† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.
The Supreme Court and the Shape of Social Movements
by nancy a heitzeg
I spend too much time thinking about the Supreme Court (although one could argue that others do not do so enough), and more now too, in light of recent events. There is a lot that i could say about the insanely unchecked power of nine robed people, their shadowy grip over the entirety of all our legal endeavors, and the insidious death star that is the Roberts Court – about to knee-cap Obamacare, rule Gay Marriage a state’s right issue, destroy the legal protections against discrimination afforded by “disparate impact,” allow states to torture condemned prisoners to death with any old randomly mixed drug cocktail, additionally constrict women’s protections against discrimination in employment and reproductive matters, and ensconce, even further, the flow of corporate “persons” $$$ into all arenas of politics, while simultaneously diluting the votes of real flesh and blood people.
But I won’t.
Instead, a word about the impact of the Supreme Court on social movements. In the midst of Black History Month, screenings of Selma, and current movements against racialized police state violence, we must remember the significance of Brown v the Board of Education, Topeka Kansas (1954). Despite the practical limits of Brown in effecting desegregation or the failure to implement the directives of Brown II, there can be no denying that the ruling – “separate but equal is inherently unequal” – created a over-arching legal framework that emboldened the Civil Rights Movement.
The repudiation, at the Federal last word level, of the Jim Crow machinery set up in Plessy freed the Civil Rights Movement to pursue direct action civil disobedience with the confidence of victory. Certainly, there was the omnipresent risk/reality of brutal police response, extra-legal violence and death. But segregation could now be challenged at the local and state levels — the buses in Montgomery, the lunch counters in Greensboro, the beaches in Florida, everything in Birmingham – with the assurance that should the cases wend their way through the Federal Courts, the protesters would prevail. The highest Court in the land was 9 – 0, unanimously, on their side.
There are no such assurances today. To the contrary. The Roberts Court, in a series of heavily partisan 5-4 decisions, has largely undone the major legislative and judicial achievements of the Civil Rights Era, and dragged us back towards an Ante-Bellum landscape of extreme state’s rights. Read: state’s right to discriminate.
At the inspiring, poignant end of Selma, the teletype across the screen updates us as to the fate of protagonists. But missing is the fate of the signature legislation which resulted from the many bloody sundays, mondays, tuesdays. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 too lies dead – disemboweled by the Roberts Court in Shelby County v Holder (2013). The victory and sacrifice of so many, undone, by mere paper.
All of this is not to discourage the movements of this moment, but rather to say, Know the Terrain. The Supreme Court offers now no umbrella of support for demands of equality, inclusion, protection from State violence. We will not be saved. Our tactics, our strategies, our protests must take account of the current legal landscape. They must be bold imaginative, community-centered, and untethered to any expectation of sanctuary in the courts. They must operate outside the frame.
This is to say too, even to those who eschew electoral politics, keep a close eye on those nine robed judges and to the possibility of who may appoint them. It matters; their decisions shape the space for movements for decades, for generations not yet born, and mean the difference between raw repression and a small bit of breathing room.
And finally, this is to say that progress is not an uninterrupted forward motion, that no victory is guaranteed forever, Whatever we win today, we must be prepared to defend and re-defend without tire. For the long haul.