Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Next Time It Could Be You

Dear Faithful Readers:

Many of you read this blog to feed your hate of Crystal, poor folks, black folks, and the threat you feel they are to your world.  This post is dedicated to you.

This trial has been illustrative of a great many things that are wrong with our justice system.  It is one thing to say that the courts favor the wealthy and discriminate against the poor and it is quite another to see an example of it unfold before your eyes.

I know you won't believe this but I'm going to say it anyway.  I have a great deal of respect for our judicial system.  I have seen it work.  I know that there are honest, dedicated, and generally underpaid, people who toil in the offices and courtrooms across this nation that don't get the recognition and respect they deserve. Unfortunately, there is an institutional bias in our judicial system that turns the work of these people into a force for inequality and oppression.  That bias is for the police and against the accused.

Once you have been accused and brought before a judge you have an uphill battle to prove your innocence.  The idea that one is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty is the only thing that keeps our system from mirroring the most corrupt and abusive systems worldwide.  Even a wealthy person has to struggle to prove his/her innocence albeit with more resources at their disposal than most.  The presumption of innocence is outweighed by the belief that you must have done something wrong or the police wouldn't have arrested you.

The police have a hard, thankless, dangerous job and are often poorly remunerated.  A great many cops supplement their salaries as private security guards for stores, restaurants, and bars.  This brings their salaries up to a reasonable level but it puts a great strain on them.  

Poverty has been criminalized in this country for at least two major reasons both of which are related to each other.  One is that the rich need poor folks to make them richer (class relations) and the other is our history of slavery and race based oppression.  The two dovetail because the descendants of former slaves have been systematically denied access to education and jobs that would have improved their social and economic standing.  They are, therefore, overrepresented in the ranks of the poor.  So, you have poverty with pigmentation with a great many melanin deprived folks as well.  

Vagrancy laws were once common.  If you were living on the streets without means of support you were blamed for your poverty and could be incarcerated for having no means of support.  That direct an assault on the poor became embarrassing after a while.   Vagrancy per se is no longer criminal but everything one must do to survive on the streets is illegal.  What were called "hobo camps" or "jungle camps" in the 1930's are routinely torn down by authorities supposedly for the inhabitants own good.  Begging, often called panhandling, is severely restricted in nearly all cities and towns.  

Those are just the most obvious forms of criminalized behavior by the poor.  From there we move up to overcrowding in housing.  When too many people stuff themselves into one house because it is the only way to make ends meet by sharing housing expenses.  Again, in the name of safety for the poor they are thrown out of their shelters.  Then there are all the laws about vehicle safety (tail lights out) etc that the police can and do use to stop and interrogate the poor. These stops often lead to other charges such as driving w/o a license, w/o an inspection sticker,  w/o proper insurance, etc.  

Although these laws may have some benefit to society as a whole they are onerous the those who can't afford all the fees that go into modern life.  The reason that they can't afford them is because of the low wage structure in this country that pays minimum wage or less for many jobs.  

So, it becomes a slippery slope.  You lose your good paying job so you take a low wage job (or two) at McDonald's or Walmart but you have to have a car to get to work, take the kids to school, get to the free health clinic, etc.  But the insurance is too much so you drive without it.  Your tail light is out so you get stopped and you are sited for not having insurance.  Your license is revoked so you drive without a license because the kids still need to get to school and you still have to get to work.  You get stopped again for some petty reason and now you're in real trouble.  

The above scenario assumes that you had and lost a good job.  What about the folks who never had a good job.  What about folks who's parents never had a good job.  Think of the accumulation of poverty the way you think of the accumulation of wealth.  A poor man passes on to his kids a poor education because the schools in his area are poor.  Those kids (with some exceptions) then are unable to get good jobs and their kids continue in poverty.  

There are those of you who will say that there has been fifty years of a "War On Poverty" and that the folks who are poor simply haven't taken advantage of Welfare, Food Stamps, etc.  Well, yes they have, in fact that is what has kept the top from blowing off the whole situation until now.  Those programs provide meager, subsistence rationing for a great many folks but without proper schools and jobs they are simply a very leaky band aid at best.  

A great many poor folks carry on life in the public square (on the street).  Police can see you when you are on the street.  The police aren't going to take the effort to do the investigative work it takes to find the big dealers, the importers, the financiers of drug operations.  They are going to go after the folks they see right in front of them as they cruise the poor neighborhoods.  So, while crimes are being committed in all neighborhoods it is the poor areas that are under surveillance and that's where the cops are going to catch you for a drug related crime.
So, you have a perfect combination of circumstances for the rise of what has become known as the Prison Industrial Complex. Our prisons are about punishment - not rehabilitation.  And they are filled with people who, upon release, have no hope of participating in "normal" society.  Their past prevents them from getting nearly any kind of work so they eake out a living on the margins of society and, more often than not, end up in prison again. 

(More To Come)

Steven Matherly

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