Wednesday, 12 February 2014

When crossing the street became criminal

Way back in the day when for a few months I first gave writing a blog a bash, I wrote a post about an elderly British gentleman and his experience of being arrested (using what would not pass for reasonable force in a British court) and his subsequent experience of the American criminal justice system.

His experience came to mind last month, in the much reported case of an elderly Chinese man who was again subjected to what would appear to be an unreasonable use of force by the NYPD during his arrest.

In both cases the men were arrested for the uniquely American crime of jaywalking.  I asked on Facebook at the time why was jaywalking an issue for American police.  A friend (hi Carm!) came back with the not unreasonable suggestion that:

  1. Americans love cars
  2. Americans hate walking
  3. Americans enjoy criminalizing things

However a report on the BBC the other day tells the whole story, and while Carmelo was of course right about 1 and 2, he was only half right about 3.

In short, the American car industry, worried about bad press coverage of the number of people getting run down in American cities, launched a campaign to shift the blame from drivers to pedestrians, and to paint the victims as the authors of their own misfortunes.

It started with a propaganda campaign that sought to portray pedestrians who crossed other than at a crossing as throwbacks to the pre-car, pre-modern era: country bumpkins who did not know the sophisticated ways of the city.  If they had been designing it today, they might have called it 'Redneckcrossing'.  But then they went further, and managed to get cities to make it an actual crime.

So my friend was half right when he said that Americans love criminalizing things, but the problem, rather, is the age-old one of the role of money in American politics.  Special interests have an enormous capacity to use their financial clout to get laws passed in their favour, particularly at the state and county/city level, where influence comes pretty cheaply to a huge corporation.

So jaywalking is a crime in America for the same reasons America's public transport networks were allowed to wither on the vine in the middle of the century: the US auto industry made it happen, but let the idea take hold that it was just because Americans love cars.

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