A Symposium on Exposure, Entanglement, and Endurance

Toxic: A Symposium on Exposure, Entanglement and Endurance at Yale March 3-4, 2016.

The Street: Social Space or Social Stressor?

Naa Oyo A. Kwate, Rutgers University

  Courtesy of Naa Oyo A. Kwate

Courtesy of Naa Oyo A. Kwate

Jamila K. saw the police car in her rearview.  It was approaching with some speed, so she pulled to the side of the road to allow the vehicle passage.  When it failed to overtake her, she looked in the mirror again, and was surprised to find the sedan had come to a stop behind her.  And the officer was getting out.  Soon, a rap on the glass:  ‘Open up.’ She lowered her window. ‘What’s the problem?’ ‘You’re obstructing traffic.  Let me see your license.’ Jamila K. complied, unbelieving.  ‘How am I obstructing traffic when I’m on the shoulder? I only pulled over to let you by.’ The cop was writing.  Soon he handed her a small sheaf of papers.  ‘You need to go to court and take care of these,’ he said, and was gone.  Jamila K. looked through the citations, three altogether:  obstructing traffic, failing to signal, not wearing a seatbelt. 

Jamila K. called in sick in order to go to court, where the clerk brusquely dismissed her protestations, and told her she would receive a trial date by post.  Weeks later, an envelope bearing the state’s seal arrived.  Jamila K. assumed this was her court date, and though she could ill afford missing more work, she was eager to resolve the dispute.  But the envelope was from the state’s Department of Revenue: her driver’s license had been suspended for Failure to Appear.   Jamila K. returned to court—by car, risking further criminal penalties—to contest this new development.  She pressed her case to the clerk.  ‘I never received a trial date.  Why was my license suspended?’ ‘Your trial was two weeks ago.  Now there’s a warrant out for your arrest.’  ‘But that’s impossible!  Can I talk to the judge?’ The clerk was implacable.  ‘No, the judge does not receive just anyone, and in any case, that’s only allowed after a new court date is set.' 'I'm here now, can't we do it today?' 'No.  For a new date, sign here in triplicate, and pay a $200 bond.’  Jamila K. turned from the clerk’s window and strode to the door, anticipating at any moment a hand on her collar, a clash of handcuffs, and a jail cell.  But she reached the outdoors.  There she sat on a bench and thought about what she was going to do.

I have taken some liberty to dramatize one Black woman’s actual encounter with the Ferguson, Missouri police and Municipal Court (1). Ferguson is not unique.  The incident is emblematic of the toxic exposures Black people encounter on a day-to-day basis in public space, calling into question how we should conceive of environmental health hazards.  Racial subordination in urban space produces stress and a cascade of material disadvantage, making the street a disease agent.  At the same time, because the street is central to life lived in Black communities, it is a setting ripe for in situ intervention.  I will present a public health campaign designed to invert the health destabilizing effects of racism by fostering a politics of sight. 


(1) U.S. Department of Justice, Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department