The Criminalization of Survival Strategies in Black and Brown Communities


I tend to bookmark articles that I find interesting and want to read later on at some point, but almost always I end up forgetting about them. Matthew’s post on Hurricane Katrina, however, reminded me of this article that I had come across a few weeks ago while scrolling through Facebook. The article talks about how the deaths of Eric Garner and Alton Sterling while trying to sell cigarettes and cd’s, respectively, are part of a larger phenomenon where “the hustle” is essentially criminalized by our current criminal justice system. Individuals, specifically black and brown folk, are shut out from the formal economy for a variety of reasons ranging from a criminal past to a lack of documentation, which leads them to then participate in the underground market. While out hustling in order to literally survive, these men and women are left “vulnerable to arrest and police violence.” Pushed out of the formal economy by US policies and our criminal justice system, black and brown folk are forced to pursue alternative methods of survival and then are re-victimized by the same system that drove them to these practices in the first place.

The idea of the criminal justice system as a living laboratory from my last post has been on my mind lately, especially now that I’m back home in Harlem and I’m actually seeing again on a daily basis how black and brown bodies are hyper-policed within their own communities. Once again, we see how the criminal justice system literally extends its power over the human body by criminalizing methods of survival. Instead of asking why these people are turning to hustling in the first place, the criminal justice system’s first instinct is to have them arrested for their actions, not even taking into consideration that these men and women are doing it in order to put food on the table. 

In the article, the author mentions how our modern prisons and criminal justice system were created specifically to deal with Black folk who had been shut out from formal jobs. This specific argument took me back to Marc Lamont Hill’s quote “Instead of saying, ‘The system is broke let’s fix it,’ we should be saying, ‘the system is working, let’s break it.’” Both men essentially acknowledge that the criminal justice system was never created to protect the people it serves. With this in mind, I’m left wondering how do we best go about effectively and realistically overhauling this system knowing what we know about the origins and intended purpose of it?

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