Sunday, August 09, 2009

Is it a crime to be poor?

When Jim Crow laws in the United States segregated whites and "coloreds," many on the supporting side of the issue argued that the laws were not inherently damaging to any one group. The fallacy of "separate but equal" allowed states to create policy with the expressed intent of separating blacks from white society, which had the effect of limiting blacks' access to well-funded education, connection-building with the white power structure and limited blacks' ability to get decent jobs. In effect these laws perpetuated slavery in essence, keeping a large number of U.S. citizens separate, but certainly not equal.

Is the same thing happening now to the poor? In a Times article dated yesterday, Barbara Ehrenreich makes the compelling case that our current legal system creates a similar dynamic for the poor, with misdemeanors that target the destitute and are intended to separate them from the rest of society:
A grizzled 62-year-old, [Al Szekely] inhabits a wheelchair and is often found on G Street in Washington — the city that is ultimately responsible for the bullet he took in the spine in Fu Bai, Vietnam, in 1972. He had been enjoying the luxury of an indoor bed until last December, when the police swept through the shelter in the middle of the night looking for men with outstanding warrants. It turned out that Mr. Szekely, who is an ordained minister and does not drink, do drugs or curse in front of ladies, did indeed have a warrant — for not appearing in court to face a charge of “criminal trespassing” (for sleeping on a sidewalk in a Washington suburb). So he was dragged out of the shelter and put in jail. “Can you imagine?” asked Eric Sheptock, the homeless advocate (himself a shelter resident) who introduced me to Mr. Szekely. “They arrested a homeless man in a shelter for being homeless.”
As recent events have shown, there is more than a little ambiguity about what is and is not appropriate to say and do in front of a police officer. For people who deal with the police in a more antagonistic capacity, often spurred by laws that target the poor (particularly poor minorities) in greater numbers, the chance of a misunderstanding or police power trip shoots through the roof:
Flick a cigarette in a heavily patrolled community of color and you’re littering; wear the wrong color T-shirt and you’re displaying gang allegiance. Just strolling around in a dodgy neighborhood can mark you as a potential suspect . . . If you seem at all evasive, which I suppose is like looking “overly anxious” in an airport, [Author Paul] Butler writes, the police 'can force you to stop just to investigate why you don’t want to talk to them.” And don’t get grumpy about it or you could be 'resisting arrest.' '"
While laws against "loitering" and "public trespassing" and no-nonsense law enforcement policies allow elected officials to talk tough against crime and gain support among their citizenry, these policies in essence begin to criminalize poverty and homelessness in a society that still prefers to see both as a personal failing, and those forced to live in such situations as a societal sickness or matter of local color rather than struggling people with real concerns. By criminalizing or harshly punishing “crimes that are not a risk to public safety," we have turned some of our grittiest cities into social battlegrounds, enforcing the class order and punishing the poorest among us in a society ostensibly committed to propping up the downtrodden.


Further reading:

NYPD Officer Suspended After Refusing to Arrest Homeless Man

Dozens protest homeless sweeps with City Hall camp-out

Stop the Sweeps

1 comment:

  1. Orwell writes about this in his non-fictional memoir Down and Out in Paris and London.

    One of his observations is that the homeless have it worse in London than in Paris because the English are more concerned with "keeping up appearances" in their cities, and so have a whole gauntlet of draconian anti-vagrant laws that France simply lacks.


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