How not to support law and order

Last year near Klemtu, British Columbia

I recently notified the North Carolina Bar that I wished to resign from the Bar.  After 32 years as a lawyer, I was and have been ready to hang up my briefcase and move forward with other things, and quit worrying about continuing education requirements.  There was one glitch:  a Bar official sent me a note saying my simple letter of resignation didn’t work, and I needed to submit a petition for inactive status.  

But this was far from the first hard-to-explain oddity of our legal system in my experience, and not difficult or expensive enough to fight about.  My petition for inactive status is now pending.  If it is not granted, then the Bar and I will need to have a serious discussion.  

I’m happy to be leaving the practice of law, but this doesn’t mean I want to give up on law and order.  Having a legal system, even an imperfect one, is  much better than chaos and the war of all against all.  To live in large groups, we need a system of rules and organized ways of resolving conflicts.  Of course, there are and always will be problems in the system that need fixing.

Over the past few months, the Black Lives Matter protests have shined a spotlight on a particularly dreadful aspect of our current system:  the prejudice against Black people that periodically results in police shootings and other violence against them.  This is not a new problem.  For generations, Black people have been held in a low position in the US caste system, and been victimized in various ways, including substandard housing, inferior education, inadequate medical care, mass incarceration and police violence.  

What is new is a massive public rejection by Black people and others of such injustice.  Protesters in cities and small towns across the country have peacefully gathered to call for ending discriminatory police violence.  Not surprisingly, some of their voices are angry, while their acts of protest show that they are hopeful and believe in the possibility of a better world.

At the same time, along with the peaceful protests, in a few places there have been episodes of vandalism, looting, and destruction of property.  Such incidents, though related to only a small fraction of the peaceful protests, are still problematic.  For the shopkeepers and other property owners, destroyed property and stolen goods can be a serious setback, and they deserve our sympathy and support.  

Vandalism and looting at the margins of the peaceful protests can also have a backfire effect.  Such acts tend to reinforce the anti-Black fear and prejudice that are the infrastructure of our racial caste system — the system that the protests are intended to challenge and change.  

I hope we can all agree that activity like destroying store windows or stealing goods is 1. criminal activity and 2. in no way comparable to policemen killing an unarmed Black person.  That is, killing is much worse.  I pause on this point, because President Trump seems to have a different view, which he is promoting with the full power of the Fox/Trump propaganda apparatus.   

Trump has barely if at all acknowledged the problem of police violence against Black people and the justifications for peaceful protests across the country.  Instead, he characterizes all protests as violent and all protesters as subhuman thugs who seek to invade the white suburbs.  

This is, of course, both false and opportunistic.  Trump and his supporters are leveraging our ingrained racial prejudice to arouse fear, which tends to fog the mind.  By ignoring the legitimate reasons for the protest and the peaceful nature of most of them, while magnifying coverage of every broken window, Trump and his confederates try to create a false alternative reality of an America dangerously out of control.  

Trump’s recent frequent repetitions of the slogan “law and order” are a familiar part of an old playbook.  It’s one of Trump’s more subtle racial dog whistles.  After all, who could oppose law and order? Some may not know that this was the code phrase used by Richard Nixon to call for reasserting white supremacy after the Civil Rights advances in the mid 1960s.   

If you knew nothing of America’s history of slavery and legalized oppression, and also nothing of the recent history of police violence against Black people, you might suppose that the best response to those protests would be more police in riot gear threatening and delivering violence.  But unless you were that ignorant, surely you would not respond to the protests with the very kind of violence that caused the protests in the first place.   That would just make things worse, right?  Right.

If there were any grounds for sincere hope that Trump would work for true law and order, it died a gasping death last week as he repeatedly expressed approval for right wing militias threatening and shooting BLM protesters.  His fear mongering has worked, at least for the segment of his base that believes in buying lots of firearms and preparing to use them on disorderly people of color.   

Along with normal and ordinary racial prejudice, these folks have a high degree of paranoia, susceptibility to conspiracy theories, and an ability to suspend disbelief and accept whatever Trump says.  When he tells them that the protesters are evil and threatening, they truly believe.  They suit up in camo and turn out together with loaded weapons.

So instead of law and order, Trump is creating a violent and dangerous situation.  The irony is that in our 231 years of having presidents, we’ve never had one so lawless and disdainful of law and order.  

The current investigations in New York of Trump’s possible insurance and bank fraud are only the most recent examples.  Many of his closest cronies have gone to jail for the work they did on his behalf, and more are awaiting indictment.  

While in office, he’s paid millions in fines   for some of his fraudulent schemes, including Trump University and the Trump “charities,” while others are still under investigation.  He’s attempted to quash legal investigations into his cooperation with the Russians, while using his office to seek political help from foreign governments like Ukraine and China.   He’s siphoned public money through his hotels.  Even more blatantly, as recently as last week he used government resources, including the White House itself, in his political campaign, in plain violation of US law.    

As bad as all that is, it may well just be the tip of the iceberg of Trump criminal conduct.  We still don’t have a clear view of most of his shady business dealings, and he continues to fight desperately to keep his tax returns secret.  

Anyhow, it’s obvious that Trump is not a big fan of law and order, except when it’s misconstrued to mean threatening and injuring protesters and Black people. 

As election day gets closer, the question is whether the fear mongering of the Trump/Fox propaganda machine will continue to strike enough believers as credible.  There are clearly a lot of people susceptible to their “law and order” nonsense, but I’m hopeful that more and more will be seeing Trump for what he is.  

Ibram X. Kendi gives some grounds for such hope in his new piece in The Atlantic titled The End of Denial.  He cites survey results showing a surprising increase in anti-racism since Trump became president.  Kendi suggests that Trump’s frequent and florid expressions of racism have brought it out of the shadows and made more people recognize and reject the racial caste system.  It would be both wonderful and ironic if Trump ended up as a President who unintentionally gave us a historic push to greater racial justice.