Marlon Peterson grew up in Crown Heights, in Brooklyn, N.Y. He experienced a difficult childhood, which culminated, at the age of 19, in his involvement in a robbery that led to the death of two people. While serving a 10-year prison term for his participation in this crime, he earned a degree and became a writer and an activist on behalf of those who are incarcerated.
I first met Peterson not long after his release from prison in 2009, during the years he spent working at the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center (now Neighbors in Action). At the mediation center, Peterson helped to implement Save Our Streets Brooklyn, New York’s first Cure Violence program, which trains credible messengers from the community to help interrupt violence on the streets of Brooklyn.
In the years since then, Peterson has gone on to host his own podcast (Decarcerated), to give a TED talk (Am I Not Human?), and to write a memoir (Bird Uncaged: An Abolitionist’s Freedom Song), which will be released this month by Bold Type Books. A vocal critic of the American criminal justice system, Peterson has written about violence prevention for numerous publications, including Ebony, The Nation, USA Today, and The Root.
I talked with Peterson by phone in late January about his unique history, his take on what’s going on in New York at the moment, and his predictions for the future. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
GREG BERMAN: In honor of your forthcoming book, I thought I might read to you several excerpts of things that you have written over the years and ask you to elaborate on them. For example, a few months ago, you wrote, “Some are opposed to bail reforms, citing a jump in crime numbers from the first couple months after New York ended the practice as evidence of the need to repeal bail legislation.” I am assuming that you don’t think bail reform has led to the uptick in shootings. Do you have an alternative theory about what’s going on?
MARLON PETERSON: It’s the COVID crisis and the racial upheaval. If you look at what happened last year, and is still happening, you had more young people out of school. And you had people cooped up in households with no outlet. All of this pushes some of these younger folks to go outside. It also pushes some people to articulate their frustrations online, whether it be on Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, whatever. People have this misplaced anger and rage, and they go online and say stuff. And we know now that online beefs are leading to more street beefs than ever before.
And then there’s just less money. People are out of work and struggling. So you had young people who had been supplementing their family incomes with whatever side jobs they may have had—Burger King, Wendy’s, whatever. And they either got less hours or no hours. And then summer youth employment opportunities flew away. So all those things add up. And then there is the trauma of the COVID crisis. Young folks have aunts and mothers and grandparents who are suffering from COVID or dying from COVID. That’s a trauma that’s not being dealt with. So trauma and anger and frustration lead to conflicts with other people on the streets in their community.
And then there’s the police part. The police violence hit hard because it was unavoidable. There were no sports. There were no concerts. There were no clubs, no parties. So, even though we’re all aware [police shootings] have been happening for years, thanks to COVID, you are seeing it every day on the news and in your feed. Celebrities are talking about it. Rappers are talking about it. Athletes are talking about it. And it’s like a cauldron that’s being mixed all at once.
I made an Instagram post about this before the summer started. I just sort of outlined all these things I’m talking to you about right now, Greg, and I said that we should expect more violence in our communities in the next months. So nothing we have seen is surprising to me.
BERMAN: What about the argument that people are no longer scared to leave the house with a gun because they feel like they won’t get caught. Do you think that’s behind some of the violence we have seen?
PETERSON: I don’t see that. I’m somebody who carried guns at one point in time. I grew up in the height of the stop-and-frisk era. I knew that I could be stopped and frisked at any point—and I was, often. But I wasn’t afraid that they would catch me with a gun. Young people don’t think about things in that way. When you’re at that age, when you’re out here hustling, you know you could go to jail for it. But that doesn’t factor into your thinking. You feel untouchable at that age.
We in the field of criminal justice are aware of all these changes to policy and practice, but kids on the street aren’t aware of these changes. They’re not paying attention. No one says, “Well, you know, they ruled stop-and-frisk unconstitutional, so now we can hang out.“ They’re not doing that. So I don’t agree with the idea that there’s some sort of consciousness that police aren’t policing the way they used to, so we can walk outside with our weapons now.
BERMAN: You once wrote, “I grew up in a community where guns are easier to get than sneakers.” I’m assuming that was hyperbole, but how easy were guns to get when you were a kid?
PETERSON: The first gun I ever got was from the bodega around my way. I got it from a corner store. I didn’t have to do some special ops thing. I just went to the corner store and bought it through the slot. I still think it’s easy to get guns. Guns aren’t difficult. They’ve never been difficult. There are more guns in this country than there are people. They’re easy to get because there’s a huge supply.
BERMAN: You’ve written: “We know that guns kill, particularly Black people. Yet this nation has not cared enough to slow down gun production.” So you think that the failure to enact meaningful gun reform legislation is tied to racism?
PETERSON: Absolutely, I think so. The fact that Black and brown people are dying at these rates by this particular source has not impacted the nation enough. This nation’s inability to really do anything substantial and sensible around guns is because of racism. But I also want to put in a caveat, too, because this nation really believes in guns. I remember when the mass shooting in Newtown happened. I was sitting in the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center, and I was like, “Oh, they are going to do something now, because they shot these white kids in a white neighborhood.” And two or three days later, the NRA said, “We need more guns.” And at that point I was like, “Well, this nation’s committed to violence.”
BERMAN: You’ve talked about how gun violence is related to underlying trauma, writing, “At the individual and communal level, trauma is at the bottom of antisocial violent behaviors.” What do you mean when you say this?
PETERSON: When somebody decides to pick up a gun, it’s because there’s something inside that they’re dealing with. People think that gang beef is senseless. And there’s some truth to that, but we also forget that individuals in gangs are people who got sh– going on. They have issues. They have trauma. They got family stress. They got abuse issues, drug addiction. And they bring
all those things with them into the gang. And then, with that groupthink mentality that happens in a gang, there’s ample opportunity to act out what you got going on internally. Now you have a reason, you have a cause. A brotherhood. Issues with trauma are always at the root before somebody picks up a gun.
BERMAN: I think I get what you mean by individual trauma. But you’re also talking about trauma at the communal level. Give me a sense of what that means to you.
PETERSON: I think that police violence is a part of the trauma that causes people to do the things that they do. I wasn’t raised to not like police. I wasn’t raised in that type of household. But police, for whatever reason, would see me as a young kid and pick on me, and I wasn’t doing anything at that time. And it not only created this sort of animosity towards them, but it also created this feeling of, “All right, they treat me like a crook, I might as well do crook sh–.” You know what I mean?
And that’s just using police violence as an example. But there are other types of violence on the communal level that are always impacting people. Health disparities and not having adequate access to good healthcare, for example. Those are things on a communal level that people don’t associate with gun violence. But when things are happening within your body or are not being adequately taken care of, it leads to frustration.
As an adult, you know how to deal with those sorts of things. But when you’re 16 and you’re walking up your block, or you’re coming out of your project, and you got these things happening, and somebody looks at you kind of funny, you can snap. And from then on, the thing that was bothering you internally, whatever health issue you were dealing with, that’s no longer a factor anymore. You’re not even thinking about it. Now you just got beef, and that’s the only thing that matters. You’re not thinking about why you had it, what contributed to your mindset in the first place.
BERMAN: In your book, you write: “It’s not excusable for a victim to become a perpetrator, or for the perpetrator to claim victimhood, but they are realities.” How do you balance the harms you’ve been talking about against individual responsibility and individual agency when it comes to criminal behavior?
PETERSON: There should be an acknowledgement that people who do harmful things are reacting to harmful things; but, as I said, it’s not an excuse. I always say you don’t absolve people for the harmful things that they do. But we have to acknowledge that perpetrators have been victimized before. I think that’s why restorative justice is on the tips of many people’s tongues now.
Did you see the horrific thing that happened in Harlem last week? These guys tried to hit on a girl in a liquor store. And she turned them down, from what we can see from the video camera footage. They followed her outside, and they ended up beating her up. They are still looking for these guys. That is horrific. There’s no way to excuse that. But I do have to be able to understand that people don’t wake up out of their beds and just do stuff like that unless there’s some unaddressed mental issues. There’s a build-up to that type of action.
BERMAN: Your book is essentially a plea for prison abolition. The people who committed this act in Harlem … what should happen to them, in your mind? What should the consequence be for this kind of behavior?
PETERSON: That’s always the question. Should they go to jail? Right now, jail is all we got. That’s what we have at the moment. We don’t have any other type of solution to deal with egregious harm. We don’t. But what I am saying is that in order to work towards an abolitionist future, we have to invest in addressing the underlying traumas that people are dealing with in our communities.
BERMAN: I would love for there to be a future in which no one was harmed. But let’s just stipulate for a moment that we aren’t going to completely eliminate bad things from happening. In the future that you’re imagining, what would be a better response than incarceration as a response to egregious harms?
PETERSON: The abolitionist future, to me, is about really investing in resources to address the underlying issues that people have in these communities. Right now, jail is what we got. But we also know that jails are harmful places. Jail is all about get-back and vengeance. Everybody knows jails are f—– up places. They got millions of movies about it. It’s like, “You killed my father, I’m going to kill your father.” That sort of thing. We don’t really think that this person we are sending to jail is redeemable, that a person can change. What does it do to send a person to jail? It doesn’t do anything for them, other than to say we got you back.
BERMAN: You talked earlier about growing up in the stop-and-frisk era. The quote that I highlighted about your relationship with the police from one of your writings was, “I take a personal affront to law enforcement when they speak to me as if I am a toy to be played with.” Has every interaction you’ve ever had with the police been negative?
PETERSON: Of course not. As a professional, I’ve been to One Police Plaza. When I have on a suit and I represent an organization or an issue, obviously the police are looking at me in a different light. But if I come back home in my hoodie around Bed-Stuy, then they don’t know who I am. So, no, every interaction I’ve had hasn’t been negative. I had an interaction recently when I got locked out of my car down here in the Bushwick area. Cops came by and they called somebody who helped me out. It’s not that every interaction with the police is bad.
But the most indelible interactions I’ve ever had with police have been bad. And also the most unwarranted interactions with police have been bad. I remember they stopped me someplace in my car, and they were just playing with me. They stopped me for no reason in my neighborhood around the corner from my house. And those are the types of interactions that always make me think about Eric Garner. It’s not so much that all police are bad. That’s a cliché. It’s more that the force they wield in our community doesn’t make me feel safe.
BERMAN: You’ve written that you think that police are inherently a racist, white supremacist organization. Is it impossible to imagine a police department in a place like New York being led by a Black police chief, with Black leadership commensurate with the size of the African-American population in the city, and where street officers actually come from the neighborhoods where they are patrolling? Is it impossible to imagine a police department that is not a racist, white supremacist organization?
PETERSON: It’s not impossible to imagine. But I will say that to believe that corrupt or brutal policing is only enacted by white officers wouldn’t be true to history. The mere fact that we may have more Black folks, or brown folks, or people who live in the community as police officers doesn’t necessarily mean that police will be less brutal. Maybe they will. Maybe. But I also know that there’s evidence to show that they have been just as, and sometimes much more, brutal.
Here’s the thing. Policing, just like any organization, has a corporate culture. You know that no matter where you are, you’re either going to become embedded into that corporate culture or you’re going to be a rebel to that culture. And if you’re a rebel to that culture, well, then your time is going to be either really short or very difficult.
Look at Edwin Raymond. You know the officer, the Black guy from Brooklyn, who exposed all these bad things happening in the New York Police Department. He received death threats from inside the police department. So I’m just saying that, of course, we can imagine a future where policing isn’t what we see today, just like I can imagine a world without prison.
But I also have a right to say I don’t believe that policing will be the tool that gets us where we need to go. I don’t see policing as an institution being separate from corruption and brutality. I’ve seen police do the same thing in Trinidad, in Jamaica, in Ghana, in South Africa. There is a brutality to that corporate culture that always will clash with civility.
BERMAN: I want to talk a little bit about what we should do now to combat the uptick in violence in New York. You have written: “There is no Batman with a never-ending utility belt of crime-fighting tools. Community-based programs aimed at prevention and intervention are the Caped Crusader.” So if we want to reduce community violence, where would you be making investments, if you were the mayor?
PETERSON: We obviously need to invest in community-based approaches to violence. Where we are at, in New York City, harkens back to the late 1970s and early 1980s in terms of businesses being in shambles, stores boarded up, graffiti everywhere. I think we need a hyper-local approach to investing in infrastructure to address issues of violence and also putting people in the community to work taking care of the buildings and parks that are falling apart. We have to engage the people in the community so that they feel like it is theirs, instead of contractors coming into the community from different places.
Going forward, we also need to look for ways to reduce the militaristic form of policing. I think about the police and the way they dress, and the way that they look, and the weapons that they carry—those things are meant to intimidate. It’s unnecessary. There’s been an increase in shootings, yes, but this is not a war zone. I think the militaristic nature of the police culture incites an angst inside of these communities. I am thinking about ways to no longer have a need for police. That’s what abolition is, the need to no longer have police. But I’m also thinking about ways to incrementally shift how police approach their business on a daily basis—how they look, how they dress, and the weapons that they walk around with.
BERMAN: A number of the candidates for mayor in New York City have spoken favorably about the Cure Violence model and expressed a desire for more violence interruption. I spoke with Jeffrey Butts at John Jay College not long ago, and he said that while he thinks Cure Violence is worthy of further investment, we are a long way from being able to say that we know for certain that the model works and is evidence-based. He also expressed the concern that Cure Violence has almost become like a religion where you can’t even criticize it. I’m curious, do you feel like people are starting to treat Cure Violence like it’s above reproach?
PETERSON: No, I definitely don’t think that. I even criticize Cure Violence at times for different things.
BERMAN: If you could wave a magic wand and improve one thing about Cure Violence, what would it be?
PETERSON: I think we need a way for the people who are working as violence interrupters to be able to rise out of [these jobs]. I think there’s a lot of re-traumatization happening. As a violence interrupter, I’ve seen that firsthand. Folks shouldn’t stay in those roles beyond a certain amount of time.
Cure Violence itself is a model of suppression: Stop the violence, move on. You can stop beefs, and that’s obviously huge. You save lives when you stop beef. But you’re not addressing the underlying reason a lot of people have beef in the first place. I think New York has done a good job with trying to take a more holistic approach with the wraparound models.
I also think Cure Violence has to be aware that it needs to be able to constantly rebrand itself. When I came home a decade ago, Cure Violence was cool. After a while, you’re just some old dudes, and it’s not as effective. It doesn’t speak to what young people are dealing with now. I can see S.O.S. becoming corny. I can see young people saying, “I don’t want to wear that shirt. That’s old. My father used to be down with that.” That’s another reason why violence interrupters need to be able to be moved up and out into other and bigger things.
BERMAN: Part of the goal of this series is to try to bridge the research-practice divide and make sure that researchers are asking the right questions about community violence in New York City. Are there questions about community violence that you wish you had answers to but don’t right now? Where should folks like Butts be focusing their energies?
PETERSON:I think we need a lot more [knowledge] about the education space and the interactions with school and community. How do you mitigate and eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline? At what age should we be engaging young people? What’s really bothering them? I think those of us who’ve been in the criminal justice space don’t really understand what education leaders understand. I think that’s a major piece of the puzzle that we should look into and interrogate.
BERMAN: Anything that I missed? Anything else you want to say on this subject?
PETERSON: Actually, yes. I don’t think 2021 will be much better in the realm of community violence. I see stores are boarded up. And I see graffiti and all that sort of stuff. And I thought to myself, “If I was sixteen, how would I react to this store that’s just shut up?” And it seems like a field day right now. Because people aren’t really doing anything.
There’s nothing for people to do. There’s also less money around. So young people are congregating in weird places with alcohol, with weed, and with all these different types of opiates now. When you have those sorts of things clouding your mind, it can lead to a lot of really opportunistic harm. I just think that it could become a little bit more dangerous this year because of that.
BERMAN: You started this last statement by talking about graffiti and boarded-up buildings. To my ears—
PETERSON: No, it’s not broken windows.
BERMAN: It sounds an awful lot like broken windows.
PETERSON: Well, here’s the thing about the broken windows theory. The reason why it was wrong was the way it was implemented, or the way that [former New York Mayor Rudolph] Giuliani spoke about it. It said that police had to come in and they’re the ones that are going to take care of things from a law enforcement perspective. I think we need to take care of the boarded-up windows and such, but not through enforcement.
What I’m saying is that we should invest at a hyper-local level and get people in the communities who have a vested interest involved in taking care of things. I think that approach is different, and you are more likely to get buy-in from it.
Greg Berman is the Distinguished Fellow of Practice at the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. He previously served as executive director of the Center for Court Innovation for 18 years. His most recent book is Start Here: A Road Map to Reducing Mass Incarceration (The New Press). Views expressed are the participants’ own and not necessarily those of The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. The original version of this essay was posted on the H.F. Guggenheim website, and is reprinted with permission. Readers’ comments are welcome.