Fair warning: This book will make you angry.
The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, by Matt Taibbi, is a volume of stories. Like the Vietnamese refugee and rape victim in San Diego who applied for public assistance, only to be visited by a “welfare inspector” who barged into her home and began yelling that he would take her children away if he found she was lying about being destitute and not having a man. All this as he’s rummaging through her belongings. Finally, he holds up a pair of sexy panties on the tip of a pencil, demanding with a triumphant smirk to know why she needs these if she has no boyfriend.
Then there’s Patrick Jewell, rolling a (tobacco) cigarette and smoking it outside a New York City subway station, only to be thrown against a wall by some guy who yelled “What the (expletive) do you think you’re doing here?” and when he tried to escape, having his head slammed against the concrete by a gang of men in black jackets. Jewell thought he was being robbed or kidnapped, but it turned out his assailants were cops: He was thrown into a van and charged with smoking marijuana and resisting arrest.
But it is not simply these stories that will make you angry. No, what will really spike your blood pressure is when Taibbi juxtaposes them with other stories: tales of the bankers, money men — and occasional women — who committed billions of dollars in fraud, laundered money for terrorist organizations and drug cartels, precipitated the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression, yet never spent a night in jail.
The author’s thesis: this country has evolved a two-tier justice system under which some of us are considered fair game for policing tactics so aggressive as to be downright fascistic, while others are regarded as “too big to jail” because of the supposed economic repercussions if they were held to answer for their crimes. Indeed, in an interview on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Taibbi spoke of a prosecutor who told him some people are simply not “appropriate” for jail.
“Appropriate.” You might want to let that one stew for a moment.
Taibbi argues that this represents a relatively new perversion of justice.
After all, Ken Lay of Enron infamy was facing a possible life sentence for that swindle when he died in 2006. Bernie Madoff is doing 150 years for his multibillion dollar fraud. But under Attorney General Eric Holder, one does not do time for big-money crime. Instead, it has become commonplace to levy fines — not even against individuals, mind you, but against their corporations — and tout that as victory.
The only thing it is a victory for is the idea that some of us are more equal than others.
Yet, there is no uproar. A nation that proclaims “liberty and justice for all,” and “all men are created equal,” somehow manages to sleep through the betrayal of those supposedly cherished ideals. We are, writes Taibbi, “numb to the idea that rights aren’t absolute but are enjoyed on a kind of sliding scale.” So big money criminals live to scam another day, but the government slams like a truck into the rest of us, those on the bottom end of the wealth gap who are deemed “appropriate” for being thrown to the ground, or having their panties held up on a pencil eraser or otherwise treated with contempt by a system that judges them guilty on sight.
Like Michelle Alexander in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Taibbi doesn’t so much tell us something we didn’t already know as assemble it in such a way as to let us see what was right in front of us all the time: a system of justice that is separate and unequal and thus, broken. And if, indeed, that realization does make you angry?
(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via email at [email protected])
AFP Photo/Andrew Winning