Context and Counterarguments

When everyone has access to the information, everyone is empowered and justice becomes not only tangible, but attainable.

Photo by fortheloveofcc on Flickr


All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.

Edmund Burke

Knowledge is power. The saying can be interpreted in a number of ways and easily applied to a variety of situations. Knowing the reputation of a vendor or manufacturer helps you make better purchasing decisions. Reading Yelp reviews can lead you to the perfect pizza. Listening to your friends’ suggestions can help you suss out your next favorite book, avoid a notorious speed-trap, or plan your next fabulous vacation.

The control of information is something the elite always does, particularly in a despotic form of government. Information, knowledge, is power. If you can control information, you can control people.

Tom Clancy

To me, that Tom Clancy goes to the heart of what I saw and heard while working as a paralegal/”constitutional advisor” for a small town attorney in Needles, California.  It was an eye-opening era for me, one that cemented some opinions and cast a bright, impossible-to-ignore spotlight on tyranny, corruption and the insidious impact of institutional racism on the poor and disenfranchised.

You should not see the desert simply as some faraway place of little rain. There are many forms of thirst.

William Langewiesche

Small, dusty, surrounded by desert and bordered by Nevada on one side and Arizona on the other, Needles is the gateway to Laughlin and Lake Havasu, and a pit stop along the I-40 corridor. Regular readers of the Daily Creative Writer have heard about my desert-scape adventures plenty of times before, but I’m not sure I’ve ever spoken specifically about the legal work I undertook while vaguely employed by the San Bernardino Country court system.

It all began in response to a spate of drug interdiction stops on Interstate-40 on its eastern approach towards the Arizona state line. My boss, a sort of Buddhist/libertarian with eight kids, a kinetic wife, and a zeal for criminal defense work, had begun to notice something strange afoot. After Barstow, I-40 stretches across 160 miles or so of desert, and as you’ve no doubt guessed, it wasn’t the speeders on their way to the casinos of Laughlin, NV nor the distracted families on the way to the Grand Canyon that ended up needing legal representation. If you happened to be black, that same stretch of highway represented a gauntlet of radar guns and CHP patrol cars.

Clients arrived in my boss’s office disheveled and confused – they’d been stopped for not wearing a seatbelt or meandering into the shoulder. Some had been cited for not having a front license plate even though none was required by their state of residence. All had been detained and questioned. Cars sped past; temps climbed past the 100-degree mark, and yet whole families were ordered to exit their vehicles and bullied into agreeing to a search of their person and car. When nothing truly criminal was discovered, they were let off with a moving violation to be resolved at the Needles courthouse.

Of course, not all who were stopped were innocent. Plenty of serious violations – suspended license, drug possession, unlicensed firearms – were occasionally unearthed. But that’s not too surprising – if you cast a wide enough net, you’re bound to catch the criminals hiding amongst the innocent.

But the net wasn’t wide, and the innocent seemed to be paying too a high a price to catch and convict a handful of drug traffickers and ne’er-do-wells.

And so began an intensive investigation and legal analysis. All to expose illegal racial profiling. We hoped to cast a light on civil rights violations happening on the highway with an ultimate goal of reforming an entire law enforcement strategy built upon racial profiling.

In more colloquial terms, we were trying to stop the CHP from pulling over motorists for DWBs – Driving While Black/Brown.

There is no greater tyranny than that which is perpetrated under the shield of the law and in the name of justice. Charles de Secondat

“Sure,” you say, “Perhaps it looked that way, but you can’t really prove it. Maybe they were driving poorly or suspiciously. And if they weren’t actually doing anything wrong, then what’s the harm?”

Well, first of all, we are all entitled to travel our nation’s highways and byways free of police harassment or government intervention (check out the Commerce Clause of the 5th amendment and the Heart of Atlanta Supreme Court decision if you doubt me). It’s also flippant (and, honestly, a bit naïve) to dismiss the harassment of others and place the burden of establishing virtue and blamelessness on the suspect rather than the investigator.

It is impossible to struggle for civil rights, equal rights for blacks, without including whites. Because equal rights, fair play, justice, are all like the air: we all have it, or none of us has it. That is the truth of it.

Maya Angelou

As every child knows, in this country we operate under the assumption that a person is innocent until proven guilty.

So what, if anything, does my pontificating have to do with the idea that knowledge is power.

Well…I’m getting to that (though I’m most definitely taking the long way around).

Ask yourself, do you have enough money in your checking account to cover an impound charge, a tow and perhaps a speeding ticket and attorney’s fees? And no, most of the time, you can’t just “charge it.” Certainly, freedom and safety come at a cost, but shouldn’t we all share the burden? Even if you do have enough cash at your disposal to deal with a traffic stop gone wrong in the middle of nowhere, does that justify the oppression?

What’s the big deal, you might be thinking, who cares who the CHP stops and lets go?

It’s just that sort of reasoning that tumbles us all down the proverbial slippery slope. If it’s “no big deal” if the suspect is innocent, then what’s the harm in letting a cop sneak a peak inside your car? Who cares if they poke around the trunk or snoop in your glove compartment? Is it so wrong to pull out all the passengers and line them up along the asphalt? If they’ve done nothing wrong, then surely they can handle a few dozen questions about where they’re going, where they came from, and all their names, ages, and familial relationships.  So what if it’s confusing and disorienting to answer strident inquiries on the side of the road, in the sweltering summer heat or piercing winter wind, as semi’s blast by and dust covers everything.

If they’re innocent, why should the inconvenience matter? Why can’t they be “good sports” and prove us wrong?

Because that’s not how it works in the United States. We’ve decided as a country that it’s more important to protect individual rights than surrender one person’s freedom for the good of the whole. It’s innocent until proven guilty, not the other way around. It’s preponderance of the evidence and making sure those in authority don’t abuse their power.

Because we choose not to live in a police state, and that means that yes… sometimes the guilty evade consequences. But the alternative puts us all in jail, makes us all enemies of the state. Makes us all guilty by implication.

It is often in the name of cultural integrity as well as social stability and national security that democratic reforms based on human rights are resisted by authoritarian governments.

Aung San Suu Kyi

How do we protect ourselves from authoritarianism and government overreach? Well, a good start is information. If I could show you the statistics, perhaps you’d see the insidiousness of the situation. This is not just one motorist or even ten families. This involves thousands of people every year – some pass through the Joshua trees with nary a glance from law enforcement. Others are stopped, questioned, doubted, charged and vilified.

And the statistic that matters most shows that the only thing that separates one group from the other is the color of their skin.

Those of us in authority should be doing everything we can to encourage the better angels of our nature, as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions. President Barack Obama

Just as important, a truly valid government should invite transparency. We often hear that most cops are good people, and I think sharing data will ultimately bear this out. Police officers should embrace the free flow of information rather than let the bad guys hide in the shadows.

As a senator in Illinois, President Obama successfully passed legislation that did, in fact, track and monitor racial profiling. By making everyone accountable, the data ended up aiding law enforcement just as much as the citizenry.

As the President explained in his recent statements about the Zimmerman verdict, “Initially, the police departments across the state were resistant, but actually they came to recognize that if it was done in a fair, straightforward way that it would allow them to do their jobs better, and communities would have more confidence in them and, in turn, be more helpful in applying the law. And obviously, law enforcement has got a very tough job.”

When everyone had access to the information, everyone was empowered and justice becomes not only tangible, but attainable.

When I hear President Obama say that one way to foster a better relationship between minority communities and law enforcement agencies is through data collection, the little constitutional law nerd that slumbers in my heart rises and cheers. The rule of law can be abused and twisted and manipulated, but when it is honored and respected, great things can be accomplished: when we are all treated fairly and face the same burdens and benefits, then we can truly call ourselves a great society.

“…we have to be vigilant, and we have to work on these issues,” the President said. “And those of us in authority should be doing everything we can to encourage the better angels of our nature, as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions.”

You can read the entire transcript of the President’s speech here.

And by all means, contact me if you’d like more details about my work in Needles – I don’t want to bog down this post with too many anecdotes and political rants, but in the 12 months I worked out there, I was constantly and consistently shocked by what I saw – experiences I’m happy to relate if you’re interested.  Information that could make a powerful difference in the way you see the world.

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