Our VoiceCulture

Law for the Rich, Law for the Poor


Rev. David L. Ostendorf • Jan 28, 2009

“Civil law is for the rich. Criminal Law is for the poor.”

The trenchant words of the Bishop in the middle of a deadly Sao Paulo neighborhood years ago are forever etched in mind. The stark reality of his assessment has seldom been clearer as the political-economic crisis deepens. An unemployed worker robs a bank of a few thousand dollars and goes to federal prison for untold years. A Wall Street mogul robs banks of untold millions and never sees the inside of a courtroom. The stories are legion; the outcomes well-known.

Central to the American ethos is the “rule of law.” Seldom spoken, however, is the lawful rule of race and class. The rich scalawag goes untouched. The John Thains rake in millions and shell out billions in unscrupulous bonuses just prior to the arrival of the federal rescue wagon. The corrupt politician goes unchecked. The Rod Blagos take an entire state down for years and suddenly become hot media commodities. Flagrant disregard of the law at the upper, whitened echelons reigns in the newest gilded age and is rewarded handsomely. And the elites wonder why the people are discontent, why there is hunger for a new day and deep unease that it may not arrive soon enough, if at all.

The deeper irony here is with the newer stanzas of the old “law and order” mantra sung so forcefully by those seeking to save what little they have been afforded by the upper echelons who play them like an old fiddle. Tragically, the old stanzas of the mantra still play well—the ones that call for incarcerating all the “drug dealers” (white-speak for African American men) or of clamping down on “welfare cheats” (white-speak for African American mothers). The newer, additional stanzas sing of rounding up “illegal immigrants” (white-speak for Latinos/as) and could become new hit tunes if the racist, anti-immigrant forces “seeking to preserve Western culture” go unchallenged.

The ancient rule of governance aimed at keeping the populace in line—give ‘em bread and circuses”— has itself been workably refurbished and renewed in this era. The bread is gone; only the electronic circuses remain in play, mesmerizing us and keeping us off-track. The road ahead, even the Obama-road, is going to be rough traveling.

Civil law for the rich. Criminal law for the poor. Stop listening to the whitesong; stop watching the shows. Organize. Now.

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