Law in Contemporary Society

All Great Problems come from the Streets

“I saw the car drive off the road and told mami someone had just shot the driver. I thought it was just another drug dealer but we found out later it was the new president of Doral bank. An American. This was right outside of the Minillas Tunnel on the expressway in rush hour traffic, can you believe it? After three bullets to the head it’s a miracle he didn’t crash into other cars. It’s been months and still everyone says they saw nothing.”

“Diane’s moving, they’ve finally decided to go. Usually these things happen in the parking lot, like when that man was gunned down in front of the Bed, Bath, and Beyond. But this people will talk about. Her husband had to deal with the fall out: media, security, he even had to tell the food court workers whether they could give new meals or refunds to the people who got blood spattered on their lunches. Well, I guess it’s not so surprising that they’d ask in this economy.”

“No, we don’t really go to la Placita anymore. Too dangerous. I know it’s farther but let’s go to Shannon’s. Those two volleyball players were just unlucky and, you know, there’s really nothing you can do about luck. Anyway there’s more room to hit the ground if people start shooting at Shannon’s.”

These are conversations I have had with friends and family over the last year. In 2011, over 1,135 people were murdered in Puerto Rico; they were either unlucky or got what they deserved, usually depending on whether the victim was involved with drugs or gangs. Violent crime is an unfortunate fact of life in all places, especially urban areas, and Puerto Rico has never been an exception. In fact, the murder rate has always been well above the average state rate. But 2011, with a murder rate higher than that of Mexico and almost three times that of Louisiana, felt like a watershed year in which murder left the streets and entered food courts, luxury SUVs, and daily conversations. Even now as only a visitor I can feel the palpable change – an odd mix of despair and casual acceptance, a sense of pervading lawlessness. One thing you cannot help but notice: there is all this talk of killing and never any talk of law.

This particular silence is perhaps unsurprising given the level of corruption and abuse found in the local police force. In 2011 the Justice Department accused the Puerto Rico Police Department of a “profound” and “longstanding” pattern of civil rights violations and other illegal practices that have left it “broken in a number of critical and fundamental respects.” The New York Times reports that the DOJ condemns nearly every aspect of the force — from its hiring, training, and promoting practices to its policies governing officer behavior and accountability for misconduct. This report follows an October 2010 FBI arrest of 61 Puerto Rican officers in the largest police corruption operation in bureau history, raising the total number of arrests to over 1700.

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No hay racismo aqui

There is a fairy tale that is sometimes told in Puerto Rico: that racism, the great American evil, does not exist on the Isle of Enchantment. Of course, racism is very much alive and well, but in contrast to the mainland United States, the overarching social and culture narrative on the island is one of wealth disparity and classism, not race. Even my father has told me a personal variation of this: “When I first moved here no firm would interview me – a Harvard man, a Chinaman – not because of the color of my skin, but because they had never heard of my father.“

I am not suggesting that racism and classism exist to the same degree or have the exact same effect in Puerto Rico and the rest of the United States nor negating the importance of historical and cultural factors. I do however find this difference between the racial/classist narratives of Puerto Rico versus the rest of the U.S. narratives to be striking, perhaps not so much because of the great divide between them but because of how little it all seems to matter in the end. Wryly we realize that this growing lawlessness has had the result of chipping away at these social and racial divisions. Black, white, rich, poor – a bullet really is the great equalizer.

In Lawyerland Judge Day asks what happens to law and civil order in a nation of civil wars. What would happen if the law were to be infiltrated by the problems from the streets; what would the law then be? I would argue that this is exactly what is happening in Puerto Rico. The problems of its streets have been ignored and accepted for so long that they now engulf the entire island. The justice of law has been replaced with the justice of the streets with the result that no one is simply unlucky and everybody is getting what they deserve.

Right. But nobody seems to know what to do about it. You are trenchant in your observations, but equally defeated in your proposals. Everyone is complexly unlucky, it appears, and fate is resistant to change.

-- CarlaChow - 15 May 2012


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r5 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:09:50 - IanSullivan
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