Four strangers sat on our couch. They were joined by six other neighbors whom I already knew. "Five to thirty is the federal minimum and maximum sentence," we heard as we all sat in my living room last night to listen to Stank's attorney tell us what he was looking at, time wise, and what how we could help. It was Monday night, Eve had just started her second week of Kindergarten and wanted to show everyone her homework. It was clearly a pause in each of our days.
There is, we discover late and often, an arresting quality about your word to us. We do not want to be arrested or even pause, for our days are planned out…
Minister to us in our cowardice and timidity. Set us to be as bold as you are true, to meet the authorities who resist and arrest . . . our ancient mothers, our old convictions, powerful ordaining communities and last, even, city hall.
(from “We do not want to be arrested” by Walter Bruggemann, Awed to Heaven Rooted to Earth)
Stank is in his early fifties, and except for his balding head and pachy beard you'd think he was late twenties. Dark black, chiseled muscular physique, and tattooed by the sun that follows him every day as he works odd jobs for cash. And a contagious grin- always smelling like the cheap Black-and-Mild cigar that he is almost always smoking. He helped me build my deck, effortlessly lifting by him himself the 14 foot long 2 X 8 that I needed help lifting.
Stank has lived with his mom and nephews in this neighborhood for over 30 years. He is annoying, at times, with his inconvenient knocks on the door looking for a quick job or errand he could run for a few bucks. And then impossible to find when you do need help. But he’s also the very guy you want watching your house. The guy who can give you the scoop on trouble in the neighborhood.
‘Turns out he got close enough to the trouble a little while back that he is facing 5-30 years. Drugs and drug related burglaries and assaults are a problem in our neighborhood. And so the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) and the Atlanta Police Department (APD) and the District Attorney’s Office got together to build a plan. GBI and APD investigators would set up a series of drug purchases and deals, record them on tape, and build up cases on the dealers and users in our neighborhood. This covert operation would help them get to the real kingpins bringing the drugs in, catch the kids before they are caught in cycles of using, and clean up the streets of those habitual users who are nearly always the thieves and perpetrators of domestic abuse and assault. One officer told me that the whole thing is like a season of The Wire. The cases were built for as long as four months and then near memorial day they were all brought to a grand jury and bench warrants were issued for over 100 of our neighbors. The APD set up a road block a few weekends around memorial day and they would grab the suspects, over 70 of them we know for sure.
This detective work and police enforcement was met by a second judicial process designed by the DA’s office called Project Turnaround. The DA’s office appointed a community prosecutor to each of the police zones involved and that prosecutor gave the men (its all ‘men’ that we know of) under 25 an option of a year long rehab program and expungement of their record. And those who did not choose this deal or any born before 1983 would be recomend for the maximum sentence and banishment for the neighborhood.
Banishment, totally medieval, huh? It has been used in limitted courses in Georgia, and though it simply shuffles our problems on to another place and another neighborhood’s problems over to ours, it does have some benefits in the case of repeat offenders like house robers and drug dealers. But the community prosecutor is asking for banishment with every defendant over 25, including Stank.
And then add to all that what the court system in Fulton County has set up called the “non-complex” system. With all non-violent arrests the defendant is scheduled to go through hearning, arraignments, pleas, or go to trial in under 9 weeks from the arrest. Well this system has gotten bottle necked with the influx of the pick ups done by APD and GBI. This bottle-neck has also been worsened by the decision to eliminate 16 attorney positions in the PD’s office. So Stank and those picked up with him do not stand a chance, if they are over 25.
Stank got in trouble when he was supposedly doing work for a neighbor a few streets down (the 10 of us in my house were among Stank’s many landscaping/odd jobs clients). This client of his allegedly asked Stank if he knew where to get him $30 of cocaine. As the story goes, Stank obliged, took the man’s money, and returned with $30 of cocaine. They supposedly have it all on tape and are charging him with possession and selling cocaine. Now depending on the tapes and other court details this may be exposed as some sort of entrapment, but the short of it is that Stank may have a chance becasue we found him a good defense attourney.
So this is the background of what was going on in our house last night, learning about the justice system, learning about authorities, and saying to our neighbors, brown and beige, young and old, that we belong together with Stank in this issue. We had to determine that, though the District Attorney’s office and the federal justice system does not have good local ways for us to advocate for Stank, and though his age excludes him from access to any type of social support, we would be his representatives and we would be his suport. Some of his elders were able to nod and look him in the eye as one neighbor said, “We want to help you Stank, but you have to lean into this and stay away from that stuff.”
But, overall, it was a huge act of imagination- to collectively risk being for a neighbor who was being mistreated by the authorities. To join in Jesus’ Isaiah-inspired vocation “to proclaim freedom to the captive, and release to the prisoners.”
Because of the readings of Wendell Berry that I have been doing I was reminded of the importaince of such intentionallity. Many in our neighborhood might not have know about this. You might not have know about this. And instead of learning about the unfair systems we would receive them blindly. The resurrection of the crucified lamb reversed this. It placed the authorities in check. This kind of neighborliness requires the risk and hope and forgiveness and imagination of communities. These kind of practices keep your head from opening into a future-less passive window.
Love the quick profit, the annual raise, vacation with pay. Want more of everything ready-made. Be afraid to know your neighbors and to die. And you will have a window in your head. Not even your future will be a mystery any more. Your mind will be punched in a card and shut away in a little drawer. When they want you to buy something they will call you. When they want you to die for profit they will let you know…
So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute. Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing. Take all that you have and be poor. Love someone who does not deserve it. Denounce the government and embrace the flag. Hope to live in that free republic for which it stands. Give your approval to all you cannot understand. Praise ignorance, for what man has not encountered he has not destroyed…
As soon as the generals and the politicos can predict the motions of your mind, lose it. Leave it as a sign to mark the false trail, the way you didn’t go. Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction. Practice resurrection.
Wendell Berry, Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front