That was actually my next question! The book in many ways humanizes and gives voice to society’s most vilified and preyed-upon actors, those who have had an immense history in the carceral system. What are some thoughts that you’ve previously held and abandoned or learned about deviance, crime, and criminality?
BS: The one thing that I learned was that by understanding how police officers operate, especially the plainclothes police units, I have a much more profound sense of how terrible and intensely bad they are. There’s a problem with policing, but then there is this other kind policing, these plainclothes guys in unmarked cars running around that are really like a shadow police force, like an army that we often don’t see. I embarrassingly hadn’t thought about how intense and bad that is, and that’s something that you really saw [in the book], that these kind of drug cops and gun cops are really the bad guys that have a lot of freedom that gives them time to rob but that their central job is to create chaos and inconvenience, and terrorize people. Even from seeing a million cop shows and shows that are not as flattering, you still saw these guys running out of cars and jumping on people, and you know that that’s bad, but you really don’t understand fully how nefarious and how the simple existence of policing simply damages communities.
BW: I agree with all of that. I think that part of that is taking the metaphors and what people say about what police are doing seriously. When they are calling it a “drug war,” they are saying “we are going to wage war on our citizens,” and we become comfortable with these words. A lot of liberals who are supportive of gun control don’t realize that what they are talking about in a city like Baltimore when they talk about gun control is the Gun Trace Task Force. And it changed fairly dramatically my position on gun control because I recognize what the enforcement of gun control looks like here. It gives police a free license, the same way as the controlling of drugs did before, to stop anyone in high-crime areas for any reason and make up the pretext. And we as a society will look the other way, especially when they are telling us what they are doing. They are waging a war on the citizens.
After the public release of I Got a Monster, I want to assume that there is room for reconciliation between the ostracized and the community. What are some ways that we can mend the harm that has occurred from both the community and the criminalized?
BS: Here’s an anecdote from the book that explains this: There’s a Safe Streets worker who gets arrested by the Task Force and says that a gun was planted on them. We are moving into a moment right now where we really understand that organizations like Safe Streets—an alternative method of policing—are really important. But we also have this example here where this person in 2016 was arrested and targeted because he was trying to stop the violence but he wasn’t a police officer. That’s the tension there: “You are trying to do our job but you aren’t a police officer. We don’t like how you do it.”
Now, I think that that’s important because no one—even once the stories came out after this guy, Albert Brown, was let out of jail—no one really reconciled this. No one sat there and said, “What does it mean for them to have arrested violence interrupters?” And it seems to me that there’s an acknowledgment that the Task Force was bad, that it created a lot of problems for the city, and that it also ruined a lot of lives. But when it comes to how to fix that, people don’t really want to think about it and they just want to move forward. A really easy thing would have been for some organization in the city or the police department to acknowledge something as egregious as arresting violence interrupters.
I could be naive here but I think that if there was something that resembled accountability from the top, then it would make even people that benefit from policing realize what they are benefiting from. Roland Park is Roland Park because Sandtown is policed the way that it is. There is a direct connection. For every person that is overpoliced, there are people that are under-policed. And that doesn’t mean that the answer is to balance out policing, but to acknowledge that there is a game being played where lives are being traded for other people’s lives. And I think that residents could also acknowledge it! It would be really good to have reconciliation through conversations, meetings, policy, and things like reparations.
Interviewing people in the book, you can see how people’s lives were really destroyed. And you realize that you can hear their stories, but the people that have been in these situations need serious help, something like police reparations. The inability to acknowledge this stuff is why it’s not getting any better and there isn’t any political motivation by the people in charge to say “we are wrong and this is wrong.”
BW: I think that lawsuits are the immediate way that people who have been affected are seeking something like reparations. That’s the legal method that we have in place right now for that to happen. But as Franz Kafka said, “a false alarm on the night bell once answered, it cannot be made good, not ever.” We have to acknowledge that for the individuals whose lives are destroyed, there’s a way in which it is irreparable.
In some ways we didn’t deal with solutions in the book, but Lawrence Brown’s book, The Black Butterfly: The Harmful Politics of Race & Space in America, will soon be released and will address a lot of what systemic solutions will be. There are a lot of larger solutions that have to go beyond the police department—like the legal mechanism that we have right now with the lawsuits, there’s the larger political way that we might be able to correct this. And then within the police department itself, we might be able to, at the very least, get rid of plainclothes units entirely, saying “we aren’t going to have units whose job is to wage war on you.” And back to what Brandon said, until you acknowledge that all you are doing is waging war then you can’t really end the war.