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Former Prosecutor Gets Arrested to See the Other Side of US Criminal Justice System

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Bobby Constantino, a former prosecutor from privileged background, lays bare the racism and inequities of the US American criminal justice system.


JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

The scales of justice guarantee equal protection under the law—at least that’s how it’s supposed to work in this country. In May 2012, a former prosecutor and public defender set out to test that theory for himself, and what he experienced was very instructive. As a well-dressed white businessman flagrantly and publicly breaking the law, it was almost impossible for him to get arrested for his crimes. His name is Bobby Constantino, and he’s now joining us.

As we mentioned, he’s a former prosecutor, public defender, currently the executive director of the Truth Artists Coalition. He chronicled his experiences for The Atlantic magazine in the piece “I Got Myself Arrested So I Could Look Inside the Justice System”.

Thank you so much for joining us, Bobby.


NOOR: So talk about why you carried this out. And some people have called it a stunt. You walked from Brooklyn to City Hall with a can of spray paint in your hand trying to get yourself arrested. Talk about why you did this.

CONSTANTINO: So it was sort of like the culmination of a long career in trying to work within the system to bring about some changes to the things that I had seen early on when I started my career as a prosecutor ten years ago.

I was, you know, a guy from the suburbs. I went to law school. Where I was from, you know, the police were always our friends. They always give us the benefit of the doubt. They always treated us well. You know, if we were arrested or targeted, or even convicted of crime, it’s because we really, really screwed up and did something wrong—someone would drive drunk and get into an accident and hurt someone, or, you know, someone get addicted to drugs and then would break into a neighbor’s house and steal all of their belongings. Those are the kinds of things that got us in trouble in the suburbs. And so, accordingly, we always viewed the police and criminal justice system as our allies and friends.

And so I went into, you know, criminal prosecution with the mindset of anybody that’s getting treated in a poor way by the police must have done something wrong. You know, whatever they’re getting, their deserving. And that’s sort of how I arrived in the inner-city neighborhood of Roxbury, which is in Boston, sort of ready to incarcerate anyone that I could get my hands on.

And then very quickly I realized, from very early on, that, you know, maybe one or two or three cases a week or a month were really important, and in between all of those cases I was prosecuting young men of color for doing all the same things that we did as kids in the suburbs and that we never, ever got prosecuted for—you know, smoking marijuana, getting into an argument in the street, cutting through a neighbor’s yard, riding out dirt bikes through the street, and things like that. And so I was really sort of in shock of all of the things that I was seeing happening there, and so I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew I couldn’t do that anymore.

And so I resigned, and I started working in different capacities within the system to try and change the things that I had seen, to try and raise awareness about the fact that the things that we were told in the suburbs growing up weren’t really true. You know, this concept of people in places like the inner city aren’t all criminals. They aren’t all getting what they deserve. The police there are treating them very differently than how they treated treated us in places where I grew up.

And so I worked in many different capacities. I worked as a public defender. I started a nonprofit in the court system that helped young men with felony convictions get jobs and find work in exchange for getting credit for the money they owed to the court system. I worked at a policy think tank in New York City helping states, you know, reform their corrections systems using national best practices.

And after a while I just sort of realized that a lot of what we were doing was making a living off the problem. We were—you know, don’t get me wrong. A lot of those organizations do very important work. You know, lawsuits [incompr.] reports and data are very important. It just felt that we were really not going the distance. We weren’t doing what needed to be done to change what was really driving these inequities in the justice system.

And so sort of out of the frustration and exasperation, I just felt that I had to do something honest, I had to do something real. I wanted to really protest but I was seeing in a way that went beyond sort of just making a living at some, you know, organization and doing it that way. And that’s sort of how I decided that I wanted to get arrested, I wanted to do an act of protest against stop-and-frisk.

But at the same time as I was walking through Brownsville that day, I really just wanted to see what would happen to me. I wanted to see what the system was really like. I’ve toured many facilities in jails and prisons throughout my career. I’ve visited clients. I’d seen how the official version of events happens inside the criminal justice system. But I’d never seen it for myself. I think that was a big shortcoming in the way that I viewed the world and the way that I viewed the system. So I went through it that day to kind of do both things, to test what would happen.

I never in 1,000 years expected that it would take me a week to get arrested. I wore a suit that day because I expected to go to court and get arraigned that day. I expected that when I broke the law, when I painted, or whenever I did whatever I was going to do to get arrested right in of the police and right in front of the City Hall security, I was going to get taken in, no questions asked.

And so it really was sort of an accident that this ended up turning into a sort of almost supernatural illustration of exactly the things that I was trying to set out to show people like me existed. And so that in a nutshell is sort of how it all came about.

NOOR: And, Bobby, for our viewers that aren’t familiar with the different neighborhoods in New York City, Brownsville is in the eastern part of Brooklyn, and it’s often been described to have more in common with a Third World country as far as mortality rates. And the incarceration rates are very high. And it’s also one of the neighborhoods that’s ground zero for stop-and-frisk. And so the supporters of stop-and-frisk say it’s colorblind. They go to where the crime is and they target whoever’s committing the crime. They say they don’t target African-American or Latinos, who statistics prove are the ones that are by far being targeted by these policies. So I think it’s really interesting and instructive that you started out in Brownsville and you were committing a crime. You had a can of spray paint with you, and you walked past officers, and you just did not get arrested as you made your way to City Hall.

CONSTANTINO: That’s right. And, you know, I think that that’s the thing that they have sung as the mantra for why this is, you know, legitimate use of police resources, why it’s, you know, worth the cost of violating the rights of more men of color than actually live in the city itself.

But, I mean, I think those of us that have worked in the system really have an obligation to call bullshit. You know, we have an obligation to just say that that’s just a lie. It’s absolutely outrageous. If that was the case, then they would be arresting way more people than they’re saying they were. I mean, 91 percent of these people are found to have done nothing wrong, something like that. It’s like 88 percent, 91 percent, depending upon who sites it. That’s the number. I mean, I think it’s something like 1.5 percent of these things result—these stops resulted in, like, a jail sentence. So, I mean, if it was true that this was, you know, something being targeted towards people that were disproportionately or overwhelmingly committing crimes, those numbers would be way higher. I mean, they would just be way higher. I mean, it just—it boggles the mind to think that that’s the reasoning that’s behind this.

And more importantly, all the best research from all the best institutions, especially from Harvard—David Kennedy, Anthony Braga, these guys have been showing for years that the overwhelming number of youth homicides and youth shootings as a result of gun violence come from less than 1 percent of the population in a very, very, very small geographic area of cities. And so what you’re basically saying if you’re Mayor Bloomberg or Ray Kelly, that I am doing this because I’m stopping people that commit crimes, what you’re basically saying is that you are penalizing 100 percent of communities of color for the actions of less than 1 percent of individuals in those communities.

And I just don’t think that that would fly in any other context. If that ever happened in the suburbs, if you were penalizing 100 percent of white teenagers like me in North Andover, Massachusetts, for the actions of less than 1 percent of us, there would be an all out riot. There would be a revolution that would happen in that town. I mean, you would have people, you know, coming out of the woodwork saying how insane it was. So I just really don’t believe that that’s the case.

I think what’s happening is that they’re scrambling to try and justify these things because they’ve gotten so far out of control, and they’re trying to save face by using that, I think, in my mind, sort of insufficient narrative.

NOOR: So, Bobby, you know, for our viewers, the viewers of The Real News, we’ve covered stop-and-frisk for years. We’ve covered reports by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement that showed that every 28 hours an African-American man or woman is killed either by police or by vigilantes in this country. So on the left, you know, these numbers are known, and it’s—if you’re an African-American living in Brownsville or any other city in this country, you’re not—you know, it’s not news for them, ’cause they live it every day. So talk about who your target demographic was for getting this information out. And I’d say that you’re kind of following those footsteps of this movement that’s arisen going back to Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, to the execution of Troy Davis, to the George Zimmerman trial. Growing numbers of people are almost in revolt in this country against this system. So my question to you is: who are you trying to target, who are you trying to win over with this act of civil disobedience?

CONSTANTINO: Right. I think that one of the unfortunate side effects—and I’m really glad you brought this up. One of the unfortunate side effects of trying to demonstrate to people like me just how real and offensive our amount of privilege is is that I had or I feel that I had to do something that would demonstrate to people like me how offensive our privilege is, how real it is.

Like, check this out. Here is the instance of just how outrageous our privilege is. And one of the, you know, offensive sort of collateral consequences of that is that I’m rubbing it in to all of the young men that live with this on a daily basis that don’t have the luxury like I do of choosing to try and experience the system. They experience the system because they step outside. I think that it’s really, really important that I am able to speak to those people who don’t have that luxury and say I’m really sorry for that perception, I’m sorry that it seems like I’m rubbing it in.

But there are people in suburbs just like me, where I grew up, all over the country that really do believe what I believe when I started out on day one as a prosecutor, which is the police are good to me. They’re my friends. They would never do something like this if someone didn’t deserve it. And in order for them to hear just how untrue that narrative is, they need to hear it from someone they can relate to. They need to hear it from people that they can trust. The reason why these statistics never resonate in suburban areas, the reason why that worldview of


So one of the unfortunate side effects is that in reaching out to people like me, it happens to reinforce just how offensive our level of privilege is. But the reason why I think that that’s necessary and why I have to apologize for that perception as sort of, like, a collateral consequence of this is that people in the suburbs where I grew up, they need to hear it from someone like me to believe it. They don’t have any natural points of contact with young men that experience this reality of police harassment every single day. They don’t have any natural points of communication with them. You know, where I grew up in the suburbs, I could never believe that a place like Roxbury existed. I never spoke to anybody from Roxbury. I didn’t have any friends in Roxbury. When I arrived there to start work, I actually couldn’t believe that 20 years of [incompr.] education had never taught me that this place existed.

And so the reason why the statistics and why the stories often don’t resonate is because people in the places where I’m from, they don’t view that as familiar. You know, they’re taught from an early age that often men from those communities are criminals. They’re dangerous. They’re getting what they deserve. They see the cop shows on TV. They see the movies in Hollywood. You know, they hear the news every night say, shooting here, suiting there. And the narrative that we hear in the suburbs is that these are dangerous places that you should never go. You know.

And then I moved to the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, a place that police would call high-crime, they would call, you know, dangerous place. When I moved there, all of my police colleagues told me I was nuts. And I had the best four years of my life. Never once was I robbed. Never once was I in danger. Never once was I shot at. None of those things. There were a million amazing people and [incompr.] that happened in those neighborhoods that we don’t hear about.

And so it’s really imperative, I think, for people in places like where I’m from to hear from someone that they can relate to, to hear from someone that they can see as one of their own, all of these things that happened or that do happen every day in places like Brownsville and Roxbury. And so, you know, that’s really who I’m trying to target. That’s who I’m trying to speak to. It’s really the silent moderate that Martin Luther King spoke about in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. You know, he almost wrote incredulously, where are you? What are you doing? Where have you been? Like, why can’t you get involved here? Why don’t you see it?

And I think that the honest reason why people don’t see is because they just don’t have any access to it. They don’t have any natural contact to it. And so what I was really trying to do with this is sort of in a very vivid public way bring those two worldviews together so that it couldn’t really be denied.

NOOR: Bobby Constantino, thank you so much for joining us and sharing that story.

CONSTANTINO: Thank you, Jaisal, and keep up the great work.

NOOR: You can follow us at The Real News on Twitter, Tweet questions and comments to me @jaisalnoor.

Thank you so much for joining us.

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