Feature

The Criminal Justice System Is Too Big. It’s Time To Downsize.

My first encounter with the word downsizing was when my mother was laid off from her long-time job as a records management clerk. Bill Clinton was in his first term as president and the infamous 1994 Crime Bill was passing through Congress with bipartisan support. My mother called home from somewhere in Manhattan, distressed. She said, “Marlon, I lose meh job oday.  These people lay me off after over 20 years, yuh know, after slaving and travelling quite in White Plains at 5 o’clock every morning … I doh know what I’m gonna do now.”

Like any curious 14-year-old, I asked, “Why they let you go?” She responded with an undertone of cynicism: “They said they need to downsize, so they let me go.”

“Mommy, what does downsize mean?”

Since my overly expensive degree in Organizational Behavior from NYU, I’ve learned that not all downsizing is as bad as what happened to my mother.

According to the Harvard Business Review, proponents of downsizing argue that it is an effective strategy, with benefits such as increased performance and sales. Stepping out of Business 101 is decarceration, the downsizing of incarceration to reduce the scale and reach of the criminal justice system. It’s time to start now, especially as violent crime is down in most cities and lawmakers weigh the decriminalization of many offenses, such as drug possession/use and sex work.

Downsizing means police should not be mental health first responders. They need mental health treatment. They need help. Police officer suicides in 2018 were the highest ever, with 228 officers dying by suicide. Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, believes the 228 number “is undoubtedly underreported.” Probation and parole officers are not substance abuse counselors or employment specialists.

And all of this is okay because we don’t need them to be. They just need to get themselves healthy, and rightsizing should be an option. We already have proficient social workers, mental health professionals, substance abuse counselors, and employment specialists who are not utilized enough or funded appropriately.

The criminal justice system is a discordant machine of more than 55,000 criminal justice-related agencies nationwide inclusive of police, courts, district attorney offices, jails, prisons, parole and probation boards, and ecarceration. I’m sure I’ve missed a few here, but the point is that America’s criminal justice reform intoxication should include more than reducing the number of people in prisons or the amount of lockups closed: It should mean fewer institutions of incarceration, too.

Downsizing in this context means relieving some institutions of their duties and giving them a severance package that will allow them to take care of their own house.

We have a racialized system of control.

Our tax dollars pay the bill of more than $270 billion to keep the criminal justice system intact. If the criminal justice system were a country, it would be 41st on the GDP tally of 186 countries. We — and I mean “we,” because “We, the People” allow for this profane, ineffective, and inefficient use of resources — currently have open-air incarceration, where about 4.5 million people live under some form of community supervision, alongside the 2.3 million people in prisons. We spend $29 billion on the federal law enforcement budget (#99 on the GDP tally). We have 70 million people in the U.S., not incarcerated, but living freeish with a criminal conviction.

Amid this display of laissez-faire governance, there is progress to soberly consider. Bail reform in several states is decreasing the debtor’s prison construct. Restorative justice models are sprouting up across the country, effectively decreasing exposure to all points of the criminal punishment system. Progressive judges like Victoria Pratt “sentenced” people who came before her court to write essays, instead of lockup. Law enforcement administrators from across the country have been meeting as Executives Transforming Parole & Probation (EXiT) to operationalize the downsizing of their reach and their caseloads. In their “Statement on the Future of Probation & Parole in the United States,” they assert: “As people who run or have run community supervision throughout the country and others concerned with mass supervision, we call for probation and parole to be substantially downsized, less punitive, and more hopeful, equitable and restorative.”

Several years ago, when I was a violence interrupter for the Cure Violence program in Brooklyn, New York, I spoke at an intimate convening of community residents, police, and elected officials. During my comments, I said my job is to figure out ways to put myself out of work. My work was to reduce shootings in the area of Brooklyn where the violence interrupter program operated. Even then, I understood that any person or institution engaged in intervention work should hope that their interventions are no longer needed. The criminal justice system is an operation of interventions ostensibly created to deal with violations of the societal contract. Because of the disproportionate use of these interventions on Black, Brown, Indigenous, and Asian Pacific Islander populations, we understand that we have a racialized system of control.

White supremacy aside for a moment (as if it is ever possible to put the ideology of white supremacy in timeout), the 55,000 agencies of the criminal punishment system, e.g., the courts, law enforcement, and community supervision, should keep a humbling view of themselves.  They should be working to put themselves out of business. They need to see downsizing as a means to community efficacy.

Since my mother’s untimely dismissal from her job, our family figured it out, like most working-class families. We pooled our resources together. My mother still has a few choice four-letter words in her Trinidadian accent to describe the process of being laid off. I assume the 55,000 criminal justice agencies will also have a vulgar reaction to real downsizing. But I am sure those of us in communities that are involuntarily cuffed to the criminal punishment system will also find a way to pool our resources together to create safe neighborhoods we all deserve.

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Feature

Black West Baltimore Is Still Waiting for Equity

In West Baltimore, on the corner of Baker Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, a man stands in the December chill selling shoes off a makeshift table. A block north, groups of unemployed men gather on the street corners in front of the Arch Social Club, a historic African American men’s club.

“West of [interstate highway] 83 there is no viable business district, no economic engine or opportunities for young people,” says James Hamlin, the owner of a local bakery.

Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Avenue was once a thriving cultural center for the city’s Black population during the era of segregation. Famous artists like Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, and Duke Ellington all arrived in the city to play at Baltimore’s Royal Theater.

But the venue was demolished in the 1970s, and today most of the businesses that thrived during the era of segregation have closed. Most people who know the area think of the drug trade portrayed in the popular HBO show The Wire, or of the 2015 protests that erupted after police killed a 25-year-old Black man named Freddie Gray. Further east on North Avenue, the paint is chipped off the storefronts and the nearby townhouses are boarded up. It’s impossible not to notice the history of economic neglect in these majority-Black neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, residents claim that the city only responds to service requests, calls to change streetlights, or pick up trash in areas of Baltimore where the majority of the population is white. Black neighborhoods, many of which are cut off from other parts of the city by highways and a lack of public transportation, are largely left to fend for themselves.

But an ambitious plan put forward by the President of Baltimore’s City Council, 35-year-old Brandon Scott, aims to change that by tasking government agencies with finding solutions to the deep structural racism that has plagued the city for decades.

In November last year, the city voted overwhelmingly in favor of establishing a permanent Equity Assistance Fund that would be used exclusively to support efforts that aim to reduce race, gender, and economic inequality. The charter amendment that establishes the fund is one of the first in the country that explicitly mentions structural and institutional racism. A separate bill also obligates each government agency to analyze how it can address structural inequalities and come up with an equity action plan.

Scott, who has been working in local government since he was just 27, said his personal experience growing up in Baltimore motivated him to address the city’s longstanding history of inequality.

“I lived in Lower Park Heights, so you have vacant homes, violence, of course, blight, lead paint in houses, and all of that stuff going on. And then right above me you had some of the most affluent areas in the city,” Scott said, describing a scenario that is typical for Baltimore City.

“The area right to the east of us, right across [highway] 83, is Roland Park, which is one of the most affluent neighborhoods. So when you grow up in the city and you are surrounded by what you see, and then you see the opposite not far away from you, it changes the way you look at the world,” Scott continued.

The differences between Baltimore’s neighborhoods even affect how long residents live. In Baltimore’s Greenmount East neighborhood, the average life expectancy is around 66 years. In Roland Park, in contrast, the average life expectancy is 84 years. The disparities mimic the difference in life expectancy between some of the world’s most and least developed countries.

This starkly unequal landscape was created largely through deliberate policies that aimed to separate the city’s white residents from the Black population. At the turn of the century, in 1910, Baltimore passed an extreme ordinance that prohibited Black and white populations from living in the same neighborhoods. Segregation allowed banks and the federal government to exclude majority-Black neighborhoods from their loan programs, making it nearly impossible for Black residents to become homeowners.

The 1910 ordinance didn’t last very long. The Supreme Court deemed it unconstitutional in 1917. But many of the city’s residential neighborhoods remain segregated over a century later.

Researchers have described Baltimore as having an L-shaped corridor down the center of the city where the white population lives, and a majority-Black, butterfly-shaped area that surrounds either side of the city’s main artery. Today, predominantly white neighborhoods in Baltimore receive between two and four times as much capital investment as majority-Black neighborhoods, according to recent estimates.

With all of this in mind, advocates argue that only robust public policy like the kind proposed by Scott can address the problems caused by nearly a century of racist policies.

We have assets but we don’t have infrastructure.

But one year after the city’s residents voted overwhelmingly in favor of the bills, the details are still nebulous. Agencies are currently working on their assessments and action plans, and the first agency budgets to be shaped through a lens of equity will be presented in the late spring and early summer.

Mara James, a legislative lead at Baltimore’s Bureau of the Budget and Management Research, noted that there is some concern about how to finance the Equity Assistance Fund.

“The legislation established the Fund but did not designate a funding source. At this point in time, no funding sources have been identified for the Fund,” James said. “We value the efforts of Council President Scott to put equity at the forefront of the City’s work, but our office is concerned about the impact that any dedicated fund may have on the City’s ability to respond to fiscal emergencies or large future costs and ensure we continue to provide core services to residents.”

One number often floated publicly is $15 million, or roughly 3 percent of the police department’s annual budget. But current Mayor Jack Young has also expressed some concern about where the extra money would come from and whether it would be possible to skim money from the police budget.

“The administration is not focused on that legislation. We’re focused on developing an equity framework,” James Bentley, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, said about the Equity Assistance Fund.

Bentley argues that the city doesn’t have the ability to finance the Fund because of a state-mandated policy that will require millions of dollars be invested into public schools over the next decade. But the mayor’s office wants to use data and statistics to find new ways to ensure that the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods get as much attention as the wealthier ones, he says.

“When you look at the data it clearly showed a discrepancy, that some areas get more attention to the detriment of others. Mayor Young wants us to use data to show where there are disparities,” Bentley said.

Young has also suggested that tax incentives could be used to attract business to parts of the city that lack economic investment. But some experts argue that purely economic policies may not be enough to achieve sustainable racial and economic justice.

“I wish there was one policy that would solve the history of a lack of investment or neighborhoods being where they are. Tax incentives alone can’t be the answer to structural racism,” said Leon Andrews, a director of the National League of Cities. “It can complement other things that you want to do, but if you just have tax incentives without thinking about the inequities and what that means for the neighborhood, you can repeat displacement and gentrification as we’ve seen in other neighborhoods. Tax benefits for what purpose? Who benefits?”

For many of the youth living around Pennsylvania Avenue, the government’s plans — mayor’s or council’s — mean little if they aren’t implemented.

“We have assets but we don’t have infrastructure,” says Hamlin, the local bakery owner. “The ideas are good but something has to happen.”

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Feature

Environmental Racism Is Killing Black Communities In Louisiana

In 1959, the Dow Chemical Company moved into Plaquemine, Louisiana, and began making vinyl chloride, a colorless cancer-causing gas used to produce a variety of plastic products. Twenty years later, after years of chemical-related poisoning, vinyl chloride was found in the wells of nearby Morrisonville.

The predominantly Black River Parishes along the 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge are overrun with over 150 plants and refineries. This area was once dubbed Cancer Alley by residents and media because of the clusters of cancer patients in the area. Now residents are calling it Death Alley because of the significant amount of deaths by cancer and other illnesses among the residents who live near the industrial pollution.

“You put poison in the land, water and in the air, the result is sickness and death. The planned killing of any group is genocide,” Pat Bryant, the son of sharecroppers and a resident of New Orleans, said frankly. Bryant started Justice and Beyond in 2012 as a response to social and environmental injustice along the Louisiana parishes.

After Emancipation, in 1863, many formerly enslaved Americans remained in the South, occupied fertile plots of land, and built themselves small shanties along the curvatures of the serpent-like Mississippi River, not far from the plantations that once enslaved them. These communities represented freedom and prosperity long fought for.

Descendants of enslaved Americans who, against all odds, made lives for themselves along the Mississippi have found themselves next door to refineries, chemical plants, and waste dumps in one of the most heavily polluted areas of the country. Cities like Morrisonville, Diamond, Mossville, Sunrise, and Revilletown, all founded by formerly enslaved Americans, have all been erased by environmental racism. Each town was devastated by the toxins emitted into the air, water, and soil surrounding their communities by multinational petrochemical companies like Shell and Georgia Gulf Corp. that inevitably seeped onto their land, into their homes, and poisoned their bodies. Those who didn’t fall ill and die were eventually bought out or moved.

The town of Morrisonville, founded in the late 1870s after the Civil War, was wiped off the map by the 1980s. “Morrisonville is one of the sad stories that had so much promise at the end of slavery and fell to such tough circumstances during Reconstruction. The people were able to make a living. They built houses. They educated their families when there was no public education for African Americans. And some of them were able to send their kids to college to build a better life,” Bryant told me.

Today, Dow Louisiana, the largest petrochemical company in the state, resides there, and the only thing left of the historic community of Morrisonville is the town cemetery and its more than 100 years of familial ties. The exploitation and genocide of Black Americans may look different in the 21st century, but there is no denying that racism, environmental and otherwise, plays a powerful role in the fates of these predominately Black Louisiana parishes, and much of America.

Every family along the River Parishes has lost droves of loved ones to cancer and other pollution-related ailments. Many have joined or created activist groups opposing large petrochemical companies, but their cries are being dismissed and pushed aside while people are getting sick and dying at alarming rates.

If Formosa come in, that’s it.

Resident Mary Hampton started Concerned Citizens of St. John as a result of the lack of action from public officials and the deadly effects of chloroprene coming from the Denka plant to the residents of St. John. In 2016, the EPA’s National Air Toxics Assessment revealed that residents living near the Denka Performance Elastomer plant were 800 times more likely to get cancer. Denka is the sole source of chloroprene in the United States. Since rule-making is such a long and strenuous process, the EPA does not prioritize compounds that are not present in more than one community.

“My father had prostate cancer, my two sisters-in-law died with breast cancer, my son-in-law died from bone cancer, my other brother died of bone cancer. So many members of my immediate family that I have lost,” Hampton said of Denka’s legacy in St. John. Her voice broke as she detailed many of those close to her who passed before their time and the children they left behind. “We just want a safe place to live, that’s all.”

According to a report by the Center for Public Integrity, in the Environmental Protection Agency’s “22-year history of processing environmental discrimination complaints, the office has never once made a formal finding of a Title VI (prohibits discrimination on the base of race, color, or national origin) violation.” Latinx Americans are exposed to 63 percent more pollution than they create and Black Americans are exposed to 56 percent, in comparison with white Americans, who are exposed to 17 percent less, according to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. People of color contribute less to the overall effects of pollution but carry the bulk of the burden.

Stephanie Cooper, a 50-year-old teacher of 29 years, is Vice President of RISE St. James, an activist group fighting to block Formosa Plastics. Cooper’s family has lived in St. James Parish for four generations. Her father, Oliver Cooper Sr., purchased their land when she was just eight years old. During this same time, he challenged the status quo by running for St. James Councilman — a seat that he kept well into his 70s.

Now, Formosa plans to build a massive ethane cracker complex a mile from the local public school which would emit ethylene oxide, a toxic chemical that causes cancers like non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, and breast cancer.

“We used to enjoy just sitting outside or with the screen door [open] but you can’t do that anymore. The door has to be closed,” Cooper explained. The pollution in the area is so bad that the beautiful garden her family once had is no longer possible and the critters have all but left. “We used to catch butterflies with butterfly nets and catch dragonflies on the fences, but you don’t see too much of that anymore. Now you’d be lucky if you see a pigeon.”

“If Formosa come in, that’s it,” Milton Cayette told me. Cayette’s great-great-grandfather bought 17 acres of land in the late 1800s, which Cayette tends to and lives on to this day. “They said that if anything would happen people would need to be at least a one-mile radius from the center of the plant. They built it 300 feet from my house and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

The Taiwanese Formosa Plastics Group was awarded The Black Planet Award in 2009, an award meant for companies creating the most ecological damage on a global level, by Ethecon Foundation. Ethecon cited “a continuing sequence of social and ecological foul play throughout the world.” In fact, one quarter of Taiwan’s greenhouse gas emissions could be tied back to FPG.

Yet, state and local officials offered FPG an estimated $1.5 billion in incentives to bring the chemical complex to St. James Parish, without disclosing any information to residents.

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Feature

A Mistake At A Ticket Machine Cost Me $100. Fining Me Didn’t Make the Subway Safer.

I returned to New York City in the autumn of 2018 for the first time in nearly a decade. The shape of the city was the same, and it still had the intoxicating fast pace that I imagine has been part of the fabric of New York long before I was even born. But details were changed — one, notably, the way fares were collected for public buses. As city changes go, this one could easily be mistaken as minor, but it was significant enough to earn me a $100 fine within minutes of setting foot in the city. And I am not the only causality of the recent changes in the way New York handles its fares.

Ride any train in the city and you’re bound to see the signs — wallpapered across stations and on the insides of trains — warning passengers that they’re better off paying the $2.75 fare than the $100 fine, and directing them to use turnstiles to enter and exit the tunnels, as opposed to gates, which can easily be held open and passed through without paying. If you ride in the Bronx, Brooklyn, or Queens, you’re bound to see fare checks taking place, or to be subject to one yourself.

Here’s how it happened to me: I approached one of the Metro Transit Authority (MTA) automated ticketing booths at LaGuardia Airport and purchased a fare card with something like 30 dollars on it. When I got on the bus, amidst a pretty typical New York crowd, I didn’t see anywhere to swipe my card. But people were cramming in behind me, so I shrugged it off. I could figure it out when I got off, or pay the same fare at the next stop, where I would have been using a receipt had this fare gone through. In any case, my money had transferred from my bank account over to the MTA — so good enough, right?

At the bus stop in Queens, we were greeted by two burly police officers in full cop regalia — guns and batons at hip, the whole show. There was no crowded shoving now; everyone stepped off single file, flashing a paper receipt to the cops before walking off. A paper receipt I didn’t have. I showed the officers my Metro card and explained the steps I’d taken to pay the MTA. One of them told me I had gone to the wrong machine. He pointed at the display of machines behind us. When I told him I used a machine like that, he replied that no I hadn’t, but the one that I used was almost the same. Almost the same, but not right. Then his partner demanded my ID card and fined me $100.

What happened to me in 2018 is part of a city-wide crackdown by the Metro Transit Authority (MTA) on fare evasion. The crackdown is supposedly aimed at preventing the MTA from hemorrhaging hundreds of millions of dollars they say are lost to people skipping fares. In 2018, the MTA reported that loss at $225 million, but the Office of the Inspector General thinks that was an undercount, and loss estimates for 2019 are closer to $300 million. While subway fare evasions are certainly a major contributor to these financial losses, it’s bus routes that are taking the biggest hit, including Select Service routes used to connect subway systems, like the one I was riding from the airport.

But as my experience illustrates, the crackdown behaves like a Kafka-esque authoritarian overreach. In the best circumstances, authorities fine people for giving money to the MTA through the wrong slot, or for just being unfamiliar with the local nuances of the payment system, which is especially absurd in a city with as much tourism as New York. In the worst light, the fare evasion crackdown targets the city’s most vulnerable populations, criminalizing poverty and giving New York police another excuse to fine and jail Black and Brown people.

Not every city views fare evasion as a priority police matter.

The NYPD has been reticent to reveal racial and ethnic demographic information about who is being fined, even resulting in a lawsuit in 2018. But data now available show summonses are being disproportionately distributed to Black and Hispanic (their language) populations. In the second quarter of 2019, 15,280 summonses were issued. Of those, 6,110 were Black, and 5,154 were Hispanic. In contrast, only 2,586 were issued to passengers identified as white, even though non-Hispanic whites comprise nearly half of New York City’s population. 712 summonses were issued to people under the age of 18.

Tickets aren’t the only consequence of fare enforcement stops. Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance announced in 2017 that his office would stop prosecuting for “theft of services” on public transportation. The decriminalization of fare evasion in New York led to a sharp decline in arrests related to fare evasion, which saw nearly 10,000 people jailed in 2016.

But as the recent high profile arrest of nineteen-year-old Adrian Napier shows, arrests are still happening — and mostly to Black men. People with outstanding warrants are at particularly high risk of being arrested. But bystanders have been posting recordings on social media of violent subway arrests of “unruly” fare beaters. Reports from around the city are also catching officers stationed around transportation stops making arrests for reasons like unauthorized sales of candy and sweets. In the second quarter of 2019, NYPD reported 682 arrests related to fare evasion. Of those, 414 were Black. Only 76 were white. Ten were minors. The overwhelming majority of people arrested were identified as male, indicating that the new campaign is functioning as yet another excuse for the NYPD to jail men with black and brown skin.

While all this has been going on in the name of saving money, use of public transportation in New York has taken a sharp decline. Subway rides had seen an increase until 2016, when ridership dropped slightly. After 2017, both buses and subways saw a dramatic slope in their ridership stats, with bus ridership dropping by 5.1 percent. In 2018, subway and bus ridership dropped by 2.1 and 4.4 percent, respectively.

Fare evasion is not unique to New York City, but not every city views it as a priority police matter. In Seattle, where I grew up, King County Metro launched a new Fare Violation Program. When I was living in Seattle, prior to the beginning of 2018, bus savvy Seattle residents knew that travels taking place in North Seattle through Downtown would probably not be interrupted by fare enforcement agents. Travel South toward the airport, and you’d need to show proof of payment. This was very much delineated by racial lines. Neighborhoods in North Seattle are divided into affluent sections and very poor areas, but all of them are mostly white. Gentrification has begun to reshape the city, but the South-end has historically been a mostly Black and Latino area. Fare enforcement agents usually began entering just before the International District, which houses a mostly Asian population and several low-income housing complexes. All in all, Seattle’s fare enforcement protocols appeared as racially biased as those in New York. Now, Seattle seems to be trying to correct some of these issues by scaling back punitive measures against fare beaters.

Previously, fare evasion could result in a $124 fine that was handled in civil court, although riders would usually receive one or two warnings before getting the fine. Now, fines are $50, and if paid within 90 days they will be further reduced to $25. Riders also have the option to pay that $25 toward their own ORCA card (Seattle’s kitschy transit card that, yes, does have an orca whale on it). They can also perform two hours of community service or enroll in one of the reduced fare programs offered by the city. The program that serves the largest population is ORCA Lift — which I am still enrolled in because enrollment lasts five years — and is available to all Seattle residents who meet their low-income requirements. Indigent riders also have the option to appeal the citation, which may be overturned based on “extenuating circumstances.”

Seattle’s 2019 program comes on the heels of a similar program rolled out in Portland, Oregon, in 2018. In 2018, a Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge ruled that random fare checks on TriMet, Portland’s public buses, were unconstitutional. The lawsuit, spearheaded by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), was incited by an incident involving Ana Del Rocio, one of the only Latina members of the David Douglas school board. She was arrested after refusing to supply identification, which is her right under state law. The ruling means that TriMet will no longer be able to perform random fare checks, similar to the kind I was subject to in New York City. TriMet also began offering community service and enrollment in reduced fare programs in lieu of paying fines, as well as tiered fines. Repeat offenders will receive increased fines or community service hours before being banned from services for 90 days.

Washington, D.C., recently decriminalized fare evasion and reduced the whopping $300 fine to $100. This was after the Washington Lawyer’s Committee released findings from a data analysis that discovered 91 percent of fare evasion citations were issued to Black riders, even though just under half the population of D.C. is Black. 46 percent of citations were issued to passengers under the age of 25, and one was only seven years old.

But the most radical change comes out of Kansas City, Missouri, which is now poised to offer free city-wide public buses. In December 2019, the city council unanimously voted to pass a resolution that will make public transportation free, once the next fiscal year budget is approved and designs are put in place. The measure, called Zero Fare Transit, is estimated to cost $8 million. This will make it the first major U.S. city to offer free city-wide public transportation in the 21st century, though a few other cities experimented with it unsuccessfully in the 20th century. The smaller city of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which has a population of approximately 60,000 and operates just 121 buses, has offered free public transit since 2002.

When I returned to New York in December 2019, the first thing I did was load my Metro Card. During a trip downtown to meet a friend for coffee, I swiped my card, but the turnstile wouldn’t budge. The machine directed me to swipe again at the same turnstile, but when I did — no budge. I continued to swipe my card and receive the same error message directing me to swipe again. Finally, exasperated, I moved on to another turnstile. This time it worked — but a swipe at the other turnstile had also been deducted.

Does that mean I can now send MTA a $100 summons?

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First Person

I Went Into Debt for a Christmas Gift

As I neared the checkout counter at Belden Jewelers, the sales associate who was helping me asked, “And did you want to pay for this in full or did you want to finance it?”

“Finance it? What do you mean?” I looked at the box in my hand, which held a sterling silver and diamond ring I planned to give my girlfriend for Christmas in a few weeks. She was elsewhere in the mall with our friend Katie; we’d separated so we could buy each other gifts.

The associate explained that I could apply for financing and pay for the ring in installments, which were interest-free for the first 12 months. I had the slightly more than $300 that the ring cost in cash; it was one of the nicest rings in my budget. (All the white gold ones were too much money.) But if I financed it, which I hadn’t even considered as an option, I could afford to spend a little more on my other gifts and even save some for the new year. I could start putting away money for appliances I needed in my apartment or a used car to drive to an off-campus internship.

I asked for an application and after a few minutes of processing, I was approved. I had started using my first credit card, a Discover Student card, only a few months prior, and it wasn’t maxed out yet, so I genuinely believed I could make the decision responsibly.

After I left the store, I met back up with my friend Krista, my shopping partner while I looked for my girlfriend’s gifts. “That was the most money I’ve ever spent on Macey,” I said, nervous and excited in equal measure. “I hope she loves it.”

I was too embarrassed to admit I’d opened a store credit card to pay for it; it seemed like something my college friends, who all came from middle-class families, would know better than to do. “Don’t spend money you don’t have” was a wise adage their parents shared when they taught them tips like paying for a car in cash. My dad taught me how to return items to Walmart without a receipt if we were running low on money between paychecks and needed an extra $20 for milk and bread.

A few weeks later, Macey and I spent our first Christmas Day together and I surprised her with the ring during a short, chilly walk. I didn’t tell her that I’d financed the ring or how many hours working in the reading and writing center on campus it would take to pay off. I didn’t say that I’d wanted to get her a white gold ring with a larger karat diamond. She’d also given me her priciest gift to date, a sterling silver replica Time Turner from the Harry Potter franchise I’d been obsessed with for years but couldn’t afford.

Instead, I said that I loved her and wanted to marry her someday, and asked her if she wanted the same thing. We both cried and she said yes, but the reality of ever having enough money to get married eluded even my colorful, wildly hopeful imagination. We both grew up with single parents with underpaying jobs who couldn’t foot the bill for our college education. We would graduate in a year and a half with student loan debt (and me with thousands of dollars in credit card debt just to buy necessities like books, snow boots, and groceries).

The diamond promise ring was an irresponsible romantic lifeline; I was betting on our future. Someday, I would pay off the ring. Someday, we could afford to get married. Someday, I would be able to spend more for white gold, Macey’s favorite. None of that felt true as I went home to my dad’s over winter break to collection notices and service shut off warnings; business was slow for a cab driver during the rise of Uber and Lyft and in the wake of the recession.

It took me about a year and a half to pay off the Belden Jewelers credit card, which I promptly closed. Eventually, I admitted to Macey that I’d taken out a loan to get her ring. She told me that she never wanted me to feel pressured to spend money on her or use a credit card to buy her presents, she just wanted to spend time with me. She told me she’d sometimes felt the same stress: That the cost of her gift reflected how much she loved me, and she worried about spending less on my gifts than I did on hers.

The diamond promise ring was an irresponsible romantic lifeline.

It’s easy to write-off the monetary value of holiday gifts or the importance of deals on Black Friday when you’re financially comfortable. When I was poor, that fact haunted me like an ever-present ghost in my relationships, which felt transactional to me even when my loved ones insisted they weren’t keeping track and were doing me favors out of love. That was easy for them to say, when I noticed it was always me who needed rides to the library to use their free printers or me who carefully calculated the cost of my meals and couldn’t afford to split the check evenly.

This year, Macey and I are celebrating our first holiday season as wives, three months after our wedding. In wedding planning, we were both clear: We wouldn’t let any insecurities or the grim hand of capitalism make us feel like we had to do anything we couldn’t or didn’t want to afford, and we didn’t go into debt to pay for any of it. Even if it meant we had to answer questions about why our reception was buffet style or why we didn’t have an open bar.

She and I are now the kind of financially comfortable I could only dream about my entire childhood, meaning we don’t have enough money to own a home and we still have mountains of student debt, but we pay all our bills on time each month and we can even afford to travel if we plan well. But as November crept closer, I still felt the pressure surrounding me just like it had when we were spending our first Christmas together. Didn’t my gifts have to be epic?

One day while Macey was at work (she commutes and I work from home), I sent her a text: What if we did a lowkey Christmas this year, just one gift and one book? We could save money to travel in 2020 and there are no physical gifts I really want.

It is an incredibly privileged position to be in, and I know that. When you have enough of a financial cushion to go on nice dates when one person gets promoted or to buy a new bookshelf as soon as you need it, holidays don’t have to be about prioritizing everything you need for the entire year. Macey and I got a lot of the home goods on our list this year between our wedding presents and a sponsored article I wrote for Bed Bath & Beyond that came with a couple thousand dollars worth of free store merchandise. We’re at a point where we have more than we can comfortably fit in our one-bedroom apartment.

But back when we were both poor or broke, Christmas could be the only time of year when we actually got big ticket items we needed, or pricey experience gifts like a couples’ massage. I once waited months to get a new purse in the hopes that Macey might get it for me in December, and another year, my Christmas gift from my dad was a fancy date for the two of us. We ate sushi at a restaurant with three dollar signs on Google, played games at Dave & Busters, and took professional photos together.

Macey texted back: That sounds good. It was harder than I expected to fight the urge to shower her with multiple expensive gifts after promising not to, especially when I came across a $1,500 moon necklace on Instagram (that I absolutely can’t afford but I know she’d love).

Our stockings this year will be filled with the promise of a two-week honeymoon in 2020 and love letters to each other. Capitalism tells me that isn’t enough, but I’m not listening.

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