Thursday, December 4, 2014

Because of Cigarettes?

We don't so much need a "conversation on race," as we need action on rectifying our entire criminal justice ecosystem, tragically infatuated with the "broken windows" theory, which leads it to to expend effort, and in this case lethal force, to deal with someone like now-dead Eric Garner, who had a habit of selling untaxed cigarettes. He's dead for that? *

Libertarians are pointing out that there is a thriving underground market for selling these "loosies" because of the onerous taxes NYC places on cigarettes. Apparently Garner was out on bail, having previously been busted on a "loosies" charge, and this made him touchy. It seems to me that even if Garner didn't die (and he so clearly shouldn't have) it's absurd for police to have been worried about him in the first place, however unwise it was for him to keep trying to sell underground cigarettes.

It's both stupid and unjust for our legal system to focus on minor offenses among the have-nots, ruining lives in the process. How many families of adequate means experience minor brushes with the law but don't suffer because they have the money and connections to "make it go away"? How many indiscretions get swept under the rug, as a young middle or upper class person advances through life?

Deaths at the hands of police are a real problem, but the deeper issue is the relationship of black and poor people with the criminal "justice" system, with justice placed firmly in scare quotes. Because of this problematic relationship, many people are ready to snap when confronted by the authorities. Of course, it's wiser to stay cool, but I bet even the Dalai Lama would lose it sometimes under these circumstances.

In "Sweetheart Like You," Bob Dylan sang, "Steal a little and they throw you in jail / Steal a lot and they make you king." We could talk about that.

* This is not to say that there isn't a strong racial dimension to our law enforcement problems. The incarceration rate among young black males is a national catastrophe -- for all Americans. The respective work of Michelle Alexander and Bryan Stevenson on this topic is essential. The trouble with free-floating discussions of race and racism is that people end up feeling alienated, without knowing exactly what to do. I think people of all races can come to see the injustices of a number of issues that impact black people directly. (Note added 12-5)

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