By Dianne Post
As the events in Ferguson illustrated, injustice is as American as motherhood and apple pie. From our inception, the Constitution counted African-Americans as only three-fifths of a person and Native Americans were not counted at all. Neither group could vote nor could women or people who didn’t own property.
Likewise, law enforcement developed from a very flawed beginning, slave patrols sent out by plantation owners to capture escapees. After the Civil War, sheriffs and justices of the peace were not paid by the government but were provided lists of workers needed by plantations, mines and the railroad. The sheriff then arrested and the justice of the peace convicted African-Americans and “leased” them to the businesses. Pinkerton thugs hired by corporations attacked labor union strikers in factories and plants while law enforcement turned their backs.
Black Codes ensured that African-Americans would remain under the control of the white establishment. Jails and prisons then and now were and are used as a control mechanism for unwanted or overflow populations and for people we want to control, especially Black men and immigrants. Little argument can be made that the criminal justice system today is racist from cradle to grave, from the first police stop to the ultimate execution.
However, over the years, society has taken slow and painful steps toward inclusion and equality. The country was torn apart by the Civil War, swung forward and back during Reconstruction, and then re-ignited with a new Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. The Suffrage movement started in 1848 and culminated in women’s right to vote in 1920. Native Americans were not made citizens until 1924 and even after serving in World War II many could not vote until the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act prohibited discrimination against vulnerable members of our society. The Lesbian/Gay/Bi-sexual/Transgender (LGBT) movement caught fire in 1969 and won marriage equality in 2015.
Arizona has also struggled to become more inclusive. From the state’s founding, when state leaders refused to be joined with New Mexico because there were too many Mexicans, to Operation Eagle Eye, a Republican Party voter suppression operation in the 1960s to challenge minority voters, the struggle for fairness toward Arizona’s original Mexican inhabitants continues in the immigrant battles of today.
Unfortunately, the absence of fair justice for all in Arizona is not ancient history. In 2005, the Department of Public Safety was found guilty of racial profiling. In 2010, SB 1070 was passed setting off a national boycott and outcry that culminated in most of the act being overturned by the courts. In 2014, the legislature passed SB 1062 to attack the LGBT community. In 2013, a federal court judge found the Maricopa County Sheriff guilty of racial profiling and in 2016 found him guilty of contempt for refusing to abide by the court order to end the discrimination.
Racism and classism are tightly connected as Lyndon Johnson knew with his War on Poverty and Martin Luther King discovered when he enlarged his strategy to convene a Poor People’s March. The Occupy movement fought against social and economic injustice beginning in 2011 and starkly illuminated the crimes of Wall Street that Senator Elizabeth Warren keeps alive today. The recent Bernie Sanders presidential campaign forced the issue of income inequality onto the national political agenda. Community organizing turned the Fight for $15 into a national campaign. The findings in Ferguson that our courts have become debt collectors and our jails have become debtors prisons is another example of racism and classism playing out in the very fabric of our nation.
Since Ferguson, many people talk about restoring faith in our criminal justice system. For minorities and the poor, they never had faith in the system so it can’t be restored but must be created by making reality the principles in the preamble of the Constitution, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, …”
So long as we continue to deny racism and ignore white privilege, we cannot establish Justice.