Alton Sterling, Eric Garner, and the Criminalization of Black Business

These men were trying to make ends meet and the justice system found it punishable by death.

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Complex Original

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On Tuesday, July 5, Alton Sterling, a father of five children, was outside of a convenience store selling CDs. It’s something Sterling had done countless times before. Except this time, Sterling didn’t make it home—he was shot in the chest by a police officer and died. The following day, video showing Sterling pinned down and being shot multiple times garnered national attention. Police have said he was armed, but multiple videos show he had nothing in his hands at the time of the shooting and seemed unable to move.

The shooting resembles an incident that occurred two years earlier, when Eric Garner, accused of selling loose cigarettes outside of a bodega in Staten Island, New York, was tackled and placed in a chokehold by New York Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo. The death was ruled a homicide.

In the United States, 560 people have been killed by police officers in 2016. According to The Guardian, black men were nine times as likely last year to be killed by police than other demographics. The deaths of Eric Garner and Alton Sterling are just two stories of many that show the current state of policing in black communities. Even more, the two killings reveal the state of inequality and the criminalization of poverty in the United States. Both men likely had trouble entering the formal job market for two different reasons: Sterling was formerly incarcerated and Garner was disabled.

In the United States, 560 people have been killed by police officers since the beginning of the year.

Sterling’s previous interactions with the criminal justice system will undoubtedly be brought up despite it having no bearing on his death that occurred on July 5. Still, his criminal history may give us insight into why he was out selling CDs in the first place. Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the world with harsh sentencing laws and a criminal justice system rife with corruption and racial bias. Sterling pleaded guilty to his most recent charges—possession of marijuana with the intent to distribute and possession of a weapon while holding a controlled substance (marijuana)—and was sentenced to five years in prison. With felonies on his record, the odds of Sterling finding a decent, meaningful job—or any job at all, for that matter—were strikingly low. In fact, according to a report published by the Alliance for a Just Society, Louisiana’s felons face the worst obstacles of finding a job in the country.

The report reads:

Each year an average of more than 17,000 people are released from prison in Louisiana. State regulations make it nearly impossible for many of them, and others with conviction records, to find good paying employment.

And this is already in a city like Baton Rouge where a black person is 3.4 times more likely to be unemployed than a white person is. Sterling took matters into his own hands and worked for himself as a CD salesman.

Eric Garner was in a similar position. He was accused of selling loose cigarettes outside of a corner store on the day of his death—a minor crime that he had been charged with in the past. (Although, some witnesses said he had actually just finished breaking up a fight right before he was killed.) Like Sterling, Garner’s past interactions with the criminal justice system may have affected his ability to get a job. Compounded with his disability, finding and keeping a job was likely even more difficult for the latter. In the U.S, a third of all disabled people are in poverty. Talk Poverty noted:

Recent research finds that half of all working age adults who experience at least one year of poverty have a disability, and nearly two-thirds of those experiencing longer-term poverty have a disability. People with disabilities are also much more likely to experience material hardships—such as food insecurity; inability to pay rent, mortgage, and utilities; or not being able to get needed medical care—than people without disabilities at the same income levels.

Six months earlier, Mayor Bill de Blasio had started off his term with NYPD Police Commissioner Bill Bratton by bringing back broken windows policing to New York, a policing method that focuses heavily on low-level crimes. In recent years, arrests and summonses for petty crimes—such as open container of alcohol and selling loose cigarettes—have skyrocketed. Multiple reports of NYPD raids on street vendors across the city surfaced.

The experience is a double conundrum for people who have felonies or misdemeanors on their records. While they’re locked out of the formal economy, they’re aggressively policed for trying to make ends meet in other ways, which can land them back in prison, or worse, dead.

Even if Eric Garner or Alton Sterling had wanted to make their businesses official, the lack of access to loans in black communities make the odds nearly impossible. Capitalism, racism, and policing have always been connected in the United States and with growing inequality and a lack of living wage jobs, economic crimes and mass incarceration—both big and small—will only intensify.

The criminalization of poverty goes far beyond debtors’ prisons and arresting people who can not afford to pay fines. It’s the street vendor who sells oranges so she can buy her children food for dinner who gets arrested in a raid by the NYPD. It’s the man who can’t find work who gets harassed repeatedly for selling loose cigarettes. It’s the man selling CDs outside of a convenience store to make ends meet who is pinned to the ground by two police officers and then shot in the chest multiple times.

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