Arts & Culture » Book Review

What Chicago can learn from LA’s Skid Row

U. of C. sociologist Forrest Stuart catalogs the perils of overpolicing in Down, Out, and Under Arrest.



As the Chicago Police Department plans to flood the city with nearly 1,000 more cops, University of Chicago sociologist Forrest Stuart's first book couldn't be more timely. Down, Out, and Under Arrest is a study of life in Los Angeles's Skid Row community relevant to every city where segregated, poor African-American communities and aggressive policing policies intersect.

During his graduate studies at UCLA, Stuart started visiting Skid Row, a 50-block neighborhood in the heart of downtown Los Angeles that's been called the homeless capital of the United States. A base of low-rent housing since the 19th century, the area today has become a repository for the most shunned demographics in American society: working-age (but unemployed) black men and people struggling with addiction, physical disability, or mental illness. According to Stuart, Skid Row is the primary destination of ex-convicts from all over California—the neighborhood has the largest concentration of single-room occupancies and subsidized housing units in the state. It's also home to several huge facilities for the homeless, which Stuart, following others, calls "mega-shelters."

Studying Skid Row's history, Stuart found that the criminalization of the neighborhood's poor residents—typified by the heavy-handed policing of poverty-driven behavior such as drug abuse or sleeping on the sidewalk—has been a cyclical phenomenon. In the 19th century, at the urging of social welfare organizations, the police department enforced "morality" standards under which residents could be arrested for a variety of infractions identified by religious charities as deviating from "approved ways of living."

But with the onset of the Great Depression, which put so many—affluent whites included—in harm's way, the policing of Skid Row became less punitive. In the 1970s, social service providers united under the progressive leadership of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker organization to successfully lobby for the preservation of affordable housing and homeless shelters in the neighborhood even as downtown business leaders pushed for redevelopment and gentrification. The efforts of this coalition weren't enough to combat forces that hurt the population, such as economic recessions and drug epidemics; nevertheless, the groups successfully strove to make Skid Row a safer place, providing its denizens at least with food and places to sleep.

The advent of "broken windows" policing and welfare reform in the 1990s, however, revived 19th-century law enforcement and social service practices, as the LAPD and the "megashelters" teamed up to carry out what Stuart calls "therapeutic policing," a strategy that relies on heavy surveillance and constant intervention on the part of the cops, with basic services like food and shelter contingent on formal participation in various rehabilitation programs like job training and addiction counseling. During the author's time in the neighborhood, between 2007 and 2012, he recorded not only the oppressive effects of this policing strategy on residents but the shortfalls of this coercive rehabilitation approach as well.

The effects of overpolicing on individual citizens and the community at large are something Chicagoans especially need to think about given that more cops than ever may soon be targeting our poorest, most segregated neighborhoods. Stuart focuses on surveillance—an aspect of policing in black communities that has been overlooked in the national conversation about police killings and misconduct but remains at the forefront of some local groups' calls for change.

In doing so, he sheds light on something that might surprise those who don't live in aggressively policed communities: when you're in an area under constant police surveillance, refraining from criminal activity doesn't mean the cops will leave you alone. Toward the end of the book he describes the daily routines of teens in Woodlawn, which he began to document through interviews and observational research after arriving in Chicago in 2012. "The teens conveyed that their preoccupations about being stopped altered how they dressed, how they wore their hair, which streets they walked down, and who they associated with in public," Stuart writes. In an interview with the Reader, he described the pressure and "cognitive nonsense" his subjects faced while constantly trying to avoid anything cops might interpret as signs of criminality—a standard that can change drastically and without warning.

"These young people in Chicago on their way to school are thinking, 'What do I need to do at this moment to signal to the cops that I'm not a bad person?'" Stuart explained in the interview. "In other neighborhoods in the city, kids get off the bus and they're thinking about the math test, and who they're gonna take to prom, and what am I gonna do after high school." This stripping of childhood innocence might sound familiar to observers of race and poverty in Chicago—it's been consistently described as a key part of the psychological pressures of living in neighborhoods besieged by gang violence, recently repored in stories on trauma and PTSD by the Reader's Steve Bogira. And with the city's shooting rate climbing, the psychological toll of that street violence has not abated.

As Stuart writes, the end result of aggressive policing is not only the absence of community trust in the force but the development of hostility between neighborhood residents. As citizens are forced to compete in outmaneuvering police attention—striving to be a person not worth stopping as opposed to someone who appears to be an easy target for arrest—they enter into an isolated struggle for survival.

One chapter of Down, Out, and Under Arrest is devoted to a group of health-conscious Skid Row weight lifters who lead highly regimented, disciplined lives and support each other while shunning the police-sanctioned "mega-shelters" and the social services there because they feel infantilized by staff ("All they wanna do is talk to you like you're some kind of retard, like you're a little kid," one of the weight lifters says). These are men who might have the potential to become leaders and positive role models for others but who, Stuart suggests, have been forced by constant policing to actively disaffiliate from anyone who appears weaker, undermining the building of empathy and solidarity among community residents. But the weight lifters' survival tactic backfires: looking too clean and healthy in Skid Row is a magnet for police attention. The LAPD ultimately forbids them from congregating, and later on some of the weight lifters fall back into addiction, or move out of Skid Row into the neighborhoods they'd been trying to escape for a fresh start.

Stuart also found examples of organized resistance to police that have the potential to stimulate reform. Chief among them is a group of "cop watchers" who film police encounters and document civil rights violations. This evidence eventually leads to successful lawsuits against the LAPD. He devotes another chapter to the cops tasked with patrolling Skid Row, many of whom believe they're acting for the benefit of both the individuals and the community.

When society polices the minutiae of how people live (or how they are forced by poverty to live), as Stuart writes, the resulting fines, arrest records, and loss of self-confidence block myriad opportunities for those citizens to make it out of their marginalized positions. This is an urgent problem for Chicago, a city that already struggles with segregation, an eroding tax base, and rampant inequality. Stuart amply demonstrates that doubling down on aggressive policing of the poorest people in the poorest neighborhoods will only undermine them further.  v

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