Passaic, New Jersey: 2009-2011
In 2009, I graduated college and entered Teach For America (TFA). TFA is a nationwide non-profit organization that recruits, trains, and places mostly young college graduates in our nation’s most struggling public schools.(16) After having spent the summer of 2009 in New York City receiving intensive training and teaching live summer school courses alongside a large crop of other new educators from across the country, I received my official long-term placement in Passaic, New Jersey.
Passaic is just north of Newark, New Jersey’s largest and arguably most embattled city. I was placed at School #8 in Passaic, an elementary school which had clearly seen better days by the time of my arrival. When I first pulled up to the building that my soon to be students would be learning in, I actually mistook it for an abandoned property. The school was so old, so generationally neglected, riddled with graffiti and even the scars of bullet holes in certain spots that it didn’t even register to me at first that what I was looking at could in fact legally still be operating as an active public school building in good standing.
The student population of my new school was almost exclusively Spanish-speaking. Most families who sent their students to our school were of Mexican origin, but we also had a large presence of Dominican and Puerto Rican families as well.
Demographically, I did not fit in at this school on any dimension.
At the beginning of the year, most of the school staff seemed baffled as to what exactly it was that I was doing there. You mean to tell me that you moved to North Jersey, all the way from Wisconsin, so you could teach...here? They didn’t quite get it.
Also, I’m White. About half the school staff there was White too, but I was the only one who would be teaching in Spanish. The school’s Spanish speaking staff was absolutely flabbergasted by this.
Furthermore, I entered the building that year as the single only male teacher in the entire elementary school.
Finally, I was twenty-two years old. The next closest staff member in age to myself was around thirty-six. Before I showed up, she was considered the young one. The overwhelming majority of the staff was in their fifties and sixties. It did not escape many of my co-workers that they were old enough to be my mother, and they didn’t shy away from bringing that up.
One thing most of the elderly teachers at my school seemed to share was a sense of palpable fear around the prospect of stepping foot outside of the school building’s doors and into the neighborhood in which the school was located. Ultimately, I believe this fear was generally overdramatic and out of proportion. But to be fair, it’s not as if it came out of nowhere.
Our school’s parking lot and surrounding land was one of the main hangout spots of the local street gang.(17) A bilingual, Spanish speaking gang, in their graffiti they referred to themselves as “Braveheart” or “Corazones Valientes.” The school was located on 4th St. in Passaic, so they also used the terms “Calle Cuatro” or “4th” in their symbology.
One evening during my first year teaching, the Passaic police put on a community meeting for parents in our school’s neighborhood. Hosted in our cafeteria, I attended the event. The primary intention of the evening was to help parents spot signs that may have been indicators that their children may be affiliating with or joining a gang. There was an extensive PowerPoint presentation filled with dozens of pictures of gang hand symbols, clothing markers and common graffiti symbology.
Of all the public schools in the city, the police told us that our building, #8, drew more gang graffiti than any other. A few other teachers stayed for the meeting as well. One of the elderly teachers asked if the school property could receive a higher police presence after hours to deter the gang presence. I helplessly rolled my eyes at this. Even if they put a dozen officers surrounding the school 24/7, what do you think that will achieve? Is the gang going to disband and become an Acapella group? Or are they just going to move a block or two over, and continue doing their thing over there?
The consistent gang presence in the neighborhood imposed a rather dark shadow on the rest of the community. In the two years I spent teaching in Passaic, Braveheart’s graffiti was relentless and ubiquitous on public and private property alike. In addition to the walls of abandoned industrial buildings or rundown commercial properties, Braveheart had no problem tagging massive gang graphics the front exteriors of regular people’s homes.
My own elementary school students regularly entered their American public school building in the morning greeted by freshly spray-painted gang graffiti like, “Fuck 3rd St!” (another local gentlemen’s society.) These messages rarely removed promptly.
On one of the nights that I stayed working fairly late, all of the staff’s cars had left the parking lot except mine. Looking out the window from the second floor, I noticed about six-eight members of Braveheart hanging out down there, most of them physically on or around my car.
I gathered my stuff and walked out, making eye contact with those that I could as I approached. “What’s up guys?” I offered. “Nothing.” Some responded apathetically. As I got closer to the car itself, I just said, “Excuse me...” to those who were still leaning on my car. They moved, somewhat lethargically, but without a fuss. “Have a good night.” I said. And that was that.
In the later part of my first school year in Passaic, I began to teach an adult English as a Second Language (ESL) night class for some of the parents of students at our school. This was a new challenge for me as a teacher, and a wonderfully rewarding experience. One evening, as class was about to start, I glanced out of the foggy cafeteria windows and noticed a larger than usual crowd hanging out in our parking lot. As I was setting up, I kept looking over and began to grow increasingly anxious.
Around ten-twelve members of Braveheart were out there, huddled up in a loose circle. I’d never seen them like this before. They were dressed in their standard all black uniform. Baggy black jeans. Baggy black hoodie. Pristine black New Era Yankees hats. But now, they were also wearing black bandanas to cover their faces.
That can’t be good.
They were moving about and jumping around on the balls of their feet, as if they were warming up for something. Several of them were brandishing baseball bats.
There were young kids running around playing soccer in that very same parking lot as well, oblivious to what was brewing right beside them. I quickly spotted at least three of my own students.
But this was all taking place at the exact same time that I was responsible for starting the ESL night class session that some 20+ immigrant parents had taken time out of their busy schedules to attend.
I started the night class.
Then, about five minutes into the lesson, we heard screaming and commotion coming from outside.
The cafeteria, where night class was taking place, has a set of doors that lead right out into the parking lot. As many of the parents in the session rushed to the window to see what was going on, I exited outside into the parking lot and summoned all of the younger soccer players back over to the school building.
Some had parents close by in the park on the other side of the building, or in their own apartments just blocks away from the school. I sent them directly back their families on a path away from the crime scene they were just several yards away from seconds before.
I went back inside the cafeteria and caught up with the night class students about what had just happened.
Turns out, some members of a rival gang had come to fight Braveheart. The skirmish apparently came and went in a flash. But someone had been stabbed.
Someone in the night class called the police right away.
Although we were a bit shaken or adrenalined up, we proceeded with the class as we waited for the police to arrive. Personally, I was shocked to see how long this took. By the time the police arrived on the scene, around an hour later, the violence was long over and everyone involved was long gone.
It takes the police an hour to show up for a stabbing? A stabbing on public school property, still in the light of day, which transpired directly in front of elementary school children at play?
The next week, one of the Braveheart members I had seen in that circle with a bandana and a baseball bat, appeared at one of our school’s doors while our students were being dismissed.
He was calm and respectful, waiting to pick up his younger cousin, one of my students.
Darien, Panama: 2011
One of my closest friends from college went into the Peace Corps at the same time I went into TFA. On break periods during the second year of our respective programs, we visited each other’s very new worlds.
In spring of 2011, I flew into Panama City to meet up with her. We wouldn’t linger in the city for long, however, as we soon embarked on an eight-hour bus ride to the remote Darien Province, where she then lived and worked.
Our bus was local, “un Diablo Rojo,” essentially an old, decommissioned US school bus that had received a festive new exterior paint job. Once out of the big city, the beauty of the landscape we drove through was stunning. I was shocked to see many local passengers shamelessly tossing their empty plastic soda bottles, among all sorts of other trash, directly out of the bus’s windows as we drove for hours along the lush Central American scenery.
At the time, many American Peace Corps volunteers were placed in Panama. But my friend was one of only a few who were placed in the Darien. This is because the Darien is a high-risk area, for a dizzying confluence of factors.
Consider, for starters, The Pan American Highway. This stretch of paved road, a marvel of sorts in terms of modern global infrastructure, spans from northern Alaska all the way down to southern Argentina. It constitutes 19,000 miles of highway. That is, with one single exception: the Darien Gap.(18)
The Darien Gap refers to a 60-mile sort of unofficial no-man’s land on both sides of the border separating Panama and Colombia. This 60-mile stretch of jungle remains so profoundly complicated, so genuinely treacherous, that to this very day, there remain no paved roads through this place.
In fact, the Darien Gap is considered to be one of the most dangerous patches of jungle on Earth.(19)
One of the primary reasons contributing to this, is the simple fact that many, many people around the world enjoy using, and/or are addicted to using narcotics.
Those narcotics have to come from somewhere.
Colombia, to this day, retains its title as the world’s single most prolific exporter of cocaine. In the United States in the year 2020, no less than 89% of all cocaine seized by law enforcement was of Colombian origin.(20)
For many decades now, cocaine has been transported out of Colombia and delivered into the eager, well-paying hands of millions of Americans and Europeans through an elaborate array of creative avenues. Some of those many routes include travel by foot and by boat through the Darien jungle, crossing over the land border of Colombia and into Panama.
FARC, the decades-old Colombian paramilitary terrorist organization, continues to control of much of the drug-smuggling operating out of the Darien. But FARC isn’t only running drugs through this neck of the jungle, they also transport illegal weapons to be trafficked further north as well.(19)
And FARC now has competition. With this quantity of money at stake, new generations of organized criminals have brought their guns, and their willingness to murder for money to the Darien. A rising paramilitary gang called Los Urabenos, capitalizing on its connections with Mexico’s preeminent Sinaloa Cartel, has successfully taken a bite out of FARC’s Darien territory, “seizing control of lucrative routes along the Caribbean coast.”(19)
But, the paramilitary groups smuggling drugs and illegal weapons are not the only criminal networks transporting their merchandise through the Darien.
Professional human-trafficking operations thrive here as well.
Juan Gomez, a Colombian journalist and migration expert, estimates that as many as 100,000 migrants cross from Colombia into Panama every year. Ultimately, these migrants are aspiring to illegally cross into the United States. But first, they will have to surpass many other nation’s borders, and many other unfathomable risks.(21)
In the end, very few will make it all the way to the US border.
These migrants come from all over the world. Most of the Africans first fly to Brazil. Most of the Middle-Easterners and Asians first fly to Ecuador. Both of these countries require little to no legal paperwork or hassle to enter. From there, the migrants either walk or pay to have themselves human-trafficked into northern Colombia. From there, they will make the single most perilous part of the entire epic journey: passing through the Darien Gap.(21)(22)
As our Diablo Rojo finally reached the Darien, our packed bus was held up at multiple security checkpoints. At our first stop, a grim looking man in military uniform, brandishing a long gun, stepped up onto the bus and did a quick scan of the passengers. He quickly locked eyes with me, the only White passenger onboard, incidentally also a good foot taller than anyone else aboard. He beaconed me forward.
I stood up from my seat in the back and walked up to him. He had me step off the bus, and asked for my passport. He took it over to a table under a tent alongside the road and made some notes. Then he let me back on the bus. The bus moved on, and this same process was soon repeated once more at a second checkpoint. I asked my friend what she thought this was about. She explained two factors at play. First, if I was a drug dealer or smuggler of some sort, they would have a record of my entering the area. Second, that if I were to be kidnapped, their notes may provide a useful record of where I was last seen.
Both traveling hikers and Christian missionaries have a well-established history of getting kidnapped, or simply shot dead on the spot, for the offense of having accidentally ventured into FARC or other paramilitary territory in the Darien Gap. Sometimes these groups mark the borders of their own self-proclaimed jungle property with the human skulls of their victims.(19)
After the checkpoints, we soon made it to the village where my friend lived and got settled in. Over the course of the days to come, she gave me a tour of the area, starting with several of the schools where she worked as an English teacher.
We visited several other small villages in the area, some of which could only be reached by boat. Waiting to get onboard one afternoon, I noticed a massive color poster the government had displayed at our transit point. It was a huge “Wanted” poster, featuring the mug-shots of around twenty high-value criminals in the area. By instinct, I reached for my camera to get a shot of it. My friend quickly shut me down. Not here. Not of that.
On my last full day in the Darien, we decided to do an off-the-grid hike into the jungle. To be clear, while we would not be far from it, we would technically not be inside of the Darien Gap, simply in Panama’s side of the broader Darien jungle.
To get to a desirable entrance point, away from the village where my friend lived, we walked south down the region’s single paved roadway. Soon nearing the literal end of the road, where the pavement stops and the Gap begins, we entered the tree line cautiously and quietly, each with machete in hand.
This particular hike was the most exhilarating and nerve-racking of any I’ve experienced. But the truth is, although I was certainly aware of the drug-smuggling, at that time I was oblivious to the reality of the human-trafficking and the actively warring, arms-trafficking para-military groups in the general area.
Really, what my friend and I were both primarily on alert for as we breached the jungle’s doors, were animal, rather than human threats.
Unaware of what I was truly getting myself into, I was scanning for large, visible predators, whom in actuality were probably very unlikely to bother us during the daylight. But still, Wisconsin-boy walking around the tropical jungle forest, I couldn’t help but fully conceptualize the fact that actual real-life jaguars live here, for example. I’d never gotten into a machete fight with a jaguar before, you see, and I wasn’t exactly sure how that would shake out.
But my friend, who had lived in the Darien for well over a year by this point, who had developed relationships with the local people, and who had spent some degree of time in these forests, she was in tune with what we actually needed to be looking out for.
Turns out that in these parts, the animal danger tends to come far more frequently in the form of the small stuff.
The Darien jungle is home to venomous spiders, venomous frogs, venomous scorpions, and venomous snakes.
Also, there’s the matter of the mosquitos, who can become rather consequential. Yellow Fever, Zika Virus, Malaria and Dengue Fever are all in the cards here from a single aberrant mosquito bite. Hot and steamy as it was, we covered ourselves head to toe in long-sleeves accordingly.
We hiked, eyes and ears wide open, machetes at the ready, for a solid afternoon. At one point, approaching the deepest point we’d have the courage to traverse before turning back, we discovered a handmade, wooden foot-bridge, somewhat precariously suspended over a small river below.
We spot this raggedy thing in the middle of all the lush green foliage, and quickly decide there’s no way we’re not trying to cross it. My friend goes first, and I snap a few photos of her posing at the half-way point. I’m thrilled at how freaking cool these shots look. She’ll take some of me next. For a moment I’m thrown out of the present, imagining how impressed my young American students are going to be by how much more badass these machete-wielding, sketchy-wooden-jungle-bridge photos will make me appear to them than I actually merit.
My friend walks carefully back from the bridge’s slightly drooping center to where I’m standing at its entrance point. As I begin to tentatively make my own way across, each hand tightly grasping the bridges handrails made of well worn, fraying brown rope, we begin to hear and sense some degree of commotion coming from above.
What the hell? Our eyes shoot up to the sky, but it’s the jungle, so you can’t see the sky.
What we did see, to our great surprise, was a pack of at least 3-4 black monkeys descending quickly upon us from the towering treescape above our heads.
The approximate size of a human toddler apiece, these things were coming at us fast, and although we don’t exactly speak the same language, it was pretty clear to us what they were communicating: “Get the fuck out of here, now! NOW!”
Still frozen still in the middle of the bridge, I pivoted the camera slung around my neck upward towards the monkey immediately closest above my head, probably 10-15 yards directly above me. I snapped a few quick shots, then calmly and quietly made my way back to firm ground.
Having no idea if these screaming strangers would actually pounce on us or not, we decided this was probably a good point to call it a day. This ended up being perfectly appropriate timing in any case, as we needed to give ourselves enough time to get out of the wild and back onto the road before dark.
But even having reached the relative safety of the region’s single paved road, the long walk back to my friend’s village presented at least one new addition animal safety concern: the dogs. Vile, aggressive, disease-ridden, wild dogs. As we made the trek back to my friend’s shack, she taught me how to pick up medium sized rocks along the side of the road. If a wild dog charges you, which is known to happen, your best chance is to peg it before it gets too close. I remember slightly chuckling to myself at how ridiculous I felt in this moment. I had just minutes ago been in that jungle, where God knows what could have happened. But in all honesty, I was way more afraid of the fucking dogs than of anything else that whole day.
Walking on the highway, now in full darkness, we at least did not have to worry about traffic. Driving is strictly prohibited here after dark. If you’re caught driving at night, you get arrested. This is simply another counter narco-trafficking, counter human-trafficking, and counter paramilitary arms-trafficking strategy at play here in Panama’s Darien.
In August of 2011, Tropical Storm Irene was fast approaching the New Jersey coastline. I lived in Jersey City at the time. We were not right on the water, but we were not far from it either. At the last minute, I decided to evacuate, just in case.
Not particularly loving the idea of staying in a mediocre hotel by myself somewhere in central Pennsylvania, I opted to head all the way home to Wisconsin. I got up unconscionably early in the morning, and drove the seventeen-hour journey straight, by myself.
Somewhere in the middle of Indiana, I got pulled over by a police officer. To be clear, I was speeding. I believe I was going about eighty-three in a seventy zone.
A White police officer who appeared even younger than myself approached my car, and before I could even say anything, he was clearly fuming.
“Why are you driving so fast?!” He asked aggressively.
“Well, I live in New Jersey, and as you may have seen on the news, there is a huge storm coming. I’m trying to get back to Wisconsin to stay with my family for a few days.”
“Doesn’t matter!!” He yelled in my face, and stormed off back to his vehicle.
Now look, I was thinking. I accept that I was speeding. I was pulled over for a legitimate reason. I’m not disputing the grounds for the stop, and I haven’t been disrespectful towards this officer in any way. But this officer, as the so-called “professional” in the situation, is in truth behaving more like a petulant boy than a stable, grown-man.
Why bother asking me why I was speeding, if you’re just going to be a dick about it anyway? Especially when the reason I gave you was NOT, “Oh, sorry, I’m running late to work today.”
To be clear, I’m not saying that he should have let me off without the speeding ticket. I accepted the ticket.
What I do not accept, is that police officers have the right to behave unprofessionally and disrespectfully to ordinary, cooperative civilians, especially when those people are being honest with them and have just in good faith informed them that they may have been in a bit of a spot that particular afternoon. You know, because sometimes you just happen to find yourself unexpectedly driving halfway across the country alone in one stretch to avoid a natural disaster.
Newark, New Jersey: 2011-2013
The two years I went on to spend teaching in Newark constituted the most meaningful, and also the most intense period of my adult life.
A charismatic, whirlwind of a young leader was Mayor of the city at that time. His name was Cory Booker. Booker grew up in Harrington Park, New Jersey; twenty miles north of Newark. To certain residents of Newark, this meant Booker was nothing more than a crusading outsider.
Cory Booker is a straight, Christian, Black Democrat. When Booker first ran for Mayor of Newark in 2002, the popular, corrupt, long-reigning incumbent Mayor of the city, Sharpe James, publicly stated that Cory Booker was a gay, Jewish, White Republican.(22)
If Cory Booker, a Black man from New Jersey was considered by many in Newark to be a carpet-bagger, what might the local residents have thought about someone like myself? I was a young, White male from Wisconsin. It’s completely accurate to note that prior to my experience teaching in Newark, I had very little meaningful experience engaging with Black communities. I grew up in a predominantly White family, in predominantly White neighborhoods, and went to predominantly White public schools.
After having completed two years of teaching in Passaic, an environment that exemplified the disfunction and decay of what many pubic district schools have become in America’s inner cities, I was ready for a change. I wanted to teach in Newark, and I wanted to teach in a building where the staff were all on board with the same ambitious mission for its students that I felt motivated by. I wanted to teach in a building where decisions were made both logically, and also in accordance with what would lead to the best results for our kids. This is how I ended up at a charter school.
Hired to teach middle school American History, I was all in. As we worked over the summer to plan for the coming academic year, I learned the school did not have a curriculum for my subject. I was encouraged to create my own scope and sequence of lessons, my own unit plans, my own lesson plans, all of my own daily student materials, and all of the student assessments I would have to administer, almost exclusively from scratch. I did not realize how massive of an ask this was at the time. But up front, I was ok with it, as it would truly give me the control and autonomy to make my classroom my own.
I soon found myself working seven days a week, and over eighty hours every week total. I accepted that this was simply what it took to do the job right. Our average incoming middle school student, after all, was still reading on an early elementary school level. Extraordinary results require extraordinary effort. I embraced this, as did the phenomenally talented grade level team I was a part of. Everybody around me worked all of the time, it was an unquestioned part of the mission-oriented culture of the organization that had hired us.
But, well intended focus on diligent academic mastery aside, it soon became devastatingly obvious to me that schools such as the one I found myself in, serving some of the most holistically vulnerable children in America, were in many respects putting the cart before the horse.
One of the most tragic lessons I learned in my two years teaching in Newark, is that American public schools, especially those in high-poverty, low-opportunity neighborhoods, are simply not equipped to deal with the single greatest factor inhibiting our student’s ability to truly flourish: trauma. Deep, unaddressed, persistent, toxic trauma. Most schools do not have the necessary staff, the monetary resources, or even the willingness among the leadership to get anywhere close to addressing the reality of our student’s psychological needs.
My school in Newark did employ a full-time counselor of outstanding quality. But even one outstanding professional, for a school full of over four hundred students, simply could not go beyond scratching the surface of the deep need a school like ours had for proper mental health support.
Now, what precisely was at the source of the widespread trauma my students in Newark faced? It’s multifaceted, of course. But here are just a few baseline realities about the neighborhood these kids were growing up in.
In the part of Newark where our school was located, housing options are terrible, for starters. Some of my kids lived in high-rise public housing projects that had been in a state of decline far before the kids were even born. Kids growing up in some of these old and unmaintained buildings are much more likely to develop asthma, for example.(23) Many other kids lived in very old homes with significant structural issues that many families did not have the financial means to address, such as cracks around windows which streamed cold air inside 24/7, even through the dead of winter. Many of these homes are in neighborhoods with an enormous amount of abandoned properties.(24) On many of the streets surrounding our school, up to 50% of the homes on any given block had been completely deserted.
Then, there’s the issue of food access. Many of Newark residents live in food deserts, without reasonable access to affordable, nutritious food.(25) As a result, highly-processed junk-food products from corner stores often become the default shopping option, especially as 40% of Newark residents do not own a car.(26)
On top of all this, my kids were coming to school to learn every day, while simultaneously carrying the burden of living in one of the most violent cities in America.(27)
Police were omnipresent, but of course, the perspective around whether or not their presence was actually helping make the community safer was legitimately up for debate. One of my first lessons on how crime and policing worked in our neighborhood came from an administrator at my school. One of my first days on the job, this individual told me a story of an incident that took place during one of the previous school years.
A neighborhood man, likely a severe drug addict, broke one of the school’s windows and entered the building, intending to steal some of our student’s laptops. The administrator called the police, but the police told them they would not come out for something this minor.
Instead, the Newark police told this administrator at a local middle school to take matters into their own hands. If the thief returned, the police told the administrator, they should kick his ass on the spot. Deal with it yourself.
One day during my first school year in Newark, I was working in the school building on a Sunday. My classroom was up on the third floor. When I walked down to the main level around 5:00pm to head home, a school administrator asked me if I had heard all of the commotion. I had not. Turns out, another person had just smashed a window and entered our building on the main level to steal computers from the school while I was working upstairs. The administrator, baseball bat in hand, chased after the man along with another teacher who had been on that floor. This was all viewed as being so minor that I don’t even think the rest of the staff heard about it when they returned to school the following morning.
One of the staff members at the school who I admired most was a Latino man from Newark who made sure everything in the building worked properly. He was super muscular, practiced martial arts, and had many impressive arm tattoos. He was the physical opposite of my skinny, bookish self.
About a block away from our school was a little corner store. We had meetings after school every day, and sometimes teachers would go over there and get sodas or chips for the meetings. On my way over there one day after school, I passed this guy and asked him if he wanted to come over to the store with me. He calmly said something to the effect of, “Oh, thanks, but I don’t go over there.”
I didn’t get it. What do you mean you don’t go over there? He told me that the previous school year, he did go over to buy something from the store. As he opened the door to leave, someone started shooting at someone else right there on the sidewalk, he almost walked right into the middle of it. He said that he froze, and the man behind the counter in the corner store ran over and pulled him out of the doorway back inside, likely saving his life. That’s why he doesn’t go over there anymore.
About two blocks the other direction from the school is a small pizza place. I worked late regularly at the school, and sometimes I would take a break to walk over there for dinner. One early morning, driving into school, I noticed something different about the pizza place. It had yellow police tape all over it, and had dozens of candles and little stuffed teddy bears piled up in front of the door. I checked the newspaper online and read that the night before, a man entered the shop during peak evening hours and shot and killed the fifty-five year old Chef behind the counter.(28)
I had physically been in that very shop four nights before the murder. No arrest was made.
My school was also very close to what, at the time, had long been considered one of the most notorious high schools in the state of New Jersey.
I read a book written by a man named Dashaun Morris, a former student there, who ended up in prison after diving head first into one of Newark’s gangs.(29) According to Morris, more students in this school were gang-affiliated than were not. The school itself was apparently a major recruiting ground. Most kids entered the school with no gang involvement, but most kids left the school gang-affiliated.
The middle school I taught at would dismiss its students around the same time that this high school would dismiss theirs. Fairly regularly, there would be a fight on the sidewalk or street outside the high school, often surrounded by a hundred or so cheering onlookers. Sometimes police would get involved, sometimes they wouldn’t.
One afternoon, I watched the police try to apprehend one of these street-sparing high schoolers, but he took off running and easily outpaced the two sluggish cops who were after him. In a matter of moments, the runner came to a stop in the street just 10-15 yards directly in front of our middle school’s front entrance. A massive, chaotic crowd of jeering high schoolers was following the runner in the street, as were the police. We had well over 100 middle schoolers right there on the sidewalk waiting to be picked up watching this all unfold at close range.
When the cops finally caught up to this teenager, one of them grabbed him by the arm. The moment this happened, we hear the voice of a woman screaming out of her apartment window nearby.
“Police brutality! Police brutality!” She yelled over and over.
I was thoroughly confused. I watched the whole thing with my own eyes. I was doing the mental math...1.The kid was clearly in a street fight. 2.The Police tried to arrest or detain him; he chose to resist and flee. 3. He eventually stopped running and let the Police catch up to him. 4. The Police caught up to him and grabbed him by the arm.
Upon what possible grounds might this be considered, “Police brutality?”
Sometime during the winter of my first school year in Newark, I started driving around new parts of my school’s neighborhood that I had never been to. I wanted to see and understand more of what life was like for my students growing up in this neighborhood. I began photographing images that struck me and I tried my best to conduct my own online research to go deeper into learning about some of the dynamics, for better and for worse, that were at play in what I was witnessing.
I learned a lot on my evenings driving alone through Newark. I saw posters the police created and put up all over the city. These posters advertised a $10,000 reward to anyone who called in with information leading to the conviction of any of the city’s many murderers who were never arrested and continued to walk around free.
In fact, I was stunned to learn in Newark, 80% of people who commit murder, get away with murder.(30)
This was simply baffling to me. I did understand that some residents withhold vital information from police regarding murders they harbor knowledge about for understandable reasons. Some people have legitimate safety concerns about the prospect of speak outing. In many parts of Newark, if you have knowledge of a shooter on your block, that shooter very well may have knowledge about you too. Cooperating with police in this context could be legitimately dangerous. I get that.
Yet, this simply can’t be the dynamic in every single unsolved murder case.
The reason why the police put out an offer for a $10,000 reward is due to the uncomfortable fact that many residents in places like Newark distrust and hate the police so much, that they ultimately choose to align themselves with the most dangerous violent predators in their own neighborhoods, rather than communicating (even anonymously) with American law enforcement to help close unresolved murder cases.
Graffiti messages to “Stop Snitchin” are all over Newark. My middle school students grew up in a neighborhood culture which largely encouraged them to avoid and evade contact with police no matter what the situation. Many were taught, if you have actionable evidence about a crime, even a violent crime, keep it secret. Don’t tell the police.
As a White kid growing up in mostly White neighborhoods in Wisconsin; I accepted the narrative that my family, schools, and the general media I consumed taught me about police. It was pretty simple and it goes a little something like this: Police = Good Guys. Criminals = Bad Guys. That seemed pretty straight forward. But of course, as I gradually became exposed to new information as I grew older, in particular through years of working with students, families and colleagues of color, the simplistic narrative I was raised with regarding police grew progressively more complicated.
Take the issue of the extreme levels of gun-homicide in a city like Newark. As a teacher there studying this issue, I learned that the overwhelming majority of the gun violence in cities like Newark actually comes down to one thing: the illegal drug trade.
Unfortunately, as it currently stands in places like Newark, the market for illegal drugs in and of itself creates an extraordinary level of violence which would almost certainly decline in its absence. At the time I was teaching in Newark, I learned that most murder victims, and most murder perpetrators, are young men who’ve dedicated their lives to making money off of selling products like heroin and crack to the mothers, the grandfathers and the students of their community.
I recall Mayor Booker at the time explaining that Newark and Baltimore shared a common struggle in this respect. Why all the gun-violence? Why all the killing?
Well, as it happens, choosing to become a drug-dealer in a place like Newark or Baltimore means you’re signing yourself up for a high likelihood of violent death at a young age.
The overwhelming majority of homicide in Newark and in Baltimore consists, quite simply, of drug-dealers killing other rival drug-dealers.(31) The drug-trade is certainly not all of it, but it is the statistical majority.
This being the case, I was shocked to learn and observe how indifferent Newark police were in enforcing drug laws.
Driving around the city on a regular basis, mostly on Friday nights, I came to discover many different blocks and corners that served as open-air drug markets. They operated 24/7, seemingly without a care in the world for who was around or who was watching them commit felonies.
There was one house in particular, about a block from my school, that amazed me with its brazenness. Literally every single day, the men outside would see that I was a White man driving by, and they’d call out to me with their signature, “Yerrooo!”
Their main product was heroin. This happened so many times I just got used to it. But one day, as I turned onto the block, I saw a police car parked on the side of the road. An officer was in the driver seat, but the cars lights were not on. I drove by, and sure enough, “Yerrooo!” the men outside the house beckon me to stop. I kept driving, stunned. There was an American police officer about twenty yards away, looking directly unto this scene. The men offered to sell me hard drugs, and the cop didn’t do a thing. Months later, this exact same scenario happened again at the exact same spot.
I decided to test this further. For a period of about two months, every time someone offered to sell me drugs in Newark, I wrote down the exact location in a small notebook I kept in my car. Then I called the cops. Let’s say this resulted in probably 15-20ish calls to the police. Every single time, without fail, I was connected with a bored, couldn’t-be-bothered Newark police officer. In all of these conversations, in which I provided the exact geographic location of where a felony had just occurred, nothing happened. Perhaps once or twice, they said they’d “Send a car over there.” But that was it. I was baffled at their indifference. I stopped calling.
One day driving around in the South Ward of Newark, I was racially profiled by a police officer.
Shortly before, I had pulled into an empty parking lot, flanked by what appeared to be long abandoned industrial buildings. I went in because of a piece of interesting graffiti I noticed. I pulled in, rolled down my window, and reached for my camera. As I turned back upright, a thin Black man, probably eighteen, stepped right up to my car.
“What chu fuck with?” He asked slowly.
Not understanding him at first, I said, “Sorry?”
He repeated, “What chu fuck with? Diesel? Pills? Weed?”
“Oh, no.” I said. “I’m just trying to take a picture of that wall.” He looked confused, then just walked away.
I kept driving. About fifteen minutes later I was on a residential block, and there was a police car parked on the side of the road with no lights on. I turned, but then realized I might have missed a block that I could have seen if I had kept straight. I looped back around and went back up the same street, past the cop car. Right then, the cop turns on their lights and sirens and speeds up. I pulled over to the right, assuming they must have gotten a call, I was trying to get out of their way. Instead of jetting past me, the cop swerved in front of my car, boxing me in. What the hell? I thought.
I rolled down my window. A Black, female officer got out of her car and approached me. She was not happy with me already, and I didn’t understand why.
“What are you looking for?!?” She yelled, aggressively.
“Ah, sorry, I’m not looking for anything.”
“I just saw you drive around here twice! What are you looking for?!?”
“I don’t know what to tell you, I’m not looking for anything. I’m a teacher around here and I’m just driving around trying to learn about the neighborhood. I’m taking some pictures too...”
“Well...I’m not racist, but you see a White boy driving around here and a lot of people gonna think he lookin’ for drugs.”
“Oh, yeah, ok. Well, that’s not what I’m doing.”
“Ok now, well don’t drive around here!” She yells at me.
“Sorry...are you telling me that, as an American citizen, I’m not allowed to drive my car...on the road?”
“No! I’m just saying you shouldn’t be in this neighborhood!”
“Ok, got it. Thank you.”
She returned to her car and drove off. I kept driving around for a few more hours.
16. Teach For America
17. Photography of Braveheart gang graffiti in Passaic, New Jersey
18. 19,000 miles of the Pan American Highway is broken only by a 60-mile gap in the Darien jungle
19. Darien Gap: one of Earth’s most dangerous jungles
20. In 2021, Colombia remains the top global producer/exporter of cocaine. 89% of cocaine seized by law enforcement in US in 2020 came from Colombia.
21. Estimated 100,000 migrants attempt to cross the Darien Gap annually, intending to eventually illegally cross the US southern border
22. Newark’s popular long-term Mayor Sharpe James calls his younger competitor, Cory Booker: “gay,” “White,” “Jewish,” & “Republican”
23. How poor, unmaintained housing exacerbates asthma in children
24. Newark’s abandoned property problem
25. Food deserts in Newark
26. 40% of Newark residents do not own a car
27. 2012: Newark ranks 5th in all of America for “Cities with the Highest Rates of Gun-Related Homicides (per 100,000 people)”
28. Murder in Pizza Newark parlor
29. Memoir of former Newark gang-member
30. 80% of murderers in Newark get away with murder
31. Majority of murders in Baltimore are drug-dealers killing other drug-dealers