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How can people ever be safe in a society built upon exploitation and inequality?

After a robbery, a meditation on crime and justice 

In September my home was robbed. My kids, ages 12 and 14, were home alone when three young men kicked in our back door. They ordered my kids into one of the bedrooms and, later, facedown onto our kitchen floor. These orders were backed by at least two guns. The young men threatened to kill my kids, made them count to 100 in the bathroom, took a few items, then fled.

The items had some monetary worth, but the most valuable thing stolen that day was my children's sense of safety. Right now, they would rather be anywhere but home. My son literally jumps at every noise he hears and takes hours to fall asleep each night.

If what you are expecting now is a father demanding justice, you are correct. But it might not be the kind of justice you're imagining.

What happened to us wasn't special. Robberies are fairly common in Durham, and even armed home invasions are not unheard of. I am sharing my family's story to fight the limiting idea that we are supposed to deal with this as individuals or family units only. Justice is not just for individuals; it is for communities.

My partner and I knew that any sense of safety we had was always illusory, even if we didn't always admit it. How can people ever be safe in a society built upon exploitation and inequality? The three young men who robbed our home left with nothing really, but they might have netted close to $300 each if the items were sold, if they split the money equally and if they weren't working for someone else. This, in 10 minutes of work. Converted to an hourly rate, that is 112 times more than a working stiff like me has ever made, even at my highest-paying job.

Now, compare that to what Kobe Bryant makes while taking a 10-minute shower. And Kobe is a working stiff compared with the Lakers owner, or Bill Gates, or Warren Buffett. That's income distribution in the global economy, and the economic crisis is only making that squeeze worse.

Two kinds of justice prevail: street justice and the so-called criminal justice system of police, courts and incarceration. So, what kind of justice do I want? Street justice is tempting. Don't think that I haven't thought about trying to track down these guys and beat them to a pulp for what they did to my kids. But I know this form of justice does not make anyone safer or build anything resembling community.

The other option, though, is at least as bad as street justice, and, in my opinion, worse. I have no interest in the police hunting down these three young men, and no desire for them to spend time in jail awaiting trial, make a plea and then possibly spend some time in prison. Such "justice" will have nothing to do with me or my kids. It will not make us feel safer, and it won't do anything to change the socioeconomic conditions that make armed robbery a tempting choice for some. The police do not make us safe. And in some neighborhoods, they make folks less safe.

I make no excuses for the men who broke into our home—every time my son jumps at a noise, my anger at them is renewed—but generally speaking, the prospects for young African-American men in a city filled with racial injustice are not very good. The fact is, the criminal justice system won't give us—or them—justice.

We need alternatives to this insane system of locking people up. The jails and prisons are teeming with people whose major crime is the fact that they are poor and black and have few prospects. Ultimately, it is the economic conditions that lead people to commit home invasions that must be transformed.

Until that day arrives, we must come up with creative alternatives to street justice and criminal justice, perhaps a form of street justice that relies on networks of people to expose perpetrators and hold them accountable in a "people's court of justice." My daughter says she would like to sit down with the young man who stayed with her and her brother during the ordeal and talk with him, sans guns. Alongside such ideas, the present "justice" system just seems hollow.

Amid a rash of break-ins, some people from my neighborhood association—the self-appointed, pseudo-elected community leaders—are hoping to revive the Citizens on Patrol (or COPs) program, with the blessing of the police. This is not the alternative I seek. This program will effectively turn every pedestrian, especially every young person of color, into a suspicious person. This is in fact how many in the neighborhood association already use their email listserv and how the police operate. Try as they might to defend it as community-based, with neighbors watching out for neighbors, that's not what COPs is. If it were, and if it didn't include the police, I might support it. But it's folks—and let's be real, overwhelmingly white folk—with a stake in the system who are watching each other's backs, with the cops on speed dial.

My sorrow and rage for what my kids went through are real. But they are no more valid than the sorrow or rage of parents who cannot find a job or cannot provide adequate food or housing for their children, or cannot prevent their child turning to a life of hustling because there are so few other options.

Every day comes more news suggesting that this economic crisis is going to last a long time. In recent months, we have witnessed people from Cairo to Madison to Oakland to Durham visibly struggling for a better future. I want justice, yes. I want my children to like being at home. I want them to be the independent, confident kids they were well on their way to becoming. But I also want that for the three perpetrators. In other words, I want justice for my family, but I want racial and economic justice just as much. So that every child and adult can go to sleep.

Steve Lorenz lives in Durham. You can reach him at stevelorenz919@gmail.com.

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