Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Poverty and Persecution

I love to cook and was delighted when a friend requested a pan of my favorite dish. The local grocery store was out of my "secret ingredient," so I hopped over to two other stores in search of everything I needed for my recipe. I rode in the air-conditioned comfort of my car, focused on my task, without nary a thought to the luxury I have of several grocery stories in my vicinity, a car that can take me to those stores, and the disposable income to spend. And so the continuing story of Ms. Raquel Nelson deeply troubles my soul, reminding me that poverty in this country means a special brand of persecution.

Ms. Nelson was convicted of vehicular homicide in her own child's death, though she does not own a car. She will serve more time in jail than the person who actually hit and killed her 4 year old son. Ms. Nelson, who had taken two buses to Walmart 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. 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, pled 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, Ms. Nelson, whose son was killed at the tender age of 4, has been convicted of vehicular homicide for "crossing the street other than at a crosswalk" and "reckless conduct." She may serve up to 3 years in prison.

I keep trying to understand the conviction and what crime it is that the jury believe 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 neighborhood? 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 Ms. 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 blog sums up the true scope of Ms. 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 5 live highway with my small child; these are the luxuries of my current middle-class existence. But as a child who grew up in unrelenting poverty, 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. Ms. 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.

© Yolanda Pierce


Anonymous said...


I found this article of yours at Commondreams.org. I followed the link to your blog here and I just wanted you to know that I think what you write is just wonderful. I plan on sharing some of the articles with my wife this evening.

Thanks so much for sharing and keep up the good work. You've got a voice that deserves to be heard.

Grand Rapids, MI

Anonymous said...

Gracias sister Yolanda,

As a transplanted Afro-Cuban, New Yorker and homeless monk you words are of "right view' and of ' What is.' As one who gained employment into the quote Middle Class thorough affirmative action of the late sixties. It saddens me that we are only a buffer for the rich in thinking we have got some kind of security...They still have the power to place us in jail and murder us slowly with kind words...Grammatically correct and proper syntax will not suffice from our so-called government will not do...Deeds from the heart, and not words form the head is greatly needed. Where is my brother president's back bone???

We are only slightly better off than our sister Ms. Nelson, my hope is that one day we can all live in decent housing, un-afraid to travel in any part of these un-united states and live like brothers and sisters.

Thank for your clear views and intense awareness of 'What is."

Con mucho, mucho amor,
Br. Gilberto

Anonymous said...

Dear Yolanda,

I found your post on Information Clearinghouse, and I was just dumbstruck by the incident. I completely agree with you that there truly is a war on the poor.

I forwarded your post to my husband and friends. My husband just could not understand why a prosecutor would even consider this case. I re-read in utter disbelief, and my head could not understand how a drunken driver with previous convictions got six months in prison for killing a four year old child. This is completely outrageous, and shame on that jury!!!!

Thank you so much for sharing the realities of what is really happening in this country.

Betsy Richter
Neenah, WI

Anonymous said...

The travesty is that the driver of the car was not punished for his part in the tragedy. We usually do not hear about these things until after they are concluded, and there is no opportunity to affect the outcome.

However, ask yourself this: how can we convince other mothers to simply walk to the end of the street and cross at a light? If the man had not had anything to drink, or pain medication, or been blind in one eye, the outcome may very well have been the same. I know that area, and people crossing in the middle of streets are a constant hazard. I watched a young man dart across on a bicycle and get hit by a car. He jumped right up, against my strong advice, but the outcome could have been just as tragic.

The woman is not being charged with the crime of being poor. She is being charged because some people get outraged when a mother endangers her child in a way that is totally avoidable. They call it reckless endagerment for a reason.

She should not have to ride two busses to reach a market. She should have a car. The man should not have been driving a car under the influence of alcohol. But do not use those things to make yourself blind to the fact that she knew to go to the corner, and chose instead to head into traffic with two children.

She will not receive jail time. And maybe she should not even be charged. But how do we reach people in a way to make this stop happening? Even if there were truly a war on the poor, the only way they will win is by developing the habits and discipline of soldiers.