Why Persecute the Poor for Being Poor?
Raquel Nelson's conviction for causing her own child's death by jaywalking shows America's indifference to the cost of poverty
I love to cook and was delighted when a friend requested a pan of my favourite dish. In search of my "secret ingredient", I rode to the grocery store in the air-conditioned comfort of my car, focused on my task, with not a thought that it is a luxury to have several grocery stories in my vicinity, a working vehicle that can take me to those stores, and the disposable income to spend on life's basic needs and a few wants. Like most middle-class Americans, a trip to the grocery story is an errand one takes for granted. However, it is a story, like that of Raquel Nelson, which humbles me and deeply troubles my soul, reminding me that poverty in the United States means a special brand of persecution. Instead of waging a war on poverty, we are waging a war on poor people.
Nelson was convicted of vehicular homicide in her own child's death, although she does not own a car. Her conviction carries more time in jail than the person who actually hit and killed her four-year-old son. Nelson, who had taken two buses to Wal-Mart to shop for groceries, attempted to cross the street with her three children at the bus stop, located on the opposite side of a highway from her home. The bus stop is on a busy Atlanta road, a five-lane highway with no marked crossings, and the housing complex where she lived required crossing this dangerous intersection.
The driver of the vehicle, who admitted to being under the influence of alcohol and pain medication, and who is partially blind in one eye, pleaded guilty to a hit-and-run charge. He has already served his six-month sentence, despite this being his third hit-and-run conviction. The mother, Nelson, whose son was killed at the tender age of four, has been convicted of vehicular homicide for "crossing the street other than at a crosswalk" and "reckless conduct", a crime for which there is a three-year prison sentence.
I keep trying to understand this conviction and the crime that the jury believes she committed. How is one guilty of vehicular manslaughter without a vehicle? Why does the grieving victim face a stiffer penalty than the convicted driver? Why are there no safe crossings in front of a residential complex? Why were the complaints about traffic from other tenants of these apartments ignored? Why not lower the speed limit in this residential neighbourhood? Why design a city and a transportation system hostile to those who need it the most? Why persecute the poor for simply being poor?
Because I believe the jury convicted Nelson for the crime of being poor in this country – the crime of not being able to afford a vehicle; the crime of needing to take two buses to buy groceries; the crime of living in an apartment complex located on a busy highway; the crime of being reminded that while many of us live in relative luxury, others are risking their lives for basic necessities. This quote from the advocacy group, Transportation for America, sums up the true scope of Nelson's crime:
"Nelson, 30 and African-American, was convicted on the charge this week by six jurors who were not her peers: all were middle-class whites, and none had ever taken a bus in metro Atlanta. In other words, none had ever been in Nelson's shoes:
They had never taken two buses to go grocery shopping at Wal-Mart with three kids in tow. They had never missed a transfer on the way home that caused them to wait a full hour-and-a-half with tired and hungry kids for the next bus. They had never been let off at a bus stop on a five-lane speedway, with their apartment in sight across the road, and been asked to drag those three little ones an additional half-mile-plus down the road to the nearest traffic signal and back in order to get home at last."
I take for granted my ability to run to the grocery store and pull my car up to my door without having to negotiate a five-lane highway with my small child; these are the luxuries of my current existence. But as a child who grew up in the unrelenting poverty of an inner city, I understand this story all too well. It is a story of trying to provide for a family, even when that means two bus rides for fresh groceries. It is a story of food deserts in urban areas, where the only food available is the unhealthiest food available. It is a story of a city that doesn't care enough about its poorest citizens having access to efficient means of travel. It is a story of human indifference to the true cost of poverty.
It is a story repeated in cities all over this country. We continue – whether in planning our cities to privilege those who have vehicles or implementing an educational system based on property taxes – to disadvantage the poor. Nelson may have erred in attempting to cross the street at the bus stop, but the crime for which she was truly convicted was her poverty. She is poor in a country that hates poor people, a country that hates the reminder that there are those who must scrape together the barest necessities of life.
At the final sentencing hearing, the judge gave Nelson probation and the option of a new trial. She will not have to serve the jail time that the guilty verdict of vehicular manslaughter usually warrants. Perhaps the judge felt it was the height of cruelty to send a mother to jail, one who had witnessed the brutal death of one child by a drunk driver and who had two surviving children at home. I still think about those 12 jury members, the group of her "peers" that found Nelson guilty in the first place. And I continue to think about the larger structural forces in place in the United States, from our tax system to our educational system, that issue a "guilty verdict" to some, simply because of their poverty.
• A version of this article appeared on Yolanda Pierce's blog
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2011