Being Poor is Not a Crime

Courtesy of Safe Horizon

Two minutes and twenty-six seconds. That is the length of the video that showed just how broken our system is when it comes to dealing with poverty and punishment. The video reveals police officers swarming a woman and her baby in a Brooklyn public benefits office, attempting to rip the child away from his mother. Amidst the shouts of onlookers, her screams are clearly audible: “You’re hurting my son! You’re hurting my son!” So, how did this happen? How did a woman’s visit to a public benefits office end with her on the floor, desperately holding on to her baby?

Jazmine Headley went to the public benefits office to inquire about daycare payment for her one-year-old son, Damone. Finding no available seating, she sat on the floor. Despite initially refusing to leave when asked, Headley began to leave once she saw police officers headed towards her. One officer grabbed Headley’s arm and threatened her, asserting that if she did not leave, she would be taken to central booking and her child would be taken from her. In her anger, she replied, “You’re a joke.” The police officer, instead of swallowing his pride and allowing Headley to leave, shot back, “Really?” and lunged at her, pulling her to the ground.

The chaos that ensued was, in the words of City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, an example of how “our system criminalizes poverty, disproportionately punishes petty behavior, and separates parents from children.” Headley’s comment to the police officer, while rude, was simply not proportional to the response. It’s difficult to find a rational reason for the fight that occurred, especially when the matter could have been resolved peacefully. That’s the point—there isn’t a “rational” reason. The entire situation exposed the instant prejudice against a poor woman of color by a policeman. None of Jazmine Headley’s actions warranted the violent response from the officer.  

Headley was arrested and charged with resisting arrest, obstruction, trespassing, and acting in a manner injurious to a child. She was later released with all charges against her dropped; however, the incident serves as a meaningful reminder of the cruel criminalization of poor Americans. Headley originally refused to move because she needed something to take care of her child, yet she was punished severely. She was essentially arrested for trying to get daycare services for her son, something she couldn’t afford on her own. “Being poor is not a crime,” commented state Attorney General-elect Letitia James, addressing the root of the incident. It’s true. Her only offense was being a poor woman of color. Why should that lead to such cruelty?


-Lucia Wetherill