Comparative Justice

Hep Ingham hingham at
Mon Apr 24 17:32:09 PDT 2000

Official Power Must Be Used Fairly By Robert Buzzanco. Robert Buzzanco, a professor of histoyr at the University of Housotn, is the authort of "Vietnam and the Transformation of America Life." IN MIAMI, INS agents storm into a home to recover a young boy and return him to his father, helping set off disturbances that result in about 300 arrests later in the day. Days earlier in Washington and several months earlier in Seattle, local law enforcement officials arrest thousands of people nonviolently protesting the corporate-endorsed and often deadly practices of the World Bank and World Trade Organization, clubbing many and showering pepper spray into others' eyes.

On the surface, these events may seem to be similar examples of state power, either the government lashing out at those who engage in lawlessness or wielding authority and power against those exercising their democratic rights.

In reality, however, the government's response to the Miami mobs protesting the fate of Elián Gonzalez and the many thousands demonstrating against the WTO and World Bank could not be more different.

In Washington and Seattle, citizens seeking reform and engaging in passive resistance were summarily beaten without warning; in Miami, a custody case was dragged out for five months because the Gonzalez family there simply rejected the authority of government agencies and courts and scuttled dozens of attempts to negotiate an end to the crisis-all with the support of local officials who vowed that they would not enforce the law. Protestors in Miami regularly harassed and attacked counterdemonstrators, while local police turned the other way.

The Justice Department and White House, for their part, acquiesced in the lawlessness until early Saturday morning. Ultimately, the attorney general did the right thing, but five months late and at a great cost.

The juxtaposition of events like those in Washington and Miami should remain a cause for alarm even though it was part of a long tradition in American politics. Groups with a progressive reform agenda, like those commemorating "A16"-the rubric for the April 16-17 protests-by demonstrating in Washington, invite attack from the state, while reactionary forces such as the Miami Cuban community receive official sanction.

>From the earliest days of the Republic, the state wielded its power against
"the people" when it appeared they might seriously challenge the status quo. In the late 1700s, state forces crushed the Shays' and Whiskey Rebellions, marches by poor farmers and debtors to protest unequal government tax policies.

Throughout the first half of the 19th Century, mobs in both the South and North routinely attacked abolitionists, while local authorities looked the other way.

By the late 1800s, local and state militias and even the U.S. Army were called out frequently to quash strikes or rallies by workers, farmers, the unemployed or other groups outside the mainstream. In the 20th Century, such government behavior increased as the state continued its war on labor, harassed "radical" groups in the Red Scares, did little to stop widespread lynchings of blacks throughout the South, and either failed to prevent attacks on civil rights activists or, as with the FBI repression of many New Left groups, directly assaulted so-called militants.

The latest events, then, have a long history. The government has always been willing, and at times enthusiastic, about using its power to defend elite institutions and privileged individuals while turning a blind eye to conservatives who usurp the law to pursue their own reckless agendas. But the convergence of events in Washington and Miami, though part of a long historical process, should concern us deeply just the same. If the government can react so violently to a protest against world financial policies, while at the same time be paralyzed for five months by a simple custody case, then one has to wonder how federal and local officials might react to a great crisis.

What would Bill Clinton or Al Gore, or George W. Bush for that matter, do if a grave threat to the nation's laws and institutions emerged? The answer, based on history, is clear. If it was a progressive group, the full power of the state would come down upon it, as it did against unions, African-American activists, and other reformists. If the dissidents were part of a right-wing reaction, they would undoubtedly find friends and favor in high government circles.

In 1832, when the South Carolina legislature "nullified" a recent tariff law, President Andrew Jackson, a southerner and slaveholder himself, nevertheless issued a proclamation to the "ambitious malcontents" there and emphasized that "the laws of the U.S. must be executed." On the heels of the Miami crisis-for Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Janet Reno, George W. Bush and his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush-there seems to be a lesson in this particular history: Enforce the law equally.

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