Is it now a crime to be poor? The criminalization of everyday life
by Manuel Criollo on Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Barbara Ehrenreich's op-ed, Is it now a crime to be poor?, published on August 9th in the New York Times is an important contribution, written for the readers of the New York Times, about the criminalization of poverty in the U.S. The work of the Bus Riders Union and Community Rights Campaign is featured in it. Ehrenreich describes the campaign's aim to end LAUSD and LA City's use of punitive and regressive "truancy tickets" against Black and Brown students. She also features the voices of many other movement groups, including the eastside's very own, Leonardo Vilchis of Union de Vecinos.
Ehrenreich captures how cities across the country, big and small, are choosing a punitive and racially targeted set of policing methods, court procedures and city ordinances that criminalize everyday acts of life by outlawing sleeping on the streets, truancy, loitering, littering, not paying your transit fares, not having car insurance, street vending and worse, even criminalizing acts in which people who choose to help the poor are charged with a crime. Ultimately, the outcome of the criminalization of the poor has created the massive human rights violation that has over 2.3 million people in the U.S. behind bars, which means 1 out of 100 people in the US. Not surprising, in a country that was born out of slavery and stolen land, the vast majority of those in prison are Black, Indigenous and Latino people.
Recently, I went to a court appearance for a citation that one of our members received on the infamous ghetto blue (blue line). We went to court in downtown Los Angeles next to the LA County Jail, known as the Twin Towers. Not surprising, 95% of the people waiting to see the judge were Black and Brown people. The "crimes" included fare evasion, open alcohol containers, urinating in public, "unruly behavior" and other hard to define and unimaginable "unlawful acts". I was struck how the judge kept repeating to those who were present that they were the cause of the California state budget crisis, because they "choose" to break the law and now the courts were pressed to process their paperwork and spend precious resources in hearing their story. He said "because of you teachers and professionals have lost their job!"
Can you imagine that while the State has given massive tax breaks to the rich and big corporations the judge is blaming fare evaders as the problem? Not to mention that the State has spared, up to now, the institutions that created the massive land and loan fraud mess to begin with!
And what were those excuses people were telling the judge?
"I didn't have any money to pay the fare to go to a job interview, so I took the risk of riding the train."
"I was released out of county jail without a cent in my pocket, I rode the train."
"I was collecting cans to make ends meet and was cleaning out the beer can when the police stopped me."
The criminalization of everyday life for those who are broke, Black and Brown, are too real and the legal system is really a criminal legal system, not a justice system.