It is a well-known quote, almost by now worn to the point of cliché, that “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread”.(1) Most people know this to be a true analysis of what the ‘liberty, equality, property and Bentham’ of the liberal order amounts to; but to see this manifest itself in practice is something to which we in the Western world have perhaps become unaccustomed. The salient point is not even so much that the pure equality before the law itself may hide considerable inequalities of class and status, but at least as much that the supposed neutrality and ‘safeguards’ of legal procedure may turn out to result in very different outcomes in similar cases. It is important to note these cases, as they don’t show impurities and imperfections in an otherwise fair system, as the liberals would have it, but show their true significance as the inevitable results of deep structural problems.
Several such cases have presented themselves recently. In White Plains, NY, a black citizen by the name of Kenneth Chamberlain accidentally set off his life alarm. When police arrived, he refused them entry, stating he did not need their help; by all accounts, he used considerable means to prevent further police entry, such as jamming the door. The police, operating without a warrant, burst in anyway and shot him with a Taser gun. In the altercation that followed, real bullets were used, and Chamberlain was killed. It is at any time a remarkable case when a man who is not suspected of any crime is heard on tape to declare that the police are coming to kill him, which the same police force then promptly proceeds to do. However, the case is made all the more remarkable by the decision of the grand jury in Westchester County not to indict the policeman who did the shooting.
Westchester County is the second richest county in New York and the eighth richest in the United States on average; Chamberlain was an ex-Marine, presumed to suffer from mental trauma, who lived in one of the poorer parts of the county. It is by all accounts a tragic story, but it would require a remarkable degree of wilful blindness not to see the structural elements in the affair. A white police force battering their way into a black man’s house in the projects; racial slurs being used; a police force, like all such in the United States, ready to shoot first and ask questions later, all in the name of protecting a public they have been drilled to see as their enemy at home; the frequency of untreated mental problems among the veterans of the endless American wars, untreated despite the fly-by-night patriotism and ‘support our troops’ slogans emanating from the militarist American political culture; and the very same policeman doing the shooting in this case having been accused of police brutality against two Jordanians in 2008. One does not need to be John Nash to see what liberal equilibrium this adds up to.
Of course, this case itself happens in the wake of the infamous shooting of Trayvon Martin. Here, a teenager out to buy some snacks was shot dead in a confrontation with a suburban white vigilante with a record of harrassment and paranoia about outsiders. As this happened in sleepy Sanford, FL, the local police, our friends and guardians, declined to so much as arrest the killer for the deed. Only after enormous public pressure and attention to the murder did an investigation even get under way, a clear indication of the value your average ‘safe’, white community puts on the life of young black men. The crucial element in this case was that citizen George Zimmerman, the killer, used a claim of self-defense to free himself from blame. Florida Congress had recently passed a law stating lethal violence in self-defense could be used under any circumstances, purposely overruling the normal practice of requiring violence in self-defense to be proportional to the threat faced. If it had not been for the public outrage, this ‘Stand Your Ground’ law may well have allowed citizen Zimmerman to get away with murder. Crime levels are consistently dropping across the Western world, not least in the United States, but white paranoia about criminal outsiders, foreigners, and racial minorities continues unabated.
The Martin case is just another sad demonstration of the real lethal consequences of institutionalized hostility and fear on the part of a racial majority, feeling threatened in its enjoyment of the unearned privileges the racial caste system has granted it. The threat comes from the mere potentiality of real, substantial equality threatening to erase the very possibility of the very racial ladder itself; an equality nowhere remotely achieved, but always looming wherever social segregation becomes difficult, educational levels increase, and the political domain cannot be kept entirely free of the influence of those at the bottom of the ladder of race and class. The result is a law which gives everyone the freedom to defend themselves from threats with lethal force. As the Martin case shows, this majestic equality entails in reality a freedom of the high caste to retaliate against the lower that it fears may supplant it and end its rule.
To show that this is the reality, not whatever freedom of the individual or the rule of law the Party of Order may wax lyrical about, one need but look at yet a third case, that of CeCe McDonald. Here, citizen McDonald, a black transgender woman, has been charged with second-degree murder. While walking past a bar with a group of friends in Minneapolis, MN, she was set upon by a number of whites. The aggressors, first provoking them with racial and transphobic slurs, proceeded to physically assault them. McDonald herself was struck with a bottle. As the fight escalated, one of the attackers, a certain citizen named Dean Schmitz, was stabbed; he died of his wounds in hospital. McDonald was arrested and charged, whereas none of the assailants were. Just recently, McDonald has plea bargained to accept a conviction for second degree manslaughter, which will see her imprisoned for several years in the notorious American prison system.
In the United States, more people are imprisoned per capita than in any other country in the world. In the United States, the heartland of imperialism, more people are imprisoned today than ever were in any of the Soviet Union’s so well described prison camps. This burden falls, as always, especially heavily on those groups ‘where race burns class’; the fact Schmitz’s swastika tattoo, the most notorious and hated insigne of fascism, was ruled inadmissible as evidence of racist intent just adds insult to this injury. Institutionalized racism here joins institutionalized transphobia. But the real significance of the case rests in the contrast to that of Trayvon Martin, and that of Kenneth Chamberlain described above. In each of these cases, the supposed equality of the law is really a different beast. Chamberlain’s attempted self-defence against a white police force without a warrant cost him his life. McDonald’s very real self-defense against a gang of white bigots saw her imprisoned. But Zimmerman’s supposed self-defense against an unarmed black teenager would have been accepted without question, had not activists focused the public’s attention on the case. Even then, it took a Special Prosecutor, more legal exception than legal norm, to formulate charges against him.
These tragic cases are but recent examples. One can point to much larger-scale symptoms of the same causes, such as the International Criminal Court’s sole convictions being war criminals from Africa, while those of Europe and North America make millions from public speeches or hold leisurely golf vacations. One can point to the contexts in the responses to the specific cases; such as the initial failure of the white, middle class oriented LGBT organizations in the US to take the McDonald case seriously. One can point to the similarities in terrorism cases, where the most far-fetched plan hatched by an unstable mind is evidence of terrorist conspiracy when proceeding from an Arab defendant, but the many cases of political terror against minority victims or left politicians by young white men are immediately interpreted as ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’. And so on and so on. In each and every of these phenomena, the common denominator is their meaning as symptoms of underlying inequalities and denial of emancipation, that in power trump whatever equality the formality of bourgeois law may presuppose. As long as this emancipation has not been effected, nobody can trust in the law; nobody can be ‘on the side of the law’, as long as the law is not on their side. What use then the law?
1) Anatole France, Le Lys Rouge (Paris, 1894)