chasing our tails
Last Friday Manesha didn’t come in for her seminar at exalt. She is in the internship phase of our program, during which students come in on Fridays for a weekly class, as well as to get their stipend checks. It was uncharacteristic of her to miss a class, a paycheck, and not call. Turns out, her Senior Teacher finds out early this week, she was locked up for 3 days. For what? Using her friend’s school Metrocard. In NYC, public school students are given Metrocards that allow them 3 swipes a day, until 8:30pm. They’re not allowed to use them off hours, which includes weekends and school vacations, and they’re not allowed to use anyone’s card but their own. (Summer, one of our alum lamented to me the other day, sucks. Because she will have to find a way to pay for her transportation, which a minimum-wage, part time job barely covers, for over two months.)
It’s already antithetical to the principals of a humane democracy to arrest and lock up children and teenagers for misuse of a school Metrocard. Typically kids get caught for this “criminal” behavior because the Metrocard they use is out of swipes or is swiped off hours, and it triggers police (who purposely convene in certain subway stops at certain hours to catch as many offenders as possible) to notice. But this case is even more illustrative of the insidiously malicious messages we are sending regularly to whole communities of children, to black and latino children in particular. Manesha swiped the Metrocard and went through the turnstile perfectly fine – no alarms, no violations of the card triggered. She paid her fare, essentially. And yet, she was instantly surrounded by multiple police officers who accused her of having stolen someone else’s school Metrocard because she “didn’t look like a student.” She is 16. They ran the card, and because it turned out it was her friend’s, she was arrested. They ran her name into the system and it came up associated with a prior charge (for which she was sent to exalt.) Home run: their assumptions that she is indeed a criminal validated, she was taken into custody and held for 3 days.
That this act has to be illegal on multiple levels barely scratches the surface of how disturbing it is. We are sending the message all the time, to young people who fit a race-based profile, that they are criminals. We are lamenting their disengagement from school and blaming them for disconnecting, all the while making it more and more dangerous for them to even venture out of their segregated and under-resourced neighborhoods, let alone feel as if they belong in any spaces but their own very circumscribed ones.
All programs that serve justice-system involved youth are measured (and therefore funded) according to how well the young people they work with “do” after they complete or leave the program. That is, we look at young people’s rates of re-arrest and new convictions, sometimes for many years beyond their participation in a program like exalt. But, as Carla Barrett, professor at John Jay, and author of Courting Kids: Inside an Experimental Youth Court, so well put it the other day when I visited one of her classes, rates of arrest are really largely measures of police activity – not necessarily the criminal behavior of young people. If we are measuring the success of interventions for young people on the school-to-prison pipeline by whether students get re-arrested, we are reinforcing the very system that is designed to criminalize them, virtually from the time they can walk out on the street on their own. Our graduates are re-arrested for the possession of tiny amounts of weed, based on being illegally stopped, for using their school Metrocards off hours, hopping the turnstile because they simply don’t have enough money to get on the subway, “trespassing” (which can mean simply being in the lobby of their friend’s building), and spitting. While we can educate students to be savvier about avoiding police contact, some of them become distinct targets at times. What did Manesha “do” to get arrested? She simply was. That’s all that it took.
I’m not diminishing the very harmful acts that some young people commit that lead to their arrests, or suggesting that all arrests of young people are set ups. But we should be looking at the nuances of arrests when we are gauging success and failure – of individual young people like Manesha, and of the programs that give them something which contradicts and helps inoculate them against our cultural assumptions that they are criminals first and foremost.
Until we place more value on what it takes to help Manesha remain the psychological warrior that she is, than we do on whether she was arrested for using a friend’s school Metrocard, we will be chasing our tails in terms of ending the school-to-prison pipeline, or mass incarceration.
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