The misguided War on Drugs has claimed millions of victims since its inception decades ago. Many of them are those who are unable to fight back against draconian laws that penalize people for owning a basic plant with medicinal and recreational purposes, with few side effects. Nowhere is this more apparent than in cases involving homeless people who lack the means to defend themselves when they are abducted by overzealous police officers who want to haul them in. But the latest case goes even deeper than that, as it involves a homeless activist dying in prison under suspicious circumstances.
Jeffrey Pendleton was a well-known supporter of rights for the least fortunate among us. He didn’t mean to be, as he was thrust into the position by the harassment he faced for simply trying to survive. Police constantly bothered him and violated his civil rights on several occasions — including telling him he was not allowed to even walk through a park. When the ACLU heard about the harassment, they took his case, winning a suit against two separate police departments for targeting him last year.
Fast forward to 2016 and Pendleton was apprehended by police on suspicion of marijuana possession. At his hearing bail was set at $100 — a substantial amount for a homeless man to come up with. Since he was unable to pay the fee, he was jailed in order to await his trial.
That’s where Pendleton’s story takes a dark turn. He was found unconscious on Sunday afternoon in his cell, and later died. While there is no cause of death as of yet, the circumstances are suspicious and police are under scrutiny due to their previous history with the man.
The incident comes during a crossroads in the United States for several issues, including the injustice and wrongheaded nature of the war on drugs, the way the poor are treated by the justice system, and increasing levels of police malfeasance coming to light. Pendleton’s case happens to hit all three, throwing in a good dose of how badly homeless people are treated in this country. He also happened to be black, making this a perfect storm for the police involved.
Marijuana prohibition has shown to be not only a failed program, but counterproductive and flat out stupid as a policy. Public support for various levels of legalization has grown, and laws against the drug are falling in states across the nation. Were it legal on the day Pendleton was captured, he may be alive yet today.
Pendleton’s treatment as a homeless black man also raises the uncomfortable truth of how the justice system is anything but just for people like him. Just this week, the Department of Justice made a statement about how poor people are disproportionately jailed due to being unable to pay court fees and fines. Debtors’ prisons are ostensibly illegal in the United States, but in practice they are used all of the time by the government.
Whether or not Pendleton was targeted by police due to his history with them remains to be seen. But we can be sure that the investigation will be fair and impartial, as police never cover for each other when wrongdoing is afoot.
Pendleton’s death was an avoidable tragedy for many reasons. Hopefully he can at least serve as an example of what is wrong with our system. While it may take time for that lesson to be fully comprehended by our culture, we should all take note and do our part to help prevent more situations like this one. After all, if we can’t help and protect the most vulnerable among us, what good are we as a society?
His family is attempting to raise funds for a proper burial. If you’d like to contribute, the GoFundMe page can be found here.