World·Analysis

How the law follows the wealth gap in modern-day America

Americans are taught that everyone is equal before the law. But that is increasingly not the case in a country divided by wealth and crime, Neil Macdonald writes.

Americans are taught that everyone is equal before the law. Is that still the case?

Writer and academic Cornel West is taken into custody following a protest outside the Ferguson, Mo., police station earlier this month. Hundreds continue to protest the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by police in August. (The Associated Press)

Americans all stand equal before the law, children are taught in this country, regardless of wealth or race or social status. Because this is a classless society.

Of course, children here are also told that a nocturnal fairy will exchange old teeth for cash.

The bitter truth, more obvious by the year, is that law enforcement in the U.S. is actually the enforcement of the class system itself.

If you are poor, you understand that. If you are wealthy, you probably understand it, too, but in another way altogether.

For a member of the American underclass, a minor brush with authorities can turn into the kind of Kafkaesque despair that most Americans associate with places like Egypt or Russia or Iran.

So the story of Kalief Browder, detailed earlier this month in the New Yorker — "Three years on Rikers without trial" — could only have been a shock to the readers of that magazine, who are generally members of America's elite, and therefore largely shielded from judicial abuse.

Long story short, Browder was arrested wrongly for robbery and assault. And for the sin of refusing to cop a plea he was imprisoned in New York's fearsome Riker's Island jail, mostly in solitary, for three years without trial, before prosecutors gave up and admitted they had no case.

Keeping him locked up didn't seem to bother anyone; Browder, a juvenile delinquent from the Bronx, belongs to the nuisance class, and that was enough.

Such treatment, it goes without saying, simply would not happen to a kid from the preppy confines of Sag Harbor or Montauk.

And Browder was by no means an exception. Half a country away, in Ferguson, Mo., some of the town's mostly white police force were wearing "I am Darren Wilson" bracelets (before Washington stepped in and told them to stop).

Others were hiding their name tags, which is illegal, as they tried to deal with the town's resentful, mostly black population.

Lesley McSpadden, mother of shot teenager Michael Brown, stares down law enforcement officers as she attends a protest at the Ferguson Police Department on Oct. 11, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. (Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press)

Wilson is the policeman who shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown last August, triggering what was basically a race riot that went on for weeks.

The message the bracelet-wearing, ID-tag-hiding police were sending couldn't have been clearer: We are the faceless wall of the establishment. Question our authority at your peril. For your purposes, the law is whatever we say it is.

'Equitable sharing'

Like many U.S. police forces, the one in Ferguson has a heavily armoured SWAT squad, and it was a photo of those officers, pointing sniper rifles at unarmed civilians, that helped turn last summer's clashes into a national story.

But how police forces are paying for all this ordnance is also part of the larger story about class in America.

As the Washington Post reported recently, much of this new armour and firepower adorning what are often small-town cops was paid for by simply grabbing cash from members of the public.

The Post and other media outlets here have done an excellent job of covering the legalized larceny that goes on under the auspices of the federal "equitable sharing program," a name Kafka would no doubt have relished.

Police forces in some states seem addicted to the income guaranteed by the program, which encourages cash seizures from "suspected" villains without any requirement to prove that a crime has taken place, or even charge anyone.

Los Angeles police ride on an armoured rescue vehicle, one of many extraneous military vehicles being sold to civilian police departments by the Pentagon as part of a decade-long program that is now being called into question. (Associated Press)

Suspicion, or the baseless assertion of suspicion, is enough.

Again, the targets — one is tempted to describe them more as marks — are not members of the American elite.

A newspaper in Florida won a Pulitzer by proving what everyone knows: the cash-hungry police principally target members of minority groups, especially undocumented immigrants or those living on the fringes of the drug trade who are more likely to carry cash and less likely to complain.

The divide

I should note here that I've only ever encountered highly professional police behaviour during my years in America.

But then I am not only white (and often wearing a suit and tie), I've been around long enough to know that if you're foolish enough to be anything but humbly deferential to a cop, Kafka's door can swing open.

Jack McKenna learned all about that last year, during a rowdy basketball celebration at the University of Maryland.

The second-year law student was set upon, after an exchange with two officers, and beaten senseless. The policemen then charged him with assaulting an officer and disorderly conduct.

Ordinarily, that would have been pretty much the end of the story, except someone recorded it all with a smartphone (oh, how police loathe those things).

McKenna was then freed, and the two officers were charged. One has been acquitted, despite the video. The other will likely have his record cleared.

The system is, after all, the system.

Matt Taibbi, a perpetually angry journalist I greatly admire, has documented the system in his new book, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap.

In it, he contrasts police abuse of the poor and marginal with the recent reluctance to charge executives of big companies who commit, and admit committing, industrial-scale financial crimes.

Not a single executive of a big bank has been charged criminally for the abuses that led to the crash of 2008.

Because of their systemic importance, the Justice Department has contented (and enriched) itself by imposing huge fines.

Barack Obama's outgoing attorney general, Eric Holder, has even given a name to this practice of shielding the elite: "collateral consequences."

Charging big executives, reasons Holder, can topple companies and unfairly hurt the people they employ; so the execs get a free pass.

Taibbi, with characteristic and highly enjoyable bile, chooses to put it another way: "Obsessed with success and wealth and despising failure and poverty, our society is systematically dividing the population into winners and losers, using institutions like the courts to speed the process. Winners get rich and get off. Losers go broke and go to jail. "

Hard to argue with that.

About the Author

Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.

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