Michael Grimm is lucky he’s a politician. The Republican congressman from New York became an instant YouTube star and late-night punch line following President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address last week when Grimm physically threatened a television reporter who mentioned a campaign-finance investigation the Staten Island representative clearly didn’t want to discuss. With the cameras still rolling, no less.
What Grimm didn’t become, however, was a criminal suspect.
So far, the discourse has focused on whether Grimm is a thin-skinned bully who understands how live cameras work. What’s missing from that conversation is acknowledgment that this same episode would have played out much differently if you replaced Grimm with, oh say, any member of America’s working poor.
I’m a journalist. If I was standing in the Capitol building, as that NY1 cable reporter was, and a homeless military veteran or a struggling fast-food worker walked up to me and snarled, “I’ll throw you off this fucking balcony,” as Grimm did, that person would almost certainly be charged with a felony count of making criminal threats.
Here in California, Penal Code section 422 says that willfully threatening to commit a crime is a “strikeable” offense worthy of a four-year prison term.
Of course, we all know that won’t happen to Grimm. Why? Because he’s a white, wealthy politician.
Grimm’s defenders are quick to point out that he apologized. Interesting.
I wonder what would happen if tomorrow, California’s unconstitutionally overcrowded prisons released every inmate currently doing time for making criminal threats—as long as he or she apologized.
I recently interviewed attorney Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative. Based in Alabama, Stevenson had the guts to file a motion officially asking a judge to treat his poor, 14-year-old black client as if he were a 75-year-old white corporate executive. “Not talking about poverty when you’re talking about crime is simply misguided,” Stevenson told me. “And so is not talking about a justice system that treats people better if they’re already wealthy or well-off.”
It may be fun to dissect Grimm’s boorish behavior—the moderate Republican evidently lacks a moderate temper—but what that blooper reel news tape truly revealed is a justice system where class and consequence are so intertwined they’ve become entirely invisible.
Scott Thomas Anderson is a journalist residing in Folsom.