When I was in law school, friends were surprised when I announced that I planned to use my first option for an elective course to study business law (technically, Business Organizations). I went to law school to learn to be a labor and employment lawyer, they said, why would I waste an elective studying something that had nothing to do with employment law? I responded (though not always with such polite language) that it’s important for leftists to understand how the capitalist legal system privileges so-called free market economics through the laws regulating corporations.
I was right. Studying business law I learned about how our legal system operates, what assumptions it makes, and what and who it favors and why.
At the risk of seeming to engage in finger-wagging or lecturing, as I see the way that the social justice movement has evolved over the last year, it seems clear to me that left activists — especially young activists and those new to the movement — must spend time deepening their understanding of the law and the legal system.
Here’s a few reasons why:
When we’re talking about racism and violence by police officers we need to understand the way that their actions are protected by the terms of contracts negotiated between police unions and municipal officials and how that can be changed. The very same elected officials who are mouthing their support for Black Lives Matter are making deals with the police unions that foster, maintain, and protect violent, white supremacist policing. If we want to effectively change the way that policing is done in local communities — if we want to end militaristic policing and the culture of violence and racism surrounding policing — we need to replace these elected officials with community leaders who are willing to confront the police unions at the bargaining table and in arbitration, and who understand how these systems work to protect the status quo.
When we’re discussing why urban schools are under-funded, or why cities are treated like beggars in state budget negotiations, or why “Blue” states like Connecticut are still among the most racially and economically segregated states in the US, we need to understand the role of zoning laws, racist systems of property taxation, and regressive systems of income taxation. I don’t question the good intentions of the well off suburban homeowners with Black Lives Matter signs on their manicured lawns, but good intentions won’t break down centuries of white supremacy. A movement has to understand not just the reality of institutional racism but why and how it is enshrined and enabled by the law.
When we’re discussing the importance of passing a law like the CROWN Act to protect the right of Black women to be free from discrimination based on the way they wear their hair, we have to be prepared to talk about the way that existing anti-discrimination laws are all founded on a system of at will employment that limits real remedies to the relative handful of workers that can afford lawyers. Ending at will employment and supporting collective workplace struggles (both union and non-union) are the mechanisms that could turn existing anti-discrimination laws into vehicles for real change.
We need to understand the difference between real change and half-measures, symbolic gestures, and legal smoke and mirrors. In 2020, under pressure from the waves of protests following the police murder of George Floyd, the Connecticut legislature passed a Police Accountability Act. That law does take some small steps forward, but it is also chock full of provisions that feel good but do nothing. One example: Section 18 of the Act appears, on its face, to require police departments to evaluate ways in which social workers could respond to or assist police in responding to certain kinds of emergency calls. But the entire section is no more than a laundry list of things that police departments “shall consider” or “may consider” in preparing such a report. We’re already seeing that most PD’s aren’t even in compliance with the requirement that they prepare such a report, but even if they do so, the law literally permits them to announce “We considered all of the measures suggested in Section 18 and we plan to adopt exactly ZERO. Why? Because we considered ’em and didn’t like ‘em.”
Maybe it seems like a lot to dump on you as an activist to say you have the responsibility to study and learn as much of the law as you can. But think of it this way: legal systems (federal, state, and local) are the location in which the DNA of institutional racism is written. We can’t possibly break down and purge institutional racism from the body politic of US society if we don’t understand it.
And if we are serious about activists — workers, community members, students, houseless people, disabled people, incarcerated people — having control over the process by which change is made, knowledge of the legal system cannot be left solely in the hands of lawyers, policy experts, and politicians. Knowledge is power.