A kid like L.A. Burrell offers an example. I met the 17-year-old at a Brooklyn community center this time last year, while reporting a story on gun crime. He was one of the good kids, doing well in school and spending all his spare time volunteering and playing ball at the center. While I talked with him, hoping he’d provide a positive story from the area, he casually mentioned he had two charges on his record already.
“First time I got locked up I was 16,” he explained. I asked him what happened. He pushed his cap back from his fresh face and cocked his head as he tried to recall the details. “For fighting. Actually, I got arrested for”—he paused, till the actual charge came to him—“a riot! With four people? I don’t understand. But the charge was ‘riot.’ ”
The way L.A. tells the story, he was walking along a subway platform with friends when one guy in their group threw something at another kid passing by. It was a provocative but characteristic taunt for a group of teenage boys, and things escalated into a fistfight. Cops rounded up the whole lot of them. His second arrest came in a similar situation—one of his friends got into a beef on a subway stairwell, ending in the whole group getting busted.
In another neighborhood, it’s unlikely that teenage fistfights and shoving matches would lead to arrests, let alone to charges of “riot” and criminal records. But in L.A.’s hood, a fistfight is seen as the first step toward a gang shootout. Everybody’s a criminal in the making.
Thus, cops search housing-project stairwells with guns drawn. Thus, laws stack the deck to make prosecution easy and defense costly. Thus, small-scale crimes draw large-scale prison sentences. And, of course, every now and then a guy answering a knock at his door or leaving his bachelor party or riding public transit gets gunned down, gangland-style, by the people who are supposed to be protecting and serving him.
Ten years after Diallo, none of this has changed a whit. Until it does, law enforcement will continue to be as much a part of the problem as it is the solution in poor black neighborhoods.
Kai Wright is a regular contributor to The Root.