Sunday, August 16, 2009

Should it be a crime to be poor, or, instead, to criminalize poverty?

Barbara Ehrenreich, in an Op-Ed piece in the NY Times on August 8, 2009,, writes about the restrictive and repressive laws being passed – and enforced – against those who are the least fortunate in a country with a growing number of unfortunates. In “Is it now a crime to be poor?” she begins with the litany of penalties placed upon those who are homeless, including men like Al Szekely, a wheelchair-bound (from a bullet taken in Vietnam) veteran who lives in a homeless shelter. He was arrested –in the shelter – in a police sweep looking for outstanding warrants (don’t they have something better to do? Like arrest bankers or their congressional enablers?)

“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.’”

Ehrenreich’s story continues, documenting the fact that arrests, for major or minor crimes – create a vicious circle. Employment is hard enough to come by these days, and if you have a criminal record it is nearly impossible. And “For the not-yet-homeless, there are two main paths to criminalization — one involving debt, and the other skin color. Anyone of any color or pre-recession financial status can fall into debt,” and the ways in which people of color are particularly victimized is both appalling and unsurprising. One of the ways in which this occurs is being ticketed – at rates of $250 to $500 – for truancy.

According to the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union, an advocacy group, 12,000 students were ticketed for truancy in 2008. Why does the Bus Riders Union care? Because it estimates that 80 percent of the “truants,” especially those who are black or Latino, are merely late for school, thanks to the way that over-filled buses whiz by them without stopping. I met people in Los Angeles who told me they keep their children home if there’s the slightest chance of their being late. It’s an ingenious anti-truancy policy that discourages parents from sending their youngsters to school.”

I don’t mean to quote the entire Op-Ed here. Read it. But it pains me to think that there are so many people who are very close to the edge of such poverty, losing their jobs, close to it, who are involved in the anti-health-reform, anti-Obama, movement. One thing that they are not, almost entirely, is minority; they are almost all white. And they feel like victims. They feel – obviously inflamed by purely evil and corrupt parasites on talk radio and TV – that it is the “government” that is responsible for their situation, precariously close to the edge. They see the bailout of the bankers as an example of the government looking out for the wealthy and powerful – and I agree with them. But somehow, bizarrely, they can see the health reform process as again something being done by the government against them. They are wrong. They are acting against their own interests.

There have been times when the government has acted strongly against the interests of most of the American people – the Bush administration almost used that as a playbook: “What is good for the rich and screws regular people? And maybe kills their children overseas? Let’s do that!” The Obama administration is not at all without blame or complicity in this. By bringing in a bunch of Clinton administration veterans (read: “hacks”) to his administration, particularly in the area of treasury and finance, the Obama administration is accurately seen as a friend of the rich and powerful. Well, that is not a change. But they are trying to do something for all of us, to do health reform.

To make sure that all of us are covered, all of the time, whether we are working or we are not, whether we keep the same job or not, whether our employer is big and generous or small and barely surviving, whether we have a pre-existing condition or not or develop a new one, whether we are young or old. I am not a fan of the Obama / Congressional plan to include the evil empire of for-profit insurance companies in the solution, or the vain effort to try to get bipartisan support from a Republican party that is only capable of attack, and of nothing constructive. However, we need even more than the administration and Congressional Democrats are proposing. If people think (often correctly) that the government does not respond to its needs, that the people that they elect to serve and represent them are in the pockets of the big corporations, why in any possible way would they ever be able to imagine that it could be better if those corporations, responsible to no one but their shareholders, are directly in charge?

It is really scary, because it is so reminiscent of the rise of fascism. White working class people being manipulated, using the big lie[1] and racism, to act against their interests by the forces of corporate wealth.

I wrote to my senators, both Republican, both anti-health reform, and both mouthing anti-government slogans, that THEY are the government, and at least they are supposed to listen to me. Not to necessarily do what I want, but at least to listen to me and to the rest of their constituents. Private insurers have no such obligation.

I don’t think, however, that this is mainly about health insurance or health reform. It is a vicious, violent, reactionary, and racist attack by folks who feel threatened. Yes, as Barbara Ehrenreich indicates, those at the lowest rungs of the totem pole – the homeless, the really poor, and racial minorities are the first and most serious victims. But all of us are close to being victims and it is never helped by joining in attacks on the weakest. Attack the strongest. They can take it. Don’t be fooled.

[1]All this was inspired by the principle - which is quite true in itself - that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying. These people know only too well how to use falsehood for the basest purposes. ...” , A. Hitler, Mein Kampf

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