Forrest Stuart, author of Down, Out, and Under Arrest and Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago, along with interlocutor Jamie Kalven, writer and executive director of the Invisible Institute, discussed the intricacies of policing poverty on Skid Row during the first talk of the Seminary Co-Op Bookstore’s Urban Readers Series.
The Urban Readers Series “invites the curious public to meet the University’s faculty, staff, and alumni who think and write about cities,” according to the Seminary Co-Op website.
After some time observing life on Skid Row, a neighborhood in Los Angeles with a large homeless population, Stuart began to think of police officers as well-intentioned people, rather than, as he put it, “bigoted storm troopers storming through neighborhoods.”
“Although police interventions involving outright violence are most commonly publicized, the most harmful police interactions in the Skid Row neighborhood involve trivial infractions such as jaywalking or sitting on the sidewalk,” Stuart said.
For a homeless ex-convict, a $174 fine for such a minor infringement is a major obstacle to overcoming poverty. In Stuart’s account, this ticket is just as much a financial obstacle as it is a cognitive one, noting that young homeless men are “constantly devoting mental energy to whether or not [they] will be stopped.”
Stuart also observed that high police activity leads young men of color to avoid interacting with women and white men, as even an innocent conversation could be associated with prostitution or drug sales.
After meeting some Skid Row officers, Stuart found that they “woke up in the morning wanting to make the world a better place. They are truly compassionate people.” However, Stuart said, “the most compassionate officers were oftentimes the most repressive, as their tools to correct this misery and poverty are handcuffs and weapons and their only method is enforcement.”
Stuart and Kalven agreed that using police enforcement to avoid systemic reform is counterproductive, stating that an increase in police activity is indicative of a deeper issue requiring more than handcuffs to resolve.
At the end of his talk, Stuart took questions from audience members. He discussed the root causes of frequent police enforcement, exchanges between social work organizations and the Los Angeles Police Department, and the need for officers to reframe the issues they encounter on a daily basis.
Stuart’s book Down, Out, and Under Arrest: Policing and Everyday Life in Skid Row is for sale at the Seminary Co-Op bookstore.