The America’s Role in the World® Student Editorial Contest has its second winner! Open to all IU Bloomington students, the contest was judged by 60 Minutes correspondent and ARW panelist Bill Whitaker and asked participants to opine on “Moral courage and the rule of law: Does justice ever require violating the law or the commands of authorities?”
Whitaker awarded first place went to Kira Axsiom for her piece, “When the US stands for justice for all, we will not have to break the rules,” noting that he was “impressed by the passion coming through their writing and argument.” Axsiom is a third-year HLS student with a double major in International Studies and India Studies with with a concentration in Global Development and a minor in International Economics. She is currently studying abroad at the University of Hyderabad in India.
The following opinion article does not reflect the views of the Hamilton Lugar School of Global & International Studies or Indiana University.
It is peculiar that people still question whether justice ever requires violating the law while simultaneously revering historical lawbreakers. In the United States, we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday and his dedication to achieving social justice. More recently, the West recognized Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo’s commitment to democratic activism by awarding him the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, as he sat in jail for “inciting subversion of [Chinese] state power.”
Nevertheless, the concept of individuals determining justice outside the law is a dangerous one. For every Martin Luther King, there is also his killer: the people who destroy peace and order to fulfill their own twisted forms of justice. Then, there are actors of civil disobedience like Black Lives Matter who are criticized for their radicalism. So, while it may have been okay for King and Xiaobo to break the rules, it is okay for others to do the same today?
The laws that supposedly define justice are always changing. For example, the US Constitution would probably have protected Xiaobo’s freedom of speech had his situation happened here, and the Civil Rights Act ended US segregation laws in 1964. However, when groups in the United States invoke MLK and other civil rights actors, they commonly only discuss the old norms that they defied and not current ones. While MLK is celebrated as an uncontroversial symbol of peace, his more radical views against capitalism and war have been sanitized, leading Clayborne Carson, the head of the King Institute at Stanford University, to hypothesize that an alive MLK would not be given a holiday, as “he would have been too controversial.” Then, there are less peaceful civil rights leaders like Malcolm X, who responded to police brutality by saying, “Let [the white man] know that if he is not ready to clean his house up… he shouldn’t have a house. It should catch on fire, and burn down.” His radical legacy remains contentious, and incited fury when Beyoncé referenced him and the Black Panther movement at the 2016 Super Bowl Half-Time show.
These examples are proof of the problematic nature of this enduring question, and about our establishment’s willingness to pick and choose details from the legacies of national heroes. It is a byproduct of the fear of the white, upper-class establishment that these actors will inspire modern radicals, even though their distant relatives were throwing tea into the Boston Harbor. America’s white majority wants to believe that justice is confined to the law, and that its concepts of a speedy trial, innocent until proven guilty, and no cruel or unusual punishment are universal. But as Malcolm X said before, there is a mess in this house, and never has the US justice system spoken for everyone.
Today in the US, 60 percent of people in jail have not yet been convicted of a crime and are awaiting trial. These wait times can be notoriously long; in 2011, New York City had a 2-year average waiting time, and many people were serving full sentences without ever being found guilty. In Alabama, a man named Kharon Davis waited a record 10 years for his trial. In terms of race, 1 in 3 black men born after 2001 will be imprisoned during their lifetime, compared to 1 in 17 white men. A large portion will be arrested for drug offenses, rather than violent crimes. Even then, some people are not lucky enough to make it to jail. For the past 7 years, police have killed about 1,100 people annually before they could be arrested; about a quarter of these people were black.
Fortunately, there are heroes today that are demanding justice outside the justice system. The strong civil disobedience of the Black Lives Matter movement has forced many people to admit to the US’s continuing racial biases. While many of its marches resemble the civil rights movement, some politicians like former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee claim that MLK would be “appalled” by BLM, and only time will tell if history gives this movement the same admiration as those of the past.
All in all, to say that justice never requires violating the rule of law implies that the law always stands for justice, which is not true. There is a no such thing as a perfect democracy, and until there is, the US’s majority establishment cannot blame those who feel that they must break the law to receive justice without taking some blame for themselves. After all, going back to Xiaobo’s case, he was given the Nobel Peace Prize not because the West blamed him, but because they blamed the establishment that silenced him. Why, then, can we not do that in this country? We must clean up our own house, before a new hero starts a fire and does it for us.