The danger of the hustle
The contemporary era of policing and mass incarceration emerged precisely to confront black people with limited or no access to formal work. As the sociologist Loïc Wacquant puts it, “in the wake of the race riots of the 1960s, the police, courts, and prison have been deployed to contain the urban dislocations wrought by economic deregulation and the implosion of the ghetto as ethnoracial container, and to impose the discipline of insecure employment at the bottom of the polarizing class structure.”
In other words, prisons supplanted social aid and the criminal justice system became the state’s main tool to discipline the black poor, locked into segregated neighborhoods and locked out of good jobs.
In New York City, a model focused on so-called quality of life offenses took root, aimed in large part at the public face of informal work, from panhandling and squeegee men to drug dealers and loosie sellers as drugs and violence filled painfully long stretches of unrequested time off. The policing theory, known as broken windows, posits that cracking down on low-level offenses helps decrease crime across the board. That’s heavily debated, and it’s notable that recent decades’ widespread decline in crime includes cities that have employed variable policing methods. What’s certain is that it renders poor people’s survival strategies a crime.