No one knows how Jeffery Pendleton ended up dead in a jail cell on March 13, following his arrest over a minor drug charge in Nashua County, New Hampshire. The authorities reported later that his body showed “no signs of physical trauma,” and his death is still under investigation.
But Pendleton knew many struggles. A year earlier, he had successfully waged constitutional challenges against the Cities of Nashua and Hudson against systemic police abuses against homeless people, including unfairly detaining him on $100 bail for “trespassing.”
Earlier this month, the 26-year-old black activist landed again at the Valley Street jail. He was again unable to buy his way out: The $100 bail was too much. The young man who had defended the First Amendment in a civil court a year earlier now seemed to have been stripped of the Eighth Amendment prohibition against “excessive bail.”
His coworkers at Burger King have protested to demand answers about why a routine arrest became fatal—perhaps because they understand how the law tends to punish low-wage workers.
News of Pendleton’s death “hit me pretty hard,” recalls Rob Mercier. “I couldn’t believe it at first, because, I mean, he was a good dude. He didn’t deserve whatever happened to him.” Mercier and other local fast-food workers went on strike with Pendleton in February with the Fight for 15 movement. They remember his stalwart activism but never knew of his homelessness. “He always came to work with a smile on his face, nobody really knew exactly what was happening behind the scene,” Mercier recalls, noting that Pendleton was arrested shortly before he was scheduled to get his paycheck.
“It was over the line. He got in trouble for something small,” says former coworker and fellow protester Andy Fontaine. Fontaine, who says he knows others who were arrested on similar pot charges and got a much lower bail than Pendleton did, says crew members like Pendleton earned about $8.50 per hour, which could make a $100 bail rate prohibitively costly. “That’s like half your paycheck right there. And then the other half is what, half a week of eating?… I wasn’t surprised that he unfortunately didn’t have the hundred for bail. It all probably went to food to stay alive.”