People mill around in front of a gold-painted shipping container, part of the Portals Project, where they can share experiences around policing with residents around the world.
A portral parked in Newark, New Jersey Courtesy of Shared Studios

Two Yale professors are using immersive technology to enable connections between communities of color in low-income neighborhoods across four U.S. cities.

Yale law student Amar Bakshi founded the Portals Project in 2014 to connect people who would otherwise never meet. The portals—gold-painted shipping containers whose interiors are lined with grey carpet—allow people in cities around the world, from Brooklyn to Mexico City to Kabul, to communicate via videoconferencing. It’s not just a hyped version of Skype: The screen fills much of a wall, allowing each participant to view the other from head to toe, making it feel like they’re in the same room, though they’re thousands of miles away.

Portals are placed in museums, refugee camps, public parks—wherever people gather. Participants may sign up in advance or simply drop in for a conversation. Pairings vary; a portal in Washington, D.C., might connect with Kigali, Rwanda for two hours in the morning, and El Progreso, Honduras, for two hours in the afternoon.

Recently, two Yale researchers, political scientist Vesla Weaver and law professor Tracey Meares, thought the portals should be used for another purpose: facilitating discussions about policing and incarceration among low-income black and Latino communities in U.S. cities. After Michael Brown was killed, Meares says, “we were frustrated that journalists kept saying, ‘This is what people in Ferguson are saying about the shooting,’ without really knowing or studying people who live in those places in a systematic way.”

Portal participants stand or sit face to face. (Courtesy of Shared Studios)

Weaver and Meares, with Bakshi’s blessing, embarked on a project that will ultimately produce transcripts of 2,000 recorded conversations between residents of Milwaukee, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Baltimore. Portal locations include Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood and the Amani neighborhood in Milwaukee, which lies in 53206, the zip code with the highest incarceration rate in the country.

“Curators” with long ties to the community run the portals. Participants usually find out about the portals from word of mouth. They walk in at random, fill out a short survey about their race, confidence in the police, and any experiences being stopped, and then engage in a 20-minute discussion on the question, “How do you feel about police in your community?”

Weaver is analyzing the first 250 conversations. The data from the survey already reveals sobering figures: Around half of the participants from Chicago, Baltimore, and Milwaukee report having been stopped by the police more than seven times in their lives. In the discussions, people often speak about their “baptism” experience—the first time they were stopped, patted down, or put in handcuffs. Some were as young as seven, and the majority were under 15. In these excerpts from transcripts recorded in Milwaukee and Chicago, respectively, participants describe their first encounters with police:

“I always been a full-figured girl. The police would stop me when I was walking outside with my friends at night. ‘Are you a prostitute?’ Ask me questions like that. I’m a 13-year-old girl at the time.”

“When I first got locked up, man, and put in a jail cell, I was eight years old. I was in second grade. And after that, bro, I was like 10, 11, 12, 13, each one of those years the police called me...They used to pick me up and drop me off on the other side of the [expletive] tracks.”

Participants also often discuss how the police or the state are benefiting monetarily from policing and incarcerating their communities—and how this is a form of modern-day slavery. These excerpts from conversations between residents of Milwaukee, Chicago, and Newark (where a pilot study was conducted) reveal these beliefs:

“A lot of these police departments and criminal justice systems, they all about the money, the dollars and stuff. They like to invest in private prisons and make money off of people getting arrested rather than put them back in the community on a positive path.”

“So police were designed to protect the rich people and their money, you know? And that's what the police were designed for…And slavery, it kind of got a twist about controlling their assets, right? And that philosophy that they used to control us as slaves is the philosophy that all police departments are built on.”

Weaver says that the research is academically unique in that few projects consider people in highly incarcerated areas. Those that do are usually ethnographies limited to one city. “The technology allows us to listen to people on a broad scale in a lot of cities,” she says. “It allows us to look at patterns.” The project also breaks from academic tradition by not relying on surveys to determine public opinion. In such an approach, a researcher asks a person a set of predetermined questions, thus limiting responses—and possibly findings.

While patterns are emerging across cities, experiences specific to each metropolis are also evident. Weaver notes that Milwaukee participants say that police, in encounters with their community’s residents, hide their dashcams by raising the hood of their car. In Baltimore, much discussion focuses on Freddie Gray and the “rough ride” that many think killed him.

Neighborhood kids like to gather in the air-conditioned portals on hot summer days. (Courtesy of Shared Studios)

The project encourages those in conversation to band together through their shared experiences. This is particularly important given another theme that comes up repeatedly in the discussions: that of divisions among communities, and how a lack of connection helps to perpetuate the violence against them. Here, Milwaukee residents speak with Chicagoans about these schisms:

“Nobody literally wants to link up, because we are scared of each other... We are not sticking together as a black community, man. Me personally, I am antisocial for my own good. Nobody is going to hurt me if I am by myself, but if I am with a clique of people, nine times out of 10, somebody is going to pull up on you...When you are with a group of people, you become suspect…”

“Our youth is so against each other. They always shooting each other and killing each other, so we so divided it’s easy to attack them.”

For Meares and Weaver, the thought is that the conversations—in creating a bottom-up, grassroots narrative—can perhaps empower these residents. “By making our nation’s conversation about criminal justice more informed by the people directly affected, it has the potential to affect wider political discourse,” says Weaver.

The portals also serve a more lighthearted role, as gathering spaces. Curators use them and the area surrounding them for events such as chess tournaments, poetry slams, and barbecues. “The community comes to see them as theirs,” Weaver says.

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