The Streets - September 2009

a column by Paulette Lewis




I recall that in the Bible it is recorded, “…eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” How literally should we take that expression? Should we believe that we are to exact justice on those whom we know have committed crimes? If we let the guilty individual go through the process of the legal system, will true justice be enacted?

First, I should point out that this Bible verse, which arises in the book of Exodus, became a specific reference point only for ancient judges to follow. It was instituted as a court-like guide for judges, not as a rule for personal relationships or to justify revenge. So, this rule made the punishment fit the crime. It prevented a lot of cruel punishments that characterized many ancient countries.

Many times, though, I’ve personally experienced an uneven balance in the “justice” system. For instance, how can one person receive a prison sentence of seven years for the rape of a child and another person receive 10 years for robbery? How can one person get 14 years for murder and an accomplice to a murder get life in prison? (I’ve observed such prison sentence-renderings in the state of Ohio and especially in Hamilton County).

In my columns, I haven’t really touched on the system of justice and the “code” followed in the streets yet. I will try to explain it now.

The mentality of the streets is, “If you kill one of our own, we will kill two of yours.” A perfect example of that is the occasion of a young man shot dead while waiting for the bus to go to work one day. About a week later, people close to him had identified his killer, and he was shot dead along with a friend outside a local nightclub. That’s “two for one.” This is considered equal justice. It is considered fair in the streets. 

Now, however, the man who actually killed the “two of them” will go through the “justice” system and we will see what happens.

It’s not just killings that are viewed as fair. Suppose you get jumped walking down the street on your way to somewhere. The first thing you do is call your friends who will ride all night if need be to find the guys who attacked you and they will be jumped in turn. That is deemed fair in the ‘hood.

It’s also that way with robbery. “Dope boys” will rob each other on a regular basis. They get mad, it gets personal and sometimes it leads to violence and even accidental death because their only intent was to rob the person that robbed them; but one of them had a gun and things got out of control.

In many situations, unsolved homicide cases have been solved. Solved in the streets. The streets are a network. People typically know within a short period of time who is responsible for what happened and somebody takes it upon himself or herself to handle it and make the killer pay for what the person has done with his or her own life.

Nobody I know trusts the police. Nobody wants to work with the police because they want the person responsible for killing a loved one to die as well and that may never happen if they go through our legal system. They don’t view the police as an organization that you call for help. I know that the police are supposed to help the people. However, the experiences of most of the people I know have been negative for whatever reason.

As a mentor and intervention specialist, I’m constantly working on changing each of their perceptions about others through positive encounters.

This past winter I had a 15-year-old stranded downtown, out in the cold after a party, at 2:00 a.m. Forget that he was even there at 2:00 a.m.  He needed a safe ride home a.s.a.p. There was no way I was getting out in the snow and downtown before daybreak from where I live, so I thought I’d call the police and ask them to take him home. His first instinct was, “No way. I‘ll walk.”

Right. From the place where he was standing to the place where he needed to go, he would never have made it. I’ve been downtown at 2:00 a.m. before. Even locked in a moving vehicle isn’t always safe. I can’t even begin to describe how dangerous it is after dark.

From sundown to about 6:00 a.m., a different world exists there.

My kid finally agreed to accept a ride from the police. He had no idea they would do that for him. He was sure the officer would have an attitude and give him the third degree about why he was downtown anyway and probably end up taking him to juvie for a curfew violation but that didn’t happen. It was an important and positive learning experience for him.

Another time, last summer, a group of guys I work with were out late riding around. This drives me crazy, because, if you do not have a destination in mind, you are asking for trouble. I constantly tell my kids, “The only people out past midnight are cops and criminals. If you are not either one, take yourself into the house.” Young people with an excess of energy, don’t always listen.

The guy’s car broke down about 4:00 a.m. I was staying in the city with some of my kids that night so we went to see if we could help. We went and got gas. That wasn’t it. We tried everything and finally discovered the battery was dead and they needed a jump. Not having any jumper cables, I suggested calling the police. My guys literally scattered as if it was a drive-by shooting. They said, “There ain’t no way the police will come help them without taking them all to jail or hounding them about what they were doing.” Well, the police didn’t hassle even one of my kids and actually drove one of them clear to the other side of town where he lived, in a squad car, so that he got home safely.

That occasion left a lasting impression that not all police activity is bad and structured to be against young people. The police have other functions besides investigations and arrests.

For a while, some of my kids were thinking that I was law enforcement because I always knew where the holiday check points were set up, or that the police had a new tool to use in their war on crime. No. From time to time I watch the news. Not often, mind you, because it’s too depressing, but around the holidays I try to catch things. I also prefer to know a little bit about the law because I firmly believe that if you don’t know your rights, you don’t have any.

Every time I have been pulled over with some of my gang affiliates in the car, with drug- dealing, gun-toting records so long they could wall paper a precinct, the police don’t advise me that, as the driver and owner of the vehicle, I am the only person obligated to provide identification. They ask for i.d. from everyone in the car as if it’s mandatory to give it. Once I learned that it wasn’t mandatory, I advised my kids (especially those who potentially had warrants) to stop providing it.

I’ve also instructed them to stop getting out of the car and submitting to vehicle searches because if the police are really confident in why they pulled them over, and they want to get a search warrant so badly they will wake a judge in the middle of the night. Let them do it this way. In all my years of operating like this, no cop has gone that far.

I had no idea that voluntarily submitting to a field sobriety test would give you an automatic felony, but think about it. You’re handing them the evidence they need to convict you! If you refuse the test, you’ll most likely sit in jail until the judge comes in the next day, but the police won’t have the evidence of D.U.I. to hold any charges that were filed against you, and you won’t have to deal with a felony to tarnish your adult record.

Stereotyping and profiling are alive and well in our cities. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been pulled over because someone in my car is recognized, or it’s just too suspicious having a white girl in the backseat of a car with four, big, thugged-out black guys. One officer actually asked me if I was in the car of my own free will. Oh, my goodness. My guys get offended and sometimes they want to run. The more they know their rights, the more they can relax around the police as long as they are not doing anything wrong.

Because I know my rights and the limitations of police authority, I can reduce the stress involved in confrontations between my kids and the police. I have never submitted to a search of my vehicle or allowed one of the guys in my car to be patted down just because the police officer says he looks suspicious or is acting funny. If the police ask me where my firearm is (I have my “Concealed Carry Permit”), I tell them. I am polite, respectful and cooperative - within reason. I know a lot of times they are just fishing for something. Usually, when I explain that I am a mentor and just there to get the kids safely home, they accept that and even thank me.

Until we get a mile up the road and encounter the next suspicious cop.

This mentality and the negative experiences many people – especially young people – have had with law enforcement and the justice system have something to do with the “street justice system” that exists - Fourteen years for killing someone doesn’t seem fair when the other person is dead forever, does it? What if it was your child? Your spouse? Your friend?

I don’t know if I’ll ever build a bridge of trust between my kids and the police in this city but I’m going to try, because as a society there are certain things we accept and certain things we don’t. In the underground society that is the streets, justice is carried out very differently, whether society as a whole agrees with it or not. It is swift and efficient.



For more information on columnist Paulette Lewis’ work, or to schedule her to speak, email her at Paulette is an innovative gang interventionist.