A recent piece by Boston Globe Columnist Kevin Cullen, titled “Three Strikes and He Was Out On Streets Again,” is horrifyingly misguided, but if you can stomach it, it’s worth reading in order to think through the political understandings underlying the argument.
The author writes of the man killed by police two days ago in Roxbury, MA that “guys like Angelo West don’t get out of prison…and take apartments in the Seaport, [a wealthy area of rapid development in Boston]…they come back to neighborhoods like Roxbury” and that residents should direct their anger at “a criminal justice system that allows people like Angelo West…to flit in and out of jail like some kind of way station, a minor inconvenience.”
This, when the premise of Cullen’s piece is that West was so determined not to return to jail that he was willing to give up his life to avoid that fate. Now, there’s no evidence of this assertion, unless you believe Cullen has access to a murdered man’s final thoughts, but this contradictory argument comes from the fact that the author cannot bring himself to acknowledge West’s humanity. However, the truth is that West was just as human as the author and acted with the same considerations Cullen, you, or me, use to make decisions. To believe otherwise is to embrace the hold racist imagery has over you. It’s to imagine a black man is not human, but animal, with mental processes that function fundamentally differently than the rest of humanity.
As to the former quote, with Cullen decrying (guys, he’s on your side!) West’s return to Roxbury, Cullen elides the critique implicit in his statement. First, it’s important to break down just what Cullen means by “guys like Angelo West.” While the author would likely be the first to assert that his phrase means “criminals” or “monsters,” and not “poor black men,” this claim fails any test of logic. Wealthy white criminals often return to their life of wealth and independence immediately upon release from prison, that is, if they’re even forced to serve time in the first place (spoiler alert: they almost never are) .
“Sure,” one can imagine Cullen saying, conceding the point, decades-long crime reporter that he is, “but I meant monsters, the real dangers to society.” To this I’d point him no further abroad than the case of our hometown boy, Mark Wahlberg. At 15, Wahlberg attacked black school children, throwing rocks at them while shouting racial slurs, and at 16, he blinded a Vietnamese man, and once apprehended by police, shouted racial slurs at the man in their presence. Wahlberg is now famously seeking a pardon from the state for his crimes, and most interesting for the purposes of this piece, is his citing the problems his criminal record is causing for his business ventures. If even a white celebrity feels the heat of discrimination that comes with a record, we can only imagine what this means for those without household names.
So, here we have a clear cut case of a heartless monster, yelling racial epithets as his victim bled on the ground, and yet, I doubt Cullen supports re-incarcerating Wahlberg, just in case he returns to his old ways.
Similarly, Cullen wrote a cringe-inducing puff piece for the Boston Globe on New York Police Commissioner William Bratton in the wake of the killing of two NYPD officers. In this article, we see Bratton getting a shoe shine in Manhattan and having inebriated men “broomed” by a few cops because of their “obnoxious behavior,” all without having to get out of his chair.
“Classic Bratton,” Cullen writes. Know what else is classic Bratton? Overseeing a police department that drives motorcycles through a law-abiding crowd, injuring dozens in the process. Yet, from my investigation into Cullen’s bylines, he’s never written of the necessity of reforming the criminal justice system to ensure Police Commissioners like Bratton serve jail time for such massacres. This is unsurprising for most of us, however, because when we read “guys like Angelo West,” we know that Cullen actually means poor black men, which ultimately amounts to black people, when you realize that one in three black men are in the criminal justice system at any given moment. While black women aren’t jailed at the same rate as black men, they are incarcerated at three times the rate of white women, and within a patriarchal society that continues to view women as mere appendages of men, they are often penalized for any romantic, familial, or even accidental association with black men labelled criminal, suffering incarceration, surveillance, or theft of their property by the state, a process known as asset-forfeiture.
Now that we’ve disambiguated “guys like Angelo West” to mean “poor black men,” Cullen’s statement translates to “poor black men don’t get out of prison and…take apartments in the Seaport,” and it becomes a truism, a descriptive statement of the structural conditions of our society rather than any commentary on West’s proclivities and choices. “Neighborhoods like Roxbury” are the necessary obverse to the image Boston’s elites sell the world. A racialized and concentrated space of poverty, “neighborhoods like Roxbury” are the only place most poor black individuals with criminal records can move. Banking, mortgage, and insurance companies ensure this in a discriminatory process called ‘redlining’ which continues to this day. Contextualize his mythical “guys like West” in a structurally racist and geographically segregated city like Boston and Cullen’s statement turns into an admission of these societally-sanctioned constraints. Add in well-documented employer discrimination against black job applicants, and applicants with criminal records, which shows that white men with criminal records are more likely to be hired than black men without records, and you have a system pushing the black population into impossible circumstances.
West was free to choose how to respond to these conditions and on Friday it seems he chose to shoot an officer, but we can acknowledge this while discussing how his choices were shaped by this reality. The reason he was tailed and stopped by police, while I, a white person who lives less than a mile from where he was killed, have never been similarly stopped, is because of the BPD’s racially discriminatory practices. In telling Roxbury residents to focus on criminal justice reform, Kevin Cullen reveals his complete lack of information about these residents. Many of them already focus on criminal justice reform. Their goals range from reform to prison abolition, which many see as the only way to shake off the occupying force that patrols their neighborhoods. To Cullen, and readers who still find his narrative compelling, I recommend you read the links in this article before dismissing those who argue that Angelo West’s murder does, in fact, have everything to do with black lives mattering.