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Criminalizing the hustle: Policing poor people’s survival strategies from Eric Garner to Alton Sterling

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Early Tuesday morning, two Baton Rouge police officers pinned a 37-year old black man named Alton Sterling to the ground and shot him to death outside a convenience store. They were responding to a person’s complaint that a man selling CDs had threatened him with a gun, according to the police department.

It’s still unclear whether Sterling had a gun; in the chilling videos released so far he cannot be seen reaching for one. Whatever the case, Sterling appears to be one of an extraordinary number of black men exiled from the formal economy and working on the street, vulnerable to arrest and police violence.

Eric Garner sold loose cigarettes. Alton Sterling hawked CDs. Both died at the hands of police while seemingly on the job.

“Over the past few decades cities have turned to policing to fulfill two functions: to surveil and discipline black populations hardest hit by economic shifts and to collect revenue in the form of fines,” emails Lester Spence, a professor of political science at John Hopkins University and the author of “Knocking the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics.” “The black men most likely to be left out of the formal economy — who have to engage in various illegal hustles to make ends meet — are far more likely to suffer from police violence than other black men.”

Jobs are scarce. For those with a criminal record, like Sterling, they can simply be out of reach. With Sterling, things were worse. He had to register as a sex offender after being convicted of having had sex with a teenager when he was no older than 21, his name and face still publically recorded online more than 15 years after the incident.

Leroy Tackno, the manager of transitional housing center where Sterling paid $90 a week for a small bedroom, told The New York Times that he didn’t understand why a street hustle resulted in death.

“I’m just trying to figure out what did he do,” said Tackno. “All he did was sell CDs.”

The disappearance of jobs has sparked political anger, feeding opioid addiction, alcoholism and early death, and, among the commentariat, fomented bewildered discussion about the state of white working class people. But the disappearance of work hit black people first and hardest, decimating industries at the very moments when African-Americans, after centuries of marginalization, had only just got their foot in the door.

In the Baton Rouge area, says Spence, the minority male unemployment rate in 2014 was 2.7 times higher than for whites.

Informal workers win some freedoms and flexibility in communities otherwise dominated by precarious service sector jobs. But informal workers are not guaranteed a minimum wage, and earn no unemployment, Social Security or other benefits. They are also, by virtue of the illegality of their business, prima facie subject to aggressive policing. Just short of informal work is the fringe economy, including cash for gold, payday loans, and pawnshops.

The person selling loose cigarettes on the corner, or the one selling DVDs and incense on the subway, are just the tip of an enormous and perhaps immeasurable iceberg of informal work. A 2011 study estimated that $2 trillion in underground income goes unreported. Immigrants from Latin America working day-labor construction. Mothers on public assistance braiding hair or cleaning houses on the side. Sex work. Selling drugs. Collecting cans and bottles. Homeless people making money by asking for it on the street. Laid-off workers doing odd jobs while collecting unemployment — and then, given the horrible state of things, never looking back.

“This unreported income is being earned, for the most part, not by drug dealers or Mob bosses but by tens of millions of people with run-of-the-mill jobs — nannies, barbers, Web-site designers, and construction workers — who are getting paid off the books,” James Surowiecki wrote in the New Yorker. “Ordinary Americans have gone underground, and, as the recovery continues to limp along, they seem to be doing it more and more.”

The contemporary era of policing and mass incarceration emerged precisely to confront black people with limited or no access to formal work. As the sociologist Loïc Wacquant puts it, “in the wake of the race riots of the 1960s, the police, courts, and prison have been deployed to contain the urban dislocations wrought by economic deregulation and the implosion of the ghetto as ethnoracial container, and to impose the discipline of insecure employment at the bottom of the polarizing class structure.”

In other words, prisons supplanted social aid and the criminal justice system became the state’s main tool to discipline the black poor, locked into segregated neighborhoods and locked out of good jobs.

In New York City, a model focused on so-called quality of life offenses took root, aimed in large part at the public face of informal work, from panhandling and squeegee men to drug dealers and loosie sellers as drugs and violence filled painfully long stretches of unrequested time off. The policing theory, known as broken windows, posits that cracking down on low-level offenses helps decrease crime across the board. That’s heavily debated, and it’s notable that recent decades’ widespread decline in crime includes cities that have employed variable policing methods. What’s certain is that it renders poor people’s survival strategies a crime.

Bernard Harcourt, a political theorist and policing expert at Columbia Law School, says that broken windows must be understood “at a macro-economic level,” where it emerged “at a particular juncture in American history where there is deindustrialization” and a large population of unemployed African Americans “on the street as a result.”

In the United States, black people have experienced systemic mass unemployment since the Great Migration brought them en masse to a deindustrializing north undergoing massive segregation by way of suburbanization. Now, a growing number of people might be turning to informal work as automation, outsourcing via globalization and the concentration of wealth amongst the super-rich makes yet more work disappear.

“Automation has now made it possible to eliminate human labor at a scale that is almost scary,” says Katherine Newman, an anthropologist and provost at University of Massachusetts Amherst. “It’s not clear what ordinary people are going to be able to do for a living if you don’t need clerks at CVS anymore because all that’s done by barcode.”

Newman says that government-created jobs and education programs could achieve crucial economic justice. The needs, from infrastructure to social services, are vast. The political will, however, is in short supply.

“Simply arguing that there is more inequality is not enough,” emails Saskia Sassen, a sociologist at Columbia University and the author of “Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy.” “I think the economy we have right now is generating expulsions — you are simply out. This generates desperation — you become an outcast.”

Broken windows policing targets people who are treated like refuse by a broken economy. From police bullets and prison cells to underfunded segregated schools and the dead-end jobs that follow, the lives of poor people, and especially poor black people, don’t count for much in America.