And this video is the sequel.
But about two years before an unarmed 18-year-old named Michael Brown was shot and killed on the streets of Ferguson by a white police officer, my Wall Street beat started leading me inexorably in the direction of the US’s growing urban disaster. The two stories are intertwined.
I’d spent years chronicling the ingenious crimes of scale that characterised the financial crisis era. These ranged from the mass frauds of the US sub-prime mortgage meltdown to the fraud-and bribery-induced bankruptcy of Jefferson County, Alabama to multitrillion-dollar market manipulation cases like the Libor scandal, so well known to British readers (but less well known to American ones).
The punchline to all these stories in the US was and is always the same. No matter how great the crime or how much money was stolen, none of the Wall Street principals is ever indicted or, for that matter, punished at all.
Even in the most abject and horrific cases – such as the scandal surrounding HSBC, which admitted to laundering more than $800m for central and South American drug cartels – no individual ever has to do a day in jail or pay so much as a cent in fines.
What punishments there are in the US for these firms – usually some version of a “We really, really promise never to do it again” deferred prosecution agreement, accompanied by superficially large fines – are always paid by the shareholder, not the actual wrongdoer.
When covering these tales, I often asked law enforcement officials to explain their thinking. Why no criminal cases? The answers I received were so grotesque as to be almost funny. “Well, they’re not crime crimes,” was an answer one prosecutor fed me, with a straight face.
When I asked another why no one went to jail in the HSBC narco-laundering case, given that our prisons were teeming with people who’d sold small quantities of drugs, he answered, again totally deadpan: “Have you been to a jail? Those places are dangerous!”
There is no way to talk about how preposterous all of this is without first answering one basic question: who does go to jail in the US?
The simplified answer is that the poorer and less white you are, the easier it is to end up in jail. If you live in the wrong neighbourhood and you’re broke, on the dole, or, worse, undocumented, your chances of seeing the back of a squad car are better than fair every time you walk outside.
I know this is not exactly breaking news. In this country – and everywhere else – the rich have always had an easier time in the courts than the poor. But the sheer breadth of the current justice gap in the US blows the mind when viewed up close.
In years of researching both sides of our justice system for a book called The Divide, I saw things that now make me wonder why something like Ferguson didn’t happen sooner.
In the inner cities, for instance, policing has been degraded into a factory-style process, remarkably like commercial fishing. Old-time cops complained to me that the days of taking a crime and solving it with sweat, guile and a detective’s nose are over. The new crime-fighting strategies are a crooked numbers game, strictly a brute-force-and-weapons play.
Under the umbrella excuse of “looking for guns or outstanding warrants”, armies of cops now fan out into poor neighbourhoods and scoop up masses of residents on the thinnest of pretexts. In New York City, where I work, hundreds of thousands of non-white poor people are picked up every year for riding bicycles in the wrong direction, loitering, public urination, carrying open containers of booze; any dumb thing you can think of.
White New Yorkers such as me don’t have to worry about these “quality of life” (QOL) arrests. Studies have demonstrated that only minuscule percentages of white people are ever written up for nuisance charges.
A city judge named Noach Dear made waves when he complained in court about the “open-carry” alcohol laws. “As hard as I try, I cannot remember ever arraigning a white defendant for such a violation,” he said. His staff later found that only 4% of all public-drinking arrests in New York involved white people – in a city that is over 40% white.
On the other hand, I know one black resident of the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood of Brooklyn who has been repeatedly arrested for “obstructing pedestrian traffic.” In other words, standing in the street.
When I met him, Andrew Brown – a 35-year-old family man with three kids – had caught his most recent obstructing charge at about one o’clock in the morning, on his way home from a long night driving a shuttle bus for casino-goers. The only other person out of doors anywhere near his project apartment was a friend, with whom he was listening to tunes on an MP3 player. Nonetheless, cops wrote him up for “blocking” the empty sidewalk.
He pleaded with the officer that he was just a regular guy on his way home from work – “Dude, I’m wearing a tie!” – but the cops didn’t like his tough-guy build or his mini-dreadlocks. They dragged him to the station for booking and a strip search.
Similarly, Michael Brown originally caught the attention of Ferguson police for “blocking traffic”.
The idea behind mass QOL arrests is to throw high-crime neighbourhoods under an ongoing dragnet. In theory, the police snatch up the fugitives and the guns and toss back the innocent people.
In practice, innocent people such as Brown are harassed on a regular basis. It’s not hard for residents to see the calculus behind the high-level political decisions– approved by white voters – that led to these policies: entire neighbourhoods have been essentially “pre-indicted”, presumed to be up to no good.
If you receive public assistance in the form of welfare, the presumption is even more profound. The starkest example I could find was in the city of San Diego, where they have a programme called P100 that allows law enforcement inspectors to pre-emptively search the homes of welfare applicants.
Usually, these searches involve desperate single mothers, where the state is looking for traces of a secret live-in boyfriend who might be helping with the bills. One lawyer I interviewed described a client, a Vietnamese woman who been raped in a refugee camp in Vietnam. She applied for welfare and soon after had a state official in her home, rifling through her underwear drawer with a pencil end, demanding to know who the sexy knickers were for if she didn’t have a boyfriend.
The whole thing is a numbers game. The US’s poorest neighbourhoods are armed camps teeming with cops and high-powered weaponry, a huge amount of force and political capital arrayed against its weakest citizens.
Meanwhile, America’s financial markets are so sparsely and indifferently policed that a sloppy Ponzi artist like Bernie Madoff was able to go on robbing victims for eight years after the feds were tipped off to his existence.
The Madoff case proved that in order to actually be convicted and jailed for a Wall Street crime, you practically have to show up, weeping and spontaneously confessing, on the doorstep of the regulatory authorities.
In the early 90s, the US convicted more than 900 people in criminal prosecutions connected to the savings and loan crisis, a mass-fraud scheme similar to the sub-prime mess, but far less serious. This time around, the number is zero. Not one significant Wall Street executive has seen the inside of a jail cell for even one night for the egregious crimes connected to the financial crisis.
Meanwhile, the US boasts the largest prison population in the history of humanity, edging out even the gulag under Stalin.
There are a lot of reasons for the disparity, but two stand out: there are virtually no cops on the Wall Street/rich white people beat, and what few regulators there are increasingly don’t believe that paper or computer thefts in the millions or billions are “crime crimes” that warrant jail time.
But when Michael Brown is shot in Ferguson, Missouri, seemingly for no obvious reason, or unarmed Levar Jones is shot by a state trooper in Columbia, South Carolina for driving without a seat belt (“Why did you shoot me?” Jones is seen pleading, on video), or Trayvon Martin is shot and killed, we can see the psychological presumption in these places is very different.
If poor, non-white people are up to anything, those activities nearly always qualify as “crime crimes.” And even if those people are innocent, the swarms of surrounding police send a powerful message to them and the neighbourhoods in which they live. They say that while others go free for monstrous crimes, you are pre-judged at both a street level and a policy level. Sooner or later, that had to lead to riots. And, as Gary Younge has pointed out, sometimes maybe a riot is what it takes.
• The Divide by Matt Taibbi is published by Scribe. Buy it for £12.74 at bookshop.theguardian.com
It’s not the Pentagon that supplies most of the warrior-cop gear you saw in Ferguson etc. It’s this giant industry.