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Forget May Day, Celebrate "Law Day"!

What the US historically lacks in mass social movements, it has (partially) made up for in egalitarian legal institutions. Now all of that is under siege. Why the law is (or should be) important to American leftists.
"Building a movement", "class struggle", "solidarity": these have always been watchwords of the political left and, especially in the United States, always seemingly elusive and unreachable "holy grails." The truth is that successful mass movements in this country are few and far between. Class consciousness is uniquely weak here, and the dominant (capitalist) institutions of society in this country: the media, big business, educational, religious, and political institutions, have been extraordinarily effective at suppressing the emergence of any such consciousness here.

This is meant for those of us who identify with the political left, who believe that class struggle is essential to fulfilling the second and third of the three crucial revolutionary pillars of emancipation promised by Enlightenment philosophy, and ultimately by extension the first one as well (Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity): By no means should we resign ourselves to these sad facts about contemporary American society. But we must, nonetheless, clearheadedly assess our current strengths and weaknesses.

We cannot expect to build a class consciousness in people out of nothing: we have to work with what we have. And while people in our society are kept very deliberately ignorant of the reality of class oppression, have little commitment to social solidarity, and have very low expectations for egalitarian treatment in our economy, they nonetheless have higher expectations of "individual rights." "You have the right to remain silent," is an iconic -- and ironic -- phrase enshrined in American consciousness forever (by the Miranda Supreme Court decision, and through the magic of "Hollywood," has become iconic in the entire world's conception of America).

Indeed, American society reserves a uniquely sacral role for "law" and "individual rights," particularly Freedom of Speech, but also due process rights, habeas corpus, the right to trial by jury, rights to privacy and the inviolacy of one's person and personal effects.

Historically, the power of the independent American judiciary has proven itself to be a crucial lever in the struggles of those social movements that have effectively pressed emancipatory claims against capitalist society: think of women's rights (Roe v. Wade), rights of minorities (Brown v. Board of Education), etc.

Political reactionaries are keenly aware of the potential of the independent judiciary as a tool in emancipatory social struggles. Because while the legal system usually works on behalf of the dominant social classes, it is notoriously "unreliable." This explains the extraordinarily uniform and monomaniacal struggle of rightwing and corporate interests to gut the power of the jury in the US, which they have pursued relentlessly in the shape of "tort reform," caps on damages, and the erosion of trial and judicial access rights in general (eg., legally binding "arbitration" agreements in employment contracts, repressive laws like the 1996 "Counterterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act," the "Patriot Act", etc).

As astute leftists, while we should never cherish any illusions about the "justice" system as a reliable guarantor of freedoms in a class society, nor as any sort of "neutral" playing field for truth or objectivity, we should nonetheless recognize when something foul is happening. It cannot be good for any of us when the power of juries composed of ordinary citizens instead of social elites is further weakened. It cannot be good for any of us when radical lawyers like Lynne Stewart are seen as fair game for trumped up "terrorism" charges. It CAN be nothing but good when we recognize the common ground we have with other grassroots political tendencies in combatting these reactionary attacks.

Thus, it should be a prime concern of people on the left to build common ground with non-left tendencies who are also alarmed by these reactionary attacks. Those of us on the left should be brainstorming with traditional American Libertarians and others on how to roll back attacks on the jury, fielding campaigns on behalf of currently obscure but vital fields of struggle such as Jury Nullification (please see  http://www.fija.org), and many others.

The principle of Jury Nullification, in particular, could be a uniquely powerful lever for the left in resisting the current onslaught of ultraright nationalist politics, particularly in liberal strongholds such as Portland. The fact that this subject is so little spoken of or understood at all is a sad testament to the current weakness of the left as any kind of coherent, organized political force in the US. THIS MUST CHANGE!

They'll never 18.Feb.2007 06:25

Let me on a jury

But if they did nullification would be a distinct possibility. I would find it my duty as a citizen to inform my fellow jurors of this possible outcome and in the proper circumstances I'd advocate it.

That's why they'll never let me on a jury, cause jury duty is about putting the person on trial and nullification puts the law itself on trial.

discretion is the better part of valor 18.Feb.2007 14:17


Hung juries count too!

Not many prosecutors are willing to invest the time to retry low priority cases.

Sometimes you should simply keep your mouth shut, and at the end vote to acquit.

Also, you don't have to ever be a juror yourself to reach out and educate the potential jury pool about this subject.

Visit www.fija.org for leaflets suitable for printing and redistributing.