From the unheard and ignored in Waziristan, to the murdered in Karachi to the disappeared in Balochistan, we have seen the cruel face of the law itself, writes Bakhtiar Ahmed
George Floyd was killed, pinned to the ground by a policeman’s knee while another watched for eight minutes as he pleaded for his mother. “I can’t breathe,” words that would come to mean so much in the coming days left his throat, but they refused to care. He died, suffering a cardiac arrest on account of being restrained to the ground. The officer was fired only after a video of the event was placed before the public and the outrage that followed. However many refused to be placated, and the collective trauma of an entire community, rejected by the very nation they called home, manifested itself through protests where they demanded justice, for today and yesterday. Despite the enormity of the demonstrations, Derek Chauvin, the policeman, was only charged with murder in the third degree.
This is just another moment where the curtain gives way, where the endless façade revolving around ideals such as the “rule of law” disappears, and we are made to come to terms with what it is.
The law does not believe in justice, even if you do. A quick internet search would inevitably provide you with a very basic definition of a third-degree murder charge, “[t]he unlawful killing of a human being, when perpetrated without any design to effect death.” Placing your knee on a man’s neck for eight minutes as he suffocated beneath you is not enough to intend murder, at least in this case. That the officer had been disciplined previously, that this was just another instance of systemic persecution against African-Americans, and that this was driven by the very ideology that runs rampant through American society, that of white supremacy, does not matter. It is lost beneath veneers of red tape and procedure and structure. Just as soon as Chauvin was taken into custody, there were countless articles, tweets and posts on the internet that attempted to justify the charge, people brought out their legal dictionaries and suddenly the murder of a man, or rather the “intentional” murder of a man was lost in jargon that only lawyers use. The law does not believe in justice, even if you do.
The protests themselves offer intrinsic evidence of the failure of the legal system. African-American men and women, marching peacefully to protest against what is not only the death of one of their own but a stark reminder that they too must live their lives in fear of being gunned down by the officials sworn to protect them, are assaulted, maimed and blinded by the police in riot gear and using lethal weapons. For rubber bullets do kill and cause lasting injury and tear gas is banned in warfare. Police officers hid their identities, covering their badges, and even attacked individuals in their own homes. Yet the law does nothing. Rather hundreds, or even thousands, were thrown into jail and donations had to be set up to gather bail money for every one of them. Donald Trump continues to threaten protestors, and the Attorney General William P. Barr has stated the FBI will identify violent protestors.
The idea of violence itself illustrates the hollow edifice of the law, perhaps a little too well. The violence of the police, where they kill African-Americans, where they charge into protestors is justified. The violence of the people, which is not directed at the police, but against the symbols of the system that has oppressed them, the Targets, the supermarkets and the restaurants and high end stores, is not.
Rather it is seen as a blasphemous attack on the very fabric of society, and herein “private property,” unashamedly, assumes its true position in the hierarchy of our lives, sitting on a throne made from the corpses it has amassed over the centuries.
Looting is a word that is dishonest, only because it is used so selectively. As many would tell you, and many already have, the corporate bailouts are not looting for they can be proven to be essential to society, with the law allowing the government to save corporations. Individuals do not require salvation, and so any attempt to do so is illegal. It does not end there either, for the law goes further beyond to make sure that no one mistakes it for being an instrument of justice, although many still do. African-Americans are more likely to get arrested, to be searched and their houses raided. The law does not stop governments from beating up workers on strike, and nor does it save prisoners from the inhumane treatment they suffer in the prison-industrial complexes around the United States.
It would take more. Fires raging across the capital, an evangelical photo-op and police brutality being captured on live television before the Governor would change the charge to one of murder in the second degree. Many would rejoice at this news but many should not. The law has merely given way for a moment, to accommodate and pacify the people in the street. The events of the past week have proven one thing, riots work. That in the moment where the individual ceases to exist and the people marching, staying out after curfew and seizing private property become indistinguishable from one another, there is a frightened system realizing that they do not seek their peace in the verdicts of a court or the silver tongue of their lawyers, they seek it outside the system.
Hence the response is merely to draw people back in, to convince and to reason, and the glimmering lure of justice will be hung before them, only to be taken away just as they step foot inside.
The only reason why any of this would seem surprising to anyone is the ingrained belief that the law is isolated, hanging over us, insulated from everything around us. Yet, what many fail to perceive is that the law is a human creation, and like any human creation, it suffers from the same malaise that we do. There is nothing that saves the law, nothing that prevents it from falling prey to everything around us. There may be the notable exception, that arrives only when it is forced to, a decision against segregation in schools, or the odd meeting of the legislature that accepts some degree of change but these are rare and never truly aimed at dismantling the systems of oppression around us. Once we stop holding it on that higher pedestal, it becomes quite simple to understand. The ones making, enforcing and understanding the law are mostly racists. This holds true for many notions that we prescribe to neo liberalism, for many of those very people believe in it too. Ultimately, the law is founded on power, to be used by those that rule over us as they see fit, with our “rights” minor inconveniences to be dispensed with if the occasion calls for it. We are prone to glorifying the law, in our conversations, art and philosophies. Once we move past the initial reluctance, we begin to see quite clearly how the pristine halls of the Supreme Courts and the Departments of Justice become a little murkier, their walls adorned with the “faces of injustice,” to borrow from Judith Shklar.
To think that it is only an American problem would be disastrous, for the failings are universal. From the unheard and ignored in Waziristan, to the murdered in Karachi to the disappeared in Balochistan, we have seen the cruel face of the law itself. It is not blind; rather it stares at us and mocks us. The judiciary, the acts of parliament, the trials and apex courts, all of us know but not many accept. We have seen murder investigations disappear and murderers flaunt their immunity in front of us. The mothers that have cried out for their sons have only found courts that ,in a bid to please the best of us, have cut their ear off. We have seen the unarmed be killed too, by those in uniforms. This is not too different. Just as the African-Americans, the men and women in our peripheries have found themselves oppressed and their languages unheard. Only because the law does not give them a language, it lets them make sounds but it refuses to recognize what the sounds mean. This is a language that will never be translated, lost in the wind. What we need then, is not a judiciary or a criminal justice system. What we need is a politics for the people that centers on the dispossessed, that refuses to bark at the orders of the ruling elite, and that believes in justice, pure justice founded on unbridled compassion, without paying heed to the formal structures around us. Only then can we claim to progress towards a society where these notions of race and ethnicity will no longer be the basis of subjugation and death and barbaric treatment. It is frightening to suddenly find yourself in a position where what you regarded as absolute withers away, and you are left to rebuild, and the oft quoted expressions of unlearn and learn must ring in your ears, but it can be done. We must begin by not believing in the law. Or at least the one we have right now.