An international student observes a class of people “on the run” from police.
Panhandlers come to University of Penn’s campus often. “My daughter is sick … I need to ride SEPTA to Media Elwyn,” one said. “It’s been weeks since I’ve showered, can you help me buy some soap?,” another asked of me. Usually, though, they’re just asking for loose change, like a quarter. Some of the panhandlers are polite, others are really intrusive.
Regardless of their temperament, however, nearly all of the scenarios I hear sound like total lies. A UPenn police officer once told me:
“The stories are all a scam. They are all con artists. Don’t ever talk to any of them again. He even has a boxcutter in his pocket. What if he decided to mug you all of a sudden?”
Urban studies seniors at UPenn read a book this semester based on an ethnographic study of a low-income, heavy-police neighborhood in Philadelphia called ‘On the Run’ by Dr. Alice Goffman.
When Dr. Goffman was an undergraduate at UPenn, she came across some friends – by starting out as a tutor first – who were living in a much different environment from campus. Their neighborhood’s residents were always on the run from the “tough-on-crime” police. She then moved there and hung out with her new friends for six years, documenting their everyday struggles.
Last Wednesday, at UPenn’s annual Urban Studies Public Lecture, Dr. Goffman discussed targeted imprisonment, the “war on crime,” and the ‘fugitive slave’ status of low-income minorities. On average, she said, Black men with one offense must apply to more than 75 service sector legal jobs to obtain one callback, while their White counterparts with one offense have it much easier.
As an international student new to the culture of an American big city, I always wondered: Why are there metal detectors and policemen in the high schools where I volunteered? The ‘Penn Police’? Why do we need a separate police force on a University? All of this seemed weird.
Anyway, back to panhandlers: Recently I talked to one of them, just to say hello again and goodbye.
The last time I saw this particular gentleman the scene wasn’t so pleasant: he was being dragged out a CVS by UPenn Police. He was searched, and told to never come back to the campus – ever!
After being asked by the officer that day if I was okay, I stood befuddled. I was just going to buy soap for him and then go to class. I sat down with the gentleman on a bench for just a moment and he swore that he didn’t have a boxcutter on him.
“My man, why the hell would I carry a boxcutter around?” he questioned, “in my neighborhood, that won’t keep you safe anyway if I am attacked or something.”
Did he have one or not? One of two parties was not telling the truth: the officer or this seemingly “genuine” hustler.
Before reading Dr. Goffman’s work, I felt certain that panhandlers were always fabricating stories to extract emotions and dollars off compassionate, privileged Ivy-league students.
Now I am actually a little bit more open to the idea that, frighteningly, the police officers may have made things up in order to do their job: ensure the safety of UPenn’s campus and its students using whatever method necessary.
“And why are the police always after me on college campuses?” he inquired, expressing to me that he feels race is playing a part. “I didn’t do nothing wrong… legally; just trying to ask politely for people’s generosity from time to time. Let’s say if I was the victim of something, will I get any protection from the police?”
We then talked about how Christmas shouldn’t be so materialistic and Americans should stick to the original celebration of Jesus’ birthday. We blessed each other and fist-bumped. I still don’t trust most of his stories, but the conversation was enlightening to say the least.
Buying some soap for a brother in need, at the end of the day, won’t solve his financials hardship. But hopefully it sent a small message that some of the people on campus, even if not the police, care about him and his family.
by Jack Park
B.O.L.D member Jack Park, originally from Seoul, Korea, is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Urban Studies.