Ideas & Trends
Reporting While Black
By SOLOMON MOORE
THE police officer had not asked my name or my business before grabbing my wrists, jerking my hands high behind my back and slamming my head into the hood of his cruiser.
“You have no right to put your hands on me!” I shouted lamely.
“This is a high-crime area,” said the officer as he expertly handcuffed me. “You were loitering. We have ordinances against loitering.”
Last month, while talking to a group of young black men standing on a sidewalk in Salisbury, N.C., about harsh antigang law enforcement tactics some states are using, I had discovered the main challenge to such measures: the police have great difficulty determining who is, and who is not, a gangster.
My reporting, however, was going well. I had gone to Salisbury to find someone who had firsthand experience with North Carolina’s tough antigang stance, and I had found that someone: me.
Except that I didn’t quite fit the type of person I was seeking. I am African-American, like the subjects of my reporting, but I’m not really cut out for the thug life. At 37 years old, I’m beyond the street-tough years. I suppose I could be taken for an “O.G.,” or “original gangster,” except that I don’t roll like that — I drive a Volvo station wagon and have two young homeys enrolled in youth soccer leagues.
As Patrick L. McCrory, the mayor of Charlotte and an advocate of tougher antigang measures in the state, told me a couple of days before my Salisbury encounter: “This ganglike culture is tough to separate out. Whether that’s fair or not, that’s the truth.”
Tough indeed. Street gangs rarely keep banker’s hours, rent office space or have exclusive dress codes. A gang member might hang out on a particular corner, wearing a T-shirt and jeans, but one is just as likely to be standing on that corner because he lives nearby and his shirt might be blue, not because he’s a member of the Crips, but because he’s a Dodgers fan.
The problem is that when the police focus on gangs rather than the crimes they commit, they are apt to sweep up innocent bystanders, who may dress like a gang member, talk like a gang member and even live in a gang neighborhood, but are not gang members.
In Charlotte’s Hidden Valley neighborhood, a predominately African-American community that is home to some of the state’s most notorious gangs, Jamal Reid, 20, conceded that he associates with gangsters. Mr. Reid, who has tattoos and wears dreadlocks and the obligatory sports shirts and baggy jeans, said gangsters are, after all, his neighbors, and it’s better to be their friend than their enemy.
Sheriff’s records for Charlotte-Mecklenburg County show that Mr. Reid has been arrested several times since 2004 for misdemeanors including driving without a license, trespassing and marijuana possession. Despite his run-ins with the law, Mr. Reid said he had never been in a gang and complained that the police had sometimes harassed him without a good reason.
“A police officer stopped in front of my house and told me to come to his car,” he told me. “I said, no. They got out and ran me down. They did the usual face-in-the-dirt thing.”
Maj. Eddie Levins of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police said that officers are allocated to different areas based on the number of service calls they receive, so high-crime areas are likely to get more police attention.
“Where there are more police, expect more police action,” Major Levins said. “Some people think ‘I can just hang out with this gang member as long as I don’t do any crime.’ Well, expect to be talked to. We can’t ignore them. In fact, we kind of want to figure out the relationship between all these gang members and their associates.”
Major Levins said that his fellow officers aren’t perfect and that he was aware of occasional complaints of harassment, but he said that most residents would like to see more police officers on the streets, not fewer.
Even Cairo Guest, a 26-year-old who complained he was handcuffed in his backyard, acknowledged that gang members in his neighborhood were “out of control.”
“There are a lot of guys out here doing stuff they shouldn’t have been doing,” Mr. Guest said.
Still, some civil rights advocates complain that the definition of a gang member is vague. Gang researchers find that most active members usually cycle out of their gangs within about a year. Even active participants might only be marginal members, drifting in and out of gangs, said Kevin Pranis, a co-author of “Gang Wars,” a recent report on antigang tactics written by the Justice Police Institute, a nonprofit research group.
Harsh penalties could actually reinforce gang membership by locking peripheral gangsters in jail with more hardened criminals, he said.
Suburban Salisbury, population 30,000, is about as far from the traditional ganglands of Los Angeles, Chicago or even Durham as you can get. But it has had an outsize voice in pushing for tougher antigang measures since a 13-year-old black girl was inadvertently killed there in a gang shootout after a dance party in March.
I arrived in Salisbury at midnight, figuring that gang members would be more visible after dark, and found a local hangout with the help of a cabdriver.
Striking up a conversation with young gang members in the middle of the night in an unfamiliar town is always a tricky proposition, but the one advantage I figured I had was that I am African-American. Brown skin can be a kind of camouflage in my profession, especially if you do a lot of reporting in minority neighborhoods, as I do. Blending in visually sometimes helps me observe without being observed.
But even when my appearance has been helpful, the benefits rarely survive the first words out of my mouth, which usually signal — by accent or content — that I’m not from around wherever I am.
“What’s The New York Times doing down here?” asked an incredulous black man. He and about a dozen other men were standing in front of a clapboard house in Salisbury. I observed several drug sales there within minutes of arriving.
“Man, you a cop,” said another. “Hey, this guy’s a cop!”
“You’ve got me wrong,” I said trying to sound casual as the men looked at me warily. I started to pull my press identification out of my wallet. “I’m a reporter. I’m just trying to talk to you about your neighborhood.”
In the distance I heard neighborhood lookouts calling: “Five-O! Five-O!” — a universal code in American ghettos for the approaching police. I thought they were talking about me, but thought again as three police cars skidded to a stop in front of us.
A tall white police officer got out of his car and ordered me toward him. Two other police officers, a white woman and a black man, stood outside of their cars nearby. I complied. Without so much as a question, the officer shoved my face down on the sheet metal and cuffed me so tightly that my fingertips tingled.
“They’re on too tight!” I protested.
“They’re not meant for comfort,” he replied.
While it is true that I, like many of today’s gang members, shave my head bald, in my case it’s less about urban style and more about letting nature take its course. Apart from my complexion, the only thing I had in common with the young men watching me smooch the hood of the black-and-white was that they too had been in that position — some of them, they would tell me later, with just as little provocation.
But here again I failed to live up to the “street cred” these forceful police officers had granted me. As the female officer delved into my back pocket for my wallet she found no cash from illicit corner sales, in fact no cash at all, though she did find evidence of my New York crew — my corporate identification card.
After a quick check for outstanding warrants, the handcuffs were unlocked and my wallet returned without apology or explanation beyond their implication that my approaching young black men on a public sidewalk was somehow flouting the law.
“This is a dangerous area,” the officer told me. “You can’t just stand out here. We have ordinances.”
“This is America,” I said angrily, in that moment supremely unconcerned about whether this was standard police procedure or a useful law enforcement tool or whatever anybody else wanted to call it. “I have a right to talk to anyone I like, wherever I like.”
The female officer trumped my naïve soliloquy, though: “Sir, this is the South. We have different laws down here.”
I tried to appeal to the African-American officer out of some sense of solidarity.
“This is bad area,” he told me. “We have to protect ourselves out here.”
As the police drove away, I turned again to my would-be interview subjects. Surely now they believed I was a reporter.
I found their skepticism had only deepened.
“Man, you know what would have happened to one of us if we talked to them that way?” said one disbelieving man as he walked away from me and my blank notebook. “We’d be in jail right now.”