Matt Taibbi Talks About Criminalized Poverty and Why Wall St. Is Above the Law
It’s not exactly breaking news that the American criminal justice system is wildly unfair. Thewar on drugs sends thousands of black and Hispanic kids to prison for using the same illegal substances that their white peers can more often get away with smoking or snorting; meanwhile, the Wall Street bankers responsible for the financial crisis get off with zero punishment and huge bonuses. These gross disparities in how the rich and poor are treated by the police and courts are the subject of The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, a book illustrated by VICE columnist Molly Crabapple and written by Matt Taibbi, the former Rolling Stone investigative journalist who has made a career of lampooning our entitled upper class (and just left that magazine to start a new website about political corruption).
I called Taibbi to chat about how America got to this terrible, dystopian place and where we should go from here.
VICE: The core theme of the book is that we’ve seen two parallel, and very different, systems of criminal justice emerge in this country—one for the wealthy and powerful, another for the poor and brown. That concept in and of itself might not totally shock people, but the timeframe—just how novel that phenomenon is in our democracy—should, right?
Matt Taibbi: Obviously it’s not a new story that the rich get off and poor people get screwed. I think that’s a narrative that probably couldn’t be more obvious, but there are some new developments that have made this situation worse. There are these parallel policy and political developments that happened in the early 90s that mirrored each other, with the Democrats coming over on the issue of welfare reform and also deciding to follow the Republicans in terms of courting money from the financial services and hopping on board with deregulation. I think what both of those decisions meant was that, basically, poor people no longer had a lobby in Washington consistently, and the very wealthy now had a consensus behind them. So we started to have this phenomenon of much more aggressive law enforcement against the poor. On the other side, it begins with deregulation of white-collar commerce, and then it kind of ends in non-enforcement of white-collar crime. That also seems to be a political consensus. It’s not just the same old story that has gone back to the beginning of time… This is also a new political development that has to do with the alignment of the two political parties in this country and how they’ve changed recently.
Theater of Justice: Courtrooms Are Violent Stages Where ‘Justice’ Is Rarely Found
Last week, I sketched an evidentiary hearing for a woman named Cecily McMillan.
Two years ago, I’d seen Cecily convulse in handcuffs as the police shut down an Occupy Wall Street protest. Cecily was an organizer. A plain-clothes cop had grabbed her breast from behind, hard enough to leave a bruise shaped like his handprint. Instinctively, she elbowed him. Most women would do the same if a man grabbed them from behind.
The cops beat Cecily till they broke her ribs. As she had a seizure on the pavement, the crowd screamed for the police to call 911. The police just watched.
Two years later, Cecily is charged with assaulting an officer. She faces seven years in prison.
In that fake-wood courtroom in lower Manhattan, the judge told Cecily’s lawyer the fact that her arresting officer had beaten up other people was not relevant to her case. His records would be sealed. Afterward, addressing her supporters, Cecily tried to hide the tremor in her voice.
Courtrooms are a violent theater. The violence happens off-scene: in Rikers Island where a homeless man recently baked to death; in the shackles and beatings and the years far from everything you love. But the courtroom itself is the performative space, the stage where the best story triumphs, and where all parties, except (usually) the defendant, are just playing parts.
Molly Crabapple on Turning 30
When I was 24, a curator I hoped to work with told me: “When you’re 30, you’ll be really ugly, and your boyfriend will leave you. But I’d still fuck you.”
I turned 30 in September.
Despite feminism, or logic, I dreaded it—though none of the curator’s predications came true.
Age is a weapon society uses against women. Each year that you gain comfort in your own flesh, your flesh is seen as worth less. Thirty, like 40 or 50, is a demarcation line, but a particularly loaded one. Cross it, says the world, and you leave the trifling-but-addictive privileges of girlhood behind. Invisibility this way, ma’am.
I was still 24 when the same curator refused to put me in a show with female artists in their early 20s. They painted girls of a dewy frailty the curator imagined the artists themselves possessed. “You’re not a young artist,” he told me, when I asked to be included. “Not like them.”
As an American woman, you may be a girl-gone-wild, or a biologically-ticking-40. But except perhaps for six months after your 21st birthday, your age is like Goldilocks’s porridge. Too young, too old. Never just right.
A man’s age, on the other hand, is always right. In Letters to a Young Contrarian, a 52-year-old Christopher Hitchens wondered when he would no longer be called an angry young man. Men like Hitchens go from bad boy to elder statesman.
VICE: You grew up in New York. What do you think of how the city has changed?
Art Spiegelman: Don’t get me started. If there was another New York, I’d move to it.
Is New York still a place where a young artist can get started?
You can’t. Go to Germany kids. Maybe Budapest if you’re not Jewish. But this is something that I’m remembering from interviewing Al Hirschfeld. He had lived in Paris for a number of years when he was just out of college.
I asked “Did you know Picasso?” And he says, “Yeah. I’d see him at Gertrude’s House.”
So we were off and running and I said, “What was it in Paris? The graphic design was good, the painting was good, the writing was good, the architecture was good. Was there something in the water?” He goes, “Nah. Cheap real estate. I got that place I was living in for the equivalent of $300 a year.” At those rates, you can find out if you’re an artist or not.
That’s what’s gone from New York and that’s an irreconcilable loss. Though in New York one should always be grateful for the rapid degree of change. Maybe SoHo will become a slum. It’s possible.
Click here to read all of Molly Crabapple’s interview with legendary cartoonist Art Spiegelman
It Don’t Gitmo Better than This – Molly Crabapple’s Account of Her Journey to the Dark Heart of Guantanamo Bay
A T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan IT DON’T GITMO BETTER THAN THIS is perhaps the definitive physical manifestation of globalization. Sewn in Honduras and sold by Jamaican contractors on land rented from Cuba, the shirt celebrates an American prison holding Muslims who’ve been declared enemies in the war on terror. It’s a popular item in the Gitmo gift shop (yes, Gitmo has a gift shop), displayed next to the stuffed banana rats and shot glasses engraved with GUANTÁNAMO BAY: DIVE IN.
Built in 1898, the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base looks like a US suburb. There’s a McDonald’s, a Subway, and even a Christmas parade. On Halloween, military members dressed as zombies complete a 5K run. Winners of the Mr. and Ms. Gitmo Figure and Fitness Competition arch their backs on the cover of the Wire,the base’s in-house magazine. The Team Gitmo outdoor movie theater screens all the big blockbusters (when I visited it was World War Z), and in the evenings, visitors can eat jerk chicken next to swaying banyan trees, get drunk at O’Kelly’s (“the only Irish pub on Communist soil”), or sing karaoke.
But since the Joint Task Force (JTF) arrived in 2002, Guantánamo Bay has been home to the world’s most notorious prison.
Gitmo’s prison camps were built, in principle, to hold and interrogate captives outside the reach of US law. Nearly 800 Muslim men have been imprisoned since it opened, and the vast majority of them have never been charged with any crime. Since he was inaugurated in 2008, President Obama has twice promised to close Gitmo, but 166 men still languish in indefinite detention. It is a place where information is contraband, force-feeding is considered humane care, staples are weapons, and the law is rewritten wantonly.
Nabil Hadjarab arrived at Gitmo 11 years ago, in an orange jumpsuit and a diaper, his head covered by a hood, eyes blinded by blackout goggles, mouth gagged, and with headphones blaring white noise into his ears.
Molly Crabapple Draws Guantanamo’s Camp X-Ray
Camp X-Ray is the first place that the US held detainees in Guantanamo. Captives lived there for four months in 2002 while the military built permanent prison camps.
Prisoners lived in open mesh cages under the brutal Cuban sun. Their cells had no running water. Guards gave them two buckets: one for water and one for shit.
The classic photos of GTMO, (dogs, marines, hooded captives in orange jumpsuits) were taken here. With its watchtowers, clapboard interrogation huts, and rings of barbed wire, X-Ray looks like nothing so much as a concentration camp in the Caribbean.
X-Ray has been empty for over a decade. Birds nest in the razor wire. Vines overtake former cells. Miles away, 104 prisoners are hunger-striking. Forty-four are being force-fed. Many of them first came here through X-Ray.
My press escort hates when the media uses images of X-Ray to sum up GTMO. X-Ray, she says, was very long ago.
Filthy Lucre – by Molly Crabapple
When you fly Virgin Upper Class out of Heathrow, you go through a separate set of airport security.
With a ticket that costs $4,000 round-trip, you swipe your boarding pass, go up a sleek private elevator, and pass through security and passport control that is delighted to see you. “Lovely suitcase,” they coo. You’re whisked away to the Virgin Clubhouse, with its free facials and single-malt scotch. Except briefly, you never interact with the airport’s general population.
Some months ago, I got to fly first-class from London. Until then, I’d never realized it wasn’t just a recliner in the plane and some cheap bubbly, but rather a separate sphere of being. In first-class, you weren’t groped or barked at or treated like a combination of a terrorist and a cow. Instead, paid servants pretended your presence was a gift.
After years of work trips crammed in coach, being forced to show my underwear to the TSA, I felt like a guttersnipe in a palace. I loved it, but it was also deeply strange. “These people don’t really like me,” I thought, no matter how skillfully they acted like they did.
Until you see it, you never realize how separate the sphere of the rich is from that of everyone else.
I came from a middle-class, divorced home. As is typical, the upper-middle-class end of the split went to my dad, and the lower-middle-class to my mom. Like most people trying to make it in an impractical profession, I spent years living in rat-infested tenements with roommates who threatened to kill me in my sleep.
Unlike most artists, I started to make money. Not 1 percent money, but more than my mom ever dreamed of. Once I did, I started to realize how broken the idea of American meritocracy was.
Meritocracy is America’s foundational myth. If you work hard, society tells us, you’ll earn your place in the middle class. But any strawberry picker knows hard work alone is a fast road to nowhere. Similarly, we place our faith in education. Study, and the upper-middle class will be yours. Except the average student graduates $35,000 in debt.