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The Crime of Being Poor and Black

By       Message Chris Hedges       (Page 1 of 3 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   3 comments

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Emmanuel Mervilus, who will graduate soon from Rutgers after being in prison, speaks in Newark, N.J., at an event sponsored by the Mountainview Program, which fosters education among those who have been incarcerated.
(Image by (Mountainview Program))
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NEWARK, N.J. -- This is the story of Emmanuel Mervilus, who got locked up for a crime he did not commit, whose life was derailed and nearly destroyed by the experience and who will graduate this spring from Rutgers University. It is a story of being a poor black man in America, with the exception being that most poor black men never get a second chance.

The only reason Mervilus got a second chance was because of one man, history professor Don Roden, who founded the Mountainview Program at Rutgers for formerly incarcerated students. This program accepts, among others, the students I teach in prison, one of whom, Ron Pierce, also will graduate this spring.

There are only a few saints in this world. Professor Roden is one.

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Mountainview staff, students, professors and families gathered Friday at Rutgers' Newark campus to speak of the struggles and hardships endured by students such as Mervilus and Pierce. Those at the two-hour meeting spent much of the time weeping or fighting back tears.

Mervilus is 6 feet tall, broad-shouldered and has long, thick dreads. He was never in a gang. He was not a drug dealer. He had a job. He came from a good and loving family. But he was cursed with being black and poor and living in a city, Elizabeth, N.J., where if you are black and poor you are always one step away from being arbitrarily shot or arrested or tossed into jail. This is true in nearly every city in America.

There are cops in poor communities who hunt black boys and men as if they are prey. To them it is a sport. These cops are not always white, although they are often white. But they are always sadists. Intoxicated by the power to instill fear, use lethal force indiscriminately and destroy lives -- and allowed to do so by a judicial system that no longer protects the most basic rights of the poor, including due process, adequate legal representation and the right to a jury trial -- they circle around their victims like human vultures. If we were to use the strict dictionary definition, these police officers are criminals.

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"There is a cop who used to tell me when I was a boy he was going to give me my first adult charge," Mervilus said. Mervilus said he did not want to name the officer, now a detective, for fear of retribution.

This cop made good on his threat when Mervilus turned 18 and was a senior in high school. He saw Mervilus on the street smoking a joint. Mervilus ran. The cop chased him. Mervilus turned, put his arms up and shouted, "I give up! I give up!" The cop threw him on the hood of a police car.

"I don't remember anything after that," he said. "I saw a flash. Next thing I'm in the back of the police car. There are scratches on my face."

"I'm not a saint," Mervilus said to me. "I did things. But everything I did I owned up to."

When he got to the police station he was charged with having a dozen bags of marijuana. The charge was a lie.

"They need more than simple possession to lock you up so they plant drugs," he said. "It makes the charge stick."

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He was in the county jail for two weeks and was assigned a public defender who told him to plead guilty. "The public defender told me, 'How are you going to prove this [your innocence]?' " he said.

"No one wants to believe cops lie," Mervilus said. "Why would a cop lie? Lots of reasons. Promotion. Quotas. And I don't look like a regular citizen. I'm black. I got dreads. I fit the description. I figured I ran. I didn't know much of anything at that time, you feel me? So, I said, I'll take it. I thought that probation could be expunged if I did good. But I was wrong. From that day on, I said I would never, ever, plead guilty to something I didn't do."

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Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.

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