A few years ago, Forrest Stuart would find himself in an academic version of "Who’s on First."
To write Down, Out, and Under Arrest: Policing and Everyday Life in Skid Row, the associate professor of sociology at Stanford University spent five years roaming one of Los Angeles’s poorest neighborhoods. He watched citizens contort their lives to avoid interactions with police officers, who would frequently question them for sitting on a corner. Stuart himself was stopped 14 times that first year. He spent evenings with those officers, listening to what he called their discordant ideas about punishment and compassion. The officers saw the two ideas as mutually dependent, Stuart wrote, even as he watched the people entangled in the criminal-justice system lose their housing, their jobs, and their hope.
At book talks, Stuart would lay out these themes and talk about the need for systemic changes, like the necessity of a large-scale redistribution of wealth. But then someone would inevitably ask: What reforms did he think were needed? How should the police be dealing with the people of Skid Row?
He would answer: The police shouldn’t be interacting with these people.
More hands would fill the air. Stuart didn’t understand the original question, people insisted. What new policies did he recommend?
Again, Stuart would tell them that no new policy would yield good results. What we need, he’d say, is less policing. Back and forth they’d go, speaking past each other. Even other sociologists, outside of his subfield, would look at Stuart as if he were some “crazy radical,” he said.
But that was before. Before May 2020, when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on the neck of George Floyd, a Black man, for nearly eight minutes as he died, igniting protests around the world.
“Nobody looks at me [like I’m] crazy when I say this anymore,” Stuart said in a recent interview, “which is just totally nuts.”