Above the law and below it in the USA

To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.
==The Magna Carta

The basic principle of a free society is the rule of law.  That is the principle that laws are the same for everybody.   Nobody, however rich or powerful, is above obedience to the law.  Nobody, however poor or humble is below protection of the law.

The.Divide.Matt.TaibbiI recently finished reading a new book, THE DIVIDE: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap by Matt Taibbi which shows how far the United States has gotten from that ideal.  There is a class of powerful rich people who can commit financial crimes with impunity, and there are classes of people—poor young black men in big cities, unauthorized immigrants, welfare recipients—for whom due process of law does not exist.

Taibbi is a smart and fearless investigator, a brilliant and readable writer and, above all, a great explainer.   His specialty has been reporting on finance for Rolling Stone magazine.  In this book he combines accounts of high-level crime and low-level injustice, and the combination will make any normal person’s blood boil.

In New York City, under the stop-and-frisk policy, police stop young black men and ask them to turn out their pockets, ostensibly in search of illegal handguns [1].  It is legal to have a small amount of marijuana in your pocket provided you aren’t trying to sell it.  But the minute you take it out of your pocket, you are in violation.  Thousands of harmless people are charged in this way every year.

Taibbi told the story of a hardworking, law-abiding black man who was arrested for “obstructing pedestrian traffic” by standing in the doorway of his own apartment building at 1 o’clock in the morning when nobody else was on the street.

It wasn’t the first time this particular person was arrested for virtually nothing.  He in fact had a hard time figuring out what to do in order not to be arrested.  But in this case, he decided to fight the case.  What’s striking is how nobody involved in the process—prosecutor, public defender, judge—could get their minds around the idea that somebody would plead “not guilty” simply because they were, in fact, not guilty.

They were all annoyed with the defendant, not with the police officer who’d made a false charge.

The attitude of judges was exactly the opposite in the case of real criminals—a cabal of financial speculators who conspired to destroy a company, by means not only of spreading false information, but harassing the company officers and clients on the telephone and even, in one case, actually committing burglary, in order to make money by short sales of the company’s stock (essentially a bet the company’s stock price would fall.)

But when the victims brought a lawsuit, the judge dismissed the case, on the grounds that it was brought in New Jersey and not in New York.

Taibbi told the story of a law-abiding young musician who stopped on the street to roll some tobacco into a cigarette, and was, without warning, assaulted by strangers in leather jackets.  He thought he was being mugged until he was handcuffed and thrown in jail with a lot of desperate characters.

He found he had been charged with a drug offense, later reduced to a tampering-with-evidence offense.  Presumably the police thought he was smoking marijuana, and were doubly suspicious because he was white in a predominantly-black neighbor.   These may have been reasonable grounds for suspicion, but the point is that they didn’t bother to stop and see if their suspicions had any basis.

In contrast, HSBC, the large international bank, ran a money-laundering operation for the Mexican drug cartels.  The bank even had special windows in some of their branches for processing of large amounts of cash.   They served the interest of some of the world’s most brutal and murderous criminals, known for dismembering victims with chain saws.   But HSBC was let off with a fine, which was less than the profit earned from criminal activities.  Unlike with the musician, nobody spent any time in jail.

 Taibbi’s book is full of stories like this, true stories that make my blood boil, stories about a justice system that is harsh and merciless to harmless poor poor people, while granting every consideration to what Theodore Roosevelt called “the criminal rich class.”

Click on TruthOut to read an excerpt from Matt Taibbi’s The Divide.

Click on Democracy Now for an interview with Matt Taibbi.

[1]  This is an aspect of gun control that liberals should think about.

Matt Taibbi’s The Divide is the newest addition to my Books I Recommend page, which is a short list of readable books that provide a good understanding of current issues.

[Added 8/28/14]

Here are some of my other posts on Matt Taibbi’s The Divide

Matt Taibbi on impunity for rich criminals

The incentives to ignore due process of law

A predatory business model based on lawbreaking

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