The worst little courthouse in Texas

This is a truly hellish miscarriage of justice. Grand jurors who fancied themselves the synthesis of Matlock and Elliot Stabler. A prosecutor who actively aided them in badgering and intimidating a witness until she told a variety of contradictory stories about her boyfriend’s whereabouts at the time of a murder. Grand jurors demonstrating ostentatious false concern for the welfare of the witness’s children, telling her that they didn’t want to have to incarcerate her and separate her from them. Perjury charges against the same witness for telling these incredible stories under duress after grand jurors threatened to ruin her future employment prospects. A capital murder conviction for the witness’s boyfriend based on this tainted testimony and the apparent hiding of exculpatory evidence by the prosecutor and a police detective.

This didn’t go down in some unheard-of cracker-ass backwater, either. It happened in Harris County. This was the tenor of a grand jury investigation into the murder of a Houston police officer.

Any society that countenances this sort of lawlessness in its courts richly deserves a foreign invasion, an imperial mission civilisatrice. The effects of such an imperial project on the empire pursuing it are immaterial to the question of whether a wicked society deserves to be invaded by reformists, and the answer to this question is oh hell yes.

There are, however, degrees of foreignness, and the degree matters. If this kind of lawlessness takes root in the more violent provinces of a larger country, the national authorities have a legal and moral duty to restore order, by force of arms if need be.

We’ve all read this story before. Ken Burns produced a documentary about it. The daintier sort of Southerner refers to it as the “recent unpleasantness.” Recent or not, it was certainly unpleasant. More recent battles in the same war for the American soul have included the forcible integration of public accommodations in the South. We needed the US Marshals and federalized National Guard units to do that. Likewise the federal usurpation of Southern electoral systems and the incremental federalization of school curricula. Many of the resulting reformist curricula have been dubious: foolish, naive, mushheaded, sometimes downright stupid, oftentimes prone to inadvertently stirring up destructive communal tensions, but something had to be done to rescue education from the clutches of local bigots. The status quo ante in Mississippi into the sixties was a vicious crowd-sourced apartheid, practically totalitarian in scope. The citizens’ councils devoted most of their energy to intimidating black people, but they had no compunction about ruining the lives of local white dissidents, too. When push came to shove, they were perfectly willing to grill the white meat.

No manifestation of dewy-eyed multicultural foolishness that you endured from Sesame Street or your anodyne school textbooks was as pernicious as that.

We can tell that the Lost Cause and every latter-day successor to it are morally bankrupt because the arguments voiced in their favor are so rotten. Many, probably most, of them are appalling outbursts of moral relativism. One often hears apologists for the Confederacy insisting that Northerners are racists. Abraham Lincoln was a racist. Lincoln was a much worse bigot than Robert E. Lee. (He was certainly a crude motherfucker, one who would have greatly enjoyed LBJ’s company, and mutually so, where Lee probably would have considered Johnson an embarrassment, a national vulgarity, and but of course a Texan, not a Virginian.) The labor and trade unions were and are racist. (In point of fact, a number of them were nothing of the sort, and many of these were violently suppressed by state and corporate elements in furtherance of racist policy.) Northern robber barons were brutal to the poor. (What, Southern planters weren’t? Massa please.) Northern cops are racist. (Yes. It isn’t hard to coarsen an already tough working-class neighborhood and convince the local guidos that the epitome of Italian culture is communal violence against other low-class minorities, especially when one offers them the king’s shilling for their services. It’s the same damn thing that the South’s overclass has been doing to coarsen working-class whites into an enforcement class for more than three centuries.)

Then there’s the vulgar trump card about how blacks are better off in the United States, slavery, Jim Crow, and all, than they would have been in Africa. This is effectively an argument that Sheriff Clarke and Bull Connor are all right because they aren’t as bad as Mobutu Sese Seko or Goodluck Jonathan. This argument is related to the one that blacks were better off under slavery, with their strong family ties, religiosity, and work ethic, than they are idle on welfare. The most notable recent proponent of this belief is Cliven Bundy. It’s no coincidence that Bundy is also a major cattleman mooching off federal land while excoriating the federal government as a tyrannical empire and soliciting armed sedition against federal agents. These things are all of a piece. They’re in the playbook.

Ultimately, this viciousness is about class. Race is a convenient proxy. It’s an important factor, but at heart it’s a secondary one. This nastiness has been about class all along, ever since Bacon’s Rebellion. After putting down that revolt, the planters set the poor whites against the poor blacks, buying the former off with a Faustian offer of second-class citizenship in exchange for their serving as muscle to keep the black man down. Ruling classes across the country have been pulling that same stunt ever since.

But it’s really about keeping the poor man down. It’s no surprise that the police manslaughter incident that just made the papers in New York City, in which a couple of really guido-looking cops dressed up like third-world soldiers killed a fat black guy by putting him into a face-down choke hold because he was being insolent, involved a street fight over black-market cigarettes in Tompkinsville, a poor neighborhood on Staten Island. That brawl evolved true to form: a couple of bruisers from a street crimes detail started shit with a guy who, unlike themselves, wasn’t threatening or looking for trouble (he was just pissed off and wanted them to know it), escalated with him until they were surrounded by angry citizens (some of whom, unlike the suspect, sounded like they might get violent), and only when the street crimes goons bit off more than they could chew did uniformed backup enter the fray. It’s the thin blue line again. The unwashed sworn can count on the marginally washed to cover for them when they go feral.

There are reasons why these cops aren’t on ferry duty or patrolling Manhattan south of 125th Street.

The Harris County grand jury disaster that I described above looks to be equally a ramification of class. I don’t doubt at all that race aggravated the grand jury’s hostility and paranoia, but no witness in the same position can stand up to that kind of lawless, counterproductive intimidation without a strong measure of legal savvy and confidence, two things that the uneducated poor all too rarely possess. A black attorney being badgered by out-of-control grand jurors on a fishing expedition would probably have shut down the inappropriate line of questioning from the witness’s chair, contacted the press, and filed a bar ethics complaint against the prosecutor for blatant jury contamination. An uneducated white witness in the same position, by contrast, probably would have been bullied into roughly the same corner. Racial privilege is not a reliable bulwark against the third degree from citizen-Dirty Harries. Legal savvy and assertiveness, which are correlated with educational attainment and affluence, are much more effective.

It’s no wonder, then, that the United States has achieved the world’s highest rate of incarceration in a period of surging socioeconomic inequality. The authorities are trying to jail their way to social stability. Bad elements in the South have been doing that for centuries, but it’s close to a national problem now. This is an expensive and dangerous approach. Above-market salaries, union representation, civil service protections, and generous benefit and pension packages aren’t enough to keep our police and prison services free of violent criminals, and I’m not talking about the incarcerated ones. In the Wackenhut/CCA mercenary sector of private prisons, the guards are often paid a dollar or two above minimum wage to staff grossly overcrowded tiers. They’re barely even being paid the king’s shilling.

This whole thing ain’t real stable. If it breaks down and releases human pathogens into the outside, it’ll be our own fault as a polity for allowing it. We live downriver from that reservoir; there is no upriver in which for us to claim refuge from the flood.

I’m not fond of Jeremiah Wright’s “God damn America” rhetoric. It’s awfully shrill and not of any identifiable civic benefit. But I’d be a lot less sympathetic to it if our country weren’t behaving in a fashion that is objectively damnable. We don’t deserve God’s favor, and I certainly wouldn’t be smug enough to assume that we enjoy it.

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