Salil Dudani: Why Do We Jail People for Being Poor? at TEDxStanford (Transcript)

One summer afternoon in 2013, DC police detained, questioned and searched a man who appeared suspicious and potentially dangerous. This wasn’t what I was wearing the day of the detention, to be fair, but I have a picture of that as well. I know it’s very frightening — try to remain calm.

At this time, I was interning at the Public Defender Service in Washington DC, and I was visiting a police station for work. I was on my way out, and before I could make it to my car, two police cars pulled up to block my exit, and an officer approached me from behind. He told me to stop, take my backpack off and put my hands on the police car parked next to us. About a dozen officers then gathered near us. All of them had handguns, some had assault rifles. They rifled through my backpack. They patted me down. They took pictures of me spread on the police car, and they laughed.

And as all this was happening — as I was on the police car trying to ignore the shaking in my legs, trying to think clearly about what I should do — something stuck out to me as odd. When I look at myself in this photo, if I were to describe myself, I think I’d say something like, “19-year-old Indian male, bright T-shirt, wearing glasses.” But they weren’t including any of these details. Into their police radios as they described me, they kept saying, “Middle Eastern male with a backpack. Middle Eastern male with a backpack.” And this description carried on into their police reports. I never expected to be described by my own government in these terms: “lurking,” “nefarious,” “terrorist.”

And the detention dragged on like this. They sent dogs trained to smell explosives to sweep the area I’d been in. They called the federal government to see if I was on any watch lists. They sent a couple of detectives to cross-examine me on why, if I claimed I had nothing to hide, I wouldn’t consent to a search of my car. And I could see they weren’t happy with me, but I felt I had no way of knowing what they’d want to do next.

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At one point, the officer who patted me down scanned the side of the police station to see where the security camera was to see how much of this was being recorded. And when he did that, it really sank in how completely I was at their mercy. I think we’re all normalized from a young age to the idea of police officers and arrests and handcuffs, so it’s easy to forget how demeaning and coercive a thing it is to seize control over another person’s body. I know it sounds like the point of my story is how badly treated I was because of my race — and yes, I don’t think I would’ve been detained if I were white. But actually, what I have in mind today is something else.

What I have in mind is how much worse things might’ve been if I weren’t affluent. I mean, they thought I might be trying to plant an explosive, and they investigated that possibility for an hour and a half, but I was never put in handcuffs, I was never taken to a jail cell. I think if I were from one of Washington DC’s poor communities of color, and they thought I was endangering officers’ lives, things might’ve ended differently.

And in fact, in our system, I think it’s better to be an affluent person suspected of trying to blow up a police station than it is to be a poor person who’s suspected of much, much less than this. I want to give you an example from my current work. Right now, I’m working at a civil rights organization in DC, called Equal Justice Under Law. Let me start by asking you all a question. How many of you have ever gotten a parking ticket in your life? Raise your hand. Yeah. So have I.

And when I had to pay it, it felt annoying and it felt bad, but I paid it and I moved on. I’m guessing most of you have paid your tickets as well. But what would happen if you couldn’t afford the amount on the ticket and your family doesn’t have the money either, what happens then? Well, one thing that’s not supposed to happen under the law is, you’re not supposed to be arrested and jailed simply because you can’t afford to pay. That’s illegal under federal law.

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But that’s what local governments across the country are doing to people who are poor. And so many of our lawsuits at Equal Justice Under Law target these modern-day debtors’ prisons. One of our cases is against Ferguson, Missouri. And I know when I say Ferguson, many of you will think of police violence. But today I want to talk about a different aspect of the relationship between their police force and their citizens. Ferguson was issuing an average of over two arrest warrants, per person, per year, mostly for unpaid debt to the courts.

When I imagine what that would feel like if, every time I left my house, there was a chance a police officer would run my license plate, see a warrant for unpaid debt, seize my body they way the did in DC and then take me to a jail cell, I feel a little sick. I’ve met many of the people in Ferguson who have experienced this, and I’ve heard some of their stories. In Ferguson’s jail, in each small cell, there’s a bunk bed and a toilet, but they’d pack four people into each cell. So there’d be two people on the bunks and two people on the floor, one with nowhere to go except right next to the filthy toilet, which was never cleaned. In fact, the whole cell was never cleaned, so the floor and the walls were lined with blood and mucus. No water to drink, except coming out of a spigot connected to the toilet.

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