to welfare retrenchment and market deregulation
in the United States, see Loïc Wacquant, Prisons of Poverty (Minneapolis:
Minnesota University Press, 2009).
8. Christopher Wildeman, “Parental Imprisonment, the Prison Boom, and
the Concentration of Childhood Disadvantage,” Demography 46 (2009): 270.
9. David Garland, “Introduction: The Meaning of Mass Imprisonment,” in
Mass Imprisonment: Social Causes and Consequences, ed. David Garland (London:
Sage, 2001), 1–2.
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Notes to Pages 3–15
10. On hyperincarceration specif cally, see Loïc Wacquant, “Race, Class, and
Hyperincarceration in Revanchist America,” Daedalus 139, no. 3 (2010):
74–90. Wacquant’s theoretical and empirical work on the expanding US
penal system and its signif cance for American politics and race relations
was a signif cant inspiration for this volume, and can be sampled in “The
New Peculiar Institution: On the Prison as Surrogate Ghetto,” Theoretical
Criminolog 4, no. 3 (2000): 377–88; “Deadly Symbiosis: When Ghetto and
Prison Meet and Mesh,” Punishment & Society 3, no. 1 (2001): 95–133; Urban
Outcasts: A Comparative Sociolog of Advanced Marginality (Cambridge: Polity
Press, 2008); and Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social
Insecurity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009).
11. Devah Pager, Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 4–5.
12. Bruce Western, Punishment and Inequality in America (New York: Russell Sage
Foundation, 2006), especially 191.
13. Of the 217 households surveyed by Chuck and me in 2007.
14. In these eighteen months of daily f eldwork, there were only f ve days in
which I observed no police activity.
15. W. E. B. DuBois, The Philadelphia Negro (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania
Press [1899] 1996).
16. This key social divide in the Black community can be seen in Anderson’s
earliest book, A Place on the Corner. A further and more formal development
can be found in “Decent and Street Families,” chapter 1 in Code of the Street
(New York: W. W. Norton, 1999), 35–65.
17. Even middle- class, respectable, and well- connected Black people in Philadelphia
are aware of these distinctions to some extent. In 2007, I was asked
to be in a working group writing a policy brief for congressional representative
Chaka Fattah, who was running for mayor. The group was composed
of me and six distinguished Black Philadelphians, including three
attorneys, two long- established community organizers, and one writer for
the Philadelphia Daily News. The f rst meeting was held in a high- rise building
in Center City. When it wrapped, the elevator wasn’t working, so we
took the stairs. Nearing the second f oor, we heard banging noises, and
after a bit of discussion and more listening, we concluded that someone
must be stuck inside the elevator. One of the lawyers suggested we call the
f re department. At this suggestion to alert the authorities, the journalist
quipped, “Hope nobody has any warrants!” There were chuckles all around.
CHAPTER ONE
1. An expression of af rmation, meaning roughly “Did I ever.”
2. The terms young boy and old head have been used in the African AmeriYou
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266
Notes to Pages 18–19
can community at least since the 1970s. The words denote a mentoring
relationship between an older and a younger man or boy, and imply some
level of commitment to the welfare of the young boy from the old head
and some level of deference and duty on the part of the young boy. Elijah
Anderson f rst mentions the term old head in a footnote in A Place on the
Corner (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 225, then elaborates on
the relationship between old heads and young boys in Streetwise: “The old
head/ young boy relationship was essentially one of mentor/ protégé. The
old head might be only two years older than the young boy or as much as
thirty of forty years older; the boy was usually at least ten. The young boy
readily deferred to the old head’s chronological age and worldly experience”
(Elijah Anderson, Streetwise: Race, Class, and Change in an Urban Community
[Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990], 69). Anderson goes
on to explain that traditional old heads who preached respectability are
struggling to maintain their role with a new generation of young men facing
a labor market with few decent jobs available to them. New old heads
who grew up in street life are replacing the traditional male role models
of previous decades (see also Elijah Anderson, Code of the Street [New York:
W. W. Norton, 1999], 145–46). In keeping with Anderson’s discussion, the
old heads around 6th Street mentored young boys not on how to make it in
respectable jobs but on the strategies for survival in a physically dangerous
and heavily policed drug trade.
3. Mike and Chuck sometimes debated whether or not their group of friends
could call themselves a gang or even a collective group at all. Philadelphia
does not have neighborhood or citywide gangs like the Crips or Bloods,
but instead has smaller street- based groups. Mike, Chuck, and their friends
were bound to each other by their identif cation with 6th Street: they
either grew up on the blocks crossing 6th Street or spent time there because
a close relative had moved to the neighborhood. Five of them had
“6th Street” tattooed on their arms, and when they and others wrote me
letters from jail, they would end them with their nicknames, followed
by “6th Street” or “4- ever- 6.” They sometimes called themselves the 6th
Street Boys, the team, the squad, the clique, or the block. At other times,
they forcefully denied they were a collective or group at all, although the
fact that they bothered to discuss this might support their group identity
rather than call it into question. In Scott Brooks’s ethnography of Philadelphia
basketball players in middle and high school, Jermaine explains
the city’s gang system succinctly: “It go by street, really. You got D Street,
they represent they block; H street represent they block; K Street, J Street,
like P Street. We ain’t really got like Bloods and Crips. It just go by your
street” (Scott N. Brooks, Black Men Can’t Shoot [Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 2009], 149).
4. Writing about Philadelphia in the 1960s, Jonathan Rubinstein (City Police
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Notes to Pages 25–31
[New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1973]) discusses the need for police off
cers to show “activity”: the work the of cers do that can be statistically
counted and used informally to judge performance and merit.
CHAPTER TWO
1. It is noteworthy that in pursuits involving men and women, the women
were, at least in all instances I observed, the hunters. That is, they took
on the role of the police. The houses they were attempting to get the man
back to were referred to by both parties as jail or prison, and when the men
did get taken home, they and others referred to their girlfriends’ having
them on lockdown. That is, women were both the police and the wardens.
This game version of the women getting the men home strongly parallels
the serious role women play, both voluntarily and involuntarily, in the
capture and imprisonment of the men in their lives, discussed in the next
chapter.
2. The 111 occasions are not counted separately per man; some escapes from
the police involved two or more people running away.
3. These numbers and descriptions of young men running from the police
come from cases that I observed with my own eyes. I heard recounted far
more chases than I observed, but I did not use these narratives as data.
Comparing my observations with people’s descriptions of the same incidents
retold after the fact, I concluded that there is a bias toward reporting
chases and getaways that involve known people, that involve elaborate attempts
to get away, and that end in the police catching the person. From
my observations, in most cases when men see the police and take f ight,
the police do not chase them at all. Those times the police do give chase,
the man typically gets away rather than gets caught, and his successful getaway
usually does not involve any creative or herculean ef orts. Rather, he
typically gets away in a quite mundane way, because the of cer in pursuit
runs slower or gives up faster. Accounts of chases are interesting in their
own right, but are not good data for learning how men actually go about
running from the police and the resulting success rates.
4. In Philadelphia, the courts can issue an arrest warrant if a person fails
to pay f nes for traf c violations or misses a court date in regard to these
violations. A person can also be imprisoned for failing to pay these moving
violations (Philadelphia County, 33 Pa.B. Doc. No. 2745 and Pa.B. Doc. No.
03–1110).
5. There are many reasons why people do not turn to the law when some
crime has been perpetrated against them; having a precarious legal status
is simply one of them. For a discussion of legal cynicism, see David S. Kirk
and Andrew V. Papachristos, “Cultural Mechanisms and the Persistence
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Notes to Pages 33–46
of Neighborhood Violence,” American Journal of Sociolog 116, no. 4 (2011):
1197–1205.
6. When a wanted man fearful of calling the police instead settles disputes
with his own hands, this violence is secondary deviance—the additional
crime a person commits because he has been labeled a criminal. Here the
warrant serves as the label, creating more reason to commit crime and
get into trouble than the reasons a man already had. For a discussion of
secondary deviance in the labeling literature, see Howard Becker, Outsiders:
Studies in the Sociolog of Deviance (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1963),
chap. 1, and Edwin M. Lemert, Social Patholog : A Systematic Approach to the
Theory of Sociopathic Behavior (New York: McGraw- Hill, 1951), 75.
7. Ronny’s cousin died during the summer, when I was out of town. Reggie
called me a few times on the day of the funeral and gave me these updates.
8. Viviana A. Zelizer, The Purchase of Intimacy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Press, 2007).
9. Prisons and jails of er food, toiletries, clothing, phone cards, books, and
other items through commissary accounts. The families and friends of inmates
may send money to their loved one’s account via the US mail or via
online money transfer companies, such as jpay .com, that charge a fee for
the service. The cash a man has in his pockets when taken into custody
may also be moved into this account. Because the inmate is not permitted
to possess or exchange currency, he or she never sees this money, and can
use it only for items of ered for sale by the prison. Typically, inmates are
permitted to make purchases from their commissary account once a week.
Child support and other court f nes and fees are deducted automatically.
In some jurisdictions, prisons require inmates to purchase their bus ticket
home from this account, so the inmate may scramble to raise these funds
from friends and family before he or she is granted release. This account
is referred to as the books, as in “Can you please put some money on my
books?”
10. Robberies during or after dice games were quite common around 6th Street
at the time I was there. This makes sense, because men would be carrying
large amounts of cash and were typically the sort who would not be able
to go to the police. Chuck once described a two- man team who robbed dice
games as their primary form of income and had been doing so for years,
but I never met them personally.
11. Though wet was popular in many parts of Philadelphia, Steve was the only
member of the 6th Street Boys who took it regularly. Around 6th Street,
wet came in the form of dark crystallized leaves with a little shine sold in
small glass vials and smoked in a cigarette or cigar wrapper (called a blunt).
Its chemical composition is not at all clear to me, but I believe it involved
tea or marijuana leaves soaked in embalming f uid and mixed with PCP.
12. Paying for a witness’s hotel stay on the night before court is a typical way
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269
Notes to Pages 56–63
to get a person not to show up. It serves as a way to compensate him or her,
but more important, it ensures that the person won’t be home if the police
should try to drag him or her in to testify.
CHAPTER THREE
1. While conducting f eldwork, I became attentive to the particular moment
that women discover a partner or son is wanted by the police by reading
studies of people receiving life- altering news in hospitals and doctors’ off
ces. There, family members learn that a loved one has a disease, not a
warrant for arrest, but the shock and confusion are common to both, and
the news may have a similarly transformative ef ect on relationships. For
two excellent studies of hospital patients and their families receiving lifealtering
news, see David Sudnow, Passing On: The Social Organization of Dying
(Englewood Clif s, NJ: Prentice- Hall, 1967), chap. 5; and Doug Maynard,
Bad News, Good News: Conversational Order in Everyday Talk and Clinical Settings
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 9.
2. This conversation was recorded with permission on my iPhone. Some of –
topic pieces of the discussion were omitted.
3. The way others tell it, Mike’s mother didn’t exactly tell his father to stop
coming around—he did that all on his own.
4. The term rider has been discussed by Jef Duncan- Andrade, who uses the
spelling rida. He def nes it as a “popular cultural term that refers to people
who can be counted on in extreme duress.” Jef Duncan- Andrade, “Gangstas,
Wankstas, and Ridas: Def ning, Developing, and Supporting Ef ective
Teachers in Urban Schools,” International Journal of Qualitative Studies
in Education 20, no. 6 (2007): 623.
5. There are few systematic studies of the legal and f nancial obligations incurred
by people moving through the courts. In a unique study, Harris,
Evans, and Beckett quantify the f nancial burden for a sample of people
in Washington State. They f nd that those who have been convicted of
misdemeanor or felony charges will owe on average more than $11,000 to
the courts over their life span, and likely will pay signif cantly more than
that because of the interest accruing on their legal debts. See Alexes Harris,
Heather Evans, and Katherine Beckett, “Drawing Blood from Stones: Monetary
Sanctions, Punishment and Inequality in the Contemporary United
States,” American Journal of Sociolog 115 (2010): 1753–99.
6. Gresham Sykes, Society of Captives (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Press, [1958] 2007), 63–83.
7. From a taped interview with two former members of the Philadelphia Warrant
Unit, 2010.
8. These techniques as I describe them represent the women’s perspective on
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Notes to Pages 65–89
the police’s ef orts to secure their cooperation. For a contemporary treatment
of police work from the of cers’ perspective, see Peter Moskos, Cop in
the Hood: My Year Policing Baltimore’s Eastern District (Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press, 2008).
9. In Philadelphia, a man cannot visit a jail where he has been an inmate for
six months after his release. In practice, this paperwork takes quite a while
to go through, so that men who have ever been an inmate at a county jail
are often denied visitation rights to any of the local jails. Prisons also run
the names of visitors, making it dangerous for men with warrants or other
legal entanglements to go there for visits. A third barrier to visitation is the
canine unit, which is occasionally stationed in the prison or jail parking
lot. Though visitors can refuse to allow the dogs to search their vehicles,
they will be denied entrance to the facility.
10. For a detailed account of evictions among poor families in the United
States, see Matthew Desmond, “Disposable Ties and the Urban Poor,”
American Journal of Sociolog 117 (2012): 1295–1335; and Matthew Desmond,
“Eviction and the Reproduction of Urban Poverty,” American Journal of Sociolog
118 (2012): 88–133.
11. Research suggests these are quite realistic fears. Incarceration increases
the likelihood of infectious disease and stress- related illnesses, according
to Michael Massoglia, “Incarceration as Exposure: The Prison, Infectious
Disease, and Other Stress- Related Illnesses,” Journal of Health and Social Behavior
49 (2008): 56–71. The same researcher has shown that incarceration
causes long- term negative health ef ects. See Michael Massoglia, “Incarceration,
Health, and Racial Disparities in Health,” Law and Society Review
42 (2008): 275–306.
12. Of course, that Miss Linda was good at protecting Chuck, Reggie, and Tim
from the police may also have contributed to the frequency of police raids,
as her f rm protectionist stance likely encouraged her sons’ continued residency
in the house. Other neighbors explained her ability to ride by the
fact that in comparison with other women, Miss Linda had little to lose.
Since her father owned the house, it wasn’t as easy to evict her. Since the
house was already in quite poor condition, she didn’t fear the destruction
caused by the raid as much as other women did. And since she held no job,
the police couldn’t threaten to notify her employer.
13. Michelle never admitted to this; Mike’s lawyer showed his mother and me
the statement at the arraignment.
14. For a nuanced account of the many excitements and pleasures to be found
in breaking the law, see Jack Katz, Seductions of Crime: Moral and Sensual Attractions
in Doing Evil (New York: Basic Books, 1990).
15. For an illuminating account of the complex ways in which women view the
conf nement of a loved one, including some surprising upsides to romantic
involvement with a man sitting in prison, see Megan Comfort, Doing Time
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Notes to Pages 91–98
Together: Love and Family in the Shadow of the Prison (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 2007), chap. 5, especially 126–27, 174.
CHAPTER FOUR
1. Victor Rios, writing about Oakland, California, documents young people’s
ef orts to push back against an expansive and putative criminal justice
system, and describes young men’s resistance to their criminalization. See
Victor M. Rios, Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys (New York:
New York University Press, 2011). Here young people are not resisting so
much as making use of the police, the courts, and the prisons for their own
purposes: they appropriate and manipulate criminal justice personnel and
process for their own ends. This is perhaps more akin to the subtle transgressions
and sub rosa dissent long documented in repressive regimes,
from slaves on plantations—see John Blassingame, The Slave Community:
Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press,
[1972] 1979)—to peasants in authoritarian states—see James C. Scott,
Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven, CT:
Yale University Press, 1987).
2. Georg Rusche and Otto Kirchheimer discuss the pressing problem that
early politicians and prison designers faced of making prisons suf ciently
unpleasant as to deter even the lowest strata of society from crime. Punishment
and Social Structure (New York, 1939), 105–6. For a thorough treatment
of their work, see David Garland, Punishment and Modern Society: A Study in
Social Theory (University of Chicago Press, 1990), 94.
3. Jack Katz discusses how would- be robbers risk that a victim may f ght back.
Randall Collins refers to this as the robber’s failure to establish situational
dominance. See Jack Katz, Seductions of Crime: Moral and Sensual Attractions in
Doing Evil (New York: Basic Books, 1990); Randall Collins, Violence: A MicroSociological
Theory (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 185.
4. See W. E. B. DuBois, The Philadelphia Negro (Philadelphia: University of
Pennsylvania Press [1899] 1996); St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, Black
Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, [1945] 1993); Elliot Liebow, Tally’s Corner (Boston, MA: Little,
Brown, 1967); Carol Stack, All Our Kin: Strategies for Survival in a Black Community
(New York: Harper & Row, 1974); Kathryn Edin and Laura Lein,