Ten years ago, when I started my career as an assistant district attorney in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, I viewed the American criminal justice system as a vital institution that protected society from dangerous people. I once prosecuted a man for brutally attacking his wife with a flashlight, and another for sexually assaulting a waitress at a nightclub. I believed in the system for good reason.
But in between the important cases, I found myself spending most of my time prosecuting people of color for things we white kids did with impunity growing up in the suburbs. As our office handed down arrest records and probation terms for riding dirt bikes in the street, cutting through a neighbor’s yard, hosting loud parties, fighting, or smoking weed—shenanigans that had rarely earned my own classmates anything more than raised eyebrows and scoldings—I often wondered if there was a side of the justice system that we never saw in the suburbs. Last year, I got myself arrested in New York City and found out.
On April 29, 2012, I put on a suit and tie and took the No. 3 subway line to the Junius Avenue stop in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville. At the time, the blocks around this stop were a well-known battleground in the stop-and-frisk wars: Police had stopped 14,000 residents 52,000 times in four years. I figured this frequency would increase my chances of getting to see the system in action, but I faced a significant hurdle: Though I’ve spent years living and working in neighborhoods like Brownsville, as a white professional, the police have never eyed me suspiciously or stopped me for routine questioning. I would have to do something creative to get their attention.
As I walked around that day, I held a chipboard graffiti stencil the size of a piece of poster board and two cans of spray paint. Simply carrying those items qualified as a class B misdemeanor pursuant to New York Penal Law 145.65. If police officers were doing their jobs, they would have no choice but to stop and question me.