Urban Alchemy in the News

SF-based nonprofit Urban Alchemy, which I discussed here and here, is in the news this week. First, there was BBC coverage, and this morning a lengthy investigative story in the Chron. Mallory Moench and Kevin Fagan’s story is interesting and informative, and offers lots of useful perspectives, but does adopt an unnecessarily skeptical emphasis and tone, which rankled me because I work in the Tenderloin and see the transformation it has undergone through Urban Alchemy’s intervention.

In the early pandemic months, the open drug market around my workplace was so brazen and violent that my students feared going out of their dorm rooms at the Hastings towers. Mayor Breed and SFPD tried to resolve the problem by doing police sweeps of the area, which only resulted in new people coming in to deal and shoot every day. At some point I was contacted by a civil rights org, which shall remain anonymous out of compassion, with a well meant, but absurd, invitation to support their lawsuit against gang injunctions with an amicus brief refuting the existence of the drug market. Refuting? I thought. Are you kidding me? Do you have eyes? Do you live or work here? It was a prime example of what I’ve come to recoil from: the refusal, by some quarters of the Bay Area’s delusional left, to concede that crime is real and has real victims and real implications (that’s why I have no patience for armchair abolitionism, by the way.)

Then, our Dean signed a contract with Urban Alchemy, which has them support the area adjacent to the school. This proved to be a complete game changer. The first morning I showed up to work with the UA practitioners surrounding the perimeter of the school I was amazed; the change in energy, the peacefulness, the friendliness, the sense of personal safety, were palpable. I started chatting with some of the practitioners around my workplace, who came from backgrounds of serious incarceration, and found that their personal experiences provided them with just the right interpersonal skills to intervene in complicated situations in the Tenderloin. Finally, someone is doing the right thing, I thought. There are so many occupations in which a background of criminal invovement and incarceration is a priceless resource – and this includes lawyering. Recently, I interviewed people with criminal records who applied to the California bar and wrote:

In the few occasions in which bar membership with criminal records are discussed, it is not in the context of diversity, but rather in the context of a public concern about “crooks” in the legal profession. Accordingly, the bar orients its policies, including the recent requirement that current members undergo periodic fingerprinting, toward the exposure and weeding out of “crooks.” Criminal experiences are seen as a liability and a warning sign about the members’ character.

My interviewees’ interpretations were diametrically opposed to those of the bar. All of them, without exception, mentioned their experiences in the criminal justice system as catalysts for their decision to become lawyers, and most specifically to help disenfranchised population. Public interest lawyers who spoke to me cited their own criminal experience as an important empathy booster with their clients. Even some of the ethics attorneys cited their personal experiences with substance abuse as a bridge between them and clients with similar histories. By contrast, commercial lawyers, especially in big firms, remained circumspect about their history. Two lawyers spoke to me in the early morning hours, when they were alone in the office, and others spoke from home, citing concern about letting their colleagues know about their history. My conclusion from this was that the interviewees’ background was a rich resource that provided them with a unique and important insider perspective on the system, which remained unvalued and tagged as uniformly negative baggage.

To Moench and Fagan’s credit, their piece does represent this view; one of their interviewees explicitly says that looking at justice involvement as an asset, rather than a barrier, is revolutionary. But overall, their reporting exceedingly amplifies the voices of the naysayers above those of the many people who live and work in the Tenderloin who are quietly grateful for Urban Alchemy’s presence in the streets. You’ll be hard pressed to find detail in their story of the many good deeds that the practitioners perform daily, ranging from lives saved with Naloxone (several times a week, I’m told) to skillfully providing my female students a sense of personal safety when walking the Tenderloin in the evening. Several students described how a practitioner subtly positioned himself between them and someone who was getting too close, and how the threatening situation evaporated before it could evolve in unsavory directions. Moench and Fagan give this a passing nod, but their piece fails to properly capture the magic.

This brings me to another observation: There hasn’t yet been a project evaluation for Urban Alchemy’s Tenderloin intervention. Executing such a study would be a daunting task for several methodological reasons. First, there’s no comparative baseline for the intervention. The situation before their intervention was so abnormal that it would be hard to use it as a control, even if data were available. If the comparison is geographic, it would suffer from the usual problems with situational crime prevention: focusing an intervention in a particular geographical zone means that criminal activity is displaced onto adjacent zones, so the two comparators are not independent of each other. If the study is structured as an in-depth phenomenological project (which is what I would do if I were to do this–and a colleague and I are thinking about this), there’s the Star Trek problem of the Prime Directive: researchers or students hanging out in the Tenderloin to conduct observations would, themselves, change the dynamics in the area that they study. A big part of Urban Alchemy’s success lies in the fact that they do things differently than SFPD. They do not rely on surveillance cameras; in fact, they eschew them, and having any sort of documentation would be detrimental to their working model. And people standing in the corner for hours and taking notes would chill everyone’s behavior. Fieldwork here has to be conducted with care.

I have one more observation to offer: I now work in a service profession that requires crowd management and interpersonal intervention (as a city pool lifeguard) and also have multiple years of experience managing crowds in rowdy, inebriated, unusual situations (as a Dykes on Bikes registration volunteer at Pride and at Folsom Street Fair, for example.) The vast majority of people you encounter at these settings are lovely and a delight to be with. But the one or two percent who are decidedly not lovely can really test anyone’s self control. I’m talking about the driver who insists on driving the car into the area you’re trying to cordone off, the slow dude who insists on swimming in the lane with faster people and not letting them pass, or the people repeatedly told (politely) to move to the sidewalk so that they are not run over by trucks who don’t go where they’re told. My experiences are nothing compared to what the Urban Alchemy practitioners encounter every day on the Tenderloin streets. I really wish our reporting on this were sympathetic to the enormous challenges of interpersonal interactions in this very rough patch of our city and more appreciative of how much conflict and anxiety are spared when people who know what they’re doing take the lead.

Post-Election Thoughts

The Scorpion and the Frog

The results of the election did not bring me immediate solace. I’m sure this has been the case for many folks who found it difficult to take off the psychological backpack we have been carrying for so long. In my case, the psychological weight is the product of daily engagement with this administration on various public forums, including having to spend least thrice a week, WEEKLY, for the last four years, in TV stations and radio studios talking about this. In November 2016, when I lost the fight for death penalty abolition and my beloved cat Spade on the week of the election, I made it my mission to be an expert in everything these cartoon villains were cooking up, and every morning I sat up abruptly in my bed, with my first thought being, “it’s already morning in D.C., what has he done today?” Every time I saw an unrecognized number on my phone it was a TV producer or journalist asking me things that I had to cram on. I’ve crawled through information on abominable, underhanded things that I could not have even imagined possible before the last four years. Engaging with this sewer of an administration every day, including weekends, has brought exhaustion and stress into our family life, soured my good humor and my patience at work, and taken a real, measurable toll on my health. Doing upbeat explainers, volunteering, and taking abuse via phone and text from voters has felt like wading through a swamp, and even though I wore my psychological hip waders, I resent and revile this administration for demanding that I set aside my own grief, decency, and decorum, and be constantly on-call to respond to venal, opportunistic excrement. After I gave the explainer on Justice Ginsburg’s replacement process, I could barely get out of bed for a few days.

But the miasma in my soul is slowly dissipating. The first time I felt truly rapturous was when I got a letter from Traci Felt Love, the organizer of Lawyers for Good Government. The letter reminded me of when we started L4GG and brought back the incredible week in which we shut down San Francisco International Airport in reaction to the Muslim ban. It was only then that the magnitude of our success in dethroning this monster started to hit me, and I’ve been slowly digesting it.

One thing that has greatly helped is ignoring the legal pageant of the absurd that Trump is mounting in various courts around the country. I have given myself permission to disengage from all his frivolous lawsuits, antics, last-minute personnel juggling, and desperate cries for attention. In January, no matter what happens in the interim, Joe Biden will be President of the United States. Whether Trump concedes (ya think?), resigns (hmmmm), flees to the Cayman Islands to a mansion with golden toilets (on brand) or is dragged out of the White House in handcuffs (appealing but dangerous), the outcome will be a change in administrations.

It’s useful to keep in mind the story of the scorpion and the frog. A scorpion, which cannot swim, asks a frog to carry it across a river on the frog’s back. The frog hesitates, afraid of being stung by the scorpion, but the scorpion assures the frog he won’t do that: “If I sting you, we’ll both drown, right?” This argument convinces the frog, which agrees to transport the scorpion. Midway across the river, the scorpion stings the frog anyway, dooming them both. The dying frog asks the scorpion why it stung despite knowing the consequence, to which the scorpion replies: “I couldn’t help it. It’s in my nature.”

Trumps are going to Trump. Giulianis are going to Giuliani. McConnells are going to McConnell, with or without us as their audience. It’s far more productive to focus our attention on the upcoming races in Georgia.

Drug Truce

Throughout the country, drug law reform gained more momentum. This wonderful post on the Drug Policy Alliance blog summarizes some of the main reforms, the most impressive of which was Oregon’s approval of Measure 110. The next step in procuring a truce on drugs was always going to be branching beyond marijuana, and for various political reasons that are difficult to explain to people outside California, I expected another state to move in that direction first.

What I find especially thrilling about the passage of Measure 110 is that it could open the door to an important dialogue about the value and benefits of psychedelics. MAPS has been leading the charge on declassifying these important substances and acknowledging their potential to help people with depression and trauma, as well as foster spiritual growth. Little by little, the hypocrisy is dissipating, but it’s going to happen on the state and local level first.

When the Perfect Is the Enemy of the Good

Amidst my joy about the passage of Prop 17 and the failure of Prop 20–a reactionary law-and-order package–the demise of Prop. 25 brought me some anguish. As I explained elsewhere, all the arguments against the abolition of cash bail were ridiculous except for one, which had superficial appeal: the idea that “algorithms are racist” and that we would end up with “something worse” than cash bail. Aside from the fact that it’s hard to imagine how risk assessment is “worse” than debtor prisons straight out of a Charles Dickens novel, there’s a basic misunderstanding of how algorithms work. I have been explaining and explaining, but for some reason am not getting through to people captivated by woke rhetoric: ALGORITHMS ARE NOT RACIST. They predict the future on the basis of the past. If they have racially disparate outcomes, it’s because they reflect a racist reality in which, for a variety of systemic, sad, and infuriating reasons, people who are treated like second-class citizens in their own country commit more violent crime. The overrepresentation of people of color in homicide offenses and other violent crime categories is not something that progressives like to talk about, but it is unfortunately true–not just a mirage caused by stop-and-frisk in low-income communities. The reasons why more African American people commit more homicides than white people are the same reasons why they are arrested more frequently for the drug offenses they don’t actually commit more than white people: deprivation, neglect, lack of opportunities, dehumanization and marginalization on a daily basis. Solving these problems requires an administration committed to treating its citizenry fairly, not sweeping them under the rug by ignoring predictive tools that show what is actually going on. So powerful is the progressive self-deception that the ACLU, initially a supporter of eliminating cash bail, opted not to have a position on the ballot, because of the optics. I can’t even begin to tell you how many people I like and respect opposed Prop 25 using organizations’ positions as proxy, as if they couldn’t think for themselves. These organizations’ and people’s fears of being perceived as racists by supporting “algorithms,” the bogeymen of the left, was so overpowering that it hijacked the very real possibility to get rid of an actual, real, on-the-ground, in-the-open perversity: the only-in-America notion that people should pay money for their pretrial release.

The counterargument, made by some thoughtful folks, was that rejecting Prop. 25 would lead to a better proposal to abolish cash bail. But this argument exhibits deep ignorance of how political gains are made. Part of why I’m so upset about this is that I’ve already lived through a horrible round of the Perfect-Is-the-Enemy-of-the-Good game. Back in 2016, when we campaigned for death penalty abolition, I had to respond to arguments by progressives who thought that abolishing the death penalty was going to somehow “retrench” life without parole. The preciousness of this view infuriates me. As I explained until I was blue in the face, political progress is made incrementally. You can’t get to LWOP abolition without death penalty abolition. Expecting ballot propositions, which have to rely on broad coalitions, to be tailor-made to one’s exquisitely purist views about the public good is a recipe for disappointment. And, as Gov. Newsom said, the demise of Prop 25 essentially eliminates any possibility, motivation, or energy for getting together the “more perfect” solution to the bail problem that activists are yearning for. So, instead of celebrating the end of cash bail, progressives have yet again been duped into failing their own cause because the compromise wasn’t photogenic enough for them, and the big winner has been the bail bonds industry–you can see in this piece how effectively these scoundrels have coopted wokespeak to keep Victorian debt prisons alive.

Got a Sane Idea? Great! Wrap It in Sane Packaging

Just read a terrific Mother Jones article, which highlights the success of various local initiatives to divert resources from policing to less confrontational alternatives. Beyond my satisfaction with this outcome, I’m pleased with the rhetorical strategy used in these initiatives.

In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, many advocates were making proposals that sounded scary, because they were wrapped in odious movement jargon (defund! abolish! dismantle!). Thing is, the proposals themselves were not radical or insane; they were sane enough that even people who were victimized in scary ways could see the logic in them–if they had the background to understand them. Alternatives to policing are not earth-shattering discoveries. Anyone, not just hyperprogressives, who walks around the Tenderloin these days can sense the palpable shift in energy since the arrival of the wise and conciliatory Urban Alchemy folks. All these propositions are doing is rolling back the Nixonian logic, according to which you somehow get more justice if there are more cops, riot gear, and weapons on the streets. We were sucked into this insanity in the 1970s with the LEAA funding scheme, and later in the 1980s with civil asset forfeiture. You could be forgiven for thinking that “defunding the police” is an extreme proposal if you’re not familiar with how police departments used to be run before they became bloated paramilitary organizations.

But the success of this measures was not only rooted in their inherent reasonableness (and cost-effectiveness.) It was rooted in wise, matter-of-factly packaging, which offered positive alternatives to policing that people could get behind. There is an important lesson here for progressives looking for referendum victories, which I very much hope will be learned: packaging matters. Offering people a realistic vision of humane, therapeutic, preventative public safety works better than wrapping sane, totally plausible ideas in flurries of self-righteous performativity. And that means resisting the cultural zeitgeist, which pushes the movement to flood social media with the most preposterous, off-putting jargon, even when proposing things that would appeal to a broad swath of the population.

When incendiary terminology is used to explain sane, effective reform, more time is spent debating the terminology and performatively defending it than discussing the policies themselves. People who are put off by the rhetoric are exhorted to “check the website,” “do the work,” and “educate themselves” by folks who do not inspire any desire to engage any further with them or with their ideas. Indeed, one of the dumbest aphorisms of this movement is the classic “it’s not my job to educate you.” It’s nobody’s job to educate anyone else (except, in the case of teachers, their actual students.) But hurling insults and disdain on people, piling nonrequired homework on their backs, hiding good ideas behind performative nonsense, and finding fault in people asking to know what they’re expected to support and vote for, is not particularly likely to induce them to take the trouble to learn somewhere else. Decrying the burden of “unpaid emotional labor,” another unfortunate classic, is also not particularly persuasive. Not everyone needs to dance through their revolution like Emma Goldman, but very few people want to get flogged through it. Corollary: If you call yourself an activist, and you want to bring people to your coalition, yes, it is part of your job to educate them. I’m so pleased that the advocacy for these proposals took a different approach, one that voters could get behind. The result will be safer and happier streets in many U.S. cities.

CJCJ Study: Drug Arrests Plummet, Racial Disparities Persist

drug arrests stats chart

I got a lot of commentary, in person and on Facebook, after my post about Ban the Box backfiring. Folks were expressing serious frustration with how an idea that seemed so good–pushing people away from racial discrimination by proxy–turns out to do something spectacularly bad in the world–pushing people toward direct racial discrimination. Today’s post is along the same vein, but somewhat less depressing.

A new CJCJ study by Mike Males and William Armaline finds a spectacular decline in arrest rates for drug offenses in San Francisco. But when they broke the arrests down by race, this is the pattern that emerged:

Now, several things are notable. First, the decline is significant – even for African Americans. Which is arguably a very good thing for everyone. Second, while the racial disparity is still enormous–felony drug arrests for African Americans were ten times higher than those of people of other races–it is a significant decline from previous levels of disparity (the peak year for discrimination was 2008, when African Americans were 19.2 times more likely to be arrested for a felony drug offense than people of other races.) Finally, disparities typically shrink, rather than disappear overnight, so this could be a move in the right direction.

But this raises the question of how we measure progress. Are things better when there are overall arrests, even when large disparities (which are uncorrelated with other measures of involvement in these offenses) persist? What is the goal of relaxing drug policies?

Recently, the standard war-on-drugs-responsible-for-mass-incarceration story has been criticized, and it does seem to be a bad explanation for the overall picture. But the basic argument that drug arrests tend to target the African American population is not new. Amanda Geller and Jeffery Fagan have an excellent paper about marijuana arrests in NYC that tells a similar story. We really have to do better.

Book Review: Mona Lynch’s Hard Bargains

Jeff Sessions’ career as Attorney General started exactly with what you would expect from him: a revocation of the Obama Administration’s commitment to end reliance on private prisons for domestic inmates and the promise to ramp up marijuana enforcement. Both of these are examples of this government’s effort to find the most reasonable, fiscally responsible, and decent thing that should be done and then do the exact opposite.

We know that private prisons in the federal system are not big players in the overall incarceration picture. The Obama Administration’s declaration that they would cease to rely on them seemed more a symbolic move than something that would actually make a difference (not that they could intervene in state incarceration matters anyway.) Moreover, throughout that period, private facilities were still used (and are still used) for incarceration of immigrants before deportation, and there was never any talk of stopping that practice.

We also hear the federal government arguing for a dinosaur-era approach to marijuana, featuring a new lie: that marijuana usage is related to opioid overdosing, which is unsupported by research and harkens back to the dark days of the Anslinger war on drugs in the 1920s.

These developments make Mona Lynch‘s new book, Hard Bargains, remarkably timely. In the book, Lynch conducts a careful and perceptive ethnography of three federal district courts: one in the Northeast, one in the Southeast, and one in the Southwest. Lynch is well aware that federal prosecutions are not the driving force behind mass incarceration, but she uses federal drug enforcement as an interesting laboratory for the study of prosecutorial discretion.

Indeed, the main takeaway from the book is the unhealthy combination of two seemingly contradictory factors: the existence of tough sentencing laws, which presumably bind discretion (albeit less so since 2005), and the existence of broad prosecutorial discretion, which allows them full use of these draconian sentencing provisions. On the back cover, Kate Stith, whose excellent book with Jose Cabranes Fear of Judging was a well-informed and passionate cry against sentencing guidelines,  interprets Lynch’s analysis as pointing to lack of discretion. I think the lack of discretion is only half of the problem. With the advent of extreme sentencing laws, how they are deployed is up to individual prosecutorial ideology, and as an outcome, a different culture of federal sentencing develops in the three different districts.

Not that any of these is particularly appetizing. Lynch’s account of the Northeast depicts a court that is captive in the hands of a zealous prosecutor on a mission to “rescue” people from themselves and from the streets, who basically wrangles minor drug cases out of the states’ hands and pushes them into the federal system, sometimes in violation of the Petite policy of refraining from double prosecution. In his enthusiasm to end the drug epidemic, he imposes lengthy and unreasonable restrictions on their freedom, which the court almost invariably approves. In the Southeast, there isn’t even a pretense of rehabilitation: an elderly judge delivers moralizing lectures to defendants on the receiving end of obscene, decades-long sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. And in the Southwest, marijuana backpackers–poor, undocumented immigrants carrying marijuana by foot as payment to their coyotes–are rounded up, summarily shifted to “flip flop court” for misdemeanor charges, where they are made to plead guilty in batches and march off to detention before deportation.

It’s difficult to figure out which of the three models is the most horrible. The variations confirm, though, that when outrageous mandatory minimums, unreasonable calculations of criminal histories, and breathtaking arbitrariness in terms of offense categories, come together, the problem is not, or at least not exclusively, lack of discretion. The problem is that a dazzling array of options, including very frightening and oppressive ones, is on the table, and prosecutors get to pick and choose which of these to deploy.

The extent of prosecutorial power here cannot be underrated. The publication of Hard Bargains coincides with the publication of John Pfaff’s Locked In, which looks at the unfettered discretion and power of county prosecutors (and which I’ll review in a future post). Lynch and Pfaff’s analyses are complementary.

As in her previous book Sunbelt Justice, Lynch is not only a meticulous and perceptive observer but also a master storyteller. The defendants, prosecutors, and judges come to life in her vignettes from court cases she witnessed. Her description of the poor, disenfranchised immigrants forced to plead guilty in batches is particularly disheartening (my students were in tears when I read this section aloud in class yesterday.) Lynch has a keen psychologist’s eye for personalities and motivations, and she realistically captures the ideologies and worldviews that make her characters tick.

It is horrifying to think of how this system, already bloated, draconian, and rotten in the Obama years, could wreak more havoc and destruction in Trumpistan, and the news from the last two days suggest at least two directions in which things could get even worse: reintroducing the profit mechanisms that drove private incarceration by improving these companies’ relationship with the feds, and inflicting the awful drug sentencing scheme on marijuana defendants to an even greater extent (with the obvious potential victims being the people at the bottom of the Trumpistani social ladder: poor immigrants from Mexico.) I dread to think that the horrors and inhumanities described by Lynch could be something we might come to miss in the years to come.