I was pleased to see HuffPo feature this NYT magazine article on the criminal (in)justice system. It describes the effects of the bail system that forces indigent defendants to plead guilty to trumped-up charges or rot in jail for weeks or months (or years) because they cannot make bail. One man was arrested as he walked out of a store with a soda and straw — the straw was considered “drug paraphernalia.” He spent weeks in jail, where he was severely beaten. A woman left the homeless shelter to buy diapers for her baby, whom she left in the care of a friend. She was arrested for recklessly endangering her child; six months later she still hasn’t regained custody.As the statistics in the article demonstrate, such stories are not exceptional (especially for black people). Nor are they a new phenomenon. What is new in my lifetime though is that finally this sort of injustice is emerging into mass consciousness, no longer invisible to the majority of middle-class white people.
Relatedly, the upsurge of outrage at the police killings of unarmed black men (and at police brutality in general) reveals another crack in the foundation of normalcy. Police brutality is nothing new; what is new is that it is becoming harder to hide — literally, due to ubiquitous video cameras and social media, and figuratively, because of the disintegration of the racial, political, and class narratives that cloaked it.
It is tempting to blame the situation on racist cops, callous judges, or opportunistic politicians. Certainly such people exist, but blaming them is a trap, a deflection of anger onto a convenient but superficial target. The article gives us a glimpse instead of a monstrous machinery of injustice: an industrialized, inhuman, nearly paralyzed legal system and courtroom culture, embedded in an equally paralyzed political system, itself beholden to deep cultural myths about human nature, criminality, and punishment. At bottom, I believe, we are seeing the crisis and imminent collapse of the ideology of Control, which in its failing days goes to new and absurd extremes in response to its own failures.
Fortunately, it isn’t necessary to understand the deep causes of the horrid injustice that is becoming increasingly plain to see. The understanding will come with time. What is necessary now is to awaken the “no.” That will power reforms (one good one the article mentions is to eliminate the cash bail system entirely) that will ultimately prove insufficient as our tolerance for injustice wears thinner and thinner. Our industrial system of punishment and mass incarceration is fundamentally incompatible with the dignity of each human being. Our consciousness is evolving to the point where that is no longer tolerable.
While it may seem as though indignity — not to mention horrid injustice — is reaching all-time highs, we might also see their heightened visibility as the beginning of a major shift. Someday, maybe sooner than we have any reason to think, we will live in a world where no one is dehumanized and everyone is treated as a full being. Is anything less tolerable to you?