One night, Pharoah and Lafeyette go to the nearby stadium to try to make some money. Children from the neighborhood often go to the stadium on game nights to offer people to watch their cars in exchange for some money. Occasionally, when drivers refuse, the children might break a window and steal something as retribution, although most children simply want to earn some spending money.
Neighborhood children’s participation in such money-making activities emphasizes the poverty they live in, as they feel inclined, at such a young age, to earn their own money instead of depending on their family. The occasionally violent behavior that emerges seems to indicate some children’s belief in retribution, beyond what is allowed by the law.
Pharoah takes this task seriously and partners with Porkchop to guard people’s cars. He also sometimes asks stadium-goers if they have any extra tickets, which he often receives thanks to his small build and innocent face. He might then use them to watch a game, although sometimes stadium attendants refuse to let the children in even if they have tickets. This attitude only fuels the anger that Horner residents harbor against the stadium, as they feel that game nights reveal a deep injustice. Horner residents wonder why the police only appears on game nights, to protect the mostly-white stadium goers, but refuses to enter the neighborhood at other times to protect the local residents’ security.
The injustice that affects Horner residents is socio-economic and racial. On the basis on the neighborhood children’s mere appearance, stadium attendants seem to assume that they are more likely to bring trouble than other stadium goers. Similarly, the police’s behavior signals that they are more dedicated to protecting the security of white, middle- or upper-class stadium goers than the mostly black, lower-class residents of Horner. Despite this evidence of injustice, Horner residents still feel either unable or unwilling to bring their complaints to authorities’ attention.
That night, after the police tells the neighborhood children not to watch cars, Pharoah and Porkchop return to Horner to play basketball. However, Lafeyette decides to stay and help a parking attendant wave in cars, which can give him some pocket money, until the police tells him too to stop. It remains unclear whether Lafeyette talks back to the policeman or is too slow to obey, but the policeman suddenly grabs him by the collar and throws him into a puddle of water, telling him that “These white people don’t have no money to give no niggers.”
Lafeyette’s experience with the policeman is brutal, as the officer uses excessive force to subdue an unarmed adolescent who was only trying to earn some money. The policeman’s words are also overtly, unapologetically racist, focused not on the illicit activity Lafeyette is taking part in, but aimed at making him feel ashamed for being black, conveying to him the message that there are certain spaces, such as the stadium, where Lafeyette does not belong.
When Lafeyette’s friends run to tell LaJoe about what has happened, she hurries to the stadium and the police releases Lafeyette. One of the policemen told Lafeyette that he could get hurt if he stays out all night, but Lafeyette retorts that, so far, in his life, only the police has hurt him. This episode impacts Lafeyette, forcing him to question his previously neutral attitude toward the police.
The policeman’s words to Lafeyette function as an implicit threat, aimed at scaring him from returning to the stadium. This violent encounter places the police on a similar level as another source of violence in Lafeyette’s life: gang members who use intimidation as a technique to defend their own interests.
Pharoah, too, begins to think about important social issues, such as race. After staying away from the stadium for a few weeks, he realizes that he can make money by performing a humorous dance for one of the stadium goers, a white man, who finds Pharoah’s imitation of a chicken humorous. Pharoah, though, realizes that there is something embarrassing about doing this. He begins to wonder if all black people live in the projects and are poor, why there are not more black politicians, and concludes that the police does not like black children—his very first expression of bitterness against anyone in his life.
Despite his tendency to avoid thinking about upsetting issues, Pharoah is able to think about racism when it affects him personally, especially in situations that are not necessarily violent. Through his experience at the stadium, he begins to wonder about the gap between white and black people’s perceptions, lives, and socio-economic statuses. This reflection about injustice transforms into bitterness—for which his later interest in politics might prove a useful outlet.
Lafeyette’s incident at the stadium reminds LaJoe of the neighborhood’s fraught relationship with the police. While Horner residents understand that spending the entire day at Horner can be dangerous for policemen, they also feel that the police is inefficient. Given that they never patrol at night, they essentially relinquish full control of the neighborhood, allowing gangs to be the primary authority that Horner residents are forced to defer to.
The police’s inability to be present all the time at Horner means that people have to relinquish trust in ordinary law enforcement and adopt their own survival strategies. Such a situation increases the likelihood that people will give up on the law and seek other methods to protect their lives and to effect justice.
Mostly, though, Horner residents recall past episodes of police brutality. In the 1960s, moved by hope in activism and a feeling of community, Horner residents organized to demand a traffic light at a boulevard where two children had recently been hit. When the city refused, residents formed a never-ending picket line across the boulevard, thus forcing traffic to stop. When the police arrived, people feared a violent confrontation but the police only arrested a few people.
The confrontation between the city and the police against Horner residents about a traffic light seems extreme, given that residents were merely demanding their children’s safety be protected. The reason for the city’s refusal remain unclear, but gives the impression that the safety of Horner residents was not taken seriously. People’s fear of a violent confrontation already indicated the lack of trust they had in the police’s motives and behaviors.
Later, however, the police killed the Soto brothers, two brothers from the neighborhood, in the space of five days, with motives that did not convince the residents. The neighborhood immediately exploded into a violent, armed riot, in which ten policemen and a twelve-year-old girl were killed.
The neighborhood’s reaction to police brutality proved equally brutal, as it affected an innocent young girl. Through the riot, Horner residents expressed an impulsive desire to signal their outrage more than a sustainable effort to maintain a productive relationship with local authorities.
Although this encouraged the city to finally install a traffic light, two months later the police killed two Black Panther members in a raid, claiming that the men had opened fire first even though it was later obvious that the Black Panthers had fired only one shot, in contrast to about ninety by the police. These deaths became famous across the nation because of the men’s political relevance and, despite evidence of police malpractice, all the officers involved in the raid were acquitted.
The injustice of this scandal is twofold. Not only did policemen commit a crucial error in killing unarmed men regarded as benefactors in the community, but the legal system was unable to recognize this error and bring justice to outraged citizens. Such episodes portray the police as a powerful force acting with impunity, without having to respond for their actions.
These deaths destroyed a lot of trust between Horner residents and the police. LaJoe has never understood how the police could kill people and then lie about their involvement instead of simply apologizing. At the same time, she also knows that some police officers are good people and actually care about the children. However, the police’s lack of accountability makes her feel resentful and hurt. Experiences of injustice, too, LaJoe knows, will also only increase Lafeyette’s cynicism and suspicion.
The potentially good intentions of members of the police force does not change Horner residents’ impressions that the system is skewed against them. The police’s lack of accountability increases people’s feelings of isolation, making it seem as though their right to safety, dignity, and justice is disregarded by the very people who should be protecting those things.
When LaJoe’s mother, Lelia Mae, and Weasel’s girlfriend move into the apartment, it becomes even more overcrowded than it already was. At the same time, Lafeyette enjoys Lelia Mae’s company, as she tells them stories about Horner’s past wealth and safety, and gives Lafeyette, who enjoys helping others, someone to take care of. Lafeyette and Pharoah are less affected by the overcrowding than by their father’s depression. Unable to get rid of his alcohol and drug habits, Paul feels pessimistic about getting his job back and even steals the television set Lelia Mae had given the boys to buy drugs.
Paul’s behavior shows that he is more willing to indulge in his own self-interest than protect the well-being of his family—in particular, that of his children, who already have so few opportunities for distraction. Unlike Lelia Mae, who at least brings some amusement to the apartment, Paul seems to bring nothing but greater problems. However, LaJoe still finds herself unable to kick her own family members out.
Lafeyette deeply resents his father for failing to deliver on his promises and for choosing drugs instead of his family. Paul understands these feelings, since he knows he has harmed his family’s life and his own life by taking drugs. Still, he wants to be present in the apartment if he can, so that his children do not grow up fatherless like he did. Unlike Lafeyette, Pharoah usually tries to cheer his father up. One day, though, he asks his father why he drinks, saying it smells bad and makes his father behave in a strange way. The question surprises Paul, who tells himself that he should try to stop drinking.
Given how little Paul actually helps LaJoe deal with parental responsibilities, it remains ambiguous how much Paul’s desire to be present for his children actually has a positive impact on their lives. Pharoah’s awareness of his father’s problems with addiction reveal that he is not as naïve and ignorant as Paul might have believed. However, Pharaoh’s direct, uncomplicated approach to problems contrasts with Paul’s feelings of hopelessness and despair, as he seems unable to give up on drugs and alcohol.