The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Alton Sterling, Eric Garner and the double standard of the side hustle

Family and friends of Alton Sterling protest in Baton Rouge on Tuesday afternoon, after he was fatally shot in an altercation with police. (Travis Spradling/The Advocate via AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Alton Sterling was outside of a Triple S Food Mart in Baton Rouge selling CDs on Tuesday when an encounter with police left the 37-year-old man dead on the pavement, according to the 911 call that sparked the incident.

The news immediately recalled the death of Eric Garner nearly two years ago on Staten Island, not just because the two black men died at the hands of police, but for what they were doing when they attracted the attention of law enforcement in the first place. Police say the 911 caller reported that Sterling was threatening people with a gun, but like Garner, he was also engaged in a petty crime. Garner had been selling loose cigarettes, a hustle on par with peddling CDs. In the days after Garner's death, mourners kept juxtaposing the scale of that misdemeanor with what happened next: How could a few loosies justify a response so forceful it snuffed out a grown man's life?

Garner's death renewed debate over "broken windows" policing, the philosophy that aggressive enforcement of minor crimes is essential to maintaining public order. But while that theory has been influencing police departments since only the 1980s, Garner and Sterling were fundamentally in a predicament that is much older.

They were trying to scrape together money in the underground economy, where black men, in particular, who've struggled to access formal jobs have long had to hunt for income. Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociologist at Virginia Commonwealth University, pointed out this long history on Twitter after Sterling's death:

Garner and Sterling were, in fact, doing something that's now celebrated in very different forums by small-scale "entrepreneurs" who typically don't look like them. They were trying to earn income off what they had at hand in ways that are not strictly legal. The parallels to today's sharing economy aren't such a stretch, argued tech entrepreneur Anil Dash this week:

In cities where short-term rentals remain technically illegal, we don't typically think of Airbnb hosts as operating in a black market. Nor do we consider Uber drivers skirting the law — making, for instance, illegal airport runs — to be "hustling." But the kind of parallel activities Dash cites have been heavily criminalized, with the further help of anti-loitering laws. Black children selling candy bars come to be treated as criminals.

In this video that went viral last week, an older woman scolds a black child for selling candy outside of a California Target, a practice she describes as seeing "all around the country." She demands to see the child's license to be there (an intervening man defends the young vendor and offers to buy all of the candy). The child's voice, at the 40-second mark — "excuse me, sir" — sounds painfully young:

The larger cruelty is that, by excluding certain communities from the formal economy, society has pushed people who might prefer legal work into underground alternatives. Poor education, criminal records, discrimination and legal obstacles for immigrants have turned the shadow economy into a key means for how marginalized communities support themselves, whether driving gypsy cabs, selling street food or working restaurants under the table. This kind of activity is more often associated with developing countries, but it thrives in poor urban communities in the United States, too.

For men like Garner and Sterling, the very act of hustling then compounds these same problems. These last-ditch job prospects born out of unemployment can lead to arrests and criminal records, which put future formal employment even farther out of reach. And a man who carries a gun to guard against theft is at even graver risk in encounters with police.

Another way to look at all this informal work — it totaled about $2 trillion in annual economic activity by one U.S. estimate — is that it reveals an entrepreneurialism in these same communities. Although we seldom call it that. In Los Angeles, for instance, street vendors who can't legally obtain licenses are small-business owners by another name.

“What we hear time and time again is the reason they are doing it is because they can’t find another job," says Rudy Espinoza, the executive director of a nonprofit that works with street venders in L.A. "Instead of asking for a handout, they are entrepreneurial. Some have a job, but they don’t pay enough to support their families. This is an opportunity to get out of poverty.”

Government-run small-business programs that might help these vendors, he adds, often require the kind of business experience that they technically don't have.

“We’re criminalizing poverty,” he says. “We’re saying you’re super poor, but to get to the next level [as a business owner], you have to have three years of business experience. In the meantime, we’re going to fine you, we’re going to arrest you, we’re going to confiscate your stuff, we’re going to kill you.”

For many people, in other words, we make illegal work their only option. Then we punish them for doing it.

Simone Sebastian contributed to this report.

On July 5, two white Baton Rouge police officers fatally shot 37-year-old black man Alton Sterling. Here's what you need to know. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)