Kai Wright: Hey Caught listeners, this is Kai Wright. Long time no chat. I'm here because I want to tell you about a podcast from journalist, Emily Bazelon, who is known for her work in The New York Times and as a co-host of Slate's Political Gabfest. Now, she's produced a really great investigative podcast series called Charged. I think if you like Caught you're really going to like this too. For more than a year, Emily has been reporting on a gun court in Brooklyn that was designed to just be a speedy machine for harsh punishment.
Charged tells not only a compelling human story but it also poses the big, thorny questions at the center of our national conversation about criminal justice reform. The same kinds of questions that we've been asking here on Caught, like, what exactly makes someone a criminal? Can you ever really outrun that label? If you're going to take apart the machine we've built to punish people, what do you put in its place? I'm going to play you the first episode. After that, to hear the full series, search for Charged in your Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. Thanks, and enjoy.
Emily Bazelon: A bit of housekeeping before we get started. This podcast is a co-production of Slate and The Appeal, a new publication about the justice system, and it's a companion to my new book, also called Charged and available wherever you buy books. Okay, thanks for listening. Here's the show.
It's an elementary rule of politics. Any elected mayor has to have the police on their side. From the day Bill de Blasio took his seat at City Hall in New York, his relationship with the police went from bad to worse to catastrophic. First, de Blasio cut way back on the practice of stop and frisk, the cops' favorite tool for shaking down people on the street. Then a white officer killed an unarmed Black man on a Staten Island sidewalk. That death rocked the city.
Reporter: Thousands of protestors took to the streets demanding justice for the death of Eric Garner. At least 30 people--
Emily: De Blasio blamed the tragedy on, his words, "A history of racism." Every New York cop felt implicated. Next, de Blasio went on TV and said he'd warned his biracial son to be very careful around the police. Now, it was personal. When two officers were later gunned down and murdered in their patrol car, their funerals smoldered with anger. De Blasio stood to speak and rows and rows of cops turned their backs on him.
Reporter: Hundreds of police officers turning away as the mayor of New York City speaks--
Emily: The police were in open revolt. Here's the head of their union, Patrick Lynch.
Patrick Lynch: There's blood on many hands tonight. That blood on the hands starts on the steps of City Hall in the office of the mayor.
Speaker 1: Are we all set? I'll take silence as acquiescence--
Speaker 2: That'll be yes.
Speaker 1: Yes, exactly, and get us going.
Emily: A year later, the top brass of the NYPD gathered around the mayor at City Hall for a press conference. Now, they couldn't get close enough. On TV, It looked like the political version of a group hug. De Blasio ate it up.
Bill de Blasio: I want the people of New York City to realize these are the people who keep you safe every day, all in one room.
Emily: How did de Blasio pull it off? It was actually a nifty bit of political maneuvering. The mayor came up with a way to make the cops happy that would also please his liberal base. The answer to his troubles was his version of gun control.
Bill: We announced today a tremendous step forward in our work to drive down crime in this city. Right here, right now, we're doing something that will get guns off the streets, keep them off the streets, get those who use guns to prison, where they belong.
Emily: De Blasio's plan was an all-out war on simple gun possession, every case over and done in six months. Most importantly, whenever possible, long stretches in prison.
Bill: If you pick up a gun, you will suffer the consequences. I think it's as simple as that.
Emily: The cops loved this idea, and progressives went for it too. They saw it as a tough-minded solution for violence. Here's Ken Thompson, Brooklyn's first African American district Attorney.
Ken Thompson: Every year, thousands upon thousands of people are murdered with guns throughout our nation. From Brownsville to the south side of Chicago, to the parishes of New Orleans. We stand here today because this is a very important initiative that we're going to roll out, with a dedicated court to handle gun cases.
Emily: In Brooklyn they called this new place Gun Court.
For the last three years, I've been working on a book about criminal justice, and I spent a lot of time in gun court on the 19th floor of Brooklyn's Big Courthouse. I got to know the defendants who were sitting on the benches. They were almost all young Black men. Right away, I noticed something I didn't expect. The cops weren't sending the most dangerous shooters in New York to gun court, they were sending the people who were the easiest to arrest. Then I noticed something else. The young men in gun court didn't just surrender to the system, they maneuvered around it in often brilliant ways.
Meanwhile, outside the courtroom, activists all over the country were also maneuvering. They were trying to dismantle America's machine of punishment, but they were up against the same forces as the young men I was talking to on the benches. Gun court became a test of power and also of the very nature of crime and punishment in America. We're going to tell you the stories of some of these young men searching for a way out, and also of the people trying to take apart America's machine of punishment and wrestling with what to put in its place. I'm Emily Bazelon, and this is Charged, a true punishment story inside New York's gun court.
I want you to meet two people who helped me understand this very particular moment in criminal justice. Their names are Eric and Tarari. They were born in the same neighborhood but in different eras, 25 years apart. They both dealt with the street life growing up, of gangs and fights and guns, but one of them wound up with real power and the other ended up in real trouble.
Tarari: My name is Tarari. I'm from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and I'm 24 years old.
Emily: In the first two years after gun court opened, 851 people went through it. Tarari was one of the first. He's a hip-hop artist. Music was his oasis even before he was born. Here's his mom, Belinda.
Belinda: When I got pregnant with him, [chuckles] I was in a park one day and-- I don't remember which song I was listening to, but it was a nice song. He was just a little too active in me and I just put the headphones on my stomach. He stopped moving like he was listening and [laughs] I was like, "I think I'm on to something," so I just kept doing it.
Emily: The headphones kept working their magic long after Tarari was born, so his mom kept using them.
Tarari: My mom seen me up late one night. I was reading a book on The Berenstain Bears, so she just put headphones on me and said, "Here, listen to music." I was never into music like that at first, but when she did that for the first time I started getting into it and stuff.
Emily: Tarari's grandfather, Belinda's dad, was actually in a doo-wop group called The Dubs. It hit the top 40 charts in 1957 with this song.
Emily: Belinda played her dad's recordings for Tarari, and on his own he found all kinds of music.
Tarari: Have you ever heard of Rigoletto? I was just listening to the older music. I just felt it, and that one song popped up, and I'm like [hums] and after, that was one of my favorite songs. I don't know why.
Emily: Eric Gonzalez is our second kid born in Brooklyn. He grew up a generation before Tarari, only 15 blocks away. Eric's mother came to New York from Puerto Rico. She raised him on her own, worked multiple jobs. Eric spent a lot of time with his extended family. Growing up in the 1980s was an especially violent time in Brooklyn, so Eric had to stick up for himself.
Eric Gonzalez: I was about 5'7", 5'8" in middle school, so I was big enough, tall enough, and I was free with my hands. I would fight if I needed to fight. I remember I was walking and I had a nice pair of white Pumas. They were sweet and I loved them. I would clean them with a toothbrush. I was walking and I heard these guys saying, "Yo, let's get his sneakers." I ran, they caught up to me, and it was three of them. We fought, and we fought and we fought. You would see kids often on the train only with their socks, and I was determined that I was not going to walk home barefoot.
Emily: Eric's Pumas were scuffed and dirty by the end of that fight, but they made it home on his feet.
Tarari got into fights too, but by eighth grade, he'd also figured out how to entertain everyone. One day a teacher heard him rapping in the lunchroom and told him to sign up for the talent show to perform in front of everyone.
Tarari: When I sing to the whole school, it just made me hype. I didn't miss a beat, I didn't miss a word. [laughs] I felt like I was in the BET Awards or something. Hearing all the claps and everybody hugging me, [laughs] all the girls coming towards me and stuff, it felt amazing. Actually, after that song, it was a parent-teacher conference and everybody just surrounded my mother, like, "His son is amazing."
Belinda: Oh, my God, Tarari was so wonderful. I didn't know that he could do this because he was very shy in school, so they didn't know that he would just pop out like this. Even the children around him that he really didn't open up to and get along, they was all, "Tarari, Tarari." They were so happy.
Tarari: Oh, my god. [laughs] I felt like I was famous at that time. [chuckles] Felt the fame.
Emily: When Eric was in eighth grade, he went to check out his local high school a bunch of times.
Eric: Every time I went to visit it, there was always some kind of fight. There was gang violence in front of the school. Every time I went there, three or four times when I was in the eighth grade, to take a look at it, and every time I said, "Wow, this place is terrible."
Emily: He found out about another school on the other side of Brooklyn.
Eric: When I went to visit it, it had a campus. There were people from all over Brooklyn there. The kids were playing frisbee out on the lawn.
Emily: Eric enrolled in that school, and now he was on the subway for more than an hour each way. His life split into two parts. His new high school during the day and his old neighborhood at night. There, the issues on the street were still the same.
Eric: I had been with people walking down the street who were carrying guns and they were friends. I wasn't interested in it but I was around it all the time. One time I was with a person who used to call my cousin, went to his house every day as a child. My mother babysat him. I was with him one day, probably sophomore, junior in high school. He says, "Hey, you want to come to Coney Island with me?" I'm like, "Sure."
Emily: The trip didn't go the way Eric thought it would. His friend met up with another guy and the next thing Eric knew, he was on a side street in the middle of a massive deal.
Eric: I had never seen a bag of drugs that large. I was really pissed at him. He was like, "What do you know? What's the big deal? You didn't touch the money or the drugs. Nothing would've happened to you." I was like, "I don't want to go to jail, man. This is not what I intend to do with my life." He ultimately went to jail, was selling drugs, got caught down south and got a 15 year sentence. I had to separate myself from people that I was very close to, and there was a lot of friends like that.
Emily: Tarari went to a different kind of high school in 2009. There were no frisbees and no lawn. His charm and his music won him friends and kept him safe for a while at least. One day in ninth grade, Tarari was trying to take a test and a kid he didn't know kept breaking his concentration by talking. They had words. A few days later, the same kid walked behind Tarari in class and smacked him on the head. They fought. That day after school, Tarari was heading home on the subway with friends.
Tarari: We get on the train but I see boy I got into a fight with. He's in the group, amongst us. As soon as the doors close, all I know I'm feeling fists flying at me and I got jumped on the train. My friend, he stopped and I got off the train. My body is bruised up because I was protecting my face the whole time.
Emily: Thinking about what it would be like to go back to school, Tarari made his decision. He knew who to talk to.
Tarari: He was from my school. I told him, like, "Listen, can you get me-- What's up with the guns and stuff like that? I need me a gun." He was like, "I got you." Days later, he had called me and stuff.
Alvin: What kind of gun was it?
Emily: That's Alvin, my producer.
Tarari: It was a revolver 38. Like, "I know now I actually need protection."
Emily: Now that Tarari had his revolver, here was a new puzzle, where was it safe to keep a loaded gun?
Tarari: I used to always hide it. I didn't want it near my mom's, just in case something happened, police crashing through the door and stuff and they found a gun. I kept it somewhere else.
Emily: That somewhere else was his friend's locker.
Tarari: He was a basketball player, so he had a little storage room.
Emily: One night, Tarari realized he'd never actually shot a gun before. He needed training. He turned to YouTube, found a video that showed him how to hold a gun and how to load it. Then he went up onto the roof of his apartment building for target practice.
Tarari: I wasn't shooting at cans or nothing. I was just shooting in the air just to see how powerful it was and to get the hang of it so I don't have to ever be scared, because to be honest, I never really wanted to use-- [laughs] never wanted to use a gun.
Emily: Afterward, he used his flashlight on his cell phone to find where the casings had fallen onto the roof. He picked them up and stashed them in his pocket, just in case someone came. Over the two years I reported in gun court, I met a lot of teenagers who talked like Tarari. They said they never fired a gun, or only did it a few times for practice. Most hid their guns. Also like Tarari, almost never at home. They were as wary of the weapons as they were proud of having them. They said they got the guns for defense. Here's Tarari.
Tarari: I was bullied damn near my whole life. I'm small. If I got into a lot of fights-- I had nobody to ever protect me.
Emily: Many of them made basic Second Amendment arguments like, "It's a dangerous world and you have to make tough decisions to survive in it." Here's another teenager I met in gun court.
Speaker 3: It's sad that I say this, but I'd rather get caught with a gun and do two, three years jail time than not get caught with a gun and wound up being dead.
Emily: The guns started to seem to me like armor the kids didn't really want.
Kadeem Gibbs: You feel a added layer of security or power. Having a gun in Black and urban culture has been associated with having power or clout or relevancy?
Emily: That's Kadeem Gibbs. I met him when I started reporting in gun court. He was one of the advocates who worked that border zone between the kids maneuvering in the streets and the cops enforcing the gun court's new mandate. Kadeem knows that there are plenty of illegal guns floating around New York City. Every year, the NYPD seizes around 5,000 of them. Last year, 161 people were killed by handguns.
The politicians look at those deaths and they see a crisis. For the kids Kadeem works with, this is just the hazardous ocean they swim in. Getting a gun for protection, it seems to make sense. Kadeem tries to convince them otherwise.
Kadeem: One thing that I always challenge young people on is protection. This notion of, "If I have this firearm I'm invincible or nothing is going to happen to me," and that's false.
Emily: Kadeem knows what he's talking about. He speaks from the experience of his own childhood.
Kadeem: When I was 12 is when I got arrested for the first time for bringing a gun to school. I started being in the streets around that age too because my mom was dealing with her own issues.
Emily: Kadeem's mom was struggling and she wasn't around much. He felt he had to take care of his siblings. He started selling drugs, got caught a bunch of times.
Kadeem: Long story short, I ended up doing five different bids from the time I was 12 to 22.
Emily: He told himself the same thing as Tarari and the other defendants, he had a gun for defense. Even though you buy a gun for protection, you almost never use it that way. Kadeem learned that in the hardest possible way.
Kadeem: I was shot when I was a kid and I had a gun on me when I was shot. It didn't make me bulletproof. It's like I still got shot.
Emily: When Eric neared the end of high school, he had to figure out what to do next. Around that time, he read a book that changed his life.
Eric: Bonfire of the Vanities.
Emily: Bonfire of the Vanities, the Tom Wolfe novel from 1987.
Eric: I read the book in like one night. I didn't go to sleep, and I was all in.
Emily: Bonfire is a story about a bond trader on Wall Street who gets arrested for a hit-and-run that kills a poor Black kid. It's a morality play about high society brought low. That's how I remember the book anyway, but it's not what Eric remembers.
Eric: What fascinated me by that book, these prosecutors had so much authority and discretion over what happened to people's lives and who got a second chance and who went to jail. I think what that book did for me was it changed my focus of what I wanted out of my life. What I wanted was to be a person who got to be a decision-maker.
Emily: Okay, I know this is going to sound kind of crazy, it was one book, but the way Eric tells it, Bonfire took him through college and through law school. He moved back to Williamsburg, to the same exact block where he grew up, and he really did stick with his plan to become a prosecutor. He took a job in the Brooklyn DA's office. At work, Eric didn't talk about the fights he got into growing up or about being around drugs and guns.
Eric: I always thought that if that was publicly known in the DA's office, it would undermine me or maybe they'd say I would be conflicted. I wasn't conflicted but I did see the people who I was prosecuting in totally different lenses than my colleagues because I never felt that there was a separation between them and me. They were neighbors.
Emily: Over the next 20 years, Eric worked his way up in the DA's office. He did just about every job. Then in 2014, Brooklyn elected Ken Thompson. Remember him? The borough's first African American DA. Thompson had actually never worked in the office he was taking over. For his number two, he had to find someone who understood the court system and the streets of Brooklyn. Thompson knew exactly who he needed, Eric Gonzalez.
One new year's eve, when Tarari was 20, he got a call from his sister. She was at a party in Queens and a guy there was hassling her.
Tarari: It was sexual. I ain't going to say rape or nothing but she didn't feel comfortable with the boy. Just inappropriate touching, and so I went to go pick her up and one of the guys threatened me, like, "We'll shoot you. We on our way to your hood." Trying to scare me up.
Emily: Tarari and his sister got home and one of the same guys sent him a message on Facebook, and then the threats got real and in person.
Tarari: Guys came to my door with a gun. They had a gun on them. One of them had it on his waist and he was actually threatening. In my head it's like, "This ain't child's play," and stuff. "This is serious, endangering my family now."
Emily: Tarari flashed back to something that had happened in his early childhood. He wasn't sure if he remembered it, but his family had told him the story many times over the years.
Tarari: When I was young I had experienced a home invasion with my aunt. They shot through the door and the guys took me and held the gun at my head.
Emily: That wasn't going to happen again. Tarari went out and got his gun. A couple of nights later, he saw a car circle around his neighborhood. It made him nervous. He made sure his gun was loaded.
Tarari: For protection. I ain't want to-- you feel me? I don't want to be out here naked.
Emily: The following evening, Tarari was with a friend in the lobby of the friend's apartment building. Tarari had his gun hidden under his hoodie. They called for a car. They were just standing there. You can see it on the closed-circuit video, exactly as Tarari describes it.
Tarari: We waiting for the cab and we just talking and stuff.
Emily: The cab comes and his friend walks out the door. Tarari starts to leave too, just as two men dressed in regular clothes come up behind him. They bar the exit and he turns around.
Tarari: They just, "Yo, stop." They just charged towards me and they grabbing me. I'm like, "Whoa, what's going on?" At first, I'm thinking, "I'm being a victim of kidnap or something."
Emily: The thing he remembers is that his mailman was there, a few feet away, watching the whole thing go down.
Tarari: I'm just thinking like, "What the hell? I got a gun on me." I'm screaming for help like, "James, help me." That's the mailman's name. Like, "James, help me, please."
Emily: James couldn't really do much of anything, neither could Tarari. The men pulled out their badges. They were plain clothes detectives. They started wrestling him to the ground.
Tarari: I'm twisting and turning and the cop is trying to-- He's patting me down but I don't want him to feel the gun, but the cop was big, so he just lift me up and he just took the gun off my hip and it was over from there. I just knew it from there, like, "I'm going to jail."
Emily: In the spring of 2016, Ken Thompson, Eric's boss, called him into his office to tell him something. Thompson had cancer.
Eric: He told me that I was the first person outside of his family he was telling. I was shocked because he was only 49 when he told me.
Emily: A few months later, Eric went to an event and for the first time in weeks he saw Thompson.
Eric: He had dropped a lot of weight, and it was the first time people had seen him since his surgery, and he never came back from it.
Emily: Thompson's death shook Eric. They both wanted to make big changes, and Thompson was also Eric's friend. They were just getting started on other plans. Now, it was all on him.
Eric: When he passed, it was really tough. It felt like we had so much that we had intended to do. At that time I didn't know what was going to happen.
Emily: There was plenty of cause for uncertainty. Eric wasn't a politician. Outside of the Brooklyn Courthouse, no one had really heard of him, but he was Ken Thompson's guy, and so a week after the funeral, the governor chose him to finish out Thompson's term. Eric was now in charge of the Brooklyn DA's office, and as he'd imagined when he read Bonfire of the Vanities all those years ago, that meant he had real power. There's an old saying about prosecutors, they can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich.
They can also pretty much guarantee that someone goes to prison, or they can agree to no jail time at all. Those choices were now effectively in Eric's hands for the hundreds of defendants passing through gun court and the tens of thousands in the rest of the system. Eric Gonzalez was now in a position to shape the futures of a lot of people who'd come up the way he had, starting, as the timing worked out, with Tarari.
Next week on Charged, Tarari goes to Rikers Island, one of the most violent jails in the country, with no end in sight.
Tarari: I got to get myself prepared for this. I'm locked up with other guys. I'm little, I'm the new guy. I don't know if I got enemies in here. I'm trapped.
Emily: This episode of Charged was produced by Alvin Melathe and written by me. Jack Hitt is our senior editor. Mastering by Merritt Jacob. If you want to learn more about the issues raised in this show, I have a new book out. It's also called Charged. Check it out wherever you buy books. Additional script editing for this episode by Veralyn Williams. Additional mixing by Chau Tu. Research and fact-checking by Will Reid. Editorial direction by Josh Levin and Gabriel Roth.
June Thomas is the managing producer of Slate Podcasts. Special thanks to Rob Smith, Sarah Leonard, Alice Whitwham, Hanna Rosin, David Plotz, Jake Halpern, Jocelyn Frank, Danielle Hewitt, BA Parker, Emmanuel Barry, Neil Drumming, TJ Raphael, Lisa Larson-Walker, and the wonderful Ryan McEvoy and Doug Forbush at the Yale Broadcast Media Center.
Each week, Slate Plus members get an additional episode of Charged. This week, we're talking more about the making of this podcast with producers Alvin Melathe and Veralyn Williams. If you're a Slate Plus member, you can find that episode in your feeds right now. To learn more and sign up for Slate Plus, head to slate.com/charged.
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