Urban Street Ethnography Interruptus

Every semester, for almost a decade, I close out the term, by giving my undergraduate students, enrolled in my Contemporary Criminal Justice System class, the option of conducting a very basic urban street ethnography.

Almost all of my students have graduated from a two year program in Criminal Justice from a local community college. Some of them are former or current Criminal Justice practitioners, while others are considering careers in this field. For most of my students, this is their first semester at University of Baltimore (UB).

Armed with a lecture that I deliver on the subject, one reading, a couple of videos, and a set of detailed instructions, I send them out into the mean streets of Baltimore.

I joke when I say the mean streets, because my detailed assignment instructs students to only walk around the major thoroughfares (and not the back alleys) of the Mount Vernon neighborhood of Baltimore, an approximate five by twelve block area adjacent to the UB campus. I also tell them to walk (not drive) around in pairs (not groups), during the relatively tranquil daylight hours.

There is a respectable amount of pedestrian and vehicular traffic in the Mount Vernon neighborhood. In addition to the Washington Memorial (the first one erected in the United States to commemorate George Washington), which is one of the centerpiece landmarks, there are lots of businesses and organizations located there. Mount Vernon also hosts numerous types of residences like row houses and apartment buildings. Unlike other parts of Charm City, few of the structures are boarded up. There is also a relative diversity of people, in terms of race, ethnicity, and socio-economic status.

I encourage, but don’t mandate, my students to speak to the people they encounter. Most importantly I tell them to not simply or superficially report what they see, but to tell me a story about what they observe, whom they encounter, what they hear, what they smell, etc. Most importantly, I want my students to critically reflect upon what they experience.

I use this assignment for a number of reasons. I know that in the academic field of Criminology/Criminal Justice, because the field is so heavily dominated by quantitative research, this may be the first and only time that they get the opportunity to engage in qualitative research that involves their actual participation.

Another reason I give my students the option to complete this exercise, is because after a semester of listening to me ramble or rant on about the criminal justice system, I realize that they need a break and there is no better excuse to get out of the classroom, and “to get their hands dirty,” than though first-hand experience like going out into the field.

The street ethnography assignment also provides students with an additional opportunity to hone their writing skills.

To some extent, the exercise is also a chance for my students to apply the material they learned during the semester to a real life situation. In this vein, it’s important for students to not only learn the material they are presented with in the classroom at a conceptual level, but to apply what they learn to the communities in which they live and work and vice versa.

Most importantly, I use this assignment to force my students to confront negative stereotypes they may have about Baltimore; especially the one that concerns how dangerous the city is. Many of my students come from the surrounding counties. For them, going to the University of Baltimore is the first time that they have encountered the city up close. They come to UB with a great deal of trepidation. Many of my students, like most Americans, have negative perceptions about Baltimore and its street culture based on shows like The Wire. At the very least my students learn that not all areas of Baltimore are dangerous. And that not all dangerous parts of the city are dangerous all the time.

Many of my students report that the assignment is one of the most interesting and fun things they have done all semester in my class.

Now, because of COVID-19 I can’t require my students to do this assignment any more. Predictably the university is worried about liability issues.

Sure, modified street ethnographies conducted by students during the pandemic can be done. But they involve numerous hoops and ladders that need to be negotiated, making the entire process a headache, and not fun. Doing an ethnography under masked conditions and social distancing significantly minimizes what I’m trying to accomplish.

One of the things that I’m looking forward to after the pandemic settles down, is getting my students back on the streets, so they can encounter what occurs on them, understand their unique street culture, and benefit from the knowledge that they gain through the exercise I exposed them to.

Photo credit: Elvert Barnes, Walk North Baltimore MD

Prison Tropes “R” Us: Why it’s so damn hard to reform correctional facilities in the United States and what can we do change this state of affairs

Lots of things are standing in the way of reforming correctional facilities, the controversial practices that occur inside them, and the people who work there.

This is not because we haven’t accumulated a respectable amount of peer-reviewed research that provides advice on all manner of ways to improve jails and prisons.

And it’s not simply because of powerful correctional officer unions that lobby against change, punitive beliefs held by many members of the public, the popularly held view that a stint behind bars serves as a deterrent against crime, the ossification of the bureaucracies that manage jails and prisons, or a lack of resources. Although these are important obstacles, these factors alone are not the reason why correctional institutions are so difficult to change.

The most important reason why it’s difficult to reform jails, prisons and other carceral facilities is because the general public has a poor understanding of what goes on in correctional institutions and this is largely because their opinions about this branch of the criminal justice system are based upon the knowledge and myths they have derived from popular culture portrayals.

For example, no movie or television series (or even an episode from the same) that is set in a correctional facility (nor the deluge of contemporary “shock-umentaries” like America’s Toughest Prisons, or even commercials featuring prisons) seems complete without some physical confrontation on the yard, somebody being shived, a prison rape, or intimidating looking gang members. Many times this is simple pandering to prison voyeurism. I could go on.

The reality is that life inside jails and prison is mostly boring both for the inmates and the correctional officers who work there. Opportunities for rehabilitation are sparse. And most people who are sentenced to a correctional facility come out worse than when they went in.

When proposals, policies and laws, proposed or introduced in correctional facilities, or city hall, county executives, state legislatures, or Congress, that attempt to reform the correctional facilities under their jurisdiction, the public frequently does a mental check on what they know about jails and prisons and if it is out of sync, they say hell no. This public opinion translates its way back to elected politicians who make the ultimate decisions.

That’s why, if we’re going to make a meaningful dent into changing jail and prison policies and practices, laws connected towards their operation, and maybe even abolishing prisons, we need to examine and reform the way correctional facilities are presented to the public. Scholarly research is important, but a systematic public education campaign, and through the news media investing more effort and resources towards coverage of what happens behind bars, and presenting programs and policies that work is equally pressing.

Bring on the enablers: Why are so many Republicans still making illogical arguments against the impeachment of Trump by the Senate?

You have seen and heard them, the familiar faces of the Republican Party; Cruz, Gaetz, Jordan, Rubio and the rest of the so-called Freedom Caucus.

They are the same politicians who argued in Congress, and in front of the American people, to reject the results of the electoral college.

Despite the fact that their actions enabled the outgoing president to spread seditious lies and led to a violent mob that threatened their safety and security and that of their fellow congresspeople three weeks ago, they continue to argue at length that now twice impeached former President Donald Trump should not be convicted in the Senate.

Mitch McConnell, the former Senate Majority Leader, who famously said two weeks ago that he would support Trump’s impeachment by the senate, is now waffling. House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy, who blamed Trump’s speech for inciting the rioters, flew to Florida this week to have an audience with Trump, like he was the pope or some mafia boss.

Do both of these politicians think that the future of the Republican party would be better off with Trump acting like a puppet master behind the scenes? Or do they worry that Trump might start a third party and take away the Republican base with them?

In some respects watching these GOP politicians is like seeing the Stockholm Syndrome play out where victims develop intimate bonds with the people who perpetrated the crime against them. But that’s letting the GOP off the hook. They are not victims. They’ve been actively courting a racist and xenophobic base and thought they could control Trump.

Meanwhile not only have the enablers harassed House Republicans who voted in favor of impeachment (e.g., Cheney), but also ganging up on Republican Senators (i.e., Collins, Murkowski, Romney, Sasse, and Toomey) who voted in favor of the forthcoming impeachment hearing. Do they not think that the Lincoln Project or other better funded PACs won’t funnel a considerable amount of money behind the re-election campaigns of these politicians if they are floundering in the polls?

The enablers must be hoping that they can still curry favor with Trump, or his loyal base, and that when it is time for re-election that if they strongly come out against impeachment now, that it will pay dividends in terms of Trump’s endorsement and perhaps the channeling of campaign funds.

What they don’t want, as we move into the spring, is for Trump and the organizations he created or was affiliated with to be increasingly embroiled in criminal and civil litigation. His creditors will ramp up the cost-benefit calculations they are already making, and many as they are already doing will start pulling the loans they entrusted him and his organization with. Trump may even be behind bars.

Trump’s enablers are making all sorts of illogical arguments, like just because Trump did not actually tell people to violently storm the capitol, he can’t be held responsible in any shape or fashion. Or impeaching Trump will not heal the country. In fact it will have to opposite effect of tearing the country apart. And why’s this?

This is as much nonsense as suggesting that the vote was stolen.

Perhaps these arguments make sense to their supporters or the cult that loyally voted for Trump?

Maybe this is what they perceive is the needed rhetoric they need now if they are planning for the next midterm election.

They are operating out of sense of fear, short term thinking.

Although some of us may believe that they are destined to fail, sitting back and casually accepting this posturing is unacceptable.

Photo by Ruperto Miller

El líder de la mayoría republicana en el Senado, Mitch McConnell, reconoció este martes por primera vez la victoria del demócrata Joe Biden en las elecciones presidenciales de EU, marcando así un punto de inflexión en el Grand Old Party