My husband is studying for his citizenship test. He got tripped by the deceptively not simple question: “What is ‘the rule of law’?”
It’s a national value, apparently. Something I had to memorize in 9th grade civics along with “checks and balances.” Shorthand phrases like two lovers who are so used to using their own euphemisms for sex that they forgot the scientific words for it. Rule of law. According to US Citizenship and Immigration Services, acceptable answers include:
- Government must obey the law
- Leaders must follow the law
- Everyone must follow the law
- Nobody is above the law
Tell that to the families of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Trayvon Marin. Indictments and ass-kissing. Prosecutors protecting those who fail to serve and protect. Even if the cops who killed these unarmed African Americans WERE indicted, what if they were then found innocent, like George Zimmerman? The outcome might be the same as it is now. Cries of injustice. Deepening distrust of institutions. Riots and looting. Self-righteous white folks wondering why black people can’t just get over it already.
But at least the cops would face the Rule of Law. Get their day in court. We will likely never know exactly what happened the night Mike Brown died, how high he raised his hands up, why the fuck Wilson fired his gun through his car door without calling for backup and then pursued and shot Brown–an unarmed teenager– six more times. Either way it is suspicious with seemingly enough probable cause to take it to trial. Maybe not homicide, but what about manslaughter, excessive force? In Eric Garner’s case, it’s clear the officer continued to choke him when he said “I can’t breathe.” I hadn’t seen the tape until today, only heard about it on NPR this summer. Now I see the fuckery of it all. Garner is a big man. He was unarmed and angry, flustered, but not aggressive by any stretch. The cops were prejudiced, overzealous, out to make their numbers, trained to react as if they’re in hostile territory. None of this excuses his death. I doubt the cop intended to kill Garner over selling loose cigarettes, but he did use force excessive enough to kill him. Everyone agrees the chokehold was an illegal maneuver. Why isn’t that enough to bring to trial? Maybe not homicide, but manslaughter, excessive force?
Innocent or guilty, whatever degree of wrong they might be, I’m not on their jury. I don’t have all the facts that the grand juries did when they voted not to indict in these two cases. But if we’re drilling our 9th grade kids and our new citizens on ideals like “the rule of law” and upholding the Constitution, then where the fuck is our court of law? Why do the police have a different set of laws applied to them? Especially when the cop is white and the dead guy is black? It’s too obvious to state but so few in the media or government have stated it. I sound like a 9th grader myself. The situation became obvious to me when I finally saw the full Garner video. Of course the cops killed Garner. He’s a large black man. He’s John Coffee. He’s John Henry. He’s Nat Turner. He’s a Field Slave. He’s the image all those white cops had in their minds of a criminal, passed down and mutated across generations.
But you see, this shit doesn’t surprise my husband. Police abuse and kill innocent civilians all the time where he’s from. There are always stories. People are beat up and intimidated at checkpoints. Majorities oppress minorities. The government rules by fear and people get disappeared. Anyone with a gun, a small dick, and a uniform thinks he’s got the right to wave it around– and it’ll go off more often than not. What’s surprising to him about America is that we get offended about it when the authorities abuse their power. We are offended not just because it’s morally and ethically wrong, but because it contradicts our national values and our historical ideals. We expect more. Always, we expect more from America. The hard part for Americans has been understanding that expecting more from our country means we must expect more from ourselves.
That’s another question on the citizenship test: Mentioned in the first line of the Constitution, who is sovereign in America? Answer: We the People. Government of the people, by the people, for the people. That means that any failing of the institutions, the judicial system, or the rule of law is a failure of us to understand ourselves and to extend the rights we want for ourselves to all our fellow citizens.
White people have failed. Over and over again. Leaders have failed. Over and over again. This is why our institutions continue to be biased, racist, unfair. On some level, we let them. We the People let our institutions fail and oppress us. We fail because we see ourselves as separate, as individual bubbles in a stream heading in a direction beyond our control. I got mine. You get yours. Sure we protest and things do change bit by bit– progress is made but only with the kind of dedication and persistence that I fear my generation is short on. Only with the kind of leadership that understands who people really want to be, who they want to see themselves as. It’s encouraging to see people lying down on bridges and in streets across America, marching on town halls and squares, walking out on college campuses, peacefully protesting. It’s terrifying to see police in military hand-me-downs patrolling legal demonstrations in riot gear, trumping up bullshit reasons to corral peaceful assemblies and diffuse their righteous anger, their legal manifestations. Once you give police that kind of firepower with which to oppress you, it becomes very hard to take back your rights. Once you give Wall Street a blank check with which to mollify the masses, it becomes very hard to take back fair wages.
We fail because we bought the myth of individual self-sufficiency. Animosity has been replaced by complacency. I see Elizabeth Warren on the streets of Ferguson. Occupy Wall Street on the streets of Staten Island. Rodney King in Cleveland. It’s all connected. It’s all our collective failure. We the People see ourselves as separate, as individual bubbles tossed on the stream of history, heading in a direction beyond our control. Many of us don’t even acknowledge there’s a current. Others fight against it, but keep getting pulled back under. A lucky few effervesce into the wave-peaks, white with foam. These champagne bubbles look down on their murky brothers and ask why they are too stupid or lazy to rise to the top too.
One hundred and fifty years later, and we’re still on that fucking raft with Huck and Jim, paddling the wrong way down the Mississippi, thinking we are free when we’re heading back towards slavery. Only if we move together can the river change directions until “justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” America is a mighty stream. Put that on your naturalization test. “What is the ‘rule of law‘?” Replace that with a truer question: “What happens to a dream deferred?”