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.
I Went to a Convention for Old, Washed-Up Celebrities
The Hollywood Show does not, as its name would imply, take place in Hollywood. Nor is it a show in the traditional sense of the word. Rather, it’s a weekend-long expo in a hotel ballroom, a chance to peddle yellowed movie memorabilia and yellowed-er still celebrities from days long past. For a mere $20, nostalgia buffs can meet “the guy”: the guy who wrote the song “Build Me Up Buttercup,” the guy who starred in M.A.S.H. (the movie, not the T.V. show), the guy who spat, “No soup for you!” on the episode of Seinfeld that inspired a million novelty shirts.
A “Celebrity Check-In” table greeted the show’s attendees; behind it, a bored-looking woman silently ate a slice of flavorless-looking pizza. In the corner, a revolving door of middle-aged men, who each had paid $40 for the privilege of getting professional photos taken alongside a rapidly decaying Martin Landau, struck a pose next to the Ed Wood star. “Make sure to mention the Hollywood Show on your Facebook posts!” an employee loudly, cheerfully, reminded them.
Hugh O’Brian, star of 60-year-old show The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, hung signage in the hallway inquiring, “He’s still alive???”; said signage instructed readers to “See for yourself!” Once one took the bait, they bore witness to the sight of an elderly, yet still breathing, O’Brian eating a sandwich next to his parked Rascal Scooter.
Lita Ford, wearing a leather jacket with her own name on it, signed mementos shakily held by a man sporting a vintage Runaways tour shirt. The face of the woman who played Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan contorted into a look of pain and confusion as a large white male (the show’s target demographic) asked her one in a no doubt series of inane questions.
Last year the ‘Ndrangheta—a criminal organization from Calabria, a region that forms the toe of Italy’s boot—raked in more than $75.3 billion. That’s equivalent to revenue of McDonald’s and Deutsche Bank combined, or 3.5 per cent of Italy’s GDP in 2013. It did this through, among other things, extortion, usury, gambling, prostitution, and the trafficking of both drugs and humans.
London Is Turning Into a Depressing and Dumb City of Living Stock Images
Every city has its visual cliches. The stereotypes, falsehoods and cheery slices of xenophobia sold to us on cheap postcards and in crap films that reduce the world’s great cities to a handful of worn out cultural cues. If you’ve never been to Paris, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s all girls who look like Charlotte Gainsbourg skipping along the Seine in Breton tops, doling out filter-less cigs to homeless accordion players. When in actual fact, it’s more like a bunch of exchange students laughing at dachshunds and dudes who are still bang into Justice plying rich schoolgirls with shit MDMA.
For New York, the cliches are motor-mouthed cabbies and kids fucking around with water hydrants. For Barcelona, it’s psytrance beachbums and animal cruelty on La Rambla. Tokyo? Weird fish, games machines and businessmen throwing themselves in front of bullet trains.
But what about London? Pearly Kings and Queens? Pie and mash? Foxtons Minis tearing down Brixton High Street, on fire? Rita Ora?
So I decided to pull back for a moment, and consult Getty Images’ wide range of London stock photos. What do they see when they look at the UK’s capital?
"London City Hall"
The vast majority of the London stock photos on Getty are scenic wide shots of the city’s skyline, usually taken at sunset and very rarely from anywhere east of Tower Bridge. Of course, this makes perfect sense. If you’re a journalist writing something about London’s chronic housing crisis, or a body in the Thames river, or Millwall’s terrible run under Ian Holloway, you probably want to illustrate your copy with a picture of the Shard and a few anonymous riverside yuppie-farms when the sun’s going down.
From the outset, it’s clear that this is the London that Getty are most interested in selling to their customers, the London with all the big glass buildings and shimmering water, the one that girl from your school has as her Facebook cover photo, the one on the opening titles to The Apprentice. Not the one where there’s three Paddy Powers on a single high street, or the one of food banks, pigeons cannibalizing fried chicken bones and crack squirrels.
But this one, the nice one by the river with the big buildings.
"Couple Having Coffee At Sidewalk Cafe"
The people in Getty’s pictures are predominantly happy young heterosexual couples who drink coffee, take selfies, and love life and London. And that’s fine. It’s not like they’re going to embark upon an investigative social project about co-dependent heroin addicts crying and vomiting in each other’s arms, or abandoned widows lying catatonic in single bedrooms in Catford.
The Bundy Ranch Standoff Was Only the Beginning for America’s Right-Wing Militias
For two decades the US government has tried to get Cliven Bundy to remove his cows from federal land, and for two decades the Nevada rancher has steadfastly refused, defying court orders and attempts to negotiate a settlement for the $1.1 million he owes in federal grazing fees. Finally, last week, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) took matters into its own hands and started seizing cattle that had been illegally grazing on government property. Things went downhill from there.
For right-wing militias and paramilitary groups founded around a collective paranoid belief that the federal government is just looking for an excuse to impose martial law, images of armed federal agents forcibly seizing cows basically means it’s DEFCON 1. By Saturday, as many as 1,000 anti-BLM protestors from as far away as Virginia, New Hampshire, and Georgia had set up camp in Bunkerville, an arid patch of land where the BLM was rounding up the Bundy cattle. Packing handguns and assault rifles, the protesters carried signs featuring slogans like “Tyranny Is Alive,” “Where’s the Justice?” and “Militia Sighn In [sic],” and many said they were prepared for a shoot-out with the federal government. The mood was such that even Glenn Beck was wary of the crowd, announcing on his show that “there’s about 10 or 15 percent of the people who are talking about this online that are truly frightening.”
The internet was up in arms—sorry, paws—yesterday over a New Zealand pizza chain erecting a billboard to try and sell their smoked rabbit pizza that was plastered with rabbit pelts and the line, “Made from real rabbit. Like this billboard.”
My Top Secret Meeting with One of Silk Road’s Biggest Drug Lords
Dread Pirate Roberts captained a ship that many thought was unsinkable. But when the FBI seized the original Silk Road on October 1, 2013 ,and arrested the alleged kingpin—29-year-old Ross Ulbricht—the online drugs empire began to capsize. Its hundreds of thousands of customers scattered across the Deep Web, and up to seven known Silk Road vendors were identified and arrested.
As the chaos unravelled into the mainstream and stories of Dread Pirate Roberts’ (DPR) alleged murder-for-hire antics made headlines, one prominent Silk Road drugs syndicate sat in their European safe-house with a ton of opium and a decision to make—would they cut their losses and disappear into the ether while they were still ahead, or keep their lucrative online drugs network running in the midst of all this extra attention?
The displaced drugs syndicate, known on the Deep Web as the Scurvy Crew (TSC), decided to go back to work. For them, back to work meant laundering Bitcoins, vacuum packing drug parcels, and jumping the Moroccan border with bags stuffed full of uncut drugs. Silk Road may have died a sudden death at the hands of the authorities, but as one of the highest rated vendors before the FBI shut-down, the Scurvy Crew saw its demise as an opportunity to diversify.
After six months of negotiation, via encrypted email and several phone calls from throwaway SIM cards, the boss of the Scurvy Crew agreed to meet me. He told me he would explain to me the inner workings of his Deep Web drugs venture, from its humble beginnings to the near million-dollar profits it now apparently generates. Known to me only by the pseudonym “Ace,” the boss claimed to represent a new breed of drug dealer.
“I don’t do this just for the money,” he wrote to me via email. “I like to provide a premium service.”
The Rise and Rise of the UK’s Student Drug Dealers
If the greatest architects, theorists, and social planners who’ve ever lived were revived to design the perfect marketplace for drug dealers, they’d come up with a dorm. A nest stuffed with trainee adults, bankrolled by mom and dad, waiting like baby birds with their beaks wide open for their next life-changing experience. Dealers might not be allowed to actually vomit the drugs into the mouths of students, but dorms—which are often called “halls” in the UK—nontheless remain a drug merchant’s wet dream. Which is why they’ve been living in them for decades.
Nearly three quarters of Britain’s 2.5 million university students have taken illegal drugs. So it follows that somebody has to be there feeding the country’s future politicians, business leaders, and unemployed actors their weed, MDMA, cocaine, and ketamine (that last substance is up to ten times more likely to be used by students than non-students).
In fact, the student drug market is so sought after that dealers have been known to enroll in colleges specifically to take out student loans and sell drugs on campus. Then, of course, there are all the student dealers—those who begin their higher education with good intentions, but realize that working at a bar isn’t much fun and start selling drugs as a source of quick cash. If you live in halls and don’t know who this guy or girl is yet, take it as a sign that you should get some more friends.
Why Obama’s Regulators Let Wall Street Bankers Off Easy
If there’s anything more maddening than the sheer scale of the financial fraud that sent America and the rest the planet spiraling into the economic abyss in 2008, it’s the fact that no Wall Street bankers have gone to jail for causing the mess. As in zero, zilch, none at all.
So at his farewell party last month to celebrate a lengthy career at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)—the US regulatory agency that supposedly keeps Wall Street in check—James Kidney, a trial attorney who had been hamstrung for years by indifferent bosses, broke his silence and went off on an awesome rant about how no one in the financial sector fears the body supposedly policing their behavior. The SEC, in essence, is a joke.
Describing it as “an agency that polices the broken windows on the street level and rarely goes to the penthouse floors,” Kidney told an audience of fellow employees that they had dropped the ball because of a revolving door of corruption between the SEC and Wall Street megabanks. “I have had bosses, and bosses of my bosses, whose names we all know, who made little secret that they were here to punch their ticket. They mouthed serious regard for the mission of the Commission, but their actions were tentative and fearful in many instances,” he said.
Since last September, notices have started to appear in the windows of Amsterdam’s brothels. The flyers are there to advise potential customers of what does and doesn’t constitute appropriate behavior once they’re inside. In practice, this is a well-intentioned piece of bureaucracy. In reality, it’s something nobody is ever going to read. In fact, given the flyers’ size, the effects of a customer’s Dutch courage, and the other distractions in and around the window area, it’s unlikely anyone would even notice them. Which might be an issue for those of you who’ve never paid for sex before but maybe want to do so on your next trip to Amsterdam, or Nevada, or Cologne, without coming across as both an amateur and a dick.
I’ve been having sex with the “window girls” of Amsterdam for a while now, keeping a blogof all my experiences that led to my being interviewed by VICE last month. So instead of making you rely on the small print tacked up around the red-light district, I thought I’d use the knowledge I’ve picked up over the past couple of years to gift you my own informed guide to the etiquette of sleeping with a sex worker.
THE NEW GIRLS ARE AS MUCH IN THE DARK AS YOU ARE
If there’s one major thing I’ve learned from interviewing the girls I’ve met, it’s that they were as clueless at the start of their careers as johns are ahead of their first time. “You don’t know what to do; you don’t know what to charge,” they say. “The guys say it’s OK to do this and to do that, and you believe them.”
That said, the preconceptions of those guys who are new to the window experience can be more damaging, invasive, and just plain rude. “They come in and just grab,” I’ve been told on a number of occasions, usually accompanied by an eye roll.
As far as I can tell, that grabbiness is mostly fueled by the expectations young guys get from internet pornography, like that weird thing male porn stars do where they try to fit their entire hand in a girl’s mouth during anal sex. Unsurprisingly, this kind of behavior isn’t thought of too highly by the window girls. They’re selling their time and, with it, access to specific sexual acts; they’re not saying, “Give me €50 (about $75) and do anything that comes into your stupid fucking head.”
TREAT THE GIRLS AS YOU WOULD YOUR GIRLFRIEND (KIND OF)
Personally, I treat prostitutes as though they’re my girlfriends. But my relationship code is based on respect and concern for a partner’s well-being. I guess this piece of advice is dependent upon how you behave when you have a special person in your life. I’m going to assume that you’re a decent sort, and that your relationships to date haven’t been a shitstorm of domestic abuse, neglect, and psychological cruelty. If you wouldn’t treat a girlfriend that way, don’t treat a prostitute that way. These are basic people skills.