At the start of spring, I met an attorney whose story calls to mind that old Chesterton and Lewis thinking: What are we progressing towards? Truth, beauty, and goodness?
Or the edge of a cliff?
His name’s Bobby Constantino, and as I dig into his life’s particulars, I keep learning disturbing lessons about myself and our society.
Six years ago his life and career took off beautifully. After serving in the criminal court’s trenches in Boston for ten years, an elite national justice organization in New York City hired him: the Vera Institute of Justice. The New York Times featured his work as a national model, he earned a good salary with benefits, paid off much of his student loans.
Then he quit. Blew the whistle.
Torched all of his professional connections.
Six years later he’s still at it, working at restaurants, living paycheck to paycheck, subletting from friends, refusing to go back into the law.
Why would a man who had it made turn on his profession, his employers, and colleagues? His decision has already cost him a marriage, an apartment, his credit score, his health insurance — the guy’s currently sleeping on couches, living out of a computer bag — and yet he’s still adamant he’s right.
Let’s sit at his feet together:
Three days before we met, Bobby was walking down Prospect Place in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, between Bedford and Franklin avenues with his two-year-old daughter in her stroller.
Two people exited a New York City cab.
“Wait, I know you,” he said, stopping them.
Enter Mary Marshall and Jon Waterhouse, the National Geographic Explorers and environmental stewards. He’d seen their water activism tours on Facebook — beautiful lakes, rivers, and streams around the world they fight to protect. Mary invited Bobby and his daughter to dinner two days later.
A dinner I happened to attend.
As did Joel Caldwell, the expedition and commercial photographer. (Since leaving Joplin, I’ve missed having a Mark for collaborative projects, so having Joel present to tell the story helped immensely — huge thanks to Joel).
Having been introduced by Mary and John, we three met for pizza and beer on a spring afternoon two weeks later and we started by talking about Bobby’s alma mater.
St. Anselm College occupies four-hundred acres in the Manchester, New Hampshire countryside. A Benedictine institution home to a monastery and ivy-covered red brick buildings, its aesthetics call to mind Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters.
Forty miles south, Bobby grew up in North Andover, Massachusetts. “Well-to-do, leafy, and very suburban,” is how he describes it. He was attracted to undergrad studies at St. Anselm College because it was between his hometown and the White Mountains.
“Back then, Boomers like my dad were shouting, ‘BUSINESS! ECONOMICS! COMPUTER APPS! PICK SOMETHING USEFUL!’ But I took all of those classes and I hated them. There was this required seminar, though, called Great Books, and I loved it. It was Socratic method. The students argued and debated all class long while the monks mediated. Ancient Roman and Greek texts, and other cool stuff.”
Father Jerome, sensing Bobby’s connection to the material, alerted him to a major in the philosophy department where he could dissect great works on virtue, ontology, citizenship, and such, full time
“We were reading Aristotle, Cicero, Plato, Bentham, Hobbes, and Mill, and the question we kept returning to was: how do we as citizens lead meaningful lives? What is our place in the polity? How can we live in such a way that we can look back on our lives the day we die and say, ‘I’m proud to tell my kids how I lived?
“This will come full circle later, but I, like so many, thought politics was the way. Our whole lives we’re inundated with this notion that democracy works. If the people express their will, it will be heard. That’s the way to achieve change in a great society.”
He interned for a congressman. That office hired him out of college for data entry and occasionally to drive the legislator to the airport.
On one such ride, the congressman told him to go into law school so that he could learn how to write, file, and pass legislation. He got into Suffolk University Law School in Boston — a “home-grown factory for politicians and legal-types across the street from the Statehouse on Beacon Hill.”
“Remember, this is around the same time Bill and Hillary Clinton are telling everyone that will listen that ‘superpredators’ are wreaking havoc in America’s urban centers. Sports, T.V., and the movies glorified law enforcement and the military as the best, most honorable ways to protect the public from danger. All these shows on T.V. about gangs — Bad Boys, C.O.P.S., Lockup — and in my earnest, do-gooder head I’m like: I want to help! Where do I sign up?”
The Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office covered many of the Boston neighborhoods that were on the news at night in the suburbs: Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan— breaking news interruptions that flashed up on the TV with sirens, flashing lights, yellow police tape, and leering mugshots of suspects. After he graduated and passed the bar exam, the DA’s office hired him as a prosecutor.
That’s when things got…interesting.
“Day one I’m in court and our philosophy is max bail, max jail. Shootings have been going up for several years, so we need to bring the hammer down on anyone in the vicinity of a gun. The police are conducting aggressive raids and sweeps like you’d see in wartime — busting doors at four in the morning with battering rams, rushing in with assault weapons, throwing everyone down — and we’re doing our part in court to take people off the street with mandatory minimums and statutory enhancements.”
“Only there’s a problem with the narrative undergirding all of this: we’re constantly re-upping the pressure with raids and sweeps — Operation Bad Apple, Operation Clean Slate, Operation Rolling Thunder, etc. — but shootings keep getting worse every year. And I’m in the trial session two to three days a week and none of our witnesses are showing up. We’re empaneling juries and half of them are looking at us like they hate our guts before we’ve even given our opening statements. And this is bad, really bad, because making cases at trial is the whole point of the criminal justice system. If our witnesses don’t show up, and jurors hate us, we can’t meet our burden of proof. And if we can’t meet our burden, all of our arrests, exhibits, undercover investigations, and military operations are a complete waste of time and effort.
“So I’m thinking all I have to do is tell everyone — friends, family, colleagues, and the like — what’s up. Our aggressive crackdowns and sweeps are undermining the purpose of the public safety apparatus. I mean, I’m right there on the front lines witnessing it every day, so they’re obviously going to listen to me…”
He cashed in his state retirement fund and resigned. He hoped to cast light on how aggressive law enforcement tactics alienate communities the system needs to function properly. “So now I’m unemployed, sending unsolicited op-eds to every newspaper editor in the region, screaming at the top of my lungs: ‘Everything we’re being told, everything we’re doing in court, it’s all wrong!’ And I’m thinking they’re all gonna be like, “Oh my God, you’re so right!’”
But everyone replied something along the lines of are you an idiot? Haven’t you seen C.O.P.S.?
Determined to prove them wrong, he moved into the neighborhood where he had worked as a prosecutor, on the Dorchester/Roxbury line.
Bobby moved into an old three-decker on the corner of Quincy Street and Columbia Road — a house former police colleagues told him was “a crack den.” He grew close with the guys who lived in the house and surrounding area and raised money to open a program in the courthouse to help them get jobs, G.E.D.s, build resumes, and go on interviews. At the time he suspected that this would help them succeed more than police officers with battering rams cracking down their doors. Bobby wrote up a one-page concept paper and went to see the presiding judge in Roxbury, Eddy Redd.
As a Roxbury native, Judge Redd understood.
When Bobby was a prosecutor, Judge Redd held the bench one day when the police hauled in a guy from Worcester, 50 miles away. They’d issued a warrant because the guy owed money to Roxbury Court many years prior.
“The man goes to court Tuesday after being in jail for a three-day weekend. No job. Not a nickel on him. It’s pouring rain.
“Judge Redd waives the money he owes in exchange for time served and then has to pool his own money with the clerk to get the man a bus ticket home.”
“Thousands of dollars in police overtime, processing fees, etc., drove him halfway across the state – for what? A few bucks the guy can’t pay?”
Living in the neighborhood, Bobby noticed programs designed to reach young men at risk of gun violence weren’t offering strong incentives to participate. He also knew, from his days in court, that probation officers threatened to issue warrants if probationers didn’t pay their court fees and fines, so he pitched an idea to Judge Redd: offer credit for monies owed to the court in exchange for building resumes, going on job interviews, etc.
It was hugely successful.
“Guys on Boston Police’s Most Wanted list start showing up to class every day, building resumes, going on job interviews, and rebuilding their lives.”
But at the time Bobby couldn’t raise any money to keep the program going, and it baffled him. He thought the true goal of the system was to break the cycle of recidivism and incarceration. He had no clue, in those days, that he was reinventing the wheel, that a program like his, only much bigger, and much more successful, had once ended teen gun violence in Boston for two straight years.
Then he showed up to class one day in 2008, and realized all of his progress with the guys was about to unravel.
“[They’re] talking about going out on a mission, getting everybody. I roll up and I’m like, ‘Woah, woah. Hold up-‘”
The guys had been working with Bobby for several weeks at that point, going to interviews, getting jobs, doing great. The court had waived some of their debt. Now they’re talking about going out and getting involved in a beef that’s flaring up.
“What happened?” he asked.
In Orchard Park — a housing development by the courthouse — a child uninvolved and unconnected to gangs, Soheil Turner, was standing on the corner waiting for his school bus when a teen from a nearby rival neighborhood walked up and shot him in the back of the head, killing him instantly.
Bobby talked to his men for three hours trying to walk them back. He went home exhausted, furious. In the course of reading articles about the incident online, he came across something that shook him to the core: a report called “Losing Faith.”
In 2008, prior to Soheil’s killing, a pair of Harvard criminologists wrote a report about a program called Operation Ceasefire, responsible for what had been coined “The Boston Miracle.” In the mid-‘90s, Boston Police partnered with clergy and service providers, rounded up all of the young people involved in gun violence and presented them a clear-cut choice: jobs and services or nighttime no-knock raids.
It’s difficult to fathom what happened next: two years and five months went by in the City of Boston without a single teenager being shot to death.
“Not a single teenager,” Bobby said, “not one teenager was killed for twenty-nine months following the first meeting — which is unheard-of in those days, the mid-late 90’s, because youth violence was in full-on recrudescence, portrayed in mainstream culture as a war-zone scourge roiling our nation’s cities. Yet here was a program that ended it virtually overnight, with rock-solid data backing it, and the BPD axed it.”
The Smoking Gun
Could a city like Boston, with its progressive reputation, universities, and culture, really stand by and watch young people die needlessly for two decades?
And yet, here’s the Harvard report saying just that:
Our basic conclusion is not that the Boston model of the 1990s has failed, but rather that the City of Boston and the Boston Police failed to pursue the policies and practices that had been so successful during the 1990s.
Just look at how gun killings spiked after it ended:
It gets worse.
CeaseFire also happened in Chicago. You know, the Chicago that gets cited all the time for its gun violence?
Chicago solved the problem eighteen years ago with an identical initiative:
Formed in 1999… violence interrupters worked on the street, mediating conflicts between gangs.… Crime mapping found decreases in the size and intensity of shooting hot spots due to the program [up to 73% and decreases of retaliation killings of 100%] in more than half of the sites.
Ever heard of Baltimore? As in The Wire?
Same thing happened with a program called Safe Streets (the original link to that study went dead when I posted a test version of this earlier in the week, which leads me to believe the people in power don’t want it shared, so I’ve updated this post to include a link straight to the PDF, which you should copy and share as widely as possible).
McElderry Park did not experience a homicide during the first 22 months of program implementation…However, homicides increased during the period when program supervisors and staff also concerned themselves with a new Safe Streets site in bordering Madison-Eastend where gang violence surged.
(Meaning the program’s effectiveness is directly related to whether or not it is sufficiently staffed and funded.)
Bobby sent me report after report — the amount of consistent data eclipsed the mind: we know how to solve inner city gun violence.
For instance, the Queensbridge Houses, one of the nation’s largest public housing projects, is celebrating what the mayor is calling “A Year of Golden Silence” thanks to a community-based 696 Queensbridge neighborhood peacekeeping program. Added to the data that shows delays in the solving of murders in African-American neighborhoods is race-based, it paints the kind of picture that would make an Old Testament prophet’s blood boil. When talking to Bobby, I’m reminded of Jeremiah who called justice and right a fire pent up in my bones: I’m weary of holding it in; indeed I cannot.
The Grant That Failed
Limping along with the program in Boston, unable to figure out why he couldn’t raise any money, Bobby caught a break with a seed money grant: $175,000 for three years. It covered half of his program’s annual budget. All he needed to do was to use that seed money as leverage to raise the rest.
“We couldn’t find a single other funder in the city.”
The same problem Baltimore encountered — a brilliant program, spread too thin — hit Bobby. But why? Why were these cities – all with serious gun violence problems – giving short shrift to programs they knew saved lives?
Why were they cutting and underfunding rather than scaling up?
And how did they keep getting away with it?
Then 15-year-old Soheil Turner was killed.
Back in Boson, Bobby’s worried his guys are considering revenge. He’s texting them and getting no response.
“Meanwhile, I turn on the TV and the mayor’s holding a press conference while Soheil’s parents are sobbing across town, claiming he doesn’t know how something like this could happen in Boston…”
Bobby “loses his shit.”
“That innocent child would not have been shot and killed if these programs hadn’t been discontinued by the police. These are exactly the kinds of retaliation killings these programs prevent. I know these kinds of killings would not keep happening, because later that night one of my guys texted me, said he’d stayed in with his girl, told me that all the guys decided that afternoon they weren’t going to get into it with DSP.”
(DSP stands for Dudley Street Park, the rival neighborhood where the suspected killer, who was later arrested and charged with murder, was from.
Bobby wrote a blog post in a blind rage and posted it without thinking about the consequences. A local news outlet picked it up.
“Next thing I know, the link to the Harvard report in my blog goes dead and now I’m persona non grata in the City of Boston. I’m going to these meetings and people are looking at me funny and whispering. The change was palpable.”
(Interestingly, as mentioned elsewhere in this post, I posted a temporary version of this article to see how it looked and several links immediately went dead then as well — we’ve since shored up as many as possible with alternative links.)
Joel asked, “Do you think this is because you linked to the fact that this sort of thing had already happened?”
“It was the way I wrote it,” Bobby said. “It’s both. You don’t embarrass the mayor of the City of Boston if you want to be connected to the funding, the in-circle of academics and think tanks. I named him in the blog post and then the guy who reposted it titled it, ‘Dorchester Resident to Menino: J’accuse!”
I dug around and found the original from 2009. Universal Hub said:
Bobby Constantino cannot believe that Tom Menino keeps saying he knows all the neighborhoods when teens like Soheil Turner keep getting gunned down, in fact, he says Menino should resign.”
They quoted Bobby’s post. You can sense Bobby’s rage:
You fell asleep. You gave up on [violence prevention], and the whole thing fell apart. A report out of Harvard is the smoking gun.
You’ll notice Bobby’s right — that link is, in fact, dead. No worries — here’s the report again. (I highly recommend you download the file and spread it around as far as you can — it’s obvious why cities like Boston want such information buried).
For the record, the community appears privy to this knowledge. The first comment on that Universal Hub post said:
An upper level law enforcement officer told me about 2-3 years ago that Boston had a working system. A combination of politics, turnover, and “I didn’t think of it” attitude led them to drop the statistical crime tracking the city was doing and he said — watch out — we’re going have a repeat of what happened 10-15 years ago as a result. …It does sound like a lack of stewardship at some level is leading us back to a very scary future.
Bobby sensed he’d been 86’ed behind the scenes. The program was running on fumes and despite his success with the guys he couldn’t raise the remainder. Fearing this would continue as long as the sitting mayor held office (which in Boston usually meant life) he applied for jobs outside Massachusetts. One organization that showed interest in his work was the Vera Institute of Justice, an organization that runs demonstration projects with innovative ideas to test whether or not they work.
Vera made its name in the 70’s dismantling New York City’s broken bail system, a fact that augured poorly for what little faith Bobby had remaining. “We’re now seeing the same broken bail system Vera made its name reforming 40 years ago roaring back into action, incarcerating poor New Yorkers for having no money, its abuses critiqued on all sides by justice writers and reformers.” (And getting rid of bail is only the start).
But now we’re in Mark Twain territory here, way ahead of the story.
“I’m in New York City pounding the political pavement. I’m meeting with Herb Sturz, one of the founders of Vera. We’re meeting with Mayor Bloomberg’s criminal justice czar, meeting with probation. All of the big wigs in New York City and they’re like, ‘This is a great idea, we want do this.’”
Time came to vet it with legal at Vera.
“They look it up and conclude we can’t do this program in New York because a criminal procedure law states that no fees, fines, or surcharges can be waived under any circumstances. They get sent to civil judgment here, which means a collections agency’s responsible for chasing them down instead of a probation officer, a reform New York considered ‘progressive’ back in the day.”
It reminds me of something comedian John Oliver said recently: “If you want to do something evil, hide it in something boring.”
“Six months of work, all these people on board, our stakeholders in New York aren’t worried the model will violate the CPL (because the monies are going to be credited by judges in court, not waived), and our own legal department nixes it.”
…which coincided with Bobby’s experience in Louisiana:
“We were contacted by PEW and the Bureau of Justice Assistance to go into different states to do justice reinvestment.”
Justice reinvestment finds states with prison beds occupied by nonviolent offenders, releases them safely, and then reinvests that money in programs like Boston’s to prevent recidivism.
Vet it with everyone.
Over the course of a year, victims’ groups, sheriffs, DAs, law enforcement — everyone down in rural Louisiana gets on board.
“I’m going fishing and to LSU games with all of these stakeholders and they’re thrilled because Louisiana is the per-capita incarceration capital of the free world and they’re embarrassed. They love their state, they’re proud of it, they don’t want to be known as the ‘crown jewel of incarceration’. We vetted this legislative package and we’re about to introduce the bills to the house criminal justice committee at the Capitol in Baton Rouge. And then, as we show up in the morning to testify, we learn the D.A.s and sheriffs have gone behind the commission’s back and put in red cards, after promising for months to take no position.”
It was an act of sabotage that appeared to surprise even the state’s Corrections Secretary, Jimmy LeBlanc, who told a reporter the next morning:
“I thought we had a consensus when we went.”
But why would the sheriffs and the DA’s do that?
“If the commission’s reforms passed, the sheriffs would have lost X thousands of inmates, which represented X number of per diems (the state was paying the local sheriffs $24.39 per day for every overflow inmate they housed in local jails). So what probably happened was the sheriffs ran the final numbers, realized how many staff, computers, guns, and military carriers they’d lose if the commission’s bills passed, and then went to the governor behind the scenes and said, ‘Hey man, you can’t support these measures,’ and the governor backed down.”
Why wouldn’t the governor stand up to them?
“Because it was an election year. You don’t fight the D.A.s or the sheriffs during an election. Those guys are demigods on the bayou.”
Louisiana is far from the only state using its justice apparatus as a profiteering scam. The State of Missouri has been using its criminal code to cover annual budget shortfalls for years. It costs the same as Ivy League tuition to put someone up at Rikers Island in New York. Some blocks in Brooklyn cost the state of New York over a million dollars a year.
In Louisiana, after the governor gutted all of the substantive provisions of the bills, Bobby and everyone else that had spent the last year poring over them lost it.
“I’m telling my supervisors. ‘We have to go public with this.’
But if Vera went public, Louisiana would never trust them or work with them again, his supervisors told him. Other states would hear about it and follow suit. They said, “I know you’re frustrated but this is just the way things are and we can’t do anything about it.”
He swore. A lot. He creatively swore.
I gave him a moment.
“Anywhere we’re getting paid to do this work we’re going to encounter the same dynamic. You can get a paycheck, or you can tell the truth, but never both.”
Keep in mind, also, that this experience coincided with Vera’s legal department telling him to shut down the fees and fines project in New York, and also with stop and frisk spiraling out of control across the street at City Hall. Hundreds of thousands of people who had done nothing wrong were being stopped and searched by police.
“We’re all just sort of sitting quietly by, watching, thinking, ‘This is so illegal. This is so messed up.’ But again, we’re not doing anything about it, and I realize I’m wasting my time. We’re censored on multiple fronts, rendered impotent because of the way the justice funding paradigm is structured. This was not how I envisioned my life, or my career. I took an oath to protect the Constitution. I swore to never stand by while gross abuses of law and justice happened in front of me, and yet here I was doing exactly that. This was not justice. It was justice delayed. Justice never. Justice one day out of the year and injustice raging everywhere else all of the other days.”
He felt pissed and aimless. He went out to New Mexico with some money saved while at Vera. Outside Taos there was a little town called Arroyo Seco.
“There was something about that land that was alive. The Land of Enchantment, they call it.”
He’d wanted to have a meaningful life, to contribute. “All my life I’d been led to believe that the enemy was certain people and places and things. In reality that’s not what was going on. It was all a lie. ”
He keeps asking himself if you can do more in life than merely change things on a personal level.
“I took a dozen classes in law school that taught you that if systems were broken, you use the legal and political apparatus to fix them. But now, after working in the system all these years, I’m wondering if that’s possible. Whether our current justice-for-profit paradigm is so inherently flawed that… I don’t know… I don’t really have an answer.”
“Before I left Vera, I scoured the archives and realized: it’s not just gun violence. It’s all been solved. We knew how to solve mass incarceration thirty, forty years ago. We knew education programs and job training programs worked, and have worked effectively for years. The data backs this up — investments in people prevent recidivism. But once jurisdictions implement these policies and prison populations fall off, they realize employees will be laid off and infrastructure decommissioned. They panic because the people who staff these facilities are unionized. They vote, make phone calls, canvass during elections. There’s a huge political cost if you implement programs that work because it will put thousands of well-connected, well-salaried cops, court officers, clerks, judges, and lawyers out of jobs.”
Do any jurisdictions make the right call?
“There’s an example in Texas called ‘Right On Crime.’ A while back Texas closed a bunch of prisons while reducing crime. For years people highlighted Texas as a national model of justice reinvestment. Tina Rosenberg, the same author who wrote about our program in Boston, wrote about it several times. And yet, here we are with a report out of U.T. Austin showing Texas has already rolled back many of its gains.”
“Take Massachusetts, for example, the allegedly ‘data-driven state’ of Harvard, MIT, Northeastern, Tufts. Its inmate population has been going down every year for the last ten years while its annual corrections budget has steadily increased.
Not only that, but they’re actually cutting all of the education and job incentive programs proven to prevent recidivism at the same time. It’s a complete farce.”
Back in New Mexico, he reads up on his history. A book called Parting the Waters, by Taylor Branch, rocks his world.
“Here I am thinking the only way to solve these problems is through courts, and political systems, and yet there are far more effective solutions to these problems that have been around for decades – no, centuries. Nonviolent alternatives have been used to shame power actors when they abuse civilians and communities. Financial boycotts have worked time and again, for example. The problem is not a lack of solutions – it’s a lack of people willing to step outside the system and utilize them because there’s no money in it.
“At every baseball game, hockey game, football game, fair, concert, carnival, rodeo, and car race, we talk about how great our country is. How we’re imbued with this brave, revolutionary spirit, how our Constitution is sacred bedrock, how the amendments, our rights, our liberties, our justice for all, are sacrosanct.
“And yet we’re failing to keep our word – miserably. Our go-to response as a society is to wait five to ten years and then file a lawsuit because that’s how we all get paid. In the meantime, millions upon millions of people’s lives are being harmed.”
Bobby wondered if his friends, family, and colleagues knew that proven ways to stop these abuses of law and justice existed, so he came home and tried to rally his people into planning some actions that succeeded in the past.
In Parting the Waters lobby-ins or sit-in worked repeatedly. A crowd occupied a state building and kept it from conducting its daily business. One of our nation’s first successful sit-ins happened in Worcester, Massachusetts — Bobby’s birthplace, coincidentally — when a group of angry civilians blockaded the King’s courts.
“I asked them to march to Florida’s Sanford Criminal Justice Center and do a similar action after Trayvon Martin was killed. Surround the courthouse so they can’t conduct business. And when we get arrested and released we will get right back in line. Say on a national level: there are consequences if you break the law when a civilian gets killed. We’ll shut down your courthouse and municipal building for as long as it takes to get justice.”
“Had a high school friend tell me he puked in his mouth when he read my email. I said I was gonna go and they all told me I was an asshole, that they weren’t coming. So now I’m wondering, ‘Should I still go, even if I’m alone?'”
After several weeks of introspection — no late nights, no drinking, meditating and praying: “If you’re there — something other than what I can see or feel or hear — guide whatever it is I’m about to do. Please. Be with me.”
To this day he wonders…
“I was very clearly feeling this thing — whatever it might be — telling me, ‘Just go. Just do it. Don’t worry about the other stuff. Just go…'”
Bobby rounded up friends from Boston, who marched a few miles, and said, “To Florida. The clothes on my back and a toothbrush. Nothing else has worked, so let’s try this. If I make it on the kindness of strangers, I make it. If I don’t, I don’t.”
One of his friends — Rachel Moo — shared his Facebook post with a class she taught in Dorchester on nonviolent resistance. On his way through Dorchester, he stopped in and met with her second graders. That day, the class made a bunch of signs and marched with him down the block.
All Bobby had in mind that day was the joy of the class. (The attack was a year away.) He walked nineteen miles to Brockton’s YMCA, where he met a local pastor and stayed with her family.
The next day, 23 miles to Providence.
Next up: Connecticut, then the Mid-Atlantic.
On his way out, the authorities in Sanford charged George Zimmerman. His friend, Mardi, bought him a train ticket home.
Boston.com wrote up Bobby’s “amazing experience.” Few came, but he felt vindicated because it was as if he’d gone with the grain of the universe for once, “Everyone’s on social media screaming at each other and yet I met a bunch of loving strangers in real life who let me stay in their homes, have dinner with them, no questions asked. Sixty miles into the unknown, guy charged on the third day, and I came home. This notion of go, don’t worry about the rest seemed to be valid. It’s like it was saying you might not be the thing that causes an indictment, but if you put yourself on the line for what is right all of the details will work out. Don’t worry about it. Just go.”
The first week back he wondered if it was real, or just a function of being well-connected – white privilege, if you will? Coming off the heels of Parting the Waters, drawing from that well of Benedictine concern for a just and equitable society, making it 60 miles with no problems after his friends told him he’d freeze to death in a ditch for nothing, he was surprised when, instead of remarking on the fact that he made it, and an indictment issued, his friends and family criticized him:
“How can you invite us to walk to Florida? We can’t walk to Florida. It’s way too far.”
“Alright, I’ll do something local, then, without so much walking. That way you can come.”
Parting the Waters features a lobby-in where men, women, and children occupied downtown Birmingham. Those denied the right to vote shut down businesses around the courthouse. Soon, local business owners were calling the mayor and telling him to give the protestors what they wanted because they were losing money. The hardware store, Woolworth’s, the movie theater – they all closed when protestors descended.
That in mind, Bobby said, “Let’s occupy City Hall like the residents of Birmingham until the mayor pledges to end the illegality of stop and frisk.”
He invited everyone.
Again everyone called him a moron.
He showed up on the appointed day and time. No one else did.
He sat down on a bench in Battery Park, unsure about what to do, hoping someone, anyone, would show. Didn’t happen.
A lobby-in is a strategic action that requires a large number of people to work. So he summoned whatever it was he thought he might be hearing during his march.
“Whatever you are, if you’re real, if you were really there before…”
Again, he heard it or maybe felt it repeating, “Just go. Don’t worry.”
He continued, laughing, “Now, I don’t know what this means: ‘Go.’ I’m like, ‘Okay, where? And, more importantly, to do what?’”
He worked out the details while shivering on the bench.
His friend, Shaun, had made him a stencil to spray-paint a message on the t-shirts and hoodies of participants as they arrived. It said NYPD GET YOUR HANDS OFF ME. He had it with him, and two cans of spray-paint.
“I’m angry at my family and friends for not showing because I see them out there every Fourth of July lighting fireworks and eating burgers, only now it’s go-time, time to defend the document we’re supposedly lighting bottle rockets for, and they’re telling me I’m some kind of asshole for trying to get them to do something about it. So I decide to play a game of chicken with them: ‘demand the Mayor stop breaking the law or watch me get arrested 20 times in a row and get sent to jail.’
Mind you, this is New York City. The most prestigious City Hall in America sits at the crossroads of one of the nation’s busiest intersections in Lower Manhattan — the base of the Brooklyn Bridge. Bobby assumes this means he’ll be able to start his arrest, release, repeat cycle easily.
“I spray-paint all of the gates at City Hall. I’m five feet away from the guards. I can see them watching the cameras that are recording everything.”
As you can see on the video, a police go cart pulls up, lights flashing. There’s a transport wagon in the distance, two cops pass. He spray paints the stencil right in front of all of it.
“Part of me wants to say it’s because of privilege. Part of me wants to say it’s because I was wearing a suit. Who knows? There was also this feeling of, I don’t know, something otherworldly. I felt invisible, and not just because I’m white, and not just because I’m privileged, and not just because I’m wearing a suit. I mean, I’m right there in the picture, standing a couple of feet directly in front of the guard. I see him watching the different camera monitors, and yet for some reason he can’t see me. A cop pulls up, looks right at me, and then drives away, like I’m not there. It’s just plain weird. I paint six different gates, all of it on camera, as cars, taxis, police vans, and go-carts are whizzing by, and, well… nothing. I’m literally trying to be seen…and I can’t.”
He went home, called some reporters, told them someone tagged graffiti on City Hall.
“Fox News reported on it in the morning.”
Proof in hand, he planned to turn himself in when he woke up. He donned his suit for court, posted a blog admitting guilt, and signed a letter of confession for the guards. He went down to the same gate he painted the night before to give this document to the guards and turn himself in.
Showing his I.D., he handed the letter over to the guard.
The guard took a picture of the I.D. and made a call. Then hangs up and says, “Make an appointment.”
“Well can you at least drop my letter off to the mayor?”
The guard agrees, calls to check, then says he still needs an appointment.
“I can’t drop off a letter for the mayor at City Hall?”
“No, you need an appointment.”
At home he blogs about that incident, admitting it again, basically waiting for the police to knock on his door at this point.
“It’s deafening silence. My friends and family are all in this awkward position, devouring every word I’m posting, but refusing to comment or engage.”
This happens for five more days. Three more times Bobby returns, on one occasion going so far as to bring a reporter with him, but every time the guards at the gate turn him away.
That week Manhattan Criminal Court held a trial of activists who were arrested for protesting stop and frisk in front of a Harlem precinct. Daily Bobby attends and on day five, the judge declares them guilty and sentences them. The prosecutor in Bobby seethed at the verdict because the entire case was based on hypothetical, rather than actual, evidence: not a single person had testified that they had been prevented from entering the precinct or conducting other official business due to the protest.
Bobby stood up in the courtroom, put his hands on his head, and announced that he was sitting in and refusing to leave the courtroom in protest. He hoped the observers present in the gallery would join him and refuse to leave, an impromptu lobby-in of sorts, but the court officers moved in and slowly filed everyone out.
Bobby was taken to central booking.
And he realized getting arrested over and over would never suffice.
“My mother’s this devout Evangelical Christian saying, ‘Well what are they—‘ meaning the people being mistreated by the police ‘— ‘going to do for themselves?’ It made me want to scream. I mean, it was just so gross. I’m in central booking seeing people coming in with broken wrists, multiple Taser burns, lumps sticking out of the sides of their heads, and I’m looking around at the other white guys in the cell with me, asking them, ‘did they treat you like that?’ and we’re all like, ‘no’, not a single one of us had so much as a scratch on our wrists. These horrific abuses of law and person were happening (cases like Jateik Reed, Ramarley Graham, and so many others), they violated everything our country claimed to stand for, and yet everyone I knew in my life kept making excuses about how it wasn’t their responsibility to get involved.”
Bobby mentions how similar acts set up the Holocaust:
“The police in Italy and Germany started giving Jewish residents hell, and the general public stood around and watched. That’s where it starts. The cops doing this shit and getting away with it, and knowing they can get away with it because people in the majority aren’t going to do a damn thing to get in the way other than file a lawsuit, which gives them years to keep breaking the law and hurting people in the meantime.”
He mentioned the unarmed eighteen-year-old Israel Hernandez getting tazed to death. He reminded me of the Nashville twenty-eight-year-old Tory Sanders who died from pepper spray and stun guns in a Southeast Missouri jail while passing through and asking for an attorney. This state sponsored lynching combined with the seventy-seven-year-old woman who had a heart attack from the brutality of the same sheriff’s handcuffing prompted the ACLU to issue its first ever travel advisory for the state of Missouri. Bobby reminded me of the timeline of police shooting twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, and later Sandra Bland, who died in police custody. When you consider the whole list, the 1162 killed last year and the 677 killed already this year, it baffles the mind, particularly when you consider the ages (infants and elderly), genders, means of extrajudicial execution, and the bodycams, dashcams and witness videos showing so many unarmed civilians being killed for nothing.
“How do they not see it? I spent another few days deep in meditation: ‘You, whatever thing I think I hear harping in my ear all the time, what now? Should I call the whole thing off? Save what little face I have left? I’m clearly not getting anywhere, getting only bad feedback from everyone. The New York Post is mocking me, my friends and family are ignoring me — nobody gives a shit.
But something just keeps saying, “Go.’ Go, go, go. Stop worrying about it and go…'”
Again, he has no idea what this means, but he’s furious at how none of his people are engaging, “I have to try and do something to change their minds…
“I wanted to know what’s the one thing I can do that will force — literally force — them to engage?”
The Hail Mary
He goes down to City Hall.
Eats no food.
Drinks no water.
“I write it up on social media, my blog: ‘On May 14, I’m going to march around City Hall without food or water until I collapse or the mayor ends stop and frisk.”
Below he wrote the mayor’s office number and mailing address.
“You think you’re so great and patriotic and moral, well prove it.”
Bobby’s friends and family said change takes time. He’s being too impatient. Reminds me of Martin Luther King’s words from Letter from a Birmingham Jail:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice. [Who say we are in too much of a hurry and that “these things take time”]
Bobby said, “For me it’s twelve years. For others, decades. Others still, centuries. How much time do we need? Joel pointed out earlier, Lance, that I shouldn’t say we didn’t make any progress. One of the guys went to college. But I’m measuring progress not necessarily as systemic change. We can only influence our own circles of people. My circle’s super wealthy, white, privileged, educated. For me it seemed like the needle wasn’t moving with them. I’m trying so hard to change their minds and I’m meeting constant opposition, constant reaffirmation of the same flawed narrative that drove this thing. They keep recapitulating it like robots. ‘Well these people are dangerous criminals, they need to la la la.'”
Two minutes after he announced his intentions, Rachel Moo replied, “No! That’s the day you’re coming to Boston to march with my class!”
He amended the day to Wednesday, not Monday.
“Two hours after I change it to Wednesday she calls me back and says, ‘Uh, hey, did you buy your ticket?’ I say, ‘Yeah, why?’ She says, ‘Get a refund. The parents found out who you are and they don’t want you to come.'”
Rachel had reposted everything on social media.
“She’s one of the few people who supported me through all this, right? My friend Mardi was another one. Rachel’s Asian. Mardi’s black. None of my white friends, save three or four, Christina, Glenn, Leah, and Shaun, supported me at all. My family certainly didn’t.”
His trip to Boston canceled, he decided to stick with Wednesday, and this is a detail that turns out to be very, very significant later on.
Again, he enters into a period of deep contemplation and wonders if the thing telling him ‘Go’ is a delusion. Were his friends right?
Was he mentally ill?
If he committed to this food and water strike, he needed to follow it through to the end, come what may. An ambulance might not arrive in time. Following through could mean no voice had spoken at all. He might die over an illusion, a figment.
He chose a food and water strike because he thinks hunger strikes are too long for modern-day attention spans.
“Two-to-three days before I reach my body’s limit. If I’m nonstop marching, a day and a half. That’s gonna put a lot of attention on my demands, and a lot of pressure on the people who supposedly care about me, to take action to help me meet these demands today, rather than in a month or two.”
He went down on Wednesday morning and no one he invited showed. He walked around City Hall while former friends and colleagues showed up to work at Vera, which shamed him. “I felt like the biggest loser on the planet, to be honest. Couldn’t even get a single freaking person to come with me.”
“Screw it. I start doing laps around City Hall by myself with a ‘March Against Stop and Frisk’ sign. This tall black guy with a camouflage military rucksack comes up and says, ‘Get against the wall!’ He starts patting me down and says, ‘I’m just kidding, my name’s Jesse. I’m from the Stop Stop and Frisk crew, just wanted to hear more about why you’re doing this…'”
Jesse Hall was the first who came. He became Bobby’s “guardian angel.” He held Bobby’s coat, a bottle of water in case Bobby collapsed, but Bobby refused. Mid-eighty-degree weather and Bobby’s fading fast, sweating out fluids he’d hoped would last two days.
As the day progresses, all these people he doesn’t know start showing up.
New York activists.
They called his plan to walk nonstop through the night and into the morning “dangerous. Cops and others are saying things on social media. Have Jesse go home with you tonight and come back first thing in the morning.”
They stop at 10pm.
Jesse spends the night.
Bobby wakes up at 6am.
“I had this sudden searing pain wake me from a deep sleep.”
He didn’t know what it was.
But he was up.
“Might as well go marching. Turns out the day before, a federal judge had certified a pending class action suit against the City of New York after months and months of deliberating. She said if the City didn’t fix stop and frisk, she would. The journalist that night from Courthouse News Service— Adam Klasfield — said, ‘You’re not gonna believe this.’”
The stop and frisk ruling was scathing. It demanded an immediate fix.
Bobby wondered if this was his out.
But reporters tracked down NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly the night of the ruling and he defiantly doubled down on stop and frisk.
Bobby and Jesse shrugged and headed back out, unsure how long he’d make it through the second day of marching.
“My joints, my hips, everything is aching. I’m grinding my teeth into paste because I’m so hungry.”
He’s in no condition to march, starting to totter with sloppy steps. Jesse watched the curb in case Bobby fell towards oncoming traffic, tried to force him to drink water “like my mom or something,” but Bobby refused.
“We’re going back and forth about it, laughing.”
Around noon, City Hall’s guards begin to pay more attention to them. Bobby’s letter to the mayor called the program illegal, wrong, a lie “there’s three decades of data that show there are programs the city could be using to stop gun violence instead of trampling rights and putting kids in jail. And I know the mayor knows this because the Bloomberg School of Public Health at John Hopkins is named after him.”
That January, the school with the Mayor’s name on it issued a report evaluating the same program model Boston used, but in Baltimore. They found HUGE program-related reductions in youth gun violence.
“Here he is calling himself the ‘data mayor’ while trotting his police commissioner out to lie to the entire country about what the data says.”
Bobby’s letter said follow the data or I’ll die on your stoop.
And it’s not gonna look good.
Cause it’s Bloomberg’s own data.
Reporters swarm the area, looking for interviews on the subject because of the judge’s ruling the day before, and it’s starting to make the guards uneasy.
A reporter tells Bobby the mayor has just called an unscheduled press conference.
Reporters rush the front gate, to attend, but can’t get in because it’s full.
They rush across the street with their gear and cameras. Jesse and Bobby follow, curious.
“Bill de Blasio steps out of his office (then-Public Advocate, not yet Mayor) and takes the podium. He announces that Ray Kelly and Michael Bloomberg have ‘this very morning committed one of the biggest flip-flops in city history.’”
After defiantly defending stop and frisk the day prior, the city announced a set of reforms that conceded to use COMPSTAT (the NYPD’s data system) to review and reform NYPD’s illegal stop and frisk practices.
Bobby’s under the sun about to collapse.
Jesse smiles, yanks out a bottle of water and calmly hands it over as if that was the plan all along.
Bobby chugs it “faster than I’ve ever chugged anything. And, man, it’s better than the best champagne I’ve ever had. The best thing I’d ever tasted. Somehow, someway, I’m walking away from this action under my own power.”
Is he claiming to have performed a miracle? To have personally ended stop and frisk in New York City?
“Look, I’m not gonna sit here and tell you I’m the reason stop and frisk ended. Obviously I’m not the reason. But look at the numbers: since that day, stop and frisk went from 685,000 a year to less than 30,000. We’re by no means out of the woods — they’ve morphed it into other things like weed arrests, quality of life arrests, turnstile jumping, gang raids, and such. But that being said, following this — still, to this day, five years later — not a single person in my family, not one of my friends, not one of my colleagues — NO ONE has said, ‘We called you an asshole and mentally ill, but it’s pretty remarkable that you survived. You marched to Florida and three days later the guy was arrested. You tried to get yourself arrested and were invisible for a week. You put your life on the line like a complete moron and, yet, two days later, against all of the odds, you got exactly what you demanded and walked away unharmed.’
The Third Rail
What do we do as a species when the dark underside of our nature shows its face in the form of illegal policies, false arrests, mass incarceration, police killing?
How should we respond as citizens?
“When I was doing these actions five years ago, I don’t think people were ready to look at the state of the world and say ‘we’re in crisis.’ I was seeing firsthand how dysfunctional it was every day because I was deep in the nitty gritty of the criminal justice system, but we, as a citizenry, weren’t ready to hear it.
“But now everyone is saying, ‘Oh my God, we’ve reached a crisis point. What can we do?
“During all of these actions something big, and powerful, beyond my scope of vision, seemed to be saying, “Go and put your privilege, your life, and your body on the line, and don’t worry about the rest.”
“Before we make another phone call, before we try to get another candidate elected, before we punch another Nazi in the face, we need to figure out what this thing is and figure out how we can use it to get in the way of injustice together.”
“This might sound unrealistic, or naïve, but look at our political system right now. These clowns can’t even figure out how to repeal health care legislation. Thirty years of data showing us how to stop recidivism, and yet we’re cutting the programs that work while law enforcement budgets soar into the billions. Look at our military, the War On Terror: we’ve spent $6 trillion in the last 16 years – $20 million a day – and the terrorism index shows terror incidents going up and up and up every year. The glaciers are melting, temps are rising, and we can’t even agree on whether or not to stop driving cars.
“And you can’t just blame it on conservatives, either. Baltimore, Boston, Chicago – these are the most liberal cities in the country allowing young people to die while ignoring 30 years of data. The bottom line is that our political system is never going to get us there. More violence, more guns, more wars aren’t going to, either.
“There’s got to be another way. If something big, and powerful, is calling us forth, and it wants to work miracles on our behalf, wants to use us to bend the arc of this universe towards justice, we need to get serious about summoning it. But right now all we’re doing is bickering with each other.
“When I did all of these actions, everyone I knew doubted me. They told me I was insane, that I was an idiot, that I was going to die for nothing. Only in each and every instance, whatever this thing was – Allah, Buddha, Fate, Karma, the Universe, Yahweh, honestly, does it really matter what we call it? – came through and had my back. Each and every time it spared me, kept its word, faithfully sorted out the details.”
The Courage to Believe
The more I talk to Bobby, the more I’m convinced that we could live in a world where we don’t have a thing to fear. Wouldn’t that be nice?
What if you never had to be afraid again?
What if all of the news reports and flashing lights and doors breaking down is an illusion to keep us afraid and indoors and paying for endless and unnecessary police raids and S.W.A.T. equipment — guns and tanks and choppers — that, statistically, year after year, fail to prevent the very thing we’re told they prevent?
And if we really want to never be afraid again, then why choose to remain so? Because it would take courage — much more than mayoral, congressional, judicial, and political courage — to make programs like Bobby’s permanent in the teeth of juggernaut police departments and those who make their living off of the cycle of prison and death.
Of course, to do that, we’d have to get rid of the fences and walls and battering rams.
To do that, we’d have to get involved in our neighbors’ lives.
To do that, we’d have to stop being afraid, set down our guns and our fear-mongering news bulletins and literally love our literal neighbor as ourselves instead of buying cross-stitch and reusable shopping bags and black-painted wooden boards sporting that phrase. The courage to love our neighbor rather than kill them or throw them in some dungeon to rot?
It’s almost as if we’ve known the solution all along.