In the early nineties I was mugged in the South Bronx. I was 24 years old. As I stood on the subway platform, having just missed a train back to Manhattan where I lived, a man a few years older than me approached and asked if I knew what time it was. When I told him apologetically that I didn’t wear a watch, he produced a switchblade, held it up to my neck and said: “Don’t even think about screaming.”
Trust me when I tell you that I wasn’t thinking about anything except that knife.
I gave him what I had, which wasn’t much — ten dollars and an aquamarine ring. The ring was of tremendous sentimental value to me but probably very little to him. He pocketed the items then ran off with another warning not to scream. When he was out of view, I ran to the ticket agent and asked him to call the police. About ten minutes later two uniformed police officers showed up, white, middle aged. One of them had a thick bottlebrush mustache. The other was completely bald. They listened patiently as I told them what happened and described the man who mugged me — tall, thin, well-dressed, black, twenties. They put me in the back of their cruiser and we drove around the neighborhood looking for him. Face after face passed by that window, but none of them belonged to my mugger. By the time I’d looked through the mugshot books at the precinct, I’d begun to forget what he looked like. Now, I can’t even picture his face.
I remember feeling a tremendous sense of gratitude for the police that day, and for a long while thereafter. I was a young woman who often ventured out into the city on my own. Knowing the police were always nearby made me feel safe, protected. Even that day as we drove around the South Bronx, which I knew to be a “dangerous” neighborhood, I was never in any actual danger, because I had those two police officers to protect me.
Now imagine what it must have looked like to the predominantly black neighborhood we were surveying that day. A white woman, driven by two white cops, eyeballing every black man she sees in the hope of making an arrest. Everyone we passed was a suspect. All I had to do was say “That’s him,” and a young man’s life would change. What must that feel like?
In a personal essay in The Federalist, Edward Johnson, describes what it feels like to be on both sides of that window. A native of Tulsa, Oklahoma, Johnson, who is black, has seen every black male member of his biological family serve time. What’s more, each one of them has experienced some form of police misconduct, from unlawful search and seizure to false charges to outright police brutality. One day he witnessed his younger brother being pistol-whipped in the head by a police officer in front of a group of police officers, as if for their entertainment. He writes: “It was the first time I encountered a blatant wrong and injustice, and I felt utterly powerless to help remedy it. Who could I call — more police? I cannot articulate the depths at which that kind of wrong hurts a person. It is felt in the soul.”
Johnson, who was adopted by a white family, learned early on that there were two systems of justice. “I knew I was more likely to be treated harshly during encounters with law enforcement if I was on ‘the black (or impoverished) side’ of town,” he writes. And yet, despite first hand experience of this inequality, Johnson chose to become a police officer. The decision was met with cheers by his white adoptive family who, like me, had only ever had positive interactions with the police. But his black biological family had a very different reaction: “When I graduated (with top honors), I told my grandmother that I was a police officer. With no emotion on her face and in a tone of thinly veiled disappointment, almost under her breath she replied, “I don’t know why you wanna go do that for.”
How did we get here? How have we become a nation where the same criminal justice system is embraced by some and feared by others? This disconnect, this fundamental discrepancy in both the perception of criminal justice as well as its actual lived experience is one of the defining characteristics of our time. Edward Johnson’s younger brother was not killed that day by the officer who pistol-whipped him. But others have not been so lucky. Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice were all victims of a kind of policing that is all too common “on ‘the black (or impoverished) side’ of town.” Plenty of police officers, like Edward Johnson, are willing to admit that there is a problem. And why wouldn’t there be? As Johnson writes: “Lost respect for the law increases the likelihood of breaking it and disrespecting its ambassadors (cops), which increases the likelihood they will act harshly and outside the scope of justice, which reaffirms and increases loss of respect for the law, and so downhill it goes.”
So why are so many white Americans, including our president, so hostile to the Black Lives Matter movement? Why the reluctance to face up to a problem that is so obvious? My suspicion is that as a society, we are overly invested in maintaining a steady supply of bogeymen. Fear is useful. It is the currency of politics, especially Right Wing politics. Much of white fear is completely manufactured. A person of color is far more likely to be a victim of violent crime than a white person. But keeping white people afraid of people of color allows the current state of unequal justice to continue and, not insignificantly, justifies a growing private prison industry.
We are trapped in this vicious cycle and have been for a long time. The day of my mugging in the South Bronx was at the cusp of what was supposed to have been The Dawn of the Superpredator. The crack epidemic was underway and sociologists and other experts were preparing the nation for its expected byproduct: hordes of violent young black men, neglected by their crack-abusing parents and ready to wreak havoc. I may have even had this notion in mind when my mugger flashed that switchblade at me.
But a strange thing happened on the way to the Superpredator. He never arrived. Instead, what we saw, nationwide, was the largest drop in violent crime in history. Nobody knows for sure why this happened, though there are many theories. It was not, as is often claimed, the result of stepped up policing, otherwise known as the Broken Windows Theory, popularized by William Bratton and Rudy Giuliani. We know this because crime dropped everywhere regardless of policing tactics.
And how did we react to this unexpected good news? Did we celebrate? Did we re-allocate funds away from policing and toward education and community development? No. We built more prisons. We imposed Three Strikes You’re Out laws. We instituted mandatory minimum sentences, even for non-violent offenders. In short, we ignored the facts and found ways to lock up as many Americans as possible, a disproportionate number of them black and brown. We are a nation addicted to crime and if there is a shortage of criminals, we will create new ones.
Imagine what might have been. Imagine if we had taken a moment to celebrate the fact that crime was dropping instead of hunting around for new bogeymen. Imagine if instead of finding new justifications for locking people up, we found new ways to expand opportunity. It wouldn’t even take courage to reverse this course of unequal justice. It would only take common sense, and the willingness to treat all of America’s citizens equally, which we should be doing anyway.
And yet even now, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was a prosecutor at the height of the crack epidemic in the eighties, has signaled that he wants to return to that era’s War on Drugs mentality with harsh mandatory minimum sentences even for low-level, non-violent drug offenders. And he has the support of President Trump.
And so downhill it goes.
That day in the police cruiser as I watched those faces pass by me in this “black (or impoverished) side of town,” I lacked the words for the creeping sense of unease I felt. Dread, guilt, frustration, shame. It was all of these things, and yet none of them exactly. I wanted to find my mugger because it seemed the like right thing to do. But I feared finding him too. I felt deeply that there was something wrong with this picture, even if I couldn’t name it. It’s only now, more than twenty year later that I understand what I was feeling that day. It was despair. I had thought we were further along the path of equality than we were. What I saw that day was the gaping distance between me and the people on the other side of that window. More than twenty years later that distance still remains.
It could have been different.