Essay Mike Siegel

Mike Siegel: A Counterfeit $20 Bill

When you have privilege, a crime is a 'mistake,' and when you don't, a mistake becomes a crime.

[Mike Siegel is a progressive candidate for Congress in the 10th District of Texas, which stretches from the heart of Austin to the suburbs of Houston.]

By Mike Siegel

The murder of George Floyd started with three words: “forgery in progress.”

You may know the story that brought us here. Mr. Floyd went to a grocery store and paid with a $20 bill — but the currency was no good. The shop called the police. And like so many times before, the officers who responded took a Black man’s life.

For $20.

This may go without saying, but I will say it: if I had paid with that bill, I would be alive today. My body would not have been on a Minneapolis street. No officer would have pushed their knee into my neck.

If a white man from a privileged background pays with a fake $20 bill? 99 times out of 100, it would be dismissed as “a mistake.”

The moment we are in is historic — massive nationwide protests to demand an end to racist police killings. During a health pandemic that has taken over 100,000 lives. During an economic crisis. Under a dictatorial and vindictive president.

Yet I am struck by this incident in another way — as a father.

Because I have a counterfeit $20 bill in my possession right now, given to me by my daughter.

How did she get it? Well, she’s eight years old, and a Girl Scout. Like countless girls across the nation, she was busy selling cookies this Spring. Learning economics and team-building and communication skills and more. 

And one day, someone bought several boxes of cookies and gave her a fake $20 bill.

We didn’t realize it until later. If you haven’t sold Girl Scout cookies before — the parents buy cookies in advance, and then pay ourselves back as we make sales. Weeks ago, my wife went to deposit the money we collected, and happened to notice this bill. It didn’t feel right. On closer inspection, even though much of the design is the same, you can see words that are different. It says “Motion Picture Use Purposes.”

So we wrote it off as a loss. And I had the bill on my desk when I learned how George Floyd was killed.

You may know this: my daughter is Black. Her mother is Nigerian-American. Living in Texas—let’s be honest, living in the United States—she is perceived differently than I was at her age.

And maybe at 8-years old, a shop owner wouldn’t perceive her as a threat if she tried to buy candy or Pokémon cards with this counterfeit bill. Maybe.

But what if she was a little older? 10 years old? 12 years old? At what point does your life become expendable in this country, by virtue of the color of your skin?

Mike Siegel with his wife, Hindatu Mohammed.

It shouldn’t be this way. Racism may be the “original sin” of the United States, as some have said, but it does not have to be our destiny.

That is why we are in the streets. That is why in every state in the Union, in towns big and small, people young and old are marching for justice.

And to demand that Black Lives Matter.

As a candidate for Congress, my pledge is to fight for major criminal justice reforms. Several leading members of Congress, including Congresswomen Ayanna Pressley and Barbara Lee, have put forward essential bills that will create accountability for local police. A database of police abuse; ending qualified immunity for officers who violate constitutional rights; stopping the transfer of military equipment to local police; and investing in Black and other over-policed communities, to lay the foundation for transformative change.

I will certainly fight for these reforms. In the Texas 10th, we have our own history of racist policing. Sandra Bland died in police custody in Waller County, after a racist and unconstitutional arrest. Rodney Reed has been on Texas Death Row for decades — for a crime likely committed by a white former police officer. 

There are countless reasons to demand change at every level of government, right now.

Mike Siegel
Mike Siegel

Mike Siegel is a civil rights lawyer and former public school teacher running for Congress in the Texas 10th. He has been endorsed by the Sunrise Movement, Texas AFL-CIO, Our Revolution and many other progressive organizations. 

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