down out & under arrest

Forrest Stuart’s Down Out & Under Arrest paints a cinematic picture of life in Los Angeles’ Skid Row through his ethnographic research of police, residents, and advocacy populations over five years, 2007-2012. Though he never intended for his research to involve the police, it became inevitable for him to engage Central Division officers in his research after repeated interactions Skid Row residents resulted in Stuart describing a pattern of behavior he termed “becoming copwise.” According to Stuart, the process of becoming copwise among residents of Skid Row was a defacto “folk ethnography of policing” that extracted successful behavioral interventions residents could engage in to minimize their interactions with aggressive policing. Because cop wisdom was an effect policing had on his original research subjects, Stuart had to engage police officers and police leadership to understand the causes behind the policing choices that led Skid Row residents to their cop-influenced behavior.

Though chapter 1 wasn’t assigned, I couldn’t resist reading it given the context it gave about Skid Row’s current structure. What was most helpful about this chapter was the three-arc history Stuart sketched about Skid Row, from paternalistic, to maintenance-centric, and back to paternalistic. As I read the assigned chapters, it was useful to map the subject’s behaviors to these historical framing elements and the therapeutic policing pattern Stuart experienced first-hand.

Chapter 2 discusses the police. It’s shrewd for Stuart to begin his ethnographic analysis with cops since they are shaping the behaviors chapters 3-5 will describe most directly. The most important takeaway from this chapter is that regardless how “evil” the officer’s actions seem to Skid Row residents, readers, or even Stuart himself most of the officers believe they are acting in the best interests of Skid Row’s residents. It would have been easy to make this book into another cop-hating piece of social justice research. Instead, Stuart complicated Central Division’s role in the matter, painting many officers’ arrests as interventions on behalf of Skid Row residents that stemmed from a deep commitment to the community and its people. The symbiosis this police paternalism had with the shelters was also very enlightening, given the shelter’s deeply ideological expression of assistance. It is precisely through this ideological disconnect that Skid Row residents framed police actions as victimization rather than assistance.

Chapters 3 and 4 discuss two approaches to “becoming copwise,” through a group of friends and the “Skid Row weight pile” and through a group of street vendors. Ironically, both versions of cop wisdom resulted in individuals performing “police work” on themselves and others because of their interpretations and applications of their unique “folk ethnographies of policing.” The Skid Row weight pile chapter really broke my heart. The weight pile crew’s worst crime, in my estimation, was that of creating an unsanctioned therapeutic intervention that ran counter the “approved” ideology of recovery. Stuart did such an excellent job painting these characters that I hope a great director and screenwriter pair up to make an amazing movie out of chapter 3. Chapter 4, though less cinematic is perhaps more interesting in its implications, since self-policing among street vendors has effects beyond the vendors themselves. Again, through their “folk ethnography policing,” street vendors are quick to identify and eliminate those elements in their block that “don’t belong,” including drug users, white people, and women.

Stuart’s methodological appendix was useful describing the effects of his positionality and the rationale for his sampling strategy, two items that were closely entangled. Stuart’s identity, appearance, and occupation was a challenge for engaging with Skid Row residents and an advantage when interacting with cops. Though his intended research subjects were Skid Row residents it quickly became obvious he would have to engage police officers in an “inconvenience sample” of interactions that ran counter to the data he had collected about police behavior thus far. After a surprisingly easy integration into the cop community, it became necessary for Stuart to engage with yet another “inconvenience sample,” this time of policing and community activists (Los Angeles Community Action Network and the Catholic Worker). This “switching sides” upset many of the officers he had worked with, ending much of his access to him and potentially making him a target for police retaliation. Though methodology is often labeled “the boring stuff” in social science research, I found Stuart’s openness about his methods and commitment to rigor, despite the inconvenience it would cause, extremely validating to his work.

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Stuart, Forrest. 2016. Down, Out, and Under Arrest: Policing and Everyday Life in Skid Row. University of Chicago Press.

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