Walking or Waiting While Poor   6 comments

So we’re sitting at the bus stop, waiting for the bus and minding our own business. Cop car rolls up and cop gets out. Walks over to us and the two other guys waiting at the bus stop and asks all of us for ID. Demands to know where we’re going and whether there are any warrants out for our arrest. Turns out none of us are wanted for anything, so after calling in our information, he gets back into his car and drives off. Business as usual.

We live in an area with virtually nonexistent public transportation–buses run just a few times a day–so only the poorest of the poor are without a vehicle of some sort around here. If you see someone walking by the side of the road (no sidewalks here either) or waiting for the bus, you pretty much know at least one of the following must be true:

  1. They are too old to drive.
  2. They have a disability that precludes driving a vehicle.
  3. They had their license suspended or revoked.
  4. They are very poor.

Since we do not appear to be #1 or #2, we must be #3 or #4, and you know what that means: likely CRIMINALS!

Of course being poor doesn’t make you a criminal, but that’s something the cops around here don’t quite seem to grasp. Being stopped by police simply for walking by the side of the road or waiting for the bus is a common occurrence here. Often these stops are accompanied by a search where the officer will pat you down and ask you to empty your pockets. I estimate that my partner gets stopped and searched by police maybe 3-4 times a year. Just for being poor.

Sometimes they do arrest someone based on these random searches of walking or waiting poor people. Usually for drug possession. Occasionally someone has an outstanding warrant, but it’s rarely for a serious offense. The reason I know this is that triumphant reports of arrests resulting from so-called “routine pedestrian stops” regularly appear in the local paper. They’re announced on the radio too–usually with the arrestee’s full name and address. And nobody seems to think there’s anything wrong with any of this. After all, it’s just poor people being harassed by the cops. Who are doing an awesome job keeping the area safe by keeping an eye on us undesirables.

Whenever I hear someone remark that talk of a police state is exaggerated and overblown, I can pretty much guarantee that they’re white and at least middle class. Must be nice, encountering a police officer and not having him immediately think–and act like–you’re a criminal. Not to mention going through life with the knowledge that cops are very unlikely to stop, question and search you unless you’ve actually, you know, done something illegal.

But, hey, what’s the big deal? Why not answer a few questions and submit to a quick search and warrant check if it helps keep the community safer? Unless, of course, you do have something to hide? My guess is that the people who think this way would change their tune quickly if police were in the habit of harassing folks like them. But while I’m obviously opposed to a scenario where everyone is subject to random stops and searches, such a scenario still wouldn’t be comparable to singling people out on the basis of race or poverty.

The truth is that what happened today affects me far more than I would like to admit. As my partner says, this goes beyond concern about the obliteration of the Fourth Amendment or a violation of privacy rights; this stuff hits you on a primal level. All those people driving past us in their cars and trucks? We’re not like them. We’re less than. The community we live in? We’re not part of it. The community must be protected from the likes of us. Those are the messages we got today. When those messages are repeated often enough, they can affect not just the way you see the world, but also the way you see yourself. And that’s not a good thing.

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6 responses to “Walking or Waiting While Poor

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  1. And sometimes even having a car doesn’t protect you. My partner was a painter, and worked in some of the more upscale neighborhoods, driving our old POS. And was pulled over plenty, for driving in these neighborhoods while poor.

    The wealthy and middle class really don’t get it.

  2. I even had a dear friend, self employed, single mother of three, welfare/medicaid recipient, and endemic pot smoker, tell me that she thinks food stam recipients(which she doesn’t get as her boyfriend makes good money so she doesn’t qualify) should have to take drug tests.

    You’d think someone like that would have the decency to understand that her current situation is far from secure(her home is owned a paid for by the boyfriend, a good guy, but still that’s just one serious fight away from homelessness) and that, “there but for the grace…go I”, but no.

    My sole response was that the money being stolen from the government by the wealthy was exponentially more, and that I’d worry about the small shit after we got THAT money back.

    It just amazes me how deeply ingrained it is for us to kick down, instead of kick up.

  3. A pot smoker who thinks food stamp recipients should be drug tested?!? WTF?!? Does she think welfare/Medicaid recipients should be drug tested too?

    I was going to say I don’t get that mentality, but I do get it. I also encounter it quite a bit and it never ceases to frustrate the hell out of me. This lack of solidarity among us have-nots is precisely why we’re so fucked.

    As for the drug testing of welfare recipients thing going down in Fla, that shit is evil. Poor people with drug addictions don’t deserve to eat? Will they offer drug treatment to people who test positive? And what if someone is self-medicating (as is frequently the case); will they receive treatment for the underlying disorder? Why do I suspect that the answer to those questions is no?

  4. Well, she’s also one of those, “my abortion was ok” but no one else’s is types, so I think it’s more of a willfull blindness. Her situation, widowed with three girls, is different than some lazy fuck who just won’t GET a job.

    Or something.

  5. Thank you for bringing this up, Sasha! The car culture seems to be stronger in the US than anywhere, if this you go by popular and much linked-to post http://whatever.scalzi.com/2005/09/03/being-poor/
    A lot of the points in it just assume that car ownership is a fact of life, even when you can’t afford food. It really made me think about the car culture and how it creates poverty by making a car a basic necessity. Governments subsidise roads rather than public transport, and new suburbs are built on the assumption that everyone in them will have access to a car whenever they need to go anywhere. And as you describe here, anyone who doesn’t confirm seems to be considered semi-criminal or deviant.

    In a recent conversation at my in-laws’ house, everyone was talking about how terrible the traffic is and how crowded the street is near the government medical centre. “They should relocate it it further out”, said my father in law.
    “But then people couldn’t get to it by metro,” I said.
    “Oh, everyone around here has a car,” he said.
    I live near them and I don’t have a car. Many of my friends in the same neighbourhood don’t have cars. But he and all his well-off, 65-year-old, male friends have cars.
    We’re lucky that here (northern Spain), the people responsible for town planning don’t think the way he does. But they do think that way in my home country, Australia. They built a whole university out in the suburbs of Melbourne in the 1970s on the assumption that anyone who goes to university has access to a car. So you get students who hitchike to university.

    In Sydney a few years ago the metropolitan railway service ran a name-and-shame campaign in conjunction with one of the tabloid papers, publishing the names and photos of people fined for not having a valid ticket, along with what it termed their “excuses”. I don’t know if it was legal to do that, but I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t dare do it with motorists.

    maruja de lujo
  6. I had not seen the “Being Poor” post; thank you for the link!

    Being poor is crying when you drop the mac and cheese on the floor.

    The other night I totally lost it ’cause I thought I had ruined one of our pots. I was working on a job proposal and lost track of time, forgetting that I had dinner on the stove. My partner walks into the kitchen and notices the smoke and burned smell. Damn! The bottom of the pot was totally black. We own two pots (one big and one small) and one skillet, and thinking I had ruined one of them, I started crying uncontrollably. Because, you know, we don’t have the money to buy a new pot right now. In the end, after several hours of scrubbing and soaking, the pot was returned to usable condition. And yes, we salvaged and ate whatever food was not burned too badly.

    But back to the car thing. The fact that they don’t even have sidewalks around here pretty much says it all. It is assumed that everyone owns a car. And most people do. Even some poor people own cars. At one point we saved up and bought one of those $800 used cars the post you linked to mentions (in fact, $800 is exactly what we paid for it). We were thrilled beyond belief. No more walking miles in the 100+ degree heat or begging friends for a ride! That lasted for just over two months. Then our car broke down. It took us a month to save enough for the repairs but, with some help from relatives, we were able to have the car fixed. After six weeks, it broke down again. This time we were told the repair bill would be almost double what we originally paid for the car. No way we could swing that. So here we are, back to walking and waiting for buses and getting harassed by the cops.

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