What have you had the luxury to forget?
“I used to deal in high school. Not that often, and only weed, but sometimes.” Distribution—a felony.
“I gave a blowjob in a movie theater one time.” Public indecency—a possible sex offense.
“I peed on a street corner when I was drunk.” Disorderly Conduct.
“I thought these pastries on the counter were free samples, so I took one, and then I realized that they weren’t but I took it anyways.” Theft.
I gathered these confessions in interviews conducted with my Yale peers on the condition of anonymity. None of these Yale students were caught, and none of them, when asked, said that they would consider themselves criminals. But according to the legal system, all of these acts are crimes.
Emily Baxter’s “We Are All Criminals” (WAAC) project was the inspiration for these interviews. WAAC’s website features anonymous interviews with people who have committed crimes but never been caught alongside photos of their hands, bodies, living spaces, or even their dogs. Through these images and stories, the project seeks to destigmatize criminal records and ease re-entry for convicted criminals through a simple message: you, me, they, we—are all criminals.
The project began in the fall of 2011 with a flyer and a simple question: What have you had the luxury to forget? When people responded—to Baxter’s surprise—she started driving around Minnesota, conducting interviews. She started taking people’s pictures.
To Baxter, commonality means humanization means destigmatization. “The pictures have just enough individuality to relay a sense of humanity, but behind that, there’s the possibility that this could be your neighbor, or someone you know,” Baxter told me. She pointed to a small Buddha figure in one of the WAAC photos. “You have no idea how many people have told me they have the exact same Buddha.”
Baxter, an attorney from Minnesota who does re-entry work at the Council on Crime and Justice (CCJ), spent last weekend interviewing people in the New Haven area for WAAC. Through the Yale Undergraduate Prison Project (YUPP), a student organization that promotes prison and criminal justice-related service and activism at Yale, she also gave a talk and participated in a panel at the Afro- American Cultural Center along with community activist Barbara Fair, Psychology professor Kristi Lockhart, and George Chochos, DIV ’16, who’s still on parole for five bank robberies committed over a decade before coming to Yale.
According to YUPP co-president Jessie Garland, DC ’15, YUPP thought about trying to create a website similar to Baxter’s through which students could anony- mously admit their crimes. “They would say something like, ‘I’m a Yale student, this is my major, and I deal marijuana’,” Garland said. “We were going to try to partner with similar groups at Harvard and Princeton and create a viral move- ment.” When legal issues made it too risky, YUPP decided to work in conjunction with Baxter, who had already started WAAC.
Former YUPP activist chair, Nia Holston, DC ‘14, who interned with Baxter the summer after her freshman year, said she likes the project because it encour- ages us to think about our vocabulary. “Terms like felon and ex-felon dehumanize
people who have committed crimes,” Holston said. “When you say that someone is an ‘ex-felon’ they could just have been caught with an ounce of weed on them. There are certainly Yale students who have had an ounce of weed on them, or in their rooms.”
So why are some people caught when others get off? While luck may play some role, the overwhelming racial and socioeconomic disparities in our justice system are impossible to ignore. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime. All of the hands on the WAAC website are white. “Usually when I’m doing my work, I focus on the one out of four [Minnesotans] who have a criminal record,” Baxter told me. “Now I’m focusing on the three out of four who don’t.”
In person, she is articulate, easy to talk to, and laughs often—it isn’t hard to see why people are willing to tell their stories to her. Still, not everyone is totally forthcoming, especially not at first. She described en experience with one man who was “deeply offended” by the suggestion that he was a criminal.
“In a way it’s supposed to be an offensive suggestion, at least right off the bat. You’re supposed to be jarred by the suggestion that you’re a criminal, be- cause you probably don’t think of yourself that way,” Baxter said. “But some of my favorite interviews—like the one with this guy—have been with people who were originally offended.”
The man contacted her and said that he had thought about it angrily for three weeks before remembering that he used to run drugs across Lake Superior. For him it hadn’t been criminal action—it was “hooking up friends with dope.” She said she watched him unravel before her eyes as he realized that it was “drug- trafficking.” A businessman, he had for years included a box on his job applica- tions asking people if they had a criminal record and scrapped applications from people who said yes. After his interview with Baxter, he decided to take the box off of his application.
“Ban the Box” is a movement in many states to restrict the questions that potential employers can ask—an attempt to start leveling the playing field in a minor way. Garland told me that many applications for jobs at Yale—one of New Haven’s largest employers—still features a box of some kind, or permission to run background checks, which serves as a replacement to the box. By this ac- count, Yale is perpetuating the very stigma Baxter seeks to combat.
From our position of relative privilege, she explains, many of us inadvertently do. “It’s hard to understand the stigma that people who have dealt with the jus- tice system face,” Garland said. “Most of us have had very little interaction with them—unless you’re involved directly in criminal justice issues, it’s not some- thing you think about that much.”
And so, the question stands: what have you had the luxury to forget?