“The Road to Hell is Paved with Coercive Benevolence”: A Review of “Down, Out & Under Arrest”

Jody D. Armour on the problems of "benevolent" policing on L.A.'s Skid Row.

By Jody D. ArmourFebruary 11, 2017

“The Road to Hell is Paved with Coercive Benevolence”: A Review of “Down, Out & Under Arrest”

Down, Out & Under Arrest by Forrest Stuart. University of Chicago Press. 352 pages.

IN Down, Out & Under Arrest: Policing and Everyday Life in Skid Row, Forrest Stuart chronicles his experiences on Los Angeles’s Skid Row — a downtown neighborhood widely considered the United States’s homeless capital — where he embedded himself from 2007 to 2012 to conduct field research on why police officers and residents act, think, and feel the way they do. Skid Row is home to roughly 13,000 mostly undereducated, unemployed, overwhelmingly black (upward of 75 percent) working-age men, many of whom suffer from physical disabilities, mental illness, and addiction. Based on close-up, first-hand observations of the neighborhood’s officers, residents, and advocacy organizations, Stuart reaches an arresting conclusion: in criminal matters, we are, with the best of intentions, digging the graves and deepening the despair of the United States’s most maligned and marginalized citizens.

With punitive “zero tolerance” policies pursued by the Los Angeles Police Department in Skid Row as part of the Safer Cities Initiative (SCI), officers made 9,000 arrests and issued 12,000 citations in 2006 alone. The initiative was meant to “cure” our lowliest neighbors of the personal pathologies deemed responsible for their plight, but that assertion flies in the face of conventional wisdom about why the state inflicts punitive discipline on its citizens. For many critics of mass incarceration or the “New Jim Crow,” the “punitive turn” in criminal justice policies and practices over the last 30-plus years (for instance, charging more offenders as felons and locking them up longer under increasingly harsh conditions) reflects and satisfies a retributive urge in lawmakers, prosecutors, jurors, judges, voters, and cops to punish morally blameworthy wrongdoers and distance them from respectable and law-abiding people. Stuart shows that although this retributive logic explains punitive incarceration, it does not explain punitive policing in Skid Row.

He finds that many Skid Row officers who stop, frisk, cite, arrest, and jail residents do so because they care. These benevolent officers apply coercive force to Skid Row residents to build their character, instill proper values and habits, and channel them to one of the large nonprofit, voluntary social service providers or “mega-shelters” — the Los Angeles Mission, Union Rescue Mission, and Midnight Mission — that can help them overcome the personal deficiencies that produced their dire need. Stuart points out that the partnership between the LAPD and the mega-shelters under the Safer Cities Initiative “converted street-level police contact into an official form of social services intake.” Stuart refers to this punitive but paternalistic brand of policing as “therapeutic policing” — in other words, a crackdown on the down-and-out in the name of rehabilitation rather than retribution. And yet, Stuart concludes, despite its good intentions, such policing only heaps more misery on its intended beneficiaries. In short, he claims that when it comes to policing the poor in downtown Los Angeles (and increasingly in other cities that are following its lead), the road to hell is paved with coercive benevolence.

Stuart attributes our general failure to recognize that state agents can use punitive discipline to express care and concern as well as corrosive contempt to what he calls “prison fetishism,” that is, to the nearly exclusive focus on prisons in criminal justice discussions. He corrects this widespread misconception by showing that the retributive urges and “logics” that lead the criminal justice system to pack bodies into cell blocks at the back end are very different from those that lead police officers to crack down on community members for their own good in Skid Row at the front end. As political agents, local police departments must respond to a unique set of municipal demands and public pressures not faced by other social agents in the criminal justice system. It is a mistake to assume that all facets of the system that impose punitive discipline — police, courts, prisons, probation, parole — follow one unified logic or pursue a uniform purpose. Stuart shows how punitive discipline is a multipurpose hammer that one arm of the government uses to rehabilitate the poor while another arm uses it to exact retribution from the wicked. At bottom, however, both the rehabilitative approach to poor people and the retributive approach to criminals rest on the same flawed reasoning.

How we think about the poor — how we explain their condition — overlaps a lot with how we think about criminals. Being broke, like being a criminal, means being viewed as morally deficient by millions of Americans. Many scholars, pundits, politicians, and ordinary citizens blame poverty not on external social factors or “structural determinants” but on the moral deficiencies of the poor, just as they blame crime not on criminogenic social forces but on morally deficient criminals. Many on the left and the right of the political spectrum reject macro-level social explanations of both poverty and criminality.

Fifty years ago Michael Harrington’s widely influential book, The Other America, debunked the then-popular belief that the United States was a classless society by “exposing” the existence of the “invisible” poor — especially inner-city blacks, Appalachian whites, farm workers, and the elderly. But his explanation absolved middle-class America of accountability for the plight of the poor by attributing their condition not to factors like social inequality or the simple absence of jobs, but to poor people’s lack of proper values and dispositions, that is, to their twisted proclivities and “culture of poverty.” In Harrington’s words:

There is [...] a language of the poor, a psychology of the poor, a worldview of the poor. To be impoverished is to be an internal alien, to grow up in a culture that is radically different from the one that dominates the society.

The celebrated Moynihan Report advanced a similar view, attributing inner-city poverty to deficiencies in the structure of the “Negro family.” Harvard urban government professor Edward C. Banfield — head of the Presidential Task Force on Model Cities under Nixon and advisor to Presidents Ford and Reagan — put it this way:

The lower-class individual lives from moment to moment [...] Impulse governs his behavior [...] He is therefore radically improvident: whatever he cannot consume immediately he considers valueless [... He] has a feeble, attenuated sense of self.

In the Reagan years, the “culture of poverty” hypothesis ripened into plump orthodoxy; as author Barbara Ehrenreich points out, the poor were now viewed as “dissolute, promiscuous, prone to addiction and crime, unable to ‘defer gratification,’ or possibly even set an alarm clock.” Charles Murray, in his popular 1984 book Losing Ground, Ehrenreich notes, argued that “any attempt to help the poor with their material circumstances would only have the unexpected consequence of deepening their depravity.” The Clinton administration adopted this thinking in its decision to roll back welfare state protections for the most downtrodden Americans by abolishing Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 and replacing it with Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF). Indeed, much legislation enacted by both Democratic and Republican lawmakers today continues to reflect the belief that to help the poor we must cure the culture of poverty rather than poverty itself. Therapeutic policing rests on the same premise — it is a punitive intervention calculated to cure Skid Row residents of the culture of poverty rather than provide enough jobs, health care, housing, and public assistance to cure poverty itself.

Like poverty, crime is often viewed as a product of a criminal’s character flaws, not his or her disadvantaged background or any other social circumstance. Based on this logic, it makes no sense to call mass incarceration the “New Jim Crow,” because there is no moral equivalence between respectable, morally innocent black victims of racial segregation like Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks and the disreputable, morally culpable black criminals whose “bad choices” and lack of personal responsibility landed them in prison. For personal responsibility enthusiasts, there is a wide moral gulf between social oppression and self-destruction; in their minds, the analogy between Jim Crow and mass black incarceration holds up only if you ignore or suppress the yawning moral chasm between Medgar, Martin, and Rosa on the one hand, and a gangbanger, dope dealer, and prostitute on the other.

Thus, the shared logic that drives discussions of both rehabilitation for poor people and retribution for criminals is one that discounts macro-level social explanations of crime and poverty and instead adopts individual-level explanations centered on the “moral poverty” of both the poor and criminals, and hence the hyperconcentrated “moral depravity” of poor black criminals, who get whipsawed by both class and race stereotypes. Countering this trend, Stuart’s rich and nuanced sociological analysis locates the source of poverty and criminality in external social factors rather than internal personal deficiencies; in supply rather than demand:

Therapeutic policing tells residents to “get a real job,” even as stable and decently paying employment continues to dwindle. It tells them to “get off the streets,” despite the declining availability of affordable housing. It tells them to “get clean and sober,” despite the continued defunding and privatization of health and rehabilitative services.

This is the key analytical and political battle for progressives going forward: the struggle to focus attention on the structural causes of poverty and crime — to upend the dichotomy between social oppression and self-destruction and reveal the social determinants of self-destructive acts. For instance, in his pioneering work Suicide: A Study in Sociology, Émile Durkheim showed how the seemingly private and even “anti-social” decision to end one’s own existence rather than continue to grunt and sweat under a weary life actually reflects social currents and is, at bottom, primarily a social fact. Once we acknowledge the social roots of poverty and crime, we can fully recognize our collective responsibility for these twin scourges rather than blaming them on the “bad choices” of criminals or the poor. Moreover, such an understanding could curb the retributive urge and temper the rehabilitative but paternalistic urge to cure the culture of poverty through the punitive interventions of patrol officers.

The second major conclusion Stuart draws from his probing ethnographic investigation of Skid Row is that the long arm of the law reaches into the moral, political, and social judgments of community members, coloring their relationships and conditioning how they see their peers, their communities, and themselves. To avoid being mistaken for someone who needs or deserves punitive and paternalistic police intervention, residents engage in what Stuart calls “lateral denigration,” desperately attempting to distinguish and distance themselves from their neighbors by constructing “rigid moral dichotomies” — “respectable” versus “shady,” “decent” versus “street,” or “good” versus “ghetto.” Basically, their mantra to the police is: “Don’t confuse ‘them’ with me.”

Stuart rightly considers lateral denigration a “socially corrosive practice” that sows “distrust and suspicion” among neighbors, erodes social solidarity, and prompts residents to internalize and perpetuate negative stereotypes about community members. Sadly, this socially corrosive practice applies with equal force to people who share a denigrated race as to ones who share a denigrated space. For instance, the logic of lateral denigration figures centrally in the “politics of respectability” approach embraced by some blacks, including black scholars like Harvard’s Randall Kennedy, who, in Race, Crime, and the Law, exhorts law-abiding “good Negroes” to distinguish and distance themselves from law-breaking “bad Negroes” in order to enhance the racial reputation of blacks as a group in the eyes of whites. Those who practice this brand of lateral denigration explain their contempt for black criminals as based purely on morality. But if we look at matters through a sociological lens, we may discover that this moral distinction masks the social realities that are really responsible for the disproportionate criminal behavior of blacks. As the careful studies of Ruth Peterson and Lauren Krivo on the links between race, place, class, and crime in the urban black community show, the “violent crimes” Americans worry most about — murder, manslaughter, robbery, and aggravated assault — are committed by “extremely” disadvantaged blacks, not the black bourgeoisie, whose crime rates are much closer to those of their white middle- and upper-middle-class counterparts. In terms of violent crime, “good Negroes” are disproportionately above the poverty line while “bad Negroes” are disproportionately below. Sociologically, the “good Negro”–“bad Negro” dichotomy at the heart of respectability politics is a class distinction masquerading as a moral one.

My own experience with this complex interplay between race, place, class, crime, and lateral denigration in another predominantly black L.A. neighborhood further illustrates this. As one of the wealthiest majority black areas in the United States, the hills of View Park that I call home — dubbed the Black Beverly Hills by the Los Angeles Times — might qualify as the “good Negro” capital of the United States. On multiple occasions, I’ve heard my Black Beverly Hills neighbors declare: “We don’t want Compton up here” when hosting a party. This is eerily similar to the language an L.A. County Sheriff’s Deputy used to warn my event planner: “We don’t want South Central up here.” The cold, cogent math linking disadvantaged black neighborhoods and street crime, from the perspective of these good View Park Negroes, is that it’s acceptable to treat black denizens of disadvantaged neighborhoods differently because they pose a greater statistical risk. There is great irony here, of course, for the black bourgeoisie that bitterly complains about racial profiling (as Ellis Cose chronicles in The Rage of a Privileged Class) routinely practices spatial profiling — on the basis of class and place — against blacks from poorer neighborhoods. Stuart’s book takes a deep dive into spatial profiling and deftly tells a compelling story about the role of race, place, class, and punitive policing in contemporary poverty governance.

But not content to merely curse the gloom, he also lights a candle by discussing how some Skid Row residents respond to overbearing state intervention not with lateral denigration but with political mobilization — a collective rather than individual form of resistance. These politically active residents seek to transform and contest the social meaning of Skid Row, to “rebrand” it as a place that the region’s poorest citizens can call home. Forrest thus ends his brilliant and sobering ethnography on a hopeful note: through their pitched political battles with the powers-that-be, Skid Row residents are reclaiming their personal dignity, redefining their social reality, reconstituting their social identity, and vindicating their social existence.


Jody David Armour is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of Law at the University of Southern California. Armour studies the intersection of race and legal decision-making as well as torts and tort reform movements.

LARB Contributor

Jody David Armour is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of Law at the University of Southern California. Armour studies the intersection of race and legal decision making as well as torts and tort reform movements. A widely published scholar and popular lecturer, Professor Armour is a Soros Justice Senior Fellow of The Open Society Institute’s Center on Crime, Communities and Culture. He has published articles in Stanford Law Review, California Law Review, Vanderbilt Law Review, Boston College Law Review, Southern California Review of Law and Women's Studies, University of Colorado Law Review, University of Pittsburgh Law Review, Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review, Southwestern University Law Review, and Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law. His book Negrophobia and Reasonable Racism: The Hidden Costs of Being Black in America (New York University Press) address three core concerns of the Black Lives Matter movement — namely, racial profiling, police brutality, and mass incarceration.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!