Hi, my name is Jeffrey and I am a homeless black man, with no house or job, without the right to exist. Or maybe I only have that right if I exist without any other rights.
That is what police has been trying to make me believe my whole life. It didn’t matter where it happened, the story was always the same. They run the show and if they don’t like how you follow their orders –or if you don’t follow them-, they will take it out you. They will beat you up in a cell or use the legal system in a distorted way to intentionally harm you.
The truth is I am not what they want me to be, and they could never stand that. They can physically harm me or they can throw the system against me, but they have never been able to break me and make a frightened animal out of me, one that could be tamed and trained into what they wanted. In fact, I was a kid like you. I had a difficult childhood, because I was one of many children of a single poor black woman living the “American Nightmare”. But she raised us and supported us. I finished high school and even got to college. And I married a classmate, but marriage got the better of us and we, like so many young couples, parted ways soon afterwards.
The break up and the low quality jobs that I had access to (miserable wages and constant abuse) were the downward slide that my life became from then on. I never stopped fighting but nevertheless I fell down to the point that I lost a roof and had to become just another bum. I initially lived for a year in a tent. But even if you try to lead a normal life, living on the street takes a toll that makes that impossible. Afterwards, I’ve had to survive, as many others, struggling everyday and asking for help, since they’re not giving me any work. But I have never committed a crime because I consider that being poor doesn’t give me the right to do it.
It’s bad to beg, but it is worse to steal, or so they say. The truth is the police of the small village I “live” in didn’t like to see us begging, they would rather watch us starve to death on the bloody street. But me, a black man as well as someone with intelligence, formation and courage, I did not agree on some gun-slinging thugs armed by the State forcing us to disappear for their comfort. They bullied us for months, just because we were pacifically begging for money to eat. I held a sign that read “I am homeless and I am trying to survive”, trying to point out to the streetwalker, in a pacific and non-invasive way, that I was a human being. A black one, yes, but human, despite what the cops and the system say. A human being asking for basic help in a situation of extreme need.
I was arrested, beat up, robbed, threatened, I suffered arbitrary body search routines that included the “orifice search”, which consists of several cops holding you while one of them sticks two fingers up your ass and searches, just to make sure you’re not keeping a safe in there). I suffered all kinds of humiliations that did not achieve their goal of breaking me down or crush me. In fact, I grew stronger. And I fearlessly sued them. Me, the homeless black man, suing the city police. And best of all, winning the battle and forcing police to leave alone all those unlucky enough to have to beg in order to survive. They wanted to reach an agreement that included a new policy in the treatment of these people, and I conceded because I had achieved a victory for the community: we had all won with a police that would stop chasing, bullying, robbing and raping homeless people for being poor and having no resources. They even have to pay me several thousands of dollars that I obviously did not enjoy because the lawyer s took most of the money.
It was not the first time I had faced police abuse. Another time I was sued by the police, imprisoned and prosecuted, because I refused to obey a verbal order, when a couple police men decided to deny me the right to walk through a public access area. Why? The same reason as always, being a FHN: a fucking homeless nigger. But I did not accept the punishment, I fought back and the issue became a legal precedent on the power of police to determine, on their own, people’s access to public spaces. They also offered a deal and payed a sum of money that, again, went to the lawyers for their work. Because in the USA, being poor is very expensive. I love watching –when I have access- John Oliver’s TV show because of its sharp and honest views, and I will not forget the one show where he talked about us, the homeless people, our reality and the American Justice system: how we are being incarcerated for the simple fact of having no money to meet the cost of legal defense. An imprisonment that costs money to the State and the tax payers. And a legal defense that, theoretically, is a Constitutional right and, therefore, should be granted to you if you are facing a trial. All of that is a pack of lies and it only means that the rich people, inside their protected neighborhoods, can think that justice is equal for all. It is a part of our nightmare. We live in a system that considers that, while you are poor enough to qualify for “food stamps”, you might not be poor enough to access a public attorney. And sometimes I think it is better that way, because right now there are 43 States in the USA in which you get charged for the legal costs of your defense. And if you haven’t got the money, you can go to jail even if you haven’t been found guilty by the judge.
Someone I know, ailed with a terminal lung disease, was arrested for not having paid the expenses of a previous trial and sent to jail, but was in such a bad condition he had to be taken to hospital instead. Arrested for having no money, he was fined again with a larger amount. If he could not pay his previous legal defense, not even in installments, it would be impossible now. How many consecutive times can you be arrested for not having the money to pay for the last detention, and be charged for it again? I know if you don’t live here and don’t know our reality, this will all sound like a joke, but it is not. It is actually the reality we are forced to live in.
The last of my unwanted adventures with police was due to a few grams of marijuana. I know that is legal in half the country, and is sold in luxurious stores to spectacular prices, but the law was never the same for everybody and this is just another example. I was caught with some joints in a bag. On top of taking them from me, my police friends shackled me, beat my ass into the police car –they never miss an opportunity- and put me in a cell to press charges against me, hitting me with the elbow all the time we were riding. I was presented in front of the judge, who declared I should be free under a 100 dollar bail. Good, Right? No.
Maybe you can afford a 100 dollar bail, or you can ask someone to pay it for you, to avoid going into prison. But I can’t, not now. When I won my case against police, I was granted the right to beg for money in the street, but that does not get you to a position where you can afford something like that. And as I said before, poor people are sent to jail just for not having any money, even if that goes against our constitution. They need to maintain the private prison system going and the parasites that live off it well fed. And even if we can’t pay, we are the excuse to get the tax payers’ money. They are not even interested in exploiting us, we are merely a bait in their favorite sport: fishing in public money for private pockets.
The thing is, here I am, imprisoned, with nothing to do. Physically subjugated to the wishes of the set of prison guards that, supposedly, are being paid to take care of me, amongst other things. Although something must have happened at some point, because I am feeling now strangely light, and peaceful. And that makes no sense, because my last memory is them guards entering my cell, laughing, and saying to me: “now you will learn what it means to sue the police, nigger”. I remember a blow near my head and a high pitch sound that preceded my loss of conscience. And a feeling of joy is taking over me. Now I am feeling no pain, hatred, or fear, nothing negative. That light I see, without opening my eyes, is the place I’m now heading for…
Jeffrey Pendleton died in a cell under state custody. USA, 2016