In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that “there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
When injustice is made legal or is protected by law, then the law itself is unjust and in so being, does great violence to individuals and communities. We not only have an obligation to “disobey” nonviolently such laws; we have the further responsibility to change and align them with the aims of a just and nonviolent society.
GUANTANAMO BAY PRISON
After 9/11, nearly 800 Muslim men and boys were held without charge at Guantanamo Bay Prison. Specifically, these men and boys were denied their constitutional right to go to court and to question the grounds for their detention. Though some of the prisoners have been released over the years, over 100 remain behind bars – the majority of whom have never been criminally charged. Driven to despair, many of these men have engaged in an ongoing hunger strike, to which the government has responded with the physical violence of forced-feeding. Others who have been cleared for release nevertheless remain imprisoned because trapped in bureaucratic limbo.
Guantanamo is a travesty of our democracy and a grave expression of legal as well as physical violence. So, too, is our government’s continued use of military commissions – which completely lack the basic attributes of due process – to adjudicate detainees’ cases.
Enough is enough.
A Nonviolent Alternative
- We must either try the detainees in our civil criminal justice system or release them now.
- We must end the forced-feeding of hunger striking prisoners.
- We must close Guantanamo Bay Prison for good.
- We need to put into effect a program of reconciliation with those whom we have imprisoned coupled with reparations for the harm we caused.
CRIMINAL LAW AND THE WAR ON DRUGS
Our nation’s “War on Drugs” has been and is nothing less than a physical, political, legal and economic war on the poor. Combined with a politics of “Law and Order,” this war has enabled politicians and other state officials to craft a system of criminal justice that has filled our prisons with, and condemned to excessive mandatory sentences, people who have committed nonviolent drug offenses. It has destroyed the lives of millions and disrupted families and communities. And because of racially biased mandatory minimums – as well as racially biased policing and prosecution – the casualties of this war have been disproportionately African American and Hispanic.
A further consequence of this “war” is that entire communities have been criminalized. African American and Hispanic citizens are subject to racial profiling by law enforcement and civilians alike. They are more likely than whites to suffer abusive stop-and-frisk police searches, pre-textual traffic stops, and other abusive police practices. And by construing their policies in terms of “war,” politicians and state actors have effectively framed those engaged in drug capitalism, and African American and Hispanic communities specifically, as enemies embedded in our nation. A consequence of this is that some civilians feel emboldened, if not entitled, to target through vigilante actions their African American and Hispanic neighbors.
Not even children are immune from such law enforcement-citizen surveillance. Subject to hyper-vigilance in schools, African American children, for example, are regularly singled out for “bad behavior” and harshly punished by school faculty and administrators – treatment that creates a “pipeline” from school to the criminal justice system for African American children.
All told, we have more people imprisoned and more children who are channeled into the criminal justice system than any other country on earth.
A Nonviolent Alternative
- We must end the War on Drugs and instead fund a nonviolent alternative: federal funds for drug courts and effective drug treatment centers.
- We need to decriminalize altogether the use, possession and sale of most narcotics.
- We must end mandatory minimums, which has resulted in sentencing disparities between whites and people of color.
- We must remove police from schools, end public education policies that effectively criminalize children, and adequately fund public schools to create smaller classrooms and provide support systems for vulnerable students and their families.
- We must provide funding for job-building and educational assistance to those who have served time.
- We must adopt laws that prohibit employers and schools from requesting information about criminal histories in job and school applications.
We must adopt laws that prohibit discrimination against ex-felons.