It is simply because the communal interest is not recognized for what it is that one class is able to disguise its interest as the “general good” and to promote it through the organs of the state.
—Bertell Ollman, Alienation
When Stanton was arrested, he didn’t give up without a fight. A group had formed in Washington Square Park, playing music, drinking, and carousing. “So we went on like that the rest of the night,” said Stanton, until the “cops came in, said they were closing the park.” Stanton and his friend muttered a few “fuck yous” and that’s when the trouble began. Next thing, explained Stanton, “the cop said, ‘You with the mouth, come over here.’ So he brings me over to the car and starts rousting me, tossing me up against the car.”
Jarmin learned the hard way that talking back to the police makes things worse for a guy in a jam. When he talks about violence, he talks about his experiences with police: “I call [it] police brutality, that’s excessive use of force or intimidation tactics, harassment.” Jarmin says his ways have changed over the years. “When I was younger, you know, police would say something, I gotta say something back to them . . . Now that I’m older, I approach it differently.”
T.K., now in his thirties, started talking back to cops when he was a teenager. In many run-ins with police, T.K. and his twin brother would speak up, since “we weren’t the type that didn’t talk up for ourself, we always talked back and let them know we not no chumps, or nobody you could put something on.” One time, the brothers were visiting girlfriends at a housing project. The housing police were suspicious of them, and as T.K. relates it: “They came up on me and my brother and tried to do us bodily harm. We fought back, and got arrested.”
Ethnographers could have collected these stories last week on any number of urban street corners in poor and working-poor neighborhoods in the United States. But these encounters with conflict are narratives I pulled from my book Street Addicts in the Political Economy (1993), published twenty-two years ago and based on data collected in the mid-1980s, just as the crack epidemic burst onto the New York scene and HIV/AIDS was becoming a full-force pandemic. In what follows, I summarize the critical analysis I offered at that time and suggest that it resonates with the current moment. Today’s tragedies—the extrajudicial killings of black people in cities across the country, anti-black racism, and police violence—are linked to historically long and deeply entrenched racialized class dynamics and the processes, policies, and logics they shape.
In the mid- to late 1980s, the focus of much policy-related “social problem” research was the visible nexus of drugs, crime, and violence by the racialized poor in urban neighborhoods, a focus that left unexamined larger social forces implicated in what happens on the ground in those very neighborhoods. What happened on the ground was economic restructuring along with the restructuring of the welfare state, which resulted in mass economic dislocations and the enormous polarization of wealth that continues to the present. While economic restructuring generated a surplus of people redundant in the formal economy, it was the poor who appeared aberrant, useful as an ideological tool.
In my study, now decades-old, I critiqued the obsessive, dangerous, and misleading social and social-science practice of focusing on “them,” the so-called social marginals perceived as deviating from the norm and imagined as enormously threatening. The poor/working poor so often got cast that way no matter the specific topic of study: drugs, crime, prisoners, juveniles, teenage pregnancy, “welfare mothers.” It was a functional obsession that ghettoized, dehumanized, and degraded racialized minorities—placed in a category by those with the power to put them there.
These practices coincided with specific state policies that included the war on drugs and political-economic practices that included locking up an enormous number of black and brown people in an exploding number of prisons. On view were the clear and present faults of the racialized poor: their addictions, their deviancy, their thievery, their violence. The hyper-focus rendered invisible the ongoing social dynamics between racialized and class unequals in social institutions, including but not limited to the criminal justice system. Poverty and its roots were stripped from the official narrative, leaving to the popular imagination an image of a dark and dangerous threat haunting city streets—a key component in the reproduction and institutionalization of racialized class inequality.
My goal then was to expose those invisible social forces, or at least to theorize them in an effort to unveil, analyze, and reveal what was cast into the shadows. Relations between men like Stanton, Jarmin, and T.K. and the organs of the state—police, lawyers, judges, and jailers—were marked by tension. Yet the biggest battles were played out between the “cops” and the “criminals” in tense one-on-one encounters on the street, a fact I found ironic considering both groups occupied a class position not so very distant from one another. I also observed how enforcement techniques—from intimidation to physical brutality—helped create psychological distance between police and those imagined as unlawful misfits.
The story behind the situation came into sharp focus: the racialized tension, the antagonistic relations, the psychological distancing, and the social roles of cops and criminals effectively obscured any common interest the two groups may have shared. The more visible (and brutal) the battles between cops and criminals, the less visible were wider class conflicts. By this analysis, police were kept in line by fulfilling their job functions; in turn, they directly managed those cast as potential criminals. Whether intentionally or not, by its logic and function the criminal justice system ultimately served to manage, contain, and control class conflict, undoubtedly a most serious threat to the status quo then—and now.
Today, the “social problems” may have shifted slightly but the structural and ideological forces rooted in the conflict have not. After all, hegemony is not automatic; it takes multiple methods to police poverty—to obtain and sustain social authority.
Alisse Waterston is Professor of Anthropology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York and President-elect of the American Anthropological Association.
Waterston, Alisse. 1993. Street Addicts in the Political Economy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.