Whaz UP from one of the bleeding edges of American social contortion — Portland Oregon. As one might expect, I’ve had some interesting discussions recently with people about “rioting”, “property destruction”, and “cooperating with police.” It’s…interesting…how people assign value to tangible assets and the intangible acts of compliance and ownership. Then there’s Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State and Hatch Act violator, who is blatant and unashamed about his priorities — his “Commission on Unalienable Rights” came out with a draft report stating that “property rights” — meaning individual, private property — and religious freedom are the “foremost” of the “unalienable” rights. It’s on page 13, if you care to check.
This is some scary shit. One of the highest ranking, most bigoted, and most ambitious U.S. executive officials has created a State Department function to draft party doctrine saying some rights are more Right than others. Some are “unalienable” based on the human condition (as created by the Christian’s god). Others are, well, lesser: the product of human tradition. You can feel the condescending pat on the head leaching from the text. This has real, direct connections to the ongoing public clusterfuck surrounding freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, and freedom from unreasonable search and seizure. So I’ve donated (again) to Jaime Harrison, a black man from a former slaveholding state who is running to unseat Trump flunky Lindsey Graham in South Carolina. Because I don’t stan the Sheriff of Nottingham. If you make it through the next 2000 words or so about Robin Hood, LaVoy Finicum, you’ll get to Kamala Harris too.
Jaime Harrison for Senate
Jaime Harrison is running for U.S. Senate in South Carolina to defeat Lindsey Graham...
The Lex Pompeo
Just issue spotting here, but the standout problems with Pompeo Rights include: a religion whose current adherents are less than 1/3 of the world’s population is supposed to define the metes and bounds of civic legitimacy for everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike. (Obviously the “religious freedom” component of the “unalienable rights” has its limits). Next, we’re supposed to believe a clique of elite white men 250 years ago were capable of identifying and protecting the fundamental needs of the human condition. The Founders were not only narrow in their world view, they affirmatively depressed the unalienable rights and human dignity of most other categories of humans, treating them not as humans but as property. Which points to the last obvious problem I’m hectoring over right now: fetishizing and elevating property rights assumes people have and can acquire property. No property? No rights. The power and validation of the state are reserved for the Haves.
This was more transparent in 1776 than it is now. The division of North American humanity during the age of empire was open and unashamed: there were Persons with Unalienable Rights, and there were Nonpersons (Blacks, Indigenous, women, convicts, non-Christians). A white, property-owning man did not have to pretend he thought white women or any non-white people were fully human. A couple millennia of naked power grabs and resource hoarding put him on top. Science confirmed it, God blessed it.
Ephebophile Jefferson sprung from the Enlightenment but the Constitution didn’t just spring from Jefferson and Madison’s patrician brows like Athena. The Founders saw their time as the grand culmination of the Renaissance emergence from superstitious medieval darkness. The age of exploration and wanton imperial plunder of the Americas became the age of reason, meaning rich American planters should profit directly by trade with Europe and Asia instead of having to share the spoils with the British Crown (which funded navies to subdue Asia). Religion and the excesses of the Inquisition yielded to Science (which promptly created racial hierarchies, medicalized misogyny, and eugenics). The cute thing about this progression is the Constitution is actually like a medieval document: the Magna Carta.
What about them Deer?
The Magna Carta was a treaty between a medieval king of England and his richest, most powerful subjects. It allowed them to fight with each other less, and thus spend more of their resources wringing the last bushel of grain and skein of wool out of the serfs. The Magna Carta contains the seeds of the civic procedural protections in the Constitution, including the general notion that “a man” (meaning a Baron) had the right to be secure in “his” property as against the state (King John). What little the Magna Carta did for the unfree serfs it did while ratifying that being an unfree man was in fact still a thing.
That’s Actual King John. Mythical King John is known for being shitty to Robin Hood. In particular he delegated his abusive fuckery to the Sheriff of Nottingham who in turn had The Sheriff’s Men. They are all understood to be awful fellows. Some of the earliest Robin Hood canon is the identity of the Merry Men as poachers, meaning they killed deer, because their families were hungry. I found this part tricky as a kid, because of all the imbedded cultural assumptions. First of all, if you killed any deer at all, any place in the kingdom, it was the King’s deer, and you Done A Bad. That’s because the King personally owned all the deer. You kill the deer, you’re a criminal subject to death and mutilation. Note the King does not hunt all the deer. He can’t use all the deer. His “use” of the deer is primarily for social and athletic activity, although certainly a dead deer is consumed at court. And there you have it: the King’s property interest in the deer, a luxury item reserved for theoretical access, is protected with lethal force. The laws and enforcement of laws are all about the King owning deer, not the ability of pretty much anyone to eat, particularly the people who are most likely to be hungry. That’s property rights in a nutshell.
Most structural “rights” associated with living in a society with other humans all evolved from rules made by the tiny sliver of people who had all the stuff, even though most of us think of rights in the modern sense as the ability to be safe, and carry on our lives without other humans fucking with us. Property rights is simply the most obviously Stuff focused. Rules keep other Stuff Havers from fucking with each other, but they absolutely do not protect the No Stuff folks from the Stuff Havers. Mostly the Rules reinforce keeping everyone in their place so the Stuff can keep flowing up to the Havers. That’s why you have the Sheriff of Nottingham’s men.
RESPECT. My. Ah-THOR-i-TY
The Magna Carta and the Constitution both derive from a worldview in which there are persons, and non-persons. The plain language might not read that way, out of context. We’ve made a lot of headway legally in this country because the bare text can in fact sound inclusive of humans that didn’t look like John Hancock or a Plantagenet. But (Bbbuuuuuttttt….) all of the imbedded cultural assumptions — about serfs and what it means to Have Stuff — is all still in there. What we’re seeing now is some of it blorping out under pressure, like one of those gel squeeze toys that extrudes out a weird knob between your fingers when you grip it.
The blorps include tweets about “LAW AND ORDER” from certain people. Seriously, what does that even mean? Does it mean “a well-run, safe, productive life for everyone” or “COMPLY OR DIE”. It’s not “Law and Justice” or “Liberty” or “Freedom”, it’s “Law and ORDER”. It means conformity and control, which is imbedded in every single variation of “if he would have just complied, he wouldn’t have been shot.” That’s because for some classes of people the entire purpose of Rules is to keep them under control and to reinforce their nonpersonhood. The 13th amendment, and even the Civil Rights Movement did not eliminate this functional, structural character of Rules. The very nature of Rules in America is confining Blackness and demanding compliance. It was not just the three-fifths compromise. It’s the utter absence of voice, combined with the certain knowledge of everyone making the Rules that whole classes of beings existed to benefit them, the Stuff Havers.
Here we are, in 2020, with black men being shot in the back or having their windpipes crushed in America’s streets and people saying with absolute confidence that they were “going for a weapon” or “menacing the police” or “failing to comply”. These things are death penalty offenses because when your whole purpose in the body politic is to comply, disrupting that order calls for extreme retribution by enforcers. The purpose of the Sheriff’s Men is not to protect serfs. It’s to kill serfs to protect deer.
Scoundrels, Villains, and Thugs. Oh my.
There’s been an astonishing number of Robin Hood movies, TV series, picture books, cartoons, etc. I have yet to see any favorably elevating the gallantry, wit, compassion, and/or masculine potency of the Sheriff’s Men. I know there are people with a thing for Rickman’s 1992 Sheriff, and I think Michael Wincott was hawt, but SheriffMan lore isn’t a thing. Hell, Stormtroopers and Actual Nazis get more redemptive story arcs than Sheriff’s Men. So how the fuck do you explain all the badge humping, Blue Lives Matter, BLMantifaTHUGargleblargle compliance fetishists? Why has huge swathes of white America decided Sheriff Lives Matter?
More cool medieval trivia: the term for the landless “unfree” serfs of 13th century England was “villein”. This is the antecedent of “villain”. So you get the term for criminal evildoer directly from the identity of those in an involuntary servitude relationship with land (via a short detour and usage for “stupid” and “boorish”). The most powerless person in the social equation becomes the bad guy. And no one wants to be a villain. Or a villein. Fast forward 600 years to the highly successful strategy of early American Rule Makers and Stuff Havers convincing even the lowest status whites that both slaves and free Blacks were beneath them by the laws of nature. And in turn recruiting those same lower status whites to be slave catchers, property protectors, and eventually police forces.
The Magna Carta did acknowledge a small class of “free men” who were neither villeins or barons. However, most free men were a baron’s whim away from being landless or lordless and thus criminals. This is where the Sheriff’s Men fit. In the 800 years or so since, the class of persons useful to Stuff Havers has expanded. People with Stuff want to convert their stuff into art, fine homes, weapons, and other prestige items so you get all kinds of people who can make stuff and do math. Note: the carveout to precarious personhood was the Church, which existed for centuries as a co-equal force with European Stuff Havers, and acted like any other state, making war, having sheriff-types, and enforcing Rules. The Reformation made that a touch more complicated, but I won’t get into that, except to say I suspect Pompeo, a known Christian Supremacist, is trying to recreate the monarchial one party state in more than one way.
This week I heard a Milwaukee journalist talking on the radio about Daniel Miskinis the police chief in Kenosha Wisconsin — the guy who said no one would have been shot to death if they’d just been following curfew. Also the guy whose department showed up at the scene of a fight involving two white women and decided to shoot the black man. Seven times. In the back. The commentator said the police chief is “very law and order” and historically puts blame on the community. Lo and behold, Miskinis’ community attracted an actual Sheriff of Nottingham super fan! Who then committed multiple criminal, terrorist acts. Kyle Rittenhouse has his own stans now, because of course he does.
The best part about Oregon is a man can simultaneously be a Sheriff top fan and cosplay Robin Hood. Who wants to bet the fine folks from Idaho who drove here to shoot pepper spray in the streets of Portland last night to Support the Blue were also cheering on the Bundy Brothers and LaVoy Finicum? Those were the iconoclastic patriots who took over Federal property in Oregon for five weeks a few years back and damaged and vandalized it extensively. Not to be confused with the antifa terrorists who sprayed graffiti on the Federal building in Portland. LaVoy Finicum is still treated as a martyr (I didn’t know until just this week that people get his cattle brand as a tattoo). Jacob Blake was “a violent felon.” I’ve seen videos of both Finicum’s and Blake’s shootings by the way. Finicum “defied instructions” in ways I didn’t even know were possible. Blake turned his back and walked away. His crime was probably his body language which is pretty clearly “you’re not the boss of me.” That’s an insult from a Black Man the police can’t allow to stand.
Rittenhouse, Dylann Roof, and Portland’s Proud Boys are what happens when “free men” start fearing serfdom and instead of working for a serf-free society, immediately run over to join the Sheriff’s Men. Ammon Bundy himself came out in support of BLM because having tried to be Robin Hood, he found it was not so romantic. I saw parts of his trial. Even though they got away with just about everything, it was not an Epic Adventure. Or even a Tense, Gritty Drama. For a non lawyer it was probably stressful and simultaneously boring as fuck. After spending months being on the receiving end of criminal justice, he is actually being consistent and saying a heavy handed government is not a good thing. Most white men who haven’t been paraded as criminals before the world are going with what they’ve been inculcated with since birth: Rules are good because the Rules aren’t supposed to harm *them*.
In the American golden age of the 20th century, there was enough social and economic good to go around, and various incentives for the Stuff Havers to spread the love (need for skilled, stable labor force, dick measuring contests with the Soviet Bloc, etc). We started to see daylight between actual starvation and much larger chunks of people. In the second half of the 20th century women and people of color earned some personness. White people had the right combination of wellfed-ness and obliviousness to worry less about the compliance caste.
In the 21st century we’re hurtling towards medieval level gaps between villein and baron. With everyone stuck at home, all the capital in the country is sucking through a vacuum tube right into Jeff Bezos’ bottomless pockets. He has more money than he could possibly use in a thousand life times. And the cops killed George Floyd over an (alleged) fake $20. The Sheriff’s men are here to protect the deer, not the serfs. Nevermind the storied and extinct manufacturing jobs of the 20th century, an able bodied adult today is feeling blessed to have a job that offers both FT hours and a barely living hourly wage or benefits. Good luck getting FT, decent wage, and benefits all at the same time.
The facially “neutral” Constitution written by human traffickers used Black villeins to hold the space in society for the unfree. For the intervening two centuries we’ve been re-casting the Black unfree as sharecroppers, convict work gangs, and finally “gangsters” and “thugs” — Villains who are always a danger: presumptively criminal if they are not engaged in a narrow band of servile, compliant labor. White men (and white women deriving their identity from their husbands and fathers) have always been confident they are not villeins because they can see the Black men right there and know “he’s the unfree, not me!”
For the People
Here’s where the presidential race comes in. I’m not sure I’ve ever donated to a presidential candidate, unless it was Obama’s reelection. I’ve never thought my dollar made a difference to the campaign. The amounts at stake were just too big and my scarce resources were better spent elsewhere. I don’t care any more. I’m going to throw my $30 or $50 or whatever like throwing a firecracker at a moving train. The firecracker won’t hurt the train, but if we throw enough, maybe we’ll get lucky and start a fire and slow the fucker down. And the tiny bit I’m thinking about when I throw the firecracker is Kamala Harris’s original slogan “For the People”. It is a symbolic phrase, and a loaded one in her case, but like “We the People” in the Constitution, it has the potential to symbolize more than just the Stuff Havers and the Rule Makers.
There’s a convention in the law when the government is part of a legal action. If you’ve seen a police procedural or legal drama you’ve heard it: The State of Oregon versus Sam S. Smith or “State v. Smith” for short. Different states do it differently. In California and a number of others, it is The People of the State of California versus Sam S. Smith. The notion behind People v. Smith or State v. Smith is that when someone commits a crime, it’s a violation of the Rules writ large. It’s not “Crime Victim v. Smith” or “Attorney General v. Smith” or “Alameda County District Court” or “San Francisco PD”. It’s the State because the State that creates the Rules for all of us is the one injured when someone violates the Rules.
It doesn’t really matter if you’re in a People v. Smith state like California or a State v. Smith state like Oregon. The school to prison pipeline, the disproportionate prosecution of Black and Latino men, and the criminalization of poverty will still be the same. But when Kamala Harris decided to run for high office she took the thing that she said, when she showed up in the actual court, that any attorney says when they appear, “for the People” and made it her campaign slogan. In that phrase, she consciously tried to evoke a world in which The People are the ones with a voice, and she represents the interests of all.
I like the idea that “The People” are “The State”. The People are the ones with a stake in the Rules. It isn’t the way our laws, going back to the Constitution and the Magna Carta, were born. The Mike Pompeos and King Johns of the world wrote the Rules so they were the only “people” in it and the Rules assert the primacy of having stuff over being safe. But Kamala Harris, the daughter of an immigrant from the former British Empire, and the descendent of human chattal, challenges those Rules by her very existence. If she can get to the second highest elected office in the land, maybe there’s some hope that someday “We” can ALL be “the People” in fact.