“They’re hurting my son!”
That’s the heartbreaking refrain that echoes through the room as several police officers and a security guard in a Brooklyn welfare office try to wrestle a 1-year-old from the arms of his mother, Jazmine Headley.
Headley, 23, was approached by police after a verbal argument with a security guard in the office, and was eventually arrested. But in the heart-wrenching moments before the unarmed black woman was handcuffed, a black female police officer yanks violently at the child. Then the officer pulls a Taser-style stun gun and points it at astonished onlookers, some of whom are recording the incident with their phones.
Headley — who was taken to Rikers Island — faced charges of resisting arrest, acting in a manner injurious to a child, trespassing, and obstructing governmental administration, but authorities decided late Tuesday to dismiss the charges and release her.
My eyes and my experience tell me that she was treated that way because she is poor.
Class, as much as race, determines outcomes in the criminal justice system. Everything, from how one is treated in an interaction with police officers, to whether one is able to pay bail, to what kind of representation one can afford, is determined by our financial status. Philadelphians, more than anyone else, should understand that. After all, we live in the poorest big city in America.
Traditionally, Philadelphia’s poverty has been concentrated in black and brown communities, where residents know their poor financial status comes with poor schools, poor employment, and poor, even brutal, treatment at the hands of the police.
But the latest census figures indicate that poverty in Philadelphia is spreading outside black and brown communities. White poverty in Philadelphia has increased substantially in neighborhoods all over the city. In the traditionally white enclave of Holmesburg, the poverty rate rose steeply, moving from just 2 percent to a whopping 19 percent.
All of which means the lines that traditionally link race and class are becoming increasingly blurred. The question now is whether poor whites will have to endure the same poor treatment as their impoverished black and brown counterparts.
With heroin wreaking havoc in the white community at higher rates than other races, many have theorized that drug addiction is not only driving overdoses among whites, it is also driving poverty. That may very well be true. Having seen the difference in how addiction is treated in the white community — as a crisis rather than a war — I think we’ll also see a difference in how poor whites in Philadelphia are treated.
Will a white woman who argues with a welfare office security guard have her baby violently snatched from her arms? I don’t think so. Will white men waiting in a coffee shop be assumed to be poor, and thus be arrested for trespassing? I doubt it. Will large numbers of white children be warehoused in school buildings poisoned by asbestos and lead? I think not.
Instead, I believe white poverty will be treated like the tragedy it is. Social services will be expanded rather than restricted. They will be treated with dignity rather than derision. Their children will receive opportunities rather than roadblocks.
All of this will be patently unfair to poor people of color who spent years suffering without those kinds of resources. But it will also be impossible to hide. I’m counting on that.
In an age when almost everything is recorded on video or documented by statistics, the fight against poverty in Philadelphia’s white community can serve as a catalyst for addressing poverty among people of color. At a time when social ills are crossing racial lines, the impoverished must learn that they are all in the same financial boat.
Hunger makes your stomach growl whether you’re black or white. Lack of shelter breeds insecurity whether you’re black or white. Poor education creates poor life prospects whether you’re black or white.
For too long in Philadelphia, poverty has been painted as a black and brown issue. With the increase in white poverty, that should change.
When it does, people across poverty’s broad racial spectrum should stop fighting each other. Instead, they should fight for opportunity, fight for human dignity, fight for fair wages, and fight for all they need, regardless of race.
Only then will poor people be able to defeat their common enemies while standing on common ground.