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Giddiness over Obama does not justify lowering vigilance on social justice.

Jan 21, 2009 Giddiness over Obama does not justify lowering vigilance on social justice.

Bill of Rights. (From the public domain.)

Even I felt some giddiness hearing Obama start his inaugural address yesterday. The nightmare of Bush and Cheney was behind us, and hopefully Obama would not repeat any of that nightmare; hope springs eternal. A day after celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, we got a big birthday gift of realizing King’s dream more than ever. For at least four years, we will see no judicial nominations at the horrific levels of Justice Scalia, Justice Thomas, Justice Alito, and Chief Justice Roberts (whose nomination Obama voted against).

Whether more by intention or omission, while fighting for critical aspects of social justice, Obama will perpetuate substantial injuries in other areas of social justice, including criminal defendants’ rights. I have heard Obama say nothing to show that he will help make the criminal justice system more just. His appointment of Eric Holder as attorney general puts in place an establishment past prosecutor and judge who was Bill Clinton’s number two at the Justice Department; that does not suggest any change between the Obama and Clinton administrations on criminal justice issues.

From a realpolitik perspective, civil libertarians and social justice activists may not get better White House occupants than Obama and Clinton for at least a good while. At least Clinton’s administration appointed so many ACLU and Amnesty International types that this made it easier for social justice activists to be truly heard and understood by his administration; I wait to see if Obama will do the same. From the local ACLU affiliate board on which I sat when Clinton took office, four then-current and recent board members were appointed, as the head of the Justice Department’s Environmental division (Lois Schiffer), Education Department general counsel (Judith Winston), post-Mapplethorpegate general counsel to the National Endowment for the Arts (Karen Christensen), and FCC Director of the Office of Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs (Judith L. Harris, who is married to Norman J. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute). From Amnesty International, Clinton brought John Shattuck to be deputy secretary of state for human rights. To the Supreme Court, Clinton nominated Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a co-founder of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project in 1972. (As an aside, the ACLU’s webpage recounts: "One of only nine women at Harvard Law School in 1956, Ginsburg and her female classmates were asked by the dean why they were occupying seats that would otherwise be filled by men." Let that dean eat his words topped with bird droppings.)

Not long after Jimmy Carter took office — and people can debate whether this helped further undo Carter’s image along with the scandals surrounding his brother Billy and others around him more than helping social justice — marijuana legalization activists even got what then probably was their closest shot with the White House to getting marijuana closer to legalization. Based on Patrick Anderson’s writings in High in America, on the one hand, Keith Stroup (whom I know and like very much) of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana laws was able to put together a party in late 1977 attended by Carter’s top drug advisor Peter Bourne and other influential government people. However, those prospects became less bright after news leaked of Bourne’s having snorted cocaine at the party.

It can be interesting to challenge politicians and political candidates on legalizing marijuana, heavily decriminalizing all other drugs, and eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing. In the early nineties, a fellow civil libertarian once decried the police state in Washington, D.C. to one of the more social justice-minded city council members, who suggested a ride-on with the police to see why the council member had more watered-down views than this civil libertarian’s complaint. One 1990 weekend afternoon, former D.C. police chief Maurice T. Turner stood at a streetcorner in Cleveland Park, asking for my vote. I told him of my issues with the criminal justice system, and he responded: "You do the crime, you do the time." But what about innocents, those violating laws that should not be on the books (marijuana, for instance) or should be heavily decriminalized (all other drugs, for instance) in the first place, and all others who are harassed, searched and arrested; police actions that focus harassment, stops and searches on racial minorities and disenfranchised people; and race-based and socio-economic-based decisions by police, prosecutors, jurors, judges, jailers, parole officials, and probation agents on whom to arrest, what crimes to charge, what bonds and pre-release conditions to impose, what verdict to render, what sentences to seek (including the death penalty), what sentence to impose, how to handle alleged probation and parole violations, who to parole and when, which prisons to make available, and what conditions to impose at the prison? I told former chief Turner that he would not get my vote if his best response was the overly-simplistic and flawed "If you do the crime, you do the time."

Not long after meeting Maurice Turner, I attended a meet and greet at a National Lawyers Guild member’s (or member type’s) home, with then U.S. Congressmember and now-Senator Bernie Sanders — Burlington, Vermont’s previous socialist mayor — still wondering whether I would ever meet a politician for whom I would want to campaign or donate. I am still wondering. Bernie’s answer to my question about marijuana legalization makes me wonder whether Obama is of a similar bent. Sanders first told me that the marijuana legalization issue was not important enough to focus attention on when such weightier issues as health care, the economy and education demand attention. I would not let go of my question, so I asked: "Mr. Sanders, if marijuana legalization comes up for a vote on the House floor tomorrow, how will you vote?" I give him credit for answering honestly, but not for his answer, which was that considering that there are people selling marijuana to children, he will not support its legalization. (Well, Bernie, I suppose you want to return to alcohol prohibition, too, then?). In any event, does Obama feel that many of my darling criminal justice issues are too much of a luxury (they are not) to focus on while he works to fix the economy, close Guantanamo and withdraw from Iraq? As I have said again and again, governments and taxpayers will be in a much smaller financial pickle and tax-revenue pickle by shrinking the criminal justice system through legalizing marijuana, prostitution and gambling; heavily decriminalizing all other drugs; eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing; and abolishing the death penalty.

I do give Obama’s crew credit for at least letting people air their grievances on the transition team’s webpages (and notice how quickly the White House website transitioned to Obama’s presidency yesterday, which webpage I hope will continue to let people air their grievances to that page’s visitors), including: 

Posting the concerns about racism in the criminal justice and prison system, from the National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice.

– Posting the concerns of the UCFW against workplace immigration enforcement raids.

– Having a citizens briefing book allowing people to air their opinions and grievances and to invite voting in agreement or disagreement with those postings, including this posting favoring marijuana legalization.

In sum, as you applaud Obama’s arrival and Bush’s departure, it is essential to keep as vigilant and active as ever for social justice. Jon Katz

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