by Jay Monaco
Jeffrey Pendleton should still be alive right now. He should be breathing air, right now, like you and me. He didn’t have to die. No. His death was not just preventable, but could have been prevented had our society a shred of decency remaining.
A lifelong low-wage worker, Jeffrey Pendleton was active in the Fight for $15 minimum wage campaign. Just prior to his death, he had walked out of his fast food job as part of the monthly strike organized in Manchester, New Hampshire on the fifteenth of every month, and was escorted back to work with the support and solidarity of labor organizers. We must remember Jeffrey Pendleton, our brother in the struggle, not just today but for all our tomorrows – and we must now seize on his behalf the justice he can no longer claim for himself.
His death was not just a tragedy, but a crime. We may not know exactly who or what caused him to die (yeah, sure), but we do know he was killed because our system is not designed to protect the weakest among us, those most in need of protection. No, it’s designed to serve precisely the opposite function. Jeffrey Pendleton, a kind 26-year-old man, is now dead because there’s an entire class of people our system considers and treats as less than human. But Jeffrey Pendleton was a human. He died penniless, alone, and in jail like he didn’t matter, but he did matter.
And if it seems I’m belaboring a rather obvious point, consider that we wouldn’t be talking about this at all if the point were obvious to everyone out there. He’d still be alive if anyone at any level of the criminal justice system – even at any level of government itself – thought it obvious that this was a human being who mattered.
Pendleton, who worked at Burger King for insufficient wages and insufficient hours on the schedule, was homeless when he died. As the New Hampshire Union Leader first reported, he was arrested two weeks ago on the 9th for a misdemeanor weed charge. He was hauled before a judge who, despite the fact that the accused was penniless (and despite the utter absurdity of such a thing) ordered him held on $100 bail. He didn’t have $100. How would he have $100? And so he went to jail, to Valley Street in Manchester – a notorious hellhole. Four days later, he was dead. Alone in his cell and dead. Asked what happened, prison officials have basically responded with a shrug emoji. As the Union Leader reported in a follow-up story, the state’s deputy chief medical examiner has said that Pendleton “showed no signs of physical trauma, natural disease, or drug use such as needle marks.”
Turns out, Pendleton has a bit of a history with authorities in southern New Hampshire – and by history, I mean while he still breathed, he stood up and demanded to be recognized as a person, and this may have become for him a capital offense. With the help of the ACLU, he went toe-to-toe with both Hudson and Nashua and he didn’t blink. Hudson had given him a ticket for panhandling on public property, while Nashua went another way, locking him up for over a month for walking in a park police didn’t want him to walk into. Both cities, wishing to avoid admitting wrongdoing, ultimately settled – Hudson for $37,500 and Nashua for $15,000, although the vast majority of this money was reportedly earmarked by his lawyers, and exactly how much of this money had actually been fully dispersed to him by the localities who’d mistreated him is not exactly clear at this time.
He died one year to the day after Nashua agreed to pay this settlement, and died just one day before the Federal Justice Department happened to shoot a letter to state judges throughout the land explaining that demanding poor people pay money they don’t have for bail and fines and then locking them up because they don’t have the money is actually, like, violating their rights. Rights may be a wonderful thing when they’re real, but for all intents and purposes, Pendleton didn’t have any meaningful rights and never did. If rights today actually existed – existed for everyone, that is, across the board – no state judge anywhere would need a letter from the feds reminding them that they shouldn’t lock up poor people just for the fun of it. Nobody should have to explain that to anyone. And yet we do. Because Jeffrey Pendleton is dead.
We are not, most of us, cops or prosecutors or judges or legislators, but it’s our society, too, the society in which we are part and participant, and it’s this society and its priorities and its relentless insistence on oppression and exploitation and dehumanization that killed our brother. You and I didn’t do it, but this is on us, now. If we but shake our head in horror, ball our fists with rage, perhaps even shed a tear of profound and total grief, and then proceed with our days and our lives as those there is nothing to be done, then nothing will be done. This is on us if for no other reason than the fact that nobody else is going to pay this man the respect, the justice, the humanity that he deserves.
It’s on us, now.
Who will stand up for Jeffrey Pendleton?
For starters, we ought to ensure he receives a proper burial. His family in Arkansas lacks the funds to fly him home for a funeral, and they’ve established a GoFundMe page. If you have so much as a dollar to spare, please toss it in the pile now. You can’t look Jeffrey Pendleton in the face and tell him you know he’s a human and that he matters, but you can tell his family.
But that’s just the very beginning – it has to be. We need to stand up, to speak, to gather, first to mourn our fallen brother and then, at all costs, to prevent those who confined him to a cage until he died from sweeping any of this under any carpet. We demand answers, and we demand those responsible be held responsible. Until that happens, we must not sit down, go home, or shut up.
We must then demand a more equitable system, one in which Jeffrey Pendleton and so many others like him would still be alive. We need to stop treating marijuana like a crime, and we sure as hell need to stop locking people up for it. We need to stop charging broke people bail so we can send them to jail.
We need, only as a first step, to divert law enforcement resources to the protection of the most vulnerable among us, those homeless, poor, and underemployed, but we must go further. We must take those next steps, the steps that ensure there are no more vulnerable among us, that no one is left homeless, that no one lacks the money for food and shelter. Until we do that, people like Jeffrey Pendleton will continue to die.
He’s dead today because there’s a class of society our ruling class, the one that rigs the system, consider and treat as less than human, as expendable and undesirable. And most of us are in that class, whether we know it or not. What happened to Jeffrey could happen to you, or any one of us. His struggle is our struggle.
Remember Jeffrey Pendleton. Remember his name. Remember he was a person. And then act accordingly.
Rest easy, brother. We’ll take it from here.
Note: A small vigil was held last weekend in Greely Park in Nashua. Further memorials, vigils, and protests are forthcoming but details are not yet available. Communique New England will continue to follow up on all developments related to this story, particularly information related to further action in solidarity. When the time comes, I expect to see you there.