Matt Taibbi describes writing his latest book—”The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap”—as a journalistic revelation of sorts.
Originally, “The Divide” was going to focus on Wall Street criminals and why those behind the economic downturn haven’t been imprisoned.
As Taibbi started researching how the criminal justice system operates, it became difficult to ignore how the sentences and treatment of average Americans were far more punitive than wealthier culprits of far worse crimes.
“Then I had this whole experience that I can only describe as an awakening,” he says. “It was this terrible sort of white guilt experience realizing that all these things are sort of a gigantic, repressive mechanism that people can get swept up in and go to jail and have all these terrible things happen to them for very minor reasons.”
One of those stories is about a 35-year-old New York City bus driver named Andrew Brown.
In the book, Brown, who is African-American, was arrested for “obstructing pedestrian traffic” at about 1 a.m. while talking to a friend outside his apartment building.
Brown’s own lawyer tells the transit worker to take a plea and pay a $25 fine, but he refuses. Only after arguing back and forth with the judge do police reluctantly admit no other pedestrians were outside and the bus driver is found not guilty.
“Essentially, what does that crime really mean?” Taibbi asks. “It means being black on a Tuesday night. And as I would later learn this is actually a pretty common offense in New York. And it took forever for this guy to get off.”
Taibbi contrasts that story with a case in his book about how one of the world’s largest banks readily admitted laundering $881 million for a pair of drug cartels. As it has been reported, the European-based HSBC bank “ignored basic anti-money laundering controls,” but no one has served any jail time.
“I get really kind of emotionally caught up in a lot of these stories that I hear from people,” says Taibbi. “So what I ended up doing was contrasting the pain people go through for almost nothing on one side of the aisle, and then how incredibly hard it is to get a prosecution going for high-level white collar offenders who do a lot of social damage.”
I sat down with Taibbi to talk about the book, but also his new media venture since departing Rolling Stone magazine and the role journalism plays in America’s view of crime and justice for the poor compared to the wealthy.
Taibbi will speak at the Louisville Free Public Library’s main branch at 7 p.m. on Thursday. Organizers say there are no tickets left, but there will be standing room available.