Poor. Black youth and the criminal justice system.

At City Hall June 25th with BBRLM

This was recently printed in thespec.com (July 2nd 2015).

Thanks to technology and digital media, the whole world witnessed the brutalization of a 15-year-old Texan, black girl and her friends at a pool party, by a white police officer in an appalling fit of fury.

Whatever their “crime” was (being black in a white space?), there can be no justification for the severity of the officer’s and that of his fellows’ reaction.

Not long ago, while waiting for my bus home, I too watched an arrest of a young, black woman down town. One officer on a bike, the other in a cruiser were demanding that she get out of the car she was driving, and that the three other (white) passengers remain in the vehicle. From the front seat, the woman’s partner screamed at the officers: “Why are you arresting her? Is it because she’s black?”

As handcuffs were slipped on, I hurried over to see what was going on. The partner (who was now out of the car) explained to me that they had stopped outside the building to pick up a friend from work. The friend was putting on her seatbelt as they were pulling away, at which point they were pulled over. Why wasn’t she even being permitted to say goodbye?  “You wouldn’t treat me that way, like shit.” She told them that while she herself, had been arrested many times, she’d never been handcuffed.

She was voicing what all people of colour know: white kids will get better treatment from police than a black kid will, no matter the crime. White kids may not even get arrested for the same crime.

In the cruiser, the black youth, sweat pouring down her brow on this sweltering day in May, pleaded with her partner to stay calm.

As we waited for York region officers to come pick up the girl, (apparently there was a warrant out for her arrest—petty theft), a more pressing cause for police intervention occurred before our eyes: two cars crashed. The officers looked uneasily over to the accident but remained with the young people, as passersby called out to them to go over and help. “Cruisers are on the way,” the police reassured passersby.

A few buses later, we were all still standing around, and I continued chatting with the two other youth who were also now out of the vehicle. The partner spoke on the phone to their lawyer.  It was obvious that the criminal justice system was all too familiar to these young people.

When the officers eventually released the girl (there was no manpower available to pick her up, and no real reason to detain her since she’d been in court just days ago), the young people spoke amiably, openingly with the police, the recently released woman now leaning over the top of the cruiser door.

Their vulnerability struck me to the core; like plaintive children talking to a parent, they seemed to beg understanding and acknowledgement of their suffering and hardships. So young, I thought, what hope? What are we offering young people like these to help them rise out of a cycle of petty crime, neglect, poverty, abuse, exacerbated by racial profiling? When do we start giving a care about these young people whose futures we are robbing?

Because it’s time for us to see all young people as having the potential to contribute positively to society, and helping them move towards that position, rather than viewing some groups as trouble in the making.  We need to spend more dollars on supporting youth and less on incarcerating them for the slightest wrongdoings.

Sociologist Alice Goffman says in a TED talk concerning the incarceration of US youth of colour and poor kids that not only are they being sent to prison, but they are also being saddled with court fees, probation, parole restrictions, halfway houses and such.

“Right now, we’re asking kids who live in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods, who have the least amount of family resources, who are attending the country’s worst schools, who are facing the toughest time in the labor market, who are living in neighborhoods where violence is an everyday problem, we’re asking these kids to walk the thinnest possible line — to basically never do anything wrong,” Goffman says.

It seems to me, we are asking far too much.

Talking with youth of colour, poor kids, LGBTQ kids and their allies here in Hamilton, I’ve learned about the daily fear they experience of being apprehended by police. There is no way you can convince these youth that policing is about public safety.

So how can we change this around?

Ontario’s controversial move to curb arbitrary carding practices is hopeful. In New York, there is talk of amnesty, simply doing away with low level arrest warrants that are clogging up the system and targeting people who simply don’t have the money to pay for fines, etc.

At a recent deputation to the Hamilton police services oversight board, activists asked that street police checks be abolished.

These are steps in the right direction.


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