Barry (whose name has been changed for this article) is a gangly kid who looks to be somewhere in that stretch of late adolescence characterized by patchy moustaches. He says he is half-Puerto Rican and half-Dominican, and here those facts seem to really matter. In another world, Barry, gregarious and talkative, would be captain of his school’s debate team, or maybe a theater major. He is funny and he knows it.
Barry says he is from one of the neighborhoods south of the George Washington Bridge Bus Terminal. In the morning, he was standing outside with some of his friends when an NYPD van pulled up. As Barry tells it, the police searched him and found he was carrying some marijuana; they arrested him. In the suburbs, Barry probably would have just received a slap on the wrist, or maybe a fine.
Instead of bringing him straight to the precinct, the police put Barry in an NYPD van and drove around the neighborhoods for hours, picking up more kids until the van was full. This was late July, and police vans are not the city’s most ventilated vehicles.
Barry and the other kids arrived at “the Tombs” early that evening. They were brought in all chained together, one hand cuffed and connected to the longer chain, the other hand free but helpless. Barry said it wasn’t his first time in “the Tombs.” And from a purely statistical standpoint, it probably won’t be his last.
The kids who arrived with Barry seemed to know each other—whether from before that day, or just from the several hours in the back of a paddy wagon, was unclear. A few of them spoke English only reluctantly, preferring to speak to each other and some of the on-duty officers in Spanish. Occasionally, Barry translated between the Spanish-speaking kids and the other people in the cell. The youngest of the bunch was a pudgy sixteen year-old who immediately went to sleep in the back left corner of the holding cell, next to the foul-smelling toilet bowl.
The cells in “the Tombs” can only be described as grim, but Barry seemed to be in relatively high spirits. Having gone through the ordeal before, he knew to pick up as many cheese sandwiches as possible when it was time to eat, since they would come in handy as pillows later. From the small hill of slimy, bagged pieces of bread and an unidentifiable cheese, Barry generously dispensed sandwiches to some of the other detainees. He said he was angry, mostly at the cops, but also at himself—for getting caught again, for not being smarter about it. He tried to say he wasn’t a bad kid, but he didn’t need to convince anyone. Barry kept the other detainees’ morale high, even into the night.
There was no clock in the cell. To know what time it was, you either needed a watch or had to use the payphone to call someone on the outside that could tell you. Fortunately, one of the other kids, another teenager with a carefully trimmed but less than robust chinstrap, had a watch. When it became clear that he was going to spend the night, Barry called his girlfriend, fishing coins out of his sneaker to use for the payphone. He said he didn’t want her to worry about him, but also that he knew she would be mad. Once during their conversation, Barry rolled his eyes. The other detainees, waiting for Barry to finish speaking so that they could use the phone after him, smirked understandingly.
At what must have been the early hours of the morning, the guards woke up the few detainees who were sleeping and shepherded everyone into the corridor to wait in line for small boxes of dry cereal and a carton of milk. Barry took a few extra cereal boxes to give to the other detainees. No one understood why they were being woken up in the middle night to eat un-frosted mini-wheats, but Barry managed to find a bit of humor in the absurdity of the moment.
The cell was very cold. Not frigid or freezing, but the kind of cold that seeps through clothes no matter how thick they are, the kind of cold that might make you plead guilty if it will get you somewhere warmer. Barry was wearing a washed-out white t-shirt and basketball shorts. To deal with the cold, he had withdrawn his arms into his shirt, but he was still shivering. He had liked school, Barry said. He was briefly enrolled in a program run by Columbia to help inner city youth get on track for college. But that was before he got mixed up in “some stuff,” as he put it. He stopped doing his work and showing up consistently for class, and that was it. This seemed to have little to do with natural ability. Barry is sharp and inquisitive. When he found that one of the other detainees was working towards a PhD in history, Barry asked him questions for several hours. Israel’s bombardment and invasion of Gaza was all over the news, and Barry wanted to know about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Resigned to spending the night, Barry, sitting on the bench, his arms tucked inside his shirt, asked the others what their favorite movies were. He hardly waited for a few people to chime in before asking if anyone had seen The Purge: Anarchy, the sequel to The Purge—a movie set in a future, totalitarian United States where once a year, the government suspends all services and any crime, especially murder, is legal. The government’s official rationale for this is national catharsis, but in practice the “purge” is a method of population control, and the poor and homeless are typically the victims. One or two of the others in the cell said they had seen the first movie, though no one had seen the sequel. Barry wanted to know if anyone recalled a scene from the movie that showed a destroyed police station on fire. I wish that would happen to all the police stations, he said. He wouldn’t want to be the one to do it, he added, but he wouldn’t object to it being done. Barry could not have been the only person that scene resonated with. Nationally, The Purge grossed nearly $90 million.
Had Barry grown up ten miles across the George Washington Bridge, on the other side of the Hudson, he would be like any other smart, slightly awkward teenager. He likes horror movies and computer games. And like a lot of other kids, he sometimes smokes marijuana. But because of an accident of birth, he has seen the inside of “the Tombs” more times than most white suburban kids will ever see the inside of their county’s precinct. This has nothing to do with rates of drug use and everything to do with policing.
When Bill de Blasio became mayor last January, he pledged to address New York City’s inequities. Over 50 percent of those arrested for marijuana possession in the city are under 21 years old. And according to the Drug Policy Alliance, even though young whites use marijuana at higher rates, over 85 percent of people arrested and jailed for marijuana possession are black and Latino. And yet, despite de Blasio’s promises, little has changed. The New York Civil Liberties Union reported that in the first half of 2014, 81 percent of New Yorkers stopped by police were black or Latino.
After the arraignment, Barry exited the courtroom grinning. He didn’t say what the charges had been or what the outcome was, but it looked, at least for the time being, like he was going home.