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For Once, They’ve Nabbed the Robbers with the Fountain Pens

by on April 17, 2019 5:00 AM

Let’s get intertextual. Matt Taibbi’s “I Can’t Breathe,” meet Caitlin Flanagan’s “They Had It Coming.” Taibbi, Flanagan, meet Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd.”

“I Can’t Breathe” is a book about Eric Garner’s death by chokehold at the hands of Staten Island police. “They Had It Coming” is a magazine article about those parents who were willing to pull any and all strings to get their kids into fancy colleges. “Pretty Boy Floyd” is a song about a bank robber who was reputed to be a latter-day Robin Hood.

Garner drew the attention of the cops because they knew he sold bootleg cigarettes on the street, a misdemeanor. The 33 parents indicted in the college admissions scandal have been charged with mail fraud and money laundering, felonies that can each fetch up to 20 years in prison.

It remains to be seen if any of these hotshots will actually get hard time, or if they’ll just have to scribble a lot of zeros on a check. This much is clear, though: None of them died in police custody and none is reported to have been manhandled by the cops.

Contrast that kid-gloves treatment with the beatings and public strip searches administered to multiple characters in “I Can’t Breathe” on the flimsiest of pretexts.

A guy playing chess in the park gets whaled on because the cops think he has drugs in his mouth. What they saw were his dentures.

Another guy gets yanked out of his car and has his leg broken in three places by police who found a baggie of marijuana in his car – after they shattered his leg.

It goes without saying that these Staten Islanders, like Eric Garner, were black. Citywide, Taibbi tells us, “…black and Hispanic residents made up 80 to 90 percent of all stops… in a city where they made up roughly half of the population.”

Defenders of the police contend that a disproportionate number of blacks and Hispanics commit crimes. Taibbi argues that the cops disproportionately target blacks and Hispanics.

The New York Times infuriated readers of a profile of the victim of the police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., when it suggested that Michael Brown was “no angel.” Reporter John Eligon (who, for what it’s worth, is black) told The Times’ public editor that his purpose was only to show that Brown was a complex human being, just like the rest of us.

Matt Taibbi does much the same thing with Eric Garner. At 19, Garner married a  woman who already had two children, and like other young guys in his neighborhood, he started dealing crack. Busted and jailed multiple times, he switched to selling cigarettes on the street, which became lucrative when the City of New York raised its cigarette tax.

So Garner was no angel, either. But it’s harder to be an angel when you grow up poor and poorly educated and as a result of some poor decisions you made when you were still in your teens – and selective enforcement of the law by the police — you no longer qualify for a credit card or a loan or public housing or certain kinds of jobs. In any case, even the most rabid proponents of stop-and-frisk policing would agree that no one deserves to lose his life over a misdemeanor.

A week before Eric Garner died he had been overjoyed at the news that his son had been awarded a basketball scholarship to attend Essex County College -- a community college in Newark, N.J., that would be utterly unworthy of the children of the movers and shakers named in the college admissions bribery indictment.

Caitlin Flanagan, whose flair for the hilariously vicious was on display in an essay she wrote about fraternity life in 2014, is uncharacteristically understated in this paragraph from “They Had It Coming”:

“Much of the discussion of this scandal has centered on the corruption in the college-admissions process. But think about the kinds of jobs that the indicted parents held. Four of them worked in private equity, a fifth in the field of ‘investments,’ others in real-estate development and the most senior management of huge corporations. Together, they have handled billions of dollars’ worth of assets within heavily regulated fields—yet look how easily and how eagerly they allegedly embrace a crooked scheme, as quoted in the court documents.”

We are left to imagine what other illegal or unethical corner-cutting and loophole-finding occurs as part of the daily exercise of power by these captains of industry.

Which brings us to our third text. I’ve quoted these lines from “Pretty Boy Floyd” in a column before, but they bear repeating:

Yes, as through this world I've wandered
I've seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.

This time, at least, the fountain pen robbers have gotten caught.

A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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