The Patterns of Punishment in Oakland
What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? … Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?
—Langston Hughes, “Montage of a Dream Deferred,” 1951
Just as children were tracked into futures as doctors, scientists, engineers, word processors, and fast-food workers, there were also tracks for some children, predominantly African American and male, that led to prison.
—Ann Arnett Ferguson, Bad Boys, 2000
Fifteen-year-old Slick, a Latino kid born and raised in Oakland, showed me the “hotspots”: street intersections and sidewalks where life-altering experiences linger, shaping young people’s perspectives of the area. As he walked me through the neighborhood, he pointed to the corner of International Boulevard and 22nd Avenue, where a few months before his best friend took a bullet in the lung during a drive-by shooting. He watched his homey die slowly, gasping like a waterless fish, gushes of blood inundating his respiratory system. We approached the corner of 23rd Avenue and International, and Slick warned me that “at any given
moment something could jump off, fools could roll up, and shit could go down.” He did not have to tell me; I had been on these streets in the past as a resident and as a delinquent and later on in life as an ethnographer, observing the young people who spent so much of their lives on these streets. We stopped at a mobile “taco truck” to order a burrito. Standing on the corner watching cars and people pass by, Slick continued to “break it down” for me: “Just the other day, mothafuckas rolled up on me and pulled out a strap to my head. … Fuck it, today is my day, … so I threw up my [gang] sign and said, ‘Fuck you.’ … The thang [gun] got stuck or some shit, ’cause I saw him pulling but nothing came out.” Slick seemed to pretend to show no trauma as he told me the story, but his lips quivered and his hands shook ever so slightly as he grabbed his soda from the taco vendor.
As we took our first bite and wiped our hands on our baggy jeans, an Oakland Police Department patrol car pulled into the taco-truck lot. Two officers emerged from the car and ordered us to sit on the curb: “Hands on your ass!” Slick looked down at his burrito, and I realized we were being asked to throw our meal away after only taking one bite. The officer yelled again. Our fresh burritos splattered on the chewing-gum-dotted concrete, and we sat on the curb with our hands under our thighs. An officer grabbed Slick’s arms and handcuffed him. Another officer did the same to me. One of them lifted us up by the metal links holding the cuffs together, placing excruciating pressure on our shoulder joints.
As they searched us, I asked the officers, “What’s going on?” They provided no response. They took out a camera and took pictures of Slick and me. “Who is this guy?” they asked Slick, pointing to me. Slick told them, “He’s from UC Berkeley. He’s cool, man!” The officers unlocked our handcuffs, told Slick to stay out of trouble, and got in their cars and drove off. The officers had noticed me in the neighborhood and had asked many of the boys about me. They knew I was some kind of college student trying to help the boys out. One of them later told me that I was doing the boys no good by studying them and advocating for them. The officer told me that I was enabling them by harboring their criminality and that I should be arrested for conspiracy.
I looked around and saw that a crowd of pedestrians and taco-truck patrons had gathered a few feet away from us. I made eye contact with a Mexican man in his fifties wearing a cowboy hat. He nodded his head with a disappointed look and said, “Pinches cholos” [fucking gangsters] and walked away. I turned to Slick and said, “You OK?” He replied, “That happens all the time. They got nothin’ on me.” “How often does it happen?” I asked. “Shit! Come on, Vic! You know wassup. It happens every day,” Slick replied.
This kind of interaction with the police was common in my observations and in the accounts of Slick and the other boys I studied. All forty of the boys whom I studied in depth, and most of the other seventy-eight youths whom I informally interviewed and observed, reported negative interactions with police. Only eleven of the one hundred and eighteen youth reported any positive experiences with police. The majority of interactions between police and youth that I observed over the course of three years were negative.
A paradox of control took precedent: based on informal conversations with officers, I found that many of them seemed to sympathize with the poverty and trauma that many young people experienced; however, in an attempt to uphold the law and maintain order, officers often took extreme punitive measures with youths perceived as deviant or criminal. However, police officers were not the only adults in the community involved in criminalizing young men like Slick. As school personnel, community workers, and family members attempted to find solutions to rule breaking, defiance, crime, and violence, they seemed to rely on criminal justice discourses and metaphors to deal with these young “risks.” In this social order where young people placed at risk were treated as potential criminals, social relations, worldviews, and creative responses were often influenced by this process of criminalization. In order to understand the process by which young people came to understand their environment as punitive and to observe, firsthand, how criminalization operated in their lives, I shadowed a group of young men for three years. This chapter describes this process and begins to show the way that ubiquitous criminalization operated in some of their lives.
Leaving the corner where the police had stopped us, Slick and I continued to walk through his neighborhood. As we walked away from the avenue and through an alley to Slick’s house, he told me he started evading school at age fourteen in fear for his own life, threatened by the same boys who killed his friend. Slick told me that teachers treated him differently after his friend’s death, as if he were responsible for the shooting. When he arrived late to class a few weeks after the murder, his teacher picked up the phone and called the police officer stationed at the school. She told the police that Slick was a threat to her and to other students. The officer took Slick to his office and told him that he was on the verge of dying, just like his friend. Slick was sent to the vice principal. “The vice principal told me, ‘I have to kick you out because you have missed too many school days,’” Slick explained.
I found that schools pushed out boys who had been victimized. Six of the boys in this study reported being victims of violence. All six of them returned to school after being victimized, and all six described a similar process. The boys believed that the school saw them as plotting to commit violence as a means to avenge their victimization. As such, the school commonly accused the boys of truancy for the days that they missed recovering from violent attacks and used this as justification to expel them from school. Four of the boys were expelled from school under truancy rules shortly after their attacks. After being expelled from school, feeling a sense of “no place to go,” Slick spent most school hours hanging out with friends in front of the same intersection where his homeboy was gunned down, risking further victimization.
On our way to Slick’s house, we took a break, sitting on his neighbor’s squeaky wooden steps. As we began to talk, the resident opened the door and told us to leave “or else.”
“Or else what?” asked Slick.
“Or else I will call the police!”
Slick cussed out the neighbor, murmuring out his frustration. The neighbor slammed his front door. Nervous about another encounter
with police, we walked away. Defeated by the degrading events of the day, we continued walking toward his house, our heads bowed and mouths shut, both of us silenced. Slick and I sat on his steps until 7 p.m., when his mother arrived. She greeted me. She knew me as the “estudiante
” [student] who was trying to help her child.1
I talked with Slick’s mother, Juliana, for about an hour. She told me her frustrations with Slick. I listened attentively and told her that I would try to convince him to join Youth Leadership Project, a local grassroots youth activist organization that helped young people involved in gangs transform their lives by becoming community organizers.
I drove home, to 35th Avenue, in the same neighborhood, where I had taken residence to be closer to my research participants. I wrote some field notes and opened up Policing the Crisis,
a book about how the media and politicians create scapegoats to deal with economic crises by sensationalizing crimes committed by black people.2
I read about moral panics, those events or people—for example, black muggers, AIDS, pregnant teens, gang members—deemed a threat to mainstream society. According to the book, moral panics are often constructed as a result of economic and cultural crises. Often, it is the media and politicians who become central players in determining who or what becomes the moral panic of the time. They generate support for an increase in spending on crime or a decrease in spending on welfare for the “undeserving” poor.3
I asked myself whether Slick and his homies had become the moral panics in this community, and if it was this attention on their perceived criminal behavior which had led to the intense policing and surveillance that I observed and that the youth spoke about more broadly.4
This is where my research questions for this project became clear: How do surveillance, punishment, and criminal justice practices affect the lives of marginalized boys? What patterns of punishment do young people such as Slick encounter in their neighborhoods in Oakland? What effects do these patterns of punishment have on the lives of the young men in this study? Specifically, how do punitive encounters with police, probation officers, teachers and administrators, and other authority figures shape the meanings that young people create about themselves and about their obstacles, opportunities, and future aspirations?
Shadowing Marginalized Youth
To answer my questions about criminalization, I observed and interviewed young males who lived in communities heavily affected by criminal justice policies and practices. Delinquent inner-city youths, those at the front line of the war on crime and mass incarceration, were the best source of data for this study. Their experiences spoke directly to the impact of punitive policies and practices prevalent in welfare and criminal justice institutions. I got to know forty Black and Latino boys who were between the ages of fourteen and seventeen when I began the study. I interviewed them, conducted focus groups with them, met with their friends and their families, advocated for them at school and in court, and hung out with them at parks, street corners, and community centers during the course of three years, from 2002 to 2005. Thirty of these young men had been arrested and were on probation. Ten of them had not been arrested but were related to or closely associated with boys who had been arrested.
I shadowed these young men as they conducted their everyday routine activities, such as walking the streets, “hanging out,” and participating in community programs. I walked the streets and rode the bus with them from home to school and as they met with friends or went to the community center after school. There were days when I met them in front of their doorsteps at 8 a.m. and followed them throughout the day until they returned home late at night. I met their parents, probation officers, and friends. I attended court with their parents when the boys were arrested. Shadowing allowed me access to these young people’s routine activities, exposing me to major patterns prevalent in their lives, including criminalization.
Shadowing enabled me to observe regular punitive encounters and the way these became manifest in the lives of these youth in a range of different social contexts, across institutional settings. Interviews with the boys supplemented my observations and allowed me to hear their perspectives on these patterns of punishment. By getting to hear these young people’s definitions of criminalization, I was able to conceptualize aspects of their lived experiences that would be difficult to see otherwise. I decided to make young people’s perspectives central to my understanding of crime, punishment, and justice in their community. Sociologist Dorothy Smith explains that “we may not rewrite the other’s world or impose upon it a
conceptual framework that extracts from it what fits with ours. … Their reality … is the place from which inquiry begins.”5
I took this goal to heart in conducting this study. The voices of these young men supplement the scholarship, much of it theoretical, that attempts to explain the expansion and social consequences of the punitive state.6
These observations and voices would help me to test these theories on the ground and, if needed, to develop new ways to understand the consequences of the punitive state on marginalized populations.
Although a study of authority figures and social-control agents—school personnel, police, politicians, and other adults who hold a stake in overseeing the well-being of young people—could have provided a broader array of perspectives on punishment, I decided to focus on the voices of the youth. This is partly because I found that the perspectives of social-control agents were commonly represented in the media and institutional discourses and practices. For example, in the news media, when youth crime becomes an issue, police are often the “experts” who are interviewed to discuss their perspectives on why young people commit crime. However, the perspectives and experiences of the youths experiencing this violence, criminalization, and punishment are rarely taken into account in public discourse.
Readers may consider the accounts of the youth in this study to be one-sided. I urge readers to eradicate a dichotomous, either/or, perspective and instead focus on how young people come to understand their social world as a place that sees them and treats them as criminal risks. Even if adults make individual attempts to treat young people with empathy and respect, some youngsters have come to believe that their environment is systematically punitive. How do young people come to believe that “the system” is against them? I could provide interviews with police officers that discuss their desires to help these young men. However, the point of this project is to show the consequences of social control on the lives of young people regardless of good or bad intentions. A sociological cliché clarifies my point: “If men [and women] define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”7
If young people believe that the social ecology in which they grow up is punitive and debilitating, then they will experience the world as such. If institutions of social control believe that all young people follow the “code of the street”8
defiant or delinquent poor, urban youth of color are “superpredators”—heartless, senseless criminals with no morals—then policies, programs, and interactions with marginalized youths will be based on this false information.9
In order to create a study that would uncover the process of criminalization that young people experienced, I combined the methods of critical criminology with urban ethnography to develop an understanding of the punitive state through the lens of marginalized populations. Both methods offered me tools essential to understanding and documenting the lives of the young men I studied. Critical criminology, the study of crime in relation to power, which explicitly examines crime as a socially constructed phenomenon, allowed me to bring to light the mechanisms responsible for the plight of marginalized male youths in the new millennium. Urban ethnography, the systematic and meticulous method of examining culture unfolding in everyday life, allowed me to decipher the difficult and complex circumstances, social relations, and fabric of social life under which these young men lived.
I began recruiting participants at a youth leadership organization and a community center—which I refer to with the pseudonyms “Youth Leadership Project” (YLP) and “East Side Youth Center” (ESYC)—in Oakland, California. YLP was located in Oakland’s Fruitvale District, where Latinos made up 49 percent and Blacks made up 20 percent of the population. ESYC was located in the Central East Oakland District, where Blacks made up 50 percent and Latinos made up 38 percent of the population. I told the community workers about the study and asked them to connect me with “at-promise” (“at-risk”) young men, ages fourteen to seventeen, who had previously been arrested.10
I was introduced to four Latino boys through community workers at YLP and three Black boys through community workers at ESYC. While both organizations focused on consciousness raising and politicizing young people as a means for transformation, I recruited young people who had spent less than one month working with these organizations. This way, I would gain insight from young men who had yet to be influenced by this approach.
After meeting with these young men, I asked them to refer me to other youths in similar situations, as well as to young men who they knew had not been arrested but who hung out with guys who had, a technique known as snowball sampling.11
With snowball sampling, I was...