Basics – Our Justice System and alternatives

Most of our students do not come into contact with the justice system, although once I worked in a small charter school so many of whose students were on probation that we had a sheriff’s officer outside the classroom door all day.

But we are all affected as teachers by legal decisions relating to education and the school setting. Here in AZ we recently had a case go to the Supreme Court of the U.S. when school personnel strip-searched a 13 year old girl on suspicion she had Ibuprofen concealed on her person.

All political ideologies seem to rile up their base by dragging out stories of unbelievable injustice e.g. the woman who spilled coffee in her lap getting millions from the store that sold it to her. What gets left out of these stories are the background, the facts, the reasoning in the decisions, the evidence provided, and the whole context of the incident, not to mention relevant law, precedent, etc. Just a few things like that. But it get folks’ dander up and gets them to reach into their pocket books to contribute to the Committee for the Reduction of Stupid Judicial decisions.

As these decisions apply to the school, e.g. concealment of facts about a student or the placement of a “perfectly normal kid” into Special Education, teachers sometimes feel as if they have no control over what happens in the society, that it’s all controlled by activist judges, as the term has it now. Yet what might happen under a different system?

We need not look far. Mexico provides a good example. In this as in many societies in third world countries, justice is found primarily in institutions other than the courts. We see clan justice, religious courts, and, last but not least, the rule of the gun. This is the natural course humans take to govern their societies. When the courts and the overall judicial system are set up to benefit one element of society, the rest of society has no choice but to found an alternative.

In Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, this powerful story starts out with just such a situation. The father is bereaved over his daughter’s beating and rape and wants the perpetrators punished. The perps walk out of court free and with a smirk. Outraged, he indebts himself to the Mob, the Mafia, so that they will avenge him and his daughter.

So imagine what it must be like in counties of the U.S. where powerful interests get their way in the courts or the not-so-old image of Southern courts sentencing employed Blacks as vagrants and sending them to work in farmers’ fields, the “pay” going into county coffers. Despite these abuses, Americans eventually found remedies through the courts; that’s what the NAACP was all about.

Conservatives despise the NAACP and the ACLU b/c they dilute the power of local oligarchies and traditional elites. Giving representation to the poor and the marginalized reduces the power over the “little people” that the elites traditionally had. “Crackers”, “Niggers”, “Spics”, “Wetbacks”, ” Chinks”, “Squaws” and so forth come under the rubric (rubric = a class or category) of illocutionary or performative words which achieve their effect by uttering them, e.g. “I now pronounce you man and wife” whose effect is marrying the couple as long as the speaker is invested with that power. So by simply calling someone a cracker, you have accomplished your goal of putting him in a subordinate position. And we’ve all seen the jillion movies where the White man calls the Black man “Boy”, thus putting him in his place.

Upsetting that system upsets a lot of people. Seeing Judge Sotomayor elevated just by the nomination to the Supreme Court.really upsets the apple cart. Such elevation threatens the sense of security of people who have based a good part of their identity on being part of the ruling caste. Another movie, Mississippi Burning, had a scene where Gene Hackman describes to his FBI partner how his farmer father, who possessed no mule, killed the mule of the Black neighbor on the presumption that a White man with less than a Black man was no man at all.

Michael Carvin, a lawyer who argued for Bush in the 2000 election, spoke on a radio panel about Judge Sotomayor’s nomination and argued that President Obama, the judge, and all the Democrats simply wanted judicial decisions that would tilt strongly in favor of women, minorities, the poor, etc. Can you measure contempt? Carvin can deny it, but anyone who heard his voice will know the contempt in which he holds these people. Carvin is the quintessential colonial master enraged that his apple cart is being upset.

Go to my entry Colonial America under this same category, Basics for more comments on how the origins of this country account for this structure, this apple cart.

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