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The Crooks Get Cash While the Poor Get Screwed

Posted on Jul 6, 2009
AP photo / Amy Sancetta

Children leave a Chicago homeless shelter on their way to school. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, more than half of children in low-income families have at least one parent who works full-time.

By Chris Hedges

Tearyan Brown became a father when he was 16. He did what a lot of inner-city kids desperate to make money do. He sold drugs. He was arrested and sent to jail three years later for dealing marijuana and PCP on the streets of Trenton, N.J., mostly to white kids driving in from the suburbs. It was a job which saw him robbed at gunpoint and stabbed in the chest. But it made him about $1,400 a week.

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Brown, when he got out after three and a half years, was done with street life. He got a job as a security guard and then as a fork lift operator. He eventually made about $30,000 a year. He shepherded his son through high school, then college and a master’s degree. His boy, now 24, is a high school teacher in Texas. Brown would not leave the streets of Trenton but his son would. It made him proud. It gave him hope.

And then one morning in 2005 when he was visiting his mother’s house the cops showed up. He saw the cruiser and the officers standing on his mother’s porch. He hurried down the block toward the home to see what was wrong. What was wrong was him. On the basis of a police photograph, he had been identified by an 82-year-old woman as the man who had robbed her of $9 at gunpoint a few hours earlier. The only other witness to the crime insisted the elderly victim was confused. The witness told the police Brown was innocent. Brown’s friends said Brown was with them when the robbery took place.

“Why would I rob a woman for $9,” he asks me. “I had been paid the day before. I had not committed a crime in 20 years. It didn’t make any sense.”

He was again sent to jail. But this time he was charged with armed robbery. If convicted, he would be locked away for many years. His grown son and his three young boys would live, as he had, without the presence of a father. The little ones—11-year-old twins and a 10-year-old—would be adults when he got out. When he met with his state-appointed attorney, the lawyer, like most state-appointed attorneys, pushed for accepting a plea bargain, one that would see him behind bars for at least the next decade. Brown pulled the pictures of his children out of his wallet, laid the pictures carefully on the table in front of the lawyer, looked at the faces of his children and broke down in tears. He shook and sobbed. It was a hard thing to do for a man who stands nearly 6 feet tall and weights 210 pounds and has coped with a lot in his life.


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“I didn’t do nothing,” he choked out to the lawyer.

He refused the plea bargain offer. He sat in jail for the next two years before getting a trial. It was a time of deep despair. Jail had changed since he had last been incarcerated. The facilities were overcrowded, with inmates sleeping in corridors and on the floor. The gangs taunted those who, like Brown, were not affiliated with a gang. Gang members knocked trays of food to the floor. They pissed on mattresses. They stole canteen items and commissary orders. And there was nothing the victims could do about it. 

“See this,” he says to me in a dimly lit coffee shop in downtown Trenton as he rolls up the right sleeve of his T-shirt. “It’s the grim reaper. I got it in jail. I was so scared. I was scared I wouldn’t get out this time. I was scared I would not see my kids grow up. They make their own tattoo guns in jail with a toothbrush, a staple and the motor of a Walkman. It cost me $15, well, not really dollars. I had to give him about 10 soups and a package of cigarettes. On the street this would be three or four hundred dollars.”

Under the tattoo of the scythe-wielding, hooded figure are the words “Death Awaits.”

He had a trial after two years in jail and was found not guilty. The sheriff’s deputies in the courtroom said as he was walking out that they “had never seen anything like this.” He reaches into his baggy jeans and pulls out his thin brown wallet. He opens it to show me a folded piece of paper. The paper says, “Verdict: Defendant found not guilty on all charges.” It is dated Jan. 31, 2008.

But innocence and guilt are funny things in America. If you are rich and guilty, if you have defrauded banks and customers and investment firms of billions of dollars, as AIG or Citibank has, if you wear fancy suits and have degrees from elite universities that cost more per year than Brown used to make, you get taxpayer money. You get lots of it. You maintain the lavish lifestyle of jets and spas and million-dollar bonuses. You live a life of unchecked greed and have too much in a world where most have too little. If you are moral scum in America we take care of you. But if you are poor, if you are, say, Tearyan Brown and African-American and 39 years old with four kids and no job and you live in the inner city, you are in trouble. No one comes to help you. You don’t get a second chance. This is what being poor means.

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By Sheba, July 6, 2009 at 10:41 am Link to this comment
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on that note, i just read someone commnting on some website that “Last week the CA. governator and the legislators requested financial relief for the state budget.  Obama’s anwser, “not one red penny.”  Yet, on that very same day Israel was given 2.77 billion in aid.  People of America, this shit ain’t right! ”

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By felicity, July 6, 2009 at 10:28 am Link to this comment

Were the MSM to air these individual stories around the clock and non-stop, the people of this country just might start making demands on their reps in government to begin working for our welfare rather than as they are now working for the welfare of about 2 percent of us.

It amuses me that there are too many of us so quick to find fault with those who bought houses they couldn’t possibly pay for when, on the other hand, we give a pass to the likes of AIG which obligated itself for $500 billion while having 5 times less than that in assets.  Not only do we give AIG a pass, we reward it.

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By analogkid, July 6, 2009 at 10:23 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The ruling class is sweet.  We should keep voting them into power because they think sky fairies are real. 

Every politician in power thinks sky fairies are real.  If a politician tells you they believe in god, stop voting for them.  They can’t possibly have any critical thinking skills that would be necessary to solve any real problems.

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By godistwaddle, July 6, 2009 at 9:31 am Link to this comment

Justice would demand that insurance and banking executives would meet piano wire and lamp-posts.  Thousands upon thousands of lives ruined demand hanging.  They’re lucky the Constitution was written to protect the rich.

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By lester333, July 6, 2009 at 9:11 am Link to this comment

I have an idea!  Let Chris Hanson of MSNBC Predator sting fame do another study.  We will set up a drug dealer and when the white sheeple come to buy, bust their ass, after we follow them to their mansions, with all the cameras..  You reckon there will be ANY outrage?

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By Self Wise, July 6, 2009 at 8:22 am Link to this comment

This story is bringing me to tears.  I am like mr. Brown’s son, and I was lucky to watch my father raised from his struggles with the underground drug economy and subsequent drug addiction to become a counselor for other homeless vietnam era war veterans who arrived at the very shelter he took refuge in.  we are all so selfish. 

when will we overcome our sedation

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By Cathy, July 6, 2009 at 8:19 am Link to this comment

I do legal transcription for a living and I do a ton of sentencing and plea bargains and trials for the New Jersey court system.  These past two years as I have watched the heinous crimes on Wall Street and in the health care industry I find these cases more and more heartbreaking.  I do both audio and video transcription, so sometimes I get to see the defendants, although they rarely testify.  I have seen them convicted on what seem very weak cases overall, whether they testify or not.

Thank you for doing this story. It must be very difficult for you at times to see all the pain that America inflicts on its citizens—and it doesn’t have to be this way.  I sometimes have nightmares at the end of my work day and I have to work very hard to put each case behind me. 

I am glad that Brown was found not guilty, but the idea that this man lost everything again and sat two years in a jail cell in these abysmal conditions waiting for his day in court.  It is so common. 

In 2009 America really should be better than this.  As citizens we have a lot of work to do.  Six months into his Presidency, Obama does not look like the answer, though—unless he does an incredible about face and listen to the people who elected him, rather than the ones who bought him.

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By rico, suave, July 6, 2009 at 8:03 am Link to this comment

Correct me if I’m wrong: Brown was found not guilty and is a free man. The cops, THE COPS!, in the courtroom agree that he got screwed by the system. It was the low lifes in the jail, not the PO-lice or the System, who made his life miserable for two years. He was a 16 year old father and drug dealer: What exactly is moral scum?

I saw Bernie Madoff living large on his yacht in the Hamptons with whats-his-name Stanford over the 4th of July weekend. Will there ever be justice??

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By Kay Johnson, July 6, 2009 at 8:01 am Link to this comment

I feel deep compassion and empathy for Mr. Brown. His strength speaks well of his character—that he stuck to his innocence and fought the system. That, by itself, can not be easy. The fact that he had to spend two years in jail waiting for his trial date should open our eyes, fully, to how broken our system of justice really is. The same thing could happen to any of us.

Now, he’s $13,000 in debt, and even his ex-wife is empathetic, but not the court system. If Mr. Brown had credit cards, those companies would be demanding that he pay them, first, which, I believe is now the law—passed as part of the 2005 Bankruptcy Reform. Social Justice? Is there any in this country?

Mr. Brown would pay his child support—if he could. Jobs keep disappearing, by the hundreds of thousands, and states are in dire straits, partly due to Clinton’s welfare reform. Today, “Welfare to Work” is not a feasible option with the financial crisis continuing to worsen on a daily basis.

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By Virginia777, July 6, 2009 at 7:32 am Link to this comment

Our treatment of the poor and people of color most definitely seems like Power in our Country has decided to merely “rid” itself of them, by throwing them in jail.

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By TanyaRay, July 6, 2009 at 7:21 am Link to this comment
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As a social worker for the homeless and high risk populations, I see this every day.  Thank you for telling the story.

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By lizleaf, July 6, 2009 at 7:05 am Link to this comment

Thank you for your powerful writing. You so clearly weave the story that it is easier for me to begin to explain to my middle class peers.

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By Tricky Prickears, July 6, 2009 at 5:30 am Link to this comment
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This is a fairly accurate account of the way the NJ criminal justice system works. Many want to believe that it’s about race. That’s not the whole story. It’s more about money, and one’s ability/inability to hire a private attorney. Anyone, and I mean anyone, who doesn’t walk into court with a private attorney, is going to be put through the ringer. Public defenders, or as some call them, “public pretenders”, are only good for making deals. And it seems the courts go ahead and make the assumption that if you request a public defender, you are guilty and looking to make a deal. Or, you can’t scrape together $500 for a private attorney, which makes you a drug addict or a vagrant, and probably deserve to be in jail anyway. That sounds harsh, but unfortunately, that’s the way judges and prosecutors operate. Also, having a private attorney gives you credibility when trying to defend a simple case such as mistaken identity. No one, not the cops, the prosecutor or the judge will believe anything you say unless you have an attorney.

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By Gerry Lykins, July 6, 2009 at 4:18 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

In the tradition of the muckrakers of previous times, Chris Hedges’ voice (among some others) is of vital importance.

If our citizens are to wake up .. we need Chris to keep up his crucial work!  Thank you, Mr. Hedges!

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