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Crime and Punishment

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Norine Dworkin

Founding Editor

Thursday, May 6, 2021


Courtesy of Brave New Films

Christopher Lollie: "The most minor offenses, even no offenses, can result in death."

If there’s one message that the creators of Brave New Films’s new documentary, Racially Charged: America’s Misdemeanor Problem, want you to glean from the 35-minute film, it’s that misdemeanor crimes are direct descendants of the Southern, post-Civil War effort to re-enslave Black people for economic gain.

Currently 13 million people — primarily low income people and people of color — are charged with misdemeanor offenses each year. Many sit in jail because they cannot afford to post bail. Many find they owe tens of thousands of dollars in court fines and fees. Many discover that having a misdemeanor on their record limits future jobs and housing options. Many pay for a misdemeanor charge with their lives, perhaps because they get infected with Covid-19 while waiting in jail or perhaps because a police interaction went terribly, terribly wrong.

“Misdemeanors have historically been the chump change crime that we didn’t pay attention to,” legal scholar Alexandra Natapoff says in the film. A Harvard law professor, Natapoff  authored the book, Punishment Without Crime, on which Racially Charged is based. 

“The biggest misconception is that misdemeanors are minor,” she says.

Directed by Brave New Films president Robert Greenwald (Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price), Racially Charged pairs narrated Reconstruction-era stories side-by-side with contemporary interviews. It illustrates just how little has changed over the last 150 years in terms of petty harassment, coercion and racial control. Under the post-Civil War laws known as the Black Codes, vagrancy was a crime; these days, it’s loitering. Then, walking along rail lines was unlawful; today, jaywalking is a gotcha crime.

Michael Brown, whose death in Ferguson, Missouri, inspired the Black Lives Matter movement, was jaywalking. “He stepped off the sidewalk and was walking in the street and there was a local criminal ordinance that made it a crime to do so,” says Natapoff in the film. “African-Americans are being cited for jaywalking at 3, 5, 10 times the rate of white pedestrians.” 

The film points out that 95 percent of jaywalking tickets in Ferguson are issued to Black and Brown people.

Many of the men whose names have become synonymous with Black Lives Matter — Philandro Castile, Daunte Wright, Eric Garner, George Floyd — initially were similarly stopped by police for very minor offenses: a broken tail light, expired registration tags, hawking loose cigarettes.

“I cannot explain the moral condemnation over people of color for jaywalking or shoplifting,” says one of the film’s commentators, Khalil Gibran Muhammed, PhD, professor of history, race and public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, speaking after the film’s premiere.

“We have an epidemic drug-use problem in huge swaths of white America, which is not being criminalized. We have the evidence of Wall Street and banks like Wells Fargo that systematically preyed on people, disproportionately Black, committed absolute fraud, stole money from them, and nobody is going to jail,” Muhammed continued.

“I hope people will be inspired by this film because it is inspirational. But beyond that, a lot of white Americans are going to have to decide that they actually want to live up to the promises of equality and justice in the country that they so desperately cling to when they think about the lives they want for themselves.”

Racially Charged is free to view on YouTube, Facebook.  Sign up to host a screening, here.

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