Compared to many events in the news (Ferguson, etc.) and many travesties that are not, the content on this site may seem trivial. I agree, to an extent. In my personal life I spend a lot of time reading and advocating for solutions to the bigger injustices. I haven’t mentioned the big news stories on here in part because I don’t see my quibbles as deserving equal footing. That said, I think the events I complain about (mostly related to motorist rights) and the big stories are often symptoms of similar problems in America’s system. In particular, I believe that two main things cause a lot of this.
Too many laws
The first is that far too many laws exist. When a problem exists, society rewards legislators who write token laws to give the illusion that they’ve “done something.” When a problem doesn’t exist, nobody (generally) lobbies for laws to be eliminated. What society really needs is well-thought out policy with well-understood objectives, in consultation with appropriate experts. Regulating for the sake of regulating results in a patchwork of laws that don’t really accomplish their intent but which allow cops and prosecutors to abuse those who don’t have the education or resources to stand up for themselves.
Take texting while driving for example: Most states already had laws about distracted driving; laws that cover a variety of activities if they impede your ability to safely operate your vehicle. Yet many are now passing laws to specifically prohibit texting. Violations of these laws are generally unenforceable and unprosecutable. A police officer doesn’t know what you are doing on your phone and a prosecutor can’t prove it. Of course this is partly because, from a technical standpoint, “texting” doesn’t mean anything. It’s all ones and zeros to the hardware. It also does not relate to safety, as hands-free systems have in some cases been shown to be equally unsafe. But these laws, like the broken taillight excuse, do give cops one more reason to stop somebody. That’s all they need. Generally if a cop makes a traffic stop in good faith, then he is free to look for other violations or even run a drug dog around the car. Not only is enforcement of these laws greater in minority neighborhoods, but poor people are less likely to have a hands-free kit and thus more likely to be in violation of this particular law. The former is not always due to overt racism, but also because if the police abuse the public in upscale neighborhoods, the policy will be changed. These are the people with the power in society. Poor neighborhoods can be abused with overzealous enforcement and nobody will notice—until the residents start setting cars on fire. A poor person is much less likely to have the education to understand his rights during the stop and the resulting court appearance. He is less likely to have a lawyer so he is less likely to argue a compelling case or make effective use of plea bargain. Compounding matters, a side effect of having all these laws is that the system is inaccessible to laymen. For simple traffic offenses, should I really need a lawyer to state my case?
Police work for us; they should also work with us
The second big-picture cause of our problems is that the police have taken an adversarial role. Instead of treating the community as partners, they act more like an occupying force. They drive tanks and carry grenade launchers. They literally have more gear than the police in North Korea. They nickel and dime the public, both for profit and to assert their power. Though crime is at record lows, police and prosecutors argue for exceptions to constitutional rights. It’s too inconvenient to get a warrant to search a car. It’s too inconvenient to allow a suspect to call a lawyer before submitting to a breathalyzer. We’ll never catch child molesters if we allow encryption. We’ll never stop terrorists if we can’t listen to every phone call. These arguments are ridiculous. The lack of rights affects me when I fight a photocop ticket and it affects poor people when they get a DUI and are forced to drive to work without a license. One is clearly a greater injustice, but they both stem from an underlying assumption that everybody is a criminal. I believe that the implementation and enforcement of laws should make the opposite assumption, that everybody is good, and then punish only those who are very clearly in violation of the principles that we’ve agreed upon as a society.
The system is broken
I’m very fortunate to be white. It’s easy to see how these policy and cultural problems disproportionately affect the less fortunate and the resulting racial unrest should come as no surprise. Being white and not poor means that I am lucky to have time to focus on these seemingly minor problems with the system when, for many, the system is broken.