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Thursday, December 13, 2012

Down By Law: Unequal Enforcement and Unequal Laws

I think most people are familiar with the way unequal law enforcement can be used to control and oppress specific groups of people. In the US, people of color are controlled by the the use of Driving While Black and Breathing While Black; I suspect many people who are not affected by those techniques think they're jokes made up by black comedians, but I assure you they're not. Ask any black person (men especially), or anyone from another of the affected groups (brown men with turbans, brown women with hijabs, brown people with Meso-American features, etc.) and they might be persuaded to tell you about being stopped or hassled for their skin color or clothing.

And the use of unequal laws as tools of oppression has been reported, though it seems that not many members of the privileged classes believe or understand just how devastating they can be to a community. The best-known case is probably the US federal drug laws which provide for much greater  penalities for the use of crack cocaine than powder cocaine; this difference results (intentionally, if John Erlichman, Nixon's Attorney General is to be believed) in much longer sentences for lower class people of color to whom crack is much more available than powder than for middle class whites who use powder more commonly. Of course it's never just that simple: unequal enforcement also results in more suspended sentences to middle-class white first-time offenders than lower class POC.


Unequal enforcement and unequal laws make members of the groups they single out into second-class citizens. We're all aware of how these tools have been used to institutionalize racism (though there are many who refuse to accept that such racism is all around them today), and in the recent election campaigns it was made abundantly clear to anyone with eyes, ears, and a brain that the same tools have been used to make women second-class citizens (and that there is a strong movement to remove even more rights from them).

But there's a special case of unequally-written laws that's not well-known among the privileged classes (that's you and me, white readers), and it's results are more dire than anything else I've mentioned. I'm going to take as settled that the laws and the law enforcement in the area of rape, especially of the rape of women, whether by violence, drugs, or extortion, is one of the primary tools of the oppression of women. Argue it somewhere else if you must; I don't think there's any question about it. There are two groups of women, however, who are more likely to be raped, more vulnerable to rape, and have far less recourse in the law than most, because they are subject to special laws which remove the little protection that the civil laws of the US afford other women.

One of those groups is Native women, especially members of Native tribes who live on reservations, although they're not the only ones at great risk. Native women face the likelihood that between one in two and one in three of them will be violently sexually assualted at some time in their lives (and probably more will be raped by extortion or harassment; there aren't any good estimates of the frequency of that). In many cases the rapists are white, and know that they will not be punished because the law that governs the women does not have jurisdiction, and the law of the surrounding white communities will not cooperate in investigating or arresting white suspects. Only in the last few years has this been reported in the mainstream media, and only in the back pages and smaller blogs at that. But this issue is starting to become better known, and recently has been mentioned in the NY Times and One of the main reasons for recent interest in it is that the Republicans in the House of Representatives have blocked reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act because it would increase the coverage to include LGBT, Hispanic, and Native women.

The other group is women in the military. Since 1995 hundreds of incidents of rape, sexual assault, or rape by extortion have been reported in the military, and most have gone uninvestigated or unindicted. Again part of the problem is a different set of laws: the military is governed not by civilian law but by the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). A great deal of the control and workings of the UCMJ are given to the commanding officer of the unit in which an offense is reported, and the culture of company and field grade officers in the military includes a strong feeling that "boys will be boys" and that one of the purposes of women in the military is to provide sexual service to the men. I can attest that that was the culture when I was in the Army many years ago, and what I've heard from soldiers who've been in service more recently indicates it hasn't changed for the better.

Others have marshalled the facts around these issues, and argued the morality of them, far better than I can. I just want to provide a nudge to people, to tell them that there is a great injustice being done, and to provide some links to more information. I hope that all of you are as outraged as I am at the use of unequal enforcement and unequal laws to perpetuate violence against these groups of women, and to keep them vulnerable to it.

Links to more information:

Indian Country Today Media Network: Law Enforcement Gaps Leave Native Women Vulnerable to Rape and Domestic Violence
The Guardian: Sexual violence is tearing Native American communities apart Hey, House GOP—How many Native women will be raped today? Rapes on Indian Reservations Reach Epidemic Proportions

The Guardian: Rape in the Military: exposing the shocking truth Why rapists in military get away with it
New York Daily News: Special Report: Rape in the armed forces
The Daily Beast: Service Members Sue Defense Secretary Over Alleged Military Rapes

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