Sunday, July 24, 2011

A petition against the criminalization of walking

Last night, I read the headline When design kills: The criminalization of walking over at Grist. I thought that it looked interesting, but I had Overnight News Digest: Science Saturday (Shuttle era over and new moon for Pluto edition) to get ready to post about midnight, so I didn't get around to reading it last night. This morning, I read the following in my email from
A.J. Nelson was just four years old when he was killed in a hit-and-run by an intoxicated driver in Atlanta. Now his own mother, Raquel Nelson -- who was also hit by the car while trying to save her son -- faces up to three years in prison for A.J.'s death.

Raquel and her three children got off a bus and -- with several other passengers -- attempted to cross a five-lane highway to get to her apartment across the street. Standing at the median, little A.J. reportedly saw someone else jaywalk and ran out into the street to follow. Raquel ran out after him to stop him. But it was too late. Both Raquel and A.J. were hit by a vehicle, and A.J. died in the hospital a few hours later.

The driver, who admitted having a few beers and pain medication that afternoon, spent just six months in jail. This Tuesday, a judge will sentence Raquel Nelson to serve up to 36 months in jail for the death of her own son.
Though the stop itself was directly across the street from Raquel's apartment where she got off the bus, the closest crosswalk was nearly a mile away. After a long day out in Atlanta, and a missed transfer, Raquel crossed the street with other passengers on the bus, taking the most direct route home.

Raquel was prosecuted for "vehicular homicide" and other charges because she and A.J. didn't use a crosswalk to walk home. Unfortunately, she is not the first grieving mother to be prosecuted for the hit-and-run death of her child in Atlanta. The same prosecutor who convicted Raquel for her son's death also convicted another Atlanta mother whose daughter was killed in a hit-and-run while attempting to cross the street.
I wondered if this email was related to the Grist article. It is.

Imagine that you are Raquel Nelson. Imagine the horror of the violent death of your child.

Then imagine that you are charged with, and convicted of, vehicular homicide in that death -- simply because you tried to cross the street from the bus stop to your apartment.

Raquel Nelson wasn't the first mother to be put in this mind-boggling situation. Altamesa Walker faced charges in a very similar case two years earlier. And in Virginia, cops have issued summonses to pedestrians hit by cars for "interfering with traffic."

Let's talk frankly about one important aspect of this story: It's partly about class and race. People who walk and use transit to get around are, in most parts of the country, lower-income than those who drive. Many are people of color. Transit riders and pedestrians are marginalized and looked down upon. In many places, transit service is meager and crappy, and the same can be said for pedestrian facilities. Cobb Community Transit, the service Nelson was riding, has cut service on many routes in the past few months. Who suffers most? Poor people.
How many buttons of mine does this push?
  • An unjust legal decision at the individual level? Check.
  • An unjust social situation based on race and class? Check.
  • Poor planning that is bad for society and the environment? Check.

All that's missing for this story to hit all three elements of sustainability is it being bad economics. It turns out that the email from covers that, too.
A member named Eliza Harris is an urban planner who read about Raquel's prosecution. She started the petition because she knows it makes more sense to use the money spent to prosecute Raquel to instead create crosswalks and better serve people who use public transportation.

Prosecuting grieving mothers is not the solution -- Judge Tanksley should not sentence Raquel to jail, and Cobb County should make streets walkable and safe. Please sign the petition before Raquel is sentenced on Tuesday:
A policy that not only hurts society and the environment, but is also a poor use of money? Check.

Finally, here is the link to the petition.

Cobb County GA: Release Grieving Mother of Hit-and-Run & Install a Crosswalk

There are currently 37,660 signatures, including mine. Please add your name, too.

UPDATE: Update on petition to decriminalize walking has video and notes that 58,000 people have now signed the petition, 20,000 more than last night.

UPDATE 2: Her day in court has what amounts to a happy ending for this case.


  1. Jesus what a stretch for these fuckers to make..blaming her for her own childs death at the hands of a drunk/medicated idiot. The final straw was that the jury actually bought it!Of course it was an all-white bunch of idiots/assholes.

    Public transportation isn't supposed to be good or work for the people..didn't you know that? It's just there to take federal money and appear to care about those who utilize said mode of transportation. Black n' Brown People use public transportation dude!

  2. I agree, it's a stretch, but it's a stretch these same people have made before. I guess they like blaming the victim.

    As for what you wrote, yeah, I know, but I took public transportation for years in Los Angeles and then worked on the subway there and I know it isn't just the poor, black, or brown on the buses and subway cars, even though people want to believe that.

    Besides, the real problem here isn't the bus system so much as the traffic engineers and criminal justice system. The former don't care who drives the cars, but they do care for the people who drive cars. The latter always has a low opinion of the poor and minorities!

  3. No! In Los Aangeles it's different, I mean in the southern states. In the south the public transpo sucks ass and pretty much always will. Red states don't care about public transpo that's why they refused high rail money too. It would of meant spending some of their own money for that.