Law, Justice and Mercy

Marion Post Wolcott photo. Church in a cotton field. 1939. Library of Congress.

Marion Post Wolcott photo. Church in a South Carolina corn field. 1939. Library of Congress.

It matters not, as some think, that 18 year-old Mike Brown, the dead son and friend whose lifeless body lay in the street uncovered for hours as shock set and a neighborhood breathed the horror of what was plain to see: Big Mike Brown, a high school graduate had violated the Ferguson manner of walking ordinance, a particular sore spot in the community of boys his age, and a cop backed up.

Then things get mixed up! But/So here’s the rule: In matters not, that some think and repeat that he was a “thug;” they tell me.

Did he hug his mother? Yes? Then he’s worthy of life! That rules, black or white, poor or rich. It is based on the Golden Rule, rooted in faith and practiced here in Charleston, the home of American slavery and the Civil War. We forgive. We do not judge. We know the power of faith. We are Republican and Democrat, old and new immigrants from a thousand paths.

Law and justice are the lanes and rails of our moral path. In death, what is right and wrong? We see contradictions in statures to those who rebelled in the name of politics and those invisible, neglected with limited promise. One of our youth, a high school dropout, found a website, a flag and a pattern of blame and killed nine after attending a prayer meeting with the dead. In the mercy of justice, we don’t call him names. In a greater mercy, every family expressed their forgiveness. The challenge is love, not hate.

Some see law as an empty structure with a blindfold, void of blood and spirit. They do not see its limits and balance. They have forgotten justice.
Remember justice. That’s the rule. Reclaim the Jericho Road.

What? We are
not in Kansas? The state that micro-manages abortions? In its own effort to be first-in-the-nation, Kansas prohibited specific medical techniques used in abortions, a law swiftly blocked by a Kansas judge. Kansas also sued to deny the state’s ACA holders subsidies for health care; it sued to block EPA disapproval of its air pollution plan, asserting the right to pollute down wind neighboring states. But Kansas has to mind its court costs; it only has $5.6 million left in the state’s coffers, barely enough to cover an unexpected weather event.

So different from South Carolina, where for years the state has kept down litigation costs by not prosecuting crime–esp. violence against women (that issue won a Charleston paper the Pulitzer prize!), even in the case of multiple offenders. Over 100 children die in state custody annually, and one facility has been investigated 95 times since 2000 for abuse and neglect (including the beating an autistic child caught on video). Today, it is part of an network that receives more young children into foster and group homes than any other state. The state also lets politicians ramble: ask former governor, now congress member Mark Sanford or former lieutenant governor Ken Ard; trips and wardrobes seem to be the main criminal perks.

Issues? By last cycle’s ads and the early ones, life in SC would be a dream, if not for Barack Obama! Forget the 500+ bridges collapsed because the state has an inadequate inspection program.

A common error
compares police killings to black-on-black murders and says viva la difference! Black-on-black killings greatly exceed police shootings–but the numbers miss important elements: Were the killers criminals–or agents of the state? Criminals can be brought to justice, jailed for safety.

State agents act in another capacity. The state’s network of rights and power can sanction and stir greater numbers of people, even when that control, as was so in Baltimore, has no impact on the levels of crime.

When the state kills, it employs all of the mechanisms of justice to justify and exonerate its agents, citizens or official. From the days of the slave patrols to large scale lynchings to Michael Brown being shot, his body lying in the street to Dylan Roof being taken to a fast food place after being apprehended to the domestic violence and gun displays of Zimmerman to the abnormally large annual payouts to victims families, the state has shown an established propensity to operate a system of no fault for black deaths, except in personal conscience. And by accepting bad collaborative reports, the state supports improbity!

State violence–police dogs, whippings,snipers. mace and taser use, station and jail housing beatings, teens flipped from chairs, teens shot crawling face down–has a greater impact than violence among civilians. The fact that we ignore hundreds of domestic killings to focus on terrorism says so.

The issue of state violence raises far above the 2nd amendment debate. Its defenders rarely cite statistics for rates and safety! Like gun ownership, state violence is a fundamental constitutional issue about the purpose and privileges of state power. Quality means more than quantity; crime is different from a constitutional threat–a distinction 2nd amendment defenders make in the case of gun ownership.

But this constitutional view is denied to the black community and its supporters by those who would frame the constitutional issue as crime prevention or data comparisons. State violence violates the Geneva Convention and the UN conventions against genocide when systematic employed and justified unchecked–by taking justice out of the law.

Cleveland, New York, Chicago, Baltimore, and other cities have off budget, sizable annual payouts for civil suits tied to misconduct. Its scrutiny increased and expanded as the path of justice traced when the police themselves may have committed violent crimes. The New York Times featured a New York lawyer famous for the size of his settlements. Paid for injury, money also bought silence. Obviously, law makers and mayors approved.

History sheds light
on Times columnist Charles Blow’s broader inquiry, the shape and substance of justice in a society when both the law and its interpretation can change. During slavery, Charleston papers advertised for runaway slaves–privately paid, public notice of a crime (in which the accused had no rights of defense!), offering rewards. In a strange twist, the ads aggressively pledged to punish any white person not returning a runaway! If the runaway voluntarily returned, the notice informed, all was “forgiven.”

Justice has always been crafted to fit the circumstances, to the advantage of the law makers, their ethics and social interests. In 1700s South Carolina, to admit the enslaved could flee on their own acknowledged a greater danger: that the enslaved recognized the injustice in “ownership” and the loss of freedom! So the penalty was slanted: return freely (irony!); all legal or private punishments (with their imputation of willfulness and deliberateness!) vanished; the returns well received, I’ve read in letters.

For whites, keeping a runaway constituted negro or slave stealing, punishable by fines or hanging! Charleston did hang one white man, his shame!

Among the Gullah (the people, language, and culture of Atlantic Africa) of the South Carolina rice coast, justice was termed “satisfaction.” One went seeking satisfaction. Wrongs were finished with when the other was satisfied.

I like the broad functionality of the Gullah definition. It adapts to complex, changing abrogations. Today, many of us, black and white, are not slanted, or satisfied.


Marion Post Wolcott FSA photo. South Carolina Baseball. 1939. Library of Congress.



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