His book "Stickup Kids: Race, Drugs, Violence and the American Dream," published by the University of California Press last month, chronicles the downfall of the drug trade and the young Dominican men from his childhood neighborhood that tried to make an often dangerous living in it.
It’s a personal story for Contreras. As teenagers, Contreras, now 41, writes that he and his friends grew up seeing the flashy Dominican drug dealers making money hand over fist and desperately wanted to be like them.
“I saw a lot of drug dealers living the high life,” he says. "It was time to make it, to achieve this grand American dream."
But by the time they were old enough to take part, the market had dwindled. Contreras didn’t make it as a drug dealer, so he turned to academia. His work brought him back to the South Bronx to research what happened to his friends that stayed and made a go for it.
Much of the time covered in the book was when Contreras lived in the area, off the 4 train’s 167th street stop, a few blocks from the new Yankee stadium. The area is full of public housing, industrial businesses and empty parking lots that fill up on game days. New attempts to bring the area to its former glory have included putting in playgrounds and park areas, but windows are still barred, graffiti and trash are at every corner and police are an omnipresent force. The book focuses on two friends and a few others — under the aliases Pablo, Gus, Neno, Topi and David — in their circle from this neighborhood and traces their drug careers from the start to the present day.
The crack trade peaked in New York between 1987 and 1989, so Contreras and his peers, who he calls "tail enders," teenagers in the late 1980s, were a little too young and too late to the game to be successful drug dealers. Soon robbing major drug dealers, despite the increased risk, became the lucrative move.
Contreras disagrees with other sociologists, specifically mentioning Jack Katz, a UCLA professor who contended in his book “Seductions of Crime: Moral and Sensual Attractions of Doing Evil” that people get into crime for the emotional allure, the thrill that comes with it. Contreras says while the thrill was part of it, it didn’t necessarily have to be crack. If teenagers thought they could grow up to be lawyers, the thrill could have come from arguing a court case. But crack dealing was what seemed possible for the neighborhood kids, and more importantly, it was a way to earn good money.
“If crack hadn't risen, there is a good chance they wouldn't have participated in the drug market,” he says. “Crack gave more opportunity for the youth to participate."
The South Bronx was built up for middle class families in the 1920s but by the time Contreras came of age it was becoming increasingly run-down with high-crime, low-employment and problem schools, and grinding down the population.
“The South Bronx was still on fire," he says.
The neighborhood still had plenty of people working legally, but the jobs were low-waged and dead end.
"They understood, intuitively, that they had little opportunity," Contreras says.
The Dominican drug dealers were a major exception to the trend, highly visible men that inspired envy. They had the nicest clothes, expensive cars and plenty of women. The dealers were the embodiment of the American Dream for the local children, Contreras said.
So even as the crack market started to shrink, the appeal of material wealth didn't fade. The city's officials might have celebrated the decline in crack, but it wasn't over for everyone.
"Once you get use to the high life," Contreras says. "It's hard to let it go."
The decline of crack use had the unintended consequence of driving up crime, even if it didn't show up in police reports. The stickup kids would hold up major drug dealers, the wholesalers, to keep up their lifestyles. Drug dealers, for obvious reasons, do not always report being robbed of their wares to the police.
So these stickup kids -- the ones who aren’t in jail or dead as they enter adulthood -- instead of aging out of crime like most men do as they enter their late-20s, found new opportunities to make money through violence. Still, Contreras says the violence was not nearly as bad or frequent as when they were selling drugs themselves.
Even when his subjects tried to start aboveboard businesses with the money earned from robbing dealers, there were problems. A criminal record and no experience in business frustrated most attempts at making a go at an honest living. One of his subjects he calls "Pablo" wanted to start a company, but asked Contreras to take a major role and become the face of the business. He wasn't comfortable with public speaking. The business fell apart and Pablo went back to drug dealing.
"They become self-destructive," Contreras says of his subjects as they grew up and got stuck in the violent rut they found themselves in.
Contreras compared their growing up to be stickup kids to high school sports stars, who peak early with no later in life success. Instead, it’s a cycle of violence and lock-up and no major material wealth as they start families of their own.
“It’s almost disorienting,” he says. “They can't make sense of their new lower status.”
His subjects’ outlooks are not bright, highlighted by the fact that he is unwilling to discuss them in detail with a federal investigation ongoing.
In his book, he summed up his observations of the rise and fall of the drug cycle New York went through in the late 1980s and 1990s as a Greek tragedy, unfolding in three acts.
“When a drug market rises, a struggling college student becomes a drug dealer; a tough kid, an enforcer; a poor building superintendent, a lookout; and a dishwasher, a drug kingpin. When a drug market expands, a mother mourns her dead dealer son; a dad laments his drug-using daughter; a child visits a parent imprisoned by the state. When a drug market peaks, an ill-affected sibling becomes a social worker; a storefront preacher, a community organizer; a stay-at-home mom, an after-school volunteer.”
And when that market starts to decline, the lingering aftermath in the community proves to be an improvement for few.
The book continues, “When a drug market fades, an ex-con is perpetually unemployed; a recovering female addict, forever humiliated; a New York City mayor, despite doing nothing special, applauded and praised.”
Back in the fall of 2011, kids bullied Alycin Mabry so severely that her mom decided to home school the Atlanta 14-year-old. At the time, her mom Annise Mabry saw homeschooling as the shining answer the family needed.
But today, Mabry says, it’s clear that their struggle was far from over.
“Maybe two or three months into the online school, Ali started to become more and more isolated,” Mabry said. “I just couldn’t get her out of the room. It just started spiraling. … Finally, my breaking point was when she stopped brushing her teeth, taking showers and I couldn’t even see her face for her hair.”
Mabry, suffering from an autoimmune disease and also struggling to provide for her second child, 8-year-old Niles who has been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, felt there was no way for her and her family to overcome their issues.
Little did they know, the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) was considering their story for its new series, “Trouble Next Door,” now airing on Monday nights. The series focuses on helping families in crisis by implementing the very specific community based method of getting their neighbors involved.
“We really wanted to address bullying and [the Mabry’s] story really stood out,” said the series’ executive producer, Domini Hofmann. “We wanted to be able to help these families with this method of working with neighbors. And it was clear that Alicyn needed to just get out of her room. She needed interaction with other people. And, Annise was overwhelmed.”
When the show began shooting last May, it drove the Mabry family to put everything on the table and let their next-door neighbors fully into their lives and their struggles. And, although the process of being completely transparent was difficult, Mabry feels that it saved her family.
As seen during the episode, by opening up and sharing their story with their neighborhood, things began to change in a positive manner. Alicyn even gained an educational opportunity when she landed a scholarship at the East Minster private school, in Conyers, Ga.
“Before the show, I had a very tiny community, which didn’t include my neighbors. I would wave at them, but I didn’t know who they were,” Mabry explained. Now, months after the cameras left, Mabry still talks to her neighbor’s daily and they continue to be an immediate source of help when she needs.
Alicyn continues to deal with the trauma she suffered when she was bullied at her previous school. She was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder last October.
“I remember sitting there thinking, ‘so the child that I sent to that school in 2009, I’ll never see that little girl again,’” Mabry said. “I had to grieve for that, but I also had to celebrate that now we know what’s wrong. And now we have not only a neighborhood community supporting us, but also a school community.”
With this series, OWN wants to illustrate how getting to know the next-door neighbors can create positive change.
“We want people to look at themselves and their relationship with their neighbors, and see how things could be different,” Hofmann said.
And although her family continues to have ups and downs, Mabry feels that creating a relationship with her community was the answer she desperately needed.
“[Community based methods] work.” said Mabry. “… The thing about having neighborhood support like this on this level is that I’m in their neighborhood. So whatever happens to me happens to them. There’s more of a vested interest to take care of the person next door because this is somebody that you’re going to see.”
The Mabry family will be featured on OWN’s new docu-series “Trouble Next Door” airing Monday, January 21 at 10 p.m. Eastern/Pacific.
Photo courtesy of OWN.
The California Wellness Foundation has spent decades treating gun violence against youth as a public health issue. In doing so, the Foundation has helped the state of California to become more progressive in its gun law policies. YouthToday spoke with Julio Marcial, Program Director of The California Wellness Foundation, about The Foundation's approach and successes.
Tell me about The California Wellness Foundation Grantmaking Program Focused on Violence Prevention and the PreventViolence.org website.
The California Wellness Foundation has been focusing on violence prevention for the past 20 years. AndPreventviolence.org is a web portal that serves as clearinghouse on all things related to our work to reduce violence in California. For example, we have provided links to publications and other research materials to help others interested in reducing gun violence much like we did here in California.
Starting in the early ‘90s, we became the first health foundation to launch a multiyear, multimillion dollar campaign to reduce gun violence. Since 1993, we have made more than $120 million in grants to more than 700 organizations working to reduce the lethality of violence. So PreventViolence.org provides a comprehensive history about our work in the field of violence prevention, and provides information about the types of partnerships we created and information on public education campaigns we developed and launched during the past 20 years.
What has made this program successful?
When a community knows that its water and land are being poisoned by effluent from a chemical factory, or its air is being rendered foul by smokestacks, it goes after those polluters to protect the health of its people. The approach taken by the epidemiologists, public health experts and The California Wellness Foundation is the same when it came to addressing the lethality of gun violence. We began by looking at the data. We had to ask, "Where are these guns coming from? It's not like they spontaneously generated in the forest—'Oh look, a baby gun!' It was clear that there were some segments of the population where the number one cause of death was gunfire. That's a major public health problem.
Here’s what the data told us: In 1993, 5,093 people were killed as a result of gun violence in California. When you drilled down even more, we saw that more than 1,700 young people, ages 12 to 24, were killed as a result of gun violence that same year. With the help of parents, young people, researchers, law enforcement, academics, local government, and anyone else willing to lend a hand, the Foundation sought to reduce the number of young people killed by gun violence.
The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence (formerly the Legal Community Against Violence) puts out a publication every year that grades every state as it relates to gun law policy. In 2012, California ranks number one, with some of the most progressive policies in the nation. Twenty years ago we ranked 45 or 46 in the sense of having public policies that focused on background checks for gun sales and preventing the sale of assault weapons that can carry large magazines of ammunition. The state of California has come a long way, and we are proud to be part of the vanguard that has led to a 50% decrease in gun-related homicides since 1993.
How did you reduce that number?
We took a “whatever it takes” approach. First and foremost, we looked at the data and were able to partner with a number of researchers, community-based organizations, and individuals, like our California Peace Prize honorees, to figure out when, where and how young people were being victimized. Specifically, we used state data to tell us where young people were being killed by gun violence. As a result, we focused on these “hot spots” first to figure out where guns were coming from. And we funded public policy organizations to inform policymakers and opinion leaders about gun violence prevention programs and strategies.
Since our focus was on prevention, we also had to hit rewind to keep youth out of harm’s way. The research told us that youth were more likely become a victim of gun violence after school from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. And so with this information in hand, we funded public policy organizations to inform policymakers and opinion leaders about the need to create safe spaces after school. As a result, the California State Legislature approved legislation in 2004, which has provided more than $4 billion dollars during the past eight yeas to fund more than 1,000 after-school programs across 58 counties.
Do you feel The California Wellness Foundation’s methods could be successfully used in other states or nationwide?
Yes. And it starts with leadership. During the past 20 years, we have been fortunate to partner with elected officials at the local, county and state level, who were willing to look at gun death rates in terms of public health, not politics. There are 300 million firearms in circulation. The guns are here now. The work should be focused on preventing firearm violence. Gun sales require a background check, yet 40 percent of gun sales don’t involve one because there’s a loophole when it comes to purchasing firearms at gun shows.
In looking at the data in the early ‘90s, we noticed the most popular gun involved in homicides involving young people was the “Saturday Night Special.” These were what we called junk guns – they weren’t made well and they were cheap. The California governor at the time, Gov. Gray Davis, pushed through three important pieces of legislation, which made a big difference:
- The ban of the production and sale of the “Saturday Night Special;”
- Requiring the sale of trigger locks with all guns;
- The certification of gun show promoters, which prohibited minors from attending gun shows unless accompanied by an adult and required documentation by those who sold guns.
What kind of gun violence prevention policies do you think could help in the wake of the Newtown shootings?
Here’s what the research tells us: states with the strongest gun laws have the lowest gun death rates. Conversely, any states with the weakest gun laws have the highest death rates. I say that, but I also must be clear that more research must be done to determine the precise ratio. But it’s clear that there has to be a focus on prevention. The high rates of death related to gun violence in this country speaks for itself.
We need to have the will. This is about understanding and it requires a comprehensive approach, which should include solutions from the ground up. Here in California, we have not solved this public health crisis, but we’ve reduced it. Much like automobile safety, where we mandated seatbelts in an effort to reduce car accident related deaths. We need to create mandates in an effort to reduce gun related deaths.
Photo courtesy of The California Wellness Foundation.
The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) has come under fire as its “Confidential Files” – a blacklist of adults banned from scouting for sexual abuse or molestation -- have come to light. The files, submitted as evidence in lawsuits under court order, show the BSA banned about 5,000 people from 1947 through 2004.
Sexual abuse scandals within other youth-service oriented programs show similar patterns of behavior, including workers dismissing victims, hiding abuse from the public, putting too much faith in adult colleagues and organizations failing to educate staff about abuse.
As the problem becomes more public because of scandals such as the Penn State and Catholic Church child sexual-abuse scandals, it has become more apparent that these patterns of behavior are similar among those who mishandle the problem. For the full story via Youth Today, click here.
Aaron, 18 years old and dressed in an oversized, light grey sweatshirt, sits blankly across from Intake Officer Clayton in an Indiana detention center while she asks him questions, his face betraying little emotion and his voice barely above a whisper.
“I can’t hear you,” Clayton says, and Aaron repeats his answer, just loud enough for her to hear.
As Clayton tells Aaron of an impending charge, shock flickers across his otherwise still face – this was the first he’d heard anything about it.
Scenes such as this are common in the work of Calamari Productions. In an effort to continue bringing innovative, accurate insights on juvenile justice, The Juvenile Justice Information Exchange has formed a partnership with this award-winning production. Dubbed The Juvenile Justice Documentary Project, the partnership showcases documentary clips that give first-person accounts from teens and employees of the system on JJIE’s sister site, Bokeh.
Calamari, an independent digital media and television production company, is unique for its sole focus on juvenile justice and child welfare programming. With shows that have been featured on several major networks including MSNBC, A&E, Dateline NBC and MTV, Calamari goes beyond providing inside access to juvenile detention centers and court hearings and succeeds in showing the human side of the juvenile justice system.
“When you’re making films or projects about youth and especially youth who are at a crossroads in their life or in a state different place, it’s easy to get their stories wrong. So, there’s a heightened responsibility for filmmakers in this area,” said fellow documentarian Bernardo Ruiz of Quiet Pictures.
Founded in the spare bedroom of President and Executive Producer Karen Grau in 1995, Grau felt the push to focus on these issues when, for an unrelated matter, she sat in on an abuse and neglect hearing.
“And without any intent on altering her life course, she was so affected by what she saw in that courtroom and she just felt people had to know what goes on…she felt very strongly that the public needed to know,” said Chip Warren, Vice President of Production and New Media Development at Calamari.
Warren, who began working with Calamari on a part-time basis in 2005 and fully made the transition in 2008, also never intended to commit his life to this work. With extensive production and development experience, it was also Warren’s time spent around kids in crisis that lead him to commit to this cause.
“The really powerful experience is walking into a detention center or prison for the first time --- those kids are scary,” said Warren. “Going from that to talking to them about their past and opening up to them and them opening up to me -- that human connection, and feeling like you could make a real connection if you just treat them like normal,” said Warren.
As a teen, Warren also spent some time in a juvenile detention center, which he feels gave him a marginally better chance at being prepared to enter into this field of work.
“Coming from a well-to-do middle- to upper-class background, spending a weekend in juvie really impacted me,” said Warren. “It better equipment me to step outside my comfort zone and embrace that human connection in these environments.”
And, showcasing that human connection is just one of the things that has helped Calamari grow and bring these stories to life. In just over a decade, the company has flourished from a small bedroom office to headquarters in Indianapolis, Ind. with satellite offices in New York City and Austin, Texas.
Grau’s commitment to staying true to the topic as well as her hands-on, holds-no-barred attitude pushed her to petition the Indiana Supreme Court for camera access in the courts, a request to venues that – by law – are close to the media. Grau, along with Calamari Productions, made history by becoming the first director/producer and production company to have the state law waived and gain unrestricted access to Supreme Court hearings. And although others have been granted temporary access, Calamari’s remain the only cameras allowed inside several juvenile and child welfare courts and juvenile prisons with unrestricted access.
This access couple with Calamari’s commitment to educating the public on the inner workings of the juvenile justice and child welfare system has resulted in numerous award-winning network television series and documentary films.
Through growth and innovation, Calamari has managed to stick to its main goal: Sharing the stories of children, teens and officials who deal with the juvenile justice and child welfare systems.
“We want to de-stigmatize these families and courts, because they don’t get their story told,” said Warren. “And to help people realize what brings kids into trouble in the first place. And, that there’s a reason to care,” Warren explains. “And it’s not about being lenient. We’re showing that they are challenging cases. [There is] more of an opportunity to rehabilitate a 15-year-old than a 25-year-old.”
JJIE’s Bokeh will begin with an exclusive look at one teen’s process in the juvenile justice system. In a three-part series entitled “Aaron’s Story,” this young man shares his story on how he landed in the system, and what’s in store for his future. For the full feature, follow this link: The Juvenile Justice Documentary Project
Are you passionate about criminal and juvenile justice? Experienced in grantmaking and researching best practices? The John D. and Catherine T. MacArtur Foundation is seeking a Program Officer to continue the Foundation’s commitment to change, improvement and excellence.
The Program Officer will work closely with the Program Director in managing grantmaking activities and strategies, evaluating proposals and working to create and meet long-term goals.