From Pot to Jaywalking, Pay Compensation to Those Hurt by Repealed Laws

            Whether it’s a soaring literary classic like Les Misérables or generic Hollywood product like The Butterfly Effect, I’m drawn to stories in which a minor event triggers a series of unforeseen dramatic events. As Springsteen wrote and Dave Edmunds sang, from small things big things one day come.

            A real-life example transpired three weeks after the 9/11 attacks, when I was falsely accused of jaywalking — a misdemeanor at the time — by an LAPD officer who roughed me up and handcuffed me to boot. For 14 years, nothing happened as the result of that arrest on October 3, 2001. In the summer of 2015, without warning, getting busted for jaywalking blew up my life.

            Tiny problems can wreak havoc. Like the O-ring. Hell, I got expelled from college over a wart.

The jaywalking thing cost me my job as the staff cartoonist at the Los Angeles Times, damaged my reputation to the point where I was nearly blacklisted from journalism and cost me friends and colleagues. It made me doubt the ability or willingness of journalism, the love of my life, to do the right thing. It convinced me beyond a reasonable doubt that the justice system is hopelessly corrupt. I drank too much. Who knows—the weight I gained may eventually kill me.

I am grateful for every day that passes when I don’t think about jaywalking or the LA Frigging Times. Unfortunately there was no way to distract myself this week. California governor Gavin Newsom signed a new law decriminalizing jaywalking. As of the first of the coming year the Freedom to Walk Act means you’ll be allowed to cross a street in the Golden State—safely! look both ways before crossing, like mom taught you—without fear of being fined, handcuffed, beaten, arrested or even killed by a lunatic cop unless “a reasonably careful person would realize there is an immediate danger of collision with a moving vehicle or other device moving exclusively by human power.” (The legislation is silent on devices powered by other animals or plants.)

            Jaywalking tickets are big business in California. In Los Angeles alone, the LAPD raised $6.2 million in revenues by fining 31,712 accused jaywalkers between 2010 and 2020. Blacks were targeted more than three times their presence in the population.

            Several well-meaning readers contacted me to inform me of California’s new law, which I support wholeheartedly except for an all-too-common omission: it’s not retroactive. Those who have suffered fines, imprisonment and other punishments under a law that is subsequently repealed ought to be made whole. If slaves were emancipated by the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865, escaped slaves and those who helped them who were punished for their “crimes” should receive apologies and restitution by 1866. Merely erasing a conviction from your criminal record, as some states that have legalized marijuana have done, isn’t enough.

Anyone who is charged and convicted for a crime that is no longer a crime ought to be refunded their fines and attorneys’ fees, plus compound interest charged at the highest credit card rate. Anyone who spent time in jail or prison for an offense that is no longer viewed as an offense under the law should be generously compensated by the state or city responsible for their conviction.

Even if California were to come to its senses and pay millions of dollars in penance to everyone who suffered under bigoted jaywalking laws that were originally conceived by automobile companies as a way to discourage walking and sell more cars, there still wouldn’t be any way to undo all the weird side effects of what we now recognize as an obsolete form of oppression.

For poor Californians, the $196 jaywalking fine was devastating. Under our vicious capitalist system, there can be no doubt that some people failed to make rent and even lost their homes after being targeted by police enforcing this idiotic statute.

As a solvent, able-bodied, white, cis male, Ivy League graduate, paying the citation was no big deal. But even for me, it was a train wreck.

Upset about being falsely accused — I wasn’t jaywalking, the cop made it up — and mistreated, I filed an internal affairs complaint against the officer back in 2001. Citizens are ignored in such cases 96% of the time, and I was no exception. By 2015 I had been working for the LA Times for six years. But I didn’t know two things. First, a thin-skinned police chief was furious every time I drew a cartoon criticizing the police. Second, in 2014, the LAPD union bought an interest in the parent company of the LA Times and formed an obscene corrupt alliance with the paper’s publisher, multibillionaire Austin Beutner.

In 2015 Beutner and Chief Charlie Beck held a secret meeting where, clearly needing more important things to do to fill their time—they should try golf, the evil rich love it—they conspired to ruin me. Beck dredged up my old IA complaint file, which contained an audio recording the cop had made of my jaywalking arrest: basically six minutes of wind and street noise. At Beutner’s direction the Times wrote a piece that argued the cop was kind and polite, and that my description of the encounter in a Times blog piece was false, so I must be fired for crimes against journalism.

Fox News, Breitbart and the rest of the right-wing mediasphere had a field day dragging the corpse of my reputation across the Internet.

Ultimately, I was vindicated. The doctoring of the tape, the Beck-Beutner conspiracy, the fact that I’d told the truth about what happened in 2001 while the LAPD Times had lied all came out in the media and through the course of a lengthy court battle. There’s no telling how much work I’m not getting as a result of the Times’ defamation campaign, though I am working.

The experience changed me, mostly for the worse.

Nothing could make me, or the other people hurt by California’s repealed jaywalking law, whole again. But the state should try.

Every state should try, every time it repeals a bad law.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, co-hosts the left-vs-right DMZ America podcast with fellow cartoonist Scott Stantis. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

8 Comments. Leave new

  • LeftyMathProf
    October 4, 2022 7:59 AM

    Perhaps the retroactive issue was your intended main point, but I was more struck by another point you were making. We all suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and their butterfly effects, but probably the poor and the underclass (and the politically targeted, such as yourself) more than most of us. Most often, “it’s only a little thing” IS only a little thing — but there are many of them, and so some of them will have butterfly effects. Whether the “little things” are intentional or not, there is no way that we can make reparations for all the indirect harms. God has much to answer for, but in the meantime we must all try to be kind and try to fight for justice. Keep up the good work.

  • alex_the_tired
    October 4, 2022 9:51 AM

    “Fox News, Breitbart and the rest of the right-wing mediasphere had a field day dragging the corpse of my reputation across the Internet.” And looking the other way the entire time, while whistling with their hands in their pockets? All the left-wing organizations that either didn’t say boo (what’s MLK’s line about the silence of our friends?), or had to be shamed or begged into eventually grubbing up something in your defense.
    Or am I misremembering?
    For what it’s worth, pretty much the same lefties are now ignoring the starving Afghanistan people as though they were Armenians.

  • Well, first thing, both previous commenters are right on. And amusingly while my username is Latin, I am also a lefty math prof. I wonder if I know leftymathprof from conferences?

    On another note I remember the first time I was in California, in 1979. New Yorker that I am, I was seriously confused by why everyone was waiting for the light. I had never seen anyone wait for a light before. Then someone explained that the cops loved to give jaywalking tickets, and I was like “you can get a ticket for jaywalking? WTF?” I managed not to get a jaywalking ticket, but I did get a $15 ticket for hitchhiking, which lived on my wall for a long time.

  • > there is no way that we can make reparations for all the indirect harms

    That is the essence of why I am in favor of a universal basic income. There are many ways the system has run roughshod over many of us, and a universal basic income acknowledges that we deserve compensation, without our having to prove the details in each individual case. (And those who have managed to beat the system can give theirs to charity or pay higher taxes.)

    • UBI is fine, but what really needs to happen is the overthrow of the bourgeoisie.

      • LeftyMathProf
        October 5, 2022 8:10 PM

        UBI and overthrow of the bourgeoisie are both good. Of course, the latter is bigger and better. But UBI may be a helpful step toward overthrow of the bourgeoisie. In case some readers of this page haven’t thought about it:

        I’m talking about a UBI large enough so that one can survive on it. Once we have that, anyone who doesn’t like her/his job can quit it and look for one that s/he likes better. Which means that employers would have to please their employees, to keep any workers. Which means higher pay, shorter hours, better working conditions, better benefits, etc. When employers have to compete against each other to attract labor, then we gradually have labor increasing its control over the workplace. QED

      • Yes, all true, but remember, there were several decades where unions had quite a lot of power in the this country. And unions in Western Europe had (and have) much more. And we’re still stuck with the bourgeoisie. UBI would be a very good thing, but it’s not enough. Arise ye prisoners of starvation.

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