Barack Obama looked at his most clueless, responding to the riots and rage in Ferguson, Missouri. He hasn’t seemed so callow since the BP oil spill. Like he just wished it was over and could get on to the delights of his post-presidency. Or back to immigration reform and stalling that damn pipeline.
Using his slow voice, as if he’s explaining something so basic that it’s hard to understand, he declared that the U.S. is a “nation built on the rule of law” and added next day, he has “no sympathy” for those who go violent. The problem with this, at least for those in the streets, is the U.S. is not a nation of laws and resorts to official violence and/or illegality routinely.
In U.S. inner cities, this means surviving your dealings with cops. It is agony for a dad to tell his son, as Michael Brown Sr. had to, that you must defer to police, no matter what’s true or lawful. My own dad’s version was, “Even when they’re wrong, they’re right,” though we were middle class and he was talking about school authorities.
In my 30s I spent lots of time around the criminal courts in relation to dozens of strike-related charges. We became used to police simply concocting their stories well after making arrests. For well-bred left-wing union supporters, it was shocking. We’d sometimes “confront” cops over how they could be so brazen. It was like an encounter between alien species. Maybe that’s changed, or will, due to body cams etc., but not for Michael Jr.
The lawlessness though is more extensive — as in global. The U.S. attack on Afghanistan was scantily justified; the invasion of Iraq, not at all. The disastrous attack on Libya and the ongoing drone strikes received perfunctory justifications at best. It’s as if it wasn’t even worth the trouble.
Lawlessness also pervades the U.S. economy, more or less legally. Banks lied to and defrauded homebuyers, creating a bubble that led to a catastrophe. (The oft-mentioned “near catastrophe” applies to the banks, not the buyers.)
Nothing has changed since. Banks now routinely pay billions in fines, which they build into their costs, since profits far outpace them. No major banker has gone to jail over this. People who miss a payment or jump a subway turnstile do their time. It’s the theme of Matt Taibbi’s The Divide. I’m not screaming for social justice here. I’m talking about fatuous claims praising a society built on laws.
The version that riles me most is deregulation, a weasel word for lawlessness. Deregulation means you abolish rules or simply ignore them. The banks deregulated through Bill Clinton. But environmental rules, food safety, drug and workplace controls have been formally deregulated or, in a subtler way, allowed to lapse through cutbacks in staff, inspection and enforcement.
It’s especially here that Canadians have nothing to gloat about. Our government mugged the Kyoto accord and their own environmental procedures. They’ve eliminated rules and the agencies that enforce them. This week they cancelled mandatory recycling for mercury-containing bulbs, making it voluntary by the producers. Maybe we should try that with armed robbery. The arrests in Burnaby over the Kinder Morgan pipeline are all about slacking off on the rules. They avoid spending allotted funds for veterans’ mental health or manufacturing, then recycle that money to pay down the deficit. This is fiscal vigilante law.
Ferguson protesters trashed some buildings and blocked traffic. That’s pitiable compared to lawlessness by police, governments and the finance sector. What’s really breathtaking is how most ordinary citizens continue to law-abide.
Obama and others like pointing to Martin Luther King Jr. as the model for peaceful protest. But King wasn’t a law-abider, he was a lawbreaker. He just did it non-violently, a preferable term to peaceful. His reasons were both pragmatic and principled. There was no way for protesters to match the firepower of the protestees — then or now. But more tellingly: you turn into them if you mirror their methods and then nothing’s been gained. In these protests I heard cries I hadn’t heard in a long time — Revolution! … By any means necessary! That’s not nostalgia, it’s despair, and loss of hope for change by normal, lawful means.
This column was first published in the Toronto Star.
Photo: Sarah Mirk/flickr