Trump’s indictment and America’s two legal systems
Former President Donald Trump is facing 34 felony counts in New York State and an additional 37 felony federal charges. None of this prevents him from freely campaigning for President and appearing before the media. Yet the reality for most people targeted by the criminal justice system is far different. Take Rikers Island Jail—where more than 80 percent of inmates have not been convicted of a crime. Legal reform advocate Dyjuan Tatro joins Rattling the Bars to discuss Trump’s indictment and how it illustrates the two legal systems that exist side-by-side in the land of the free: one for the rich and white, and another for the poor that disproportionately targets Black and Brown people.
Dyjuan Tatro is a publicly recognized legal reform advocate and strategist who has worked to bridge the gap between policy and practice. As an alumnus of Bard Prison Initiative, he has leveraged his education and experience to shift public policy in favor of expanding and incentivizing college in prison.
Pre-Production: Maximillian Alvarez Studio Production: David Hebden Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Mansa Musa: Welcome to this edition of Rattling the Bars. I’m your host, Mansa Musa.
One of the foundations of democracy is equal representation under the law. In the modern world, supposedly no one is above the rule of law, not CEOs of wealthy corporations, not even current and former presidents. But of course, here in America, US, the realities of our so-called “criminal injustice system” are constantly reminding us that equality before the law is a dream that only exists on paper, not in practice. Look at what’s happening right now with the indictment of billionaire, former president Donald Trump, and compare that to the nightmare that poor Black and Brown people are living through every day in Rikers Island in New York.
Trump was already indicted by a Manhattan grand jury and is facing 34 felony charges in New York for alleged crimes committed during his 2016 presidential campaign. Now, Trump is also facing federal indictments for 37 felony counts related to mishandling classified documents, obstructing justice, and making false statements. All the while, Trump is campaigning for his 2024 election run. He’s fundraising, he’s enjoying his freedom, and he’s running his mouth on every media outlet that will give him a platform. At the same time, the majority of people being held captive in the notorious Rikers Island jail in New York, have had their freedom taken away, even though they haven’t been convicted of any crime.
In February of 2022, the Vera Institute of Justice reported that of the 5,548 people detained in New York City jails, including in Rikers Island and The Boat, 82%, or 4,487 people had not been convicted of a crime. Listen, equality before the law in America does not exist. And that’s what we are going to talk about today with our guest, Dyjuan Tatro. Dyjuan is a formerly-incarcerated legal reform advocate and strategist, who is now a Senior Advisor for Strategic Outreach on the Democrat Congressional Campaign Committee. Dyjuan, thank you for joining us today on Rattling the Bars.
Dyjuan Tatro: Really happy to be here. Thank you for having me.
Mansa Musa: And Dyjuan, as you saw in our outline, what we’re going to try to do is educate our audience on understanding how the system that we now look at when we talk about the criminal system – And what more notably is, when I look at it, I call it the criminal injustice system – We want to talk about how this system is not fair. We say that justice is blind but the reality is, justice is only blind when it comes to people that have money; justice has got 20/20 vision when it comes to poor and oppressed people.
Tell us a little bit about yourself before we get started. We gave a brief overview of who you are, but tell us a little bit more about yourself.
Dyjuan Tatro: Yeah, so that’s a very interesting question and I’m eager to dive in. But my name is Dyjuan Tatro, I’m an alumni of the Bard Prison Initiative in New York. Some people may not know what that is but it’s one of the foremost college and prison programs in the country. And our alum works all over the criminal justice space, not only in New York but nationally, doing amazing things: mostly working back in their communities to alleviate the conditions and circumstances that led to their incarceration in the first place. And so I spent 12 years in prison and spent the last six years working in politics at the nexus of criminal justice and narrative change.
Mansa Musa: Okay, now let’s talk about the elephant in the room: Donald Trump. Now, Donald Trump, former president of the US, has been indicted on a 37-count felony indictment. Now most felonies are punishable when you are convicted of them, 10 or more years or better. Or in some cases, the death penalty or life. Why do you think Donald Trump has been given the red-carpet treatment when it comes to this whole process? And for full disclosure, you, yourself have been incarcerated, so you can attest to some of the things that go on, in terms of when people are charged with felonies and how they’re treated, compared to how Donald Trump is treated.
Dyjuan Tatro: To refer back to your opening, there’s this idea that we have a fair justice system in this country. And anyone who pays attention to what happens in our courtrooms, who police arrest and don’t arrest, knows that we do not. Some people find it helpful to say that we have two systems of justice in America: one for white people and one for everyone else, or one for rich people and one for everyone else. I don’t take that view. We have one system of justice. The primary function of which is to incarcerate and oppress primarily Black and Brown people to the benefit of wealthy elites as well as privileged white individuals. And so we have one system that’s doing exactly what it is meant to be doing.
The same system that will coddle Donald Trump after he sought to overturn a legal and fair election on January 6, also put Crystal Mason in prison for five years for mistakenly casting a provisional ballot as someone who had a felony conviction. And so it is one system operating exactly as we should expect it to be, which is deeply rooted in slavery. Policing in this country is deeply rooted in slave-catching. And so we shouldn’t be surprised about this differential justice, per se, or the type of treatment that someone like Donald Trump receives from the system.
Mansa Musa: And you know that hypocrisy. Speak on the felony aspect and in terms of educating our audience on, when we say felonies, what exactly does that mean in criminal justice?
Dyjuan Tatro: Yeah, so generally when we’re talking about a felony, we’re talking about what we could call a serious crime. That doesn’t mean a crime of a person, that doesn’t mean that somebody has necessarily been harmed. And that’s one of the common manipulations of the term. But we are talking about a serious crime that will lead to someone being sentenced to time in either state or federal prison.
Mansa Musa: And former president Donald Trump has a 37-count indictment and he’s charged with violation of the Espionage Act. The Espionage Act came into existence in the early 1900s, under Woodrow Wilson’s administration. And since the implementation of this act, they have executed people under the act. But Donald Trump is being charged with taking classified documents to his house, showing these classified documents to different people that he wanted to, and telling his aide to hide the documents from the federal government. Which is obstruction of justice.
And under these circumstances, do you think that he should have been given the red-carpet treatment? It’s evident because they got all the documents out of his house and everything that’s been outlined by the media is not falsification, it is a reality that exists. Do you think he should get the red-carpet treatment?
Dyjuan Tatro: Absolutely not. Donald Trump’s flagrant disregard for the law and national security has been egregious. Not only did he break the law, but he has also, at several points in the investigation, attempted to subvert that investigation and evade the FBI and the Department of Justice and their ability to recover those documents. And so his treatment goes to this fundamental piece of the conversation that we’re having is that you have this system that is set up to allow certain individuals like Donald Trump, the presumption of innocence, that allows them to walk out of a courtroom and remain at home with their family while they fight their case. They can meet with their lawyers every day, whereas the average Black or Brown person in this country, who is going through the criminal justice system, has a radically different experience.
They are put in handcuffs, they are put on buses, are trafficked around from jail to courthouse. They are trapped inside cages for 24, 72, 168 hours without running water, sleeping on the floor, and stacked on top of each other. The inability to make a phone call to anyone, let alone your family or your lawyer. Donald Trump is able to walk in one door in the courthouse and out of the other. And that’s not because his crimes lack seriousness.
Mansa Musa: That’s right. Correct.
Dyjuan Tatro: That is because he is being treated in a differential way for, one: political reasons, two: because of privilege, and three: most importantly because we have a system that is geared toward facilitating the easy overcoming of justice by people like him.
Mansa Musa: And I’d like for you to flush that out about the severity of his charges because this is where the disconnect comes with society when it comes to rich people. Both of us, we can be charged with the same crime. But based on the economics, their crime is not looked at as being as severe, albeit the same crime, because of them being rich. Why did you say that it’s not because it’s the severity of the crime? Flush that out a little bit.
Dyjuan Tatro: So I was saying if we look at someone like Donald Trump’s case, and not only with the DOJ, but his cases back in New York; he was someone who was found liable of sexual assault. Any person of color that had sexually assaulted a woman in a dressing room would be sitting in jail, but he walked free in New York at the same time when police and politicians across New York state are attacking bail reforms. I didn’t hear any of those organizations or people attack Donald Trump’s unconditional release from federal custody over very, very serious crimes that can compromise the integrity of our national security.
There are even reports that state the increase in the loss of covert agents throughout his presidency can be linked to his handling and mishandling of classified information and documents. So we are potentially talking about people having lost their lives in service to this country because of someone’s egotistic, irrational, and what may be self-serving, remains to be seen as the case develops, conduct. But he is out, he’s free. He’s in Florida comfortable with his family, while there are thousands of people charged with lesser crimes, let alone sexual assault, who are sitting on Rikers Island or in jails across this country. And so what we really, really see is that whether or not someone is remanded to jail is disconnected from what they have done.
Mansa Musa: I like that articulation because when we talk about the severity of the crime, we had Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the ’50s. They were executed for the same crime that Donald Trump is charged with. Then we had Daniel Ellsberg, of the Pentagon Papers, who was vilified. Nixon had his office broken into to stop him from publishing documents relative to the US imperialist aggression in Vietnam. But Donald Trump gets the full pardoning of the law and benefits from his privilege.
People in Rikers Island, you briefly talked about this process where a person charged with a less severe crime or inability to pay the bail, what they have to go through being under the so-called same system, what they go through in terms of their process. Talk about that.
Dyjuan Tatro: I want to be clear. We’re not only talking about Donald Trump but people like him. Individuals like Congressman Matt Gaetz, who’s been accused of widespread inappropriate behavior with minors and prostitutes. We are talking about the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, as well as the companies themselves, that regularly pollute our rivers, that burn trains, and burn toxic material that is carcinogenic. We are talking about the pollution of our air. Air pollution in this country harms and kills far more people than homicides every year. But we’re not having a conversation about that in relation to criminal justice. We are not prosecuting those companies. And so when we start having a conversation that focuses on harm rather than crime and criminality, it changes our lens and perspective, so I want to be clear.
Mansa Musa: Yeah, that’s a good observation.
Dyjuan Tatro: Donald Trump is a really, really egregious example of the differential treatment that the justice system in this country has for people of power and privilege, versus those who are trapped on Rikers Island. If you’re looking at someone who’s arrested in New York City, I was reading an article the other day about a young man, Emmanuel Morales, in Brownsville, who went to throw some trash in a trash can and missed the bin. Several police officers jumped out of an undercover car, confronted him, tackled him, bloodied him, and arrested him. He was put in jail for having made a mistake.
And so this is the type of casual brutality that happens at the level of policing in places like New York City and all over the country, in the senseless ways in which people of color land on Rikers Island and are incarcerated. But when we look at the severity of harm caused by major corporations, by people like Donald Trump; they often walk away with a fine. And again, we have one system of justice in this country that is really functioning to the benefit of those it has been meant to protect. We have a system of justice that is protecting a criminal like Donald Trump.
Mansa Musa: And I’d like to highlight this point about the observation you made about when we focus on the crime and not focus on –
Dyjuan Tatro: The harm.
Mansa Musa: – The person. The EPA came into existence as a result of what they called Love Canal, where there was toxic waste and they were polluting a particular part of this country. And it was killing the people that were drinking the water. Or we look at Flint, Michigan, where we have the pollution of the water and poor people are being highly affected by it. But yet the corporation that’s responsible and the corporate figures that’s responsible for it, they’re not indicted. Such as in the case of Donald Trump. You made the observation, which was very astute, that because of his behavior, citizens of the US have been killed.
You can trace a lot of the collateral damage to Donald Trump’s sheer disregard for national security. But yet at the same token, he had someone locked up for having a felony and voting. What was the severity of that crime? Exercising your right as a citizen? And they say, well, one vote might not make a difference, but in the landscape of things, the probability of that one vote changing the political landscape at that point in time was slim to none.
Dyjuan Tatro: Think about the optics of that. You can incite a riot on Capitol Hill and try to overturn an election; a free and fair election. I really want to emphasize that point. But you can’t mistakenly cast a ballot as a Black person in this country who has a felony. That is a systemic problem. The fact that there are over a million people in this country that have been felony disenfranchised is not a mistake. It is a mechanism of voter suppression. The prosecution of Crystal Mason was an instrument of voter suppression. But people like Donald Trump and those who collaborated with him could, on live TV, on CNN, and on MSNBC, incite a riot, and cause great harm. Several people were killed on Capitol Hill that day.
Mansa Musa: Exactly.
Dyjuan Tatro: Walked away with their hands clean. And so justice is not blind in this country. It is not fair. I don’t know if it ever will be. And I have no hope that if Donald Trump is convicted, that that somehow vindicates the system because it doesn’t. The evidence against the system is damning. The system should be on trial alongside Donald Trump.
Mansa Musa: When they had this thing happen at the Capitol, I was thinking about the Puerto Rican nationalists, Lolita LeBron and them, back in the ‘60s. They went into the Capitol and shot a gun up in the air. And their whole thing was they wanted independence for Puerto Rico, they wanted Puerto Rico to stop being a colony of the US. That’s the only crime they committed, and they were given life. Donald Trump incited a riot and they changed the narrative. And this is another part of this draconian system that we call justice. He incited a riot, they go down there, it’s an insurrection. They’re trying to overthrow the government. They changed the whole language: it’s not a riot, it’s not an insurrection, it’s a protest. They’re exercising their rights to protest.
To go back to your point, we find that it is the number one system and it’s the system that’s there primarily for the benefit of corporate America, capitalism, imperialism, and fascism. When it comes to poor and oppressed people, we’re always going to find ourselves in Rikers Island. I can’t pay 10% of $1,000. I’m in Rikers Island because I threw trash out and missed the trash can. And because you beat me half to death, now you have to arrest me and justify this brutality you’ve given me. So now, you give me a bunch of fabricated charges and at the end of the process, when I come to court, I’m already in a whirlpool of other people that’s coming to court. One public defender got 200 to 300 people on their case, so they are speed-balling it when it comes down to the process.
But talk about what we have to do to get people to understand this narrative that we outlined: that it’s only one justice system. And that’s a system that represents the have and it’s a system against the have-nots.
Dyjuan Tatro: We have to become more sophisticated in our analysis, at the base. We have to understand that we have a legal system in this country that is not concerned with public safety, that is not concerned with crime prevention, that is not concerned with reducing harm, but it is geared toward reinforcing the status quo. And the status quo is Black and Brown bodies brutalized by police, imprisoned, and warehoused by the system. Sometimes, and in some states, to create jobs in failing farm communities for white people. I think a lot of us hear or have heard about coal towns or factory towns. In the US, we have prison towns. That is absurd.
All prisons are for profit. And, with respect to our analysis becoming more sophisticated, we need to make an important distinction between crime and illegality. So there are a lot of things that are illegal that all types of people do in this society. Only certain segments of the population are criminalized for those things, and these individuals are overwhelmingly Black and white. And when we step back and start looking at the data and start understanding how the system is functioning, it behooves us to start taking on and confronting those popular narratives.
What happened on January 6, is the system communicating to all Americans, that it is okay for some people to be violent, that is okay for some people to try to overthrow and subvert an election, but it’s not okay for others. The elephant in the room is race, because we know in the summer of 2020 when we had Black Lives Matter marches through DC, they wheeled out the Army and the National Guard. And the Capitol steps looked like the US was invading a foreign country. Those troops were nowhere to be found on January 6 and that was not by happenstance.
We not only have to become more sophisticated in our analysis, we have to become more sophisticated in countering disinformation and calling out the bigotry and hypocrisy, but also mobilizing our communities around this type of rabid injustice. We really, really got to get people voting along the lines of their sense of morality and justice and not only whether or not they’re going to have a job tomorrow, whether or not they’re going to have healthcare. Because all of these things, especially in Black and Brown communities, are inextricably bound to social and racial justice.
Mansa Musa: That’s right. And I like that observation because when we look at the political landscape as it exists now, and we know now that Donald Trump is running again, and he has this mannerism of political discourse that borderlines on insanity, but yet everybody that’s in that arena is scared or reluctant to challenge him or call him out on it. And then when they do call him out, they become more insane in their counter. And the public and people of color are in the middle. Because at the end of the process, it doesn’t make a difference – Malcolm X said this clearly – If it’s a Democrat or a Republican in there; they’re both the same. We’re talking about Hunter Biden in one regard and we’re talking about Donald Trump in another regard. And it shows that the scales of justice, as they weigh out, Hunter Biden right here, Donald Trump right here, the scale is balanced. You take Hunter Biden off and you put a poor, Black, and oppressed person on the scale, and the scale is becoming imbalanced.
Tell us, how can our listeners and viewers get in touch with you or stay in touch with what you’re doing?
Dyjuan Tatro: The best way to find me and follow what I’m up to and the things that I care about is on Twitter. And so that’s my first name, last name on Twitter. I’m pretty easy to find. So D-Y-J-U-A-N T-A-T-R-O on Twitter.
Mansa Musa: All right, thank you, Dyjuan. There you have it, The Real News, Rattling the Bars. Dyjuan, you rattled the bars today. We definitely created the climate for people to start looking at the political landscape and the criminal injustice system. Here at The Real News and Rattling the Bars, you only get this kind of information. You’re not going to get this kind of discourse on main media. Hunter Biden is pleading guilty to a serious offense, Donald Trump has been charged with a serious offense, and no one is talking about why they’re still walking around. But yet you go on Rikers Island and you have people over there dying day in and day out, and no one is talking about that either. You only hear about these things on Rattling the Bars.
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