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Clowning Around With Justice

Originally, the working title for this post was “Institutionalizing Bigotry, Prejudice & Tolerance.” For years, I’ve thought about the connection between bigotry, prejudice, tolerance and about how they evolved. The ability to categorize things — friends, enemies, food, danger, among others — is not important just for people. It’s important to the survival of just about any living thing on the planet. The problem is that the same neurological processes that make this work are also behind bigotry, prejudice and tolerance. It takes a higher order of evolution to get past interacting with the world based solely on the instinct to lump everyone you meet into the same small set of categories and then respond as if your twisted picture of the world is absolutely accurate.

Which is apparently why many law enforcement officers have so much difficulty with distinguishing between people they just don’t like or understand, and criminals.

According to a front-page story in the Fresno Bee today, the police are unable to distinguish between groups of people who share similar interests on the one hand, and members of so-called “criminal street gangs” on the other. Well, they do make one concession, at least temporarily…for the moment:

[P]olice call Juggalos members of a gang — not on the level of the Bulldogs or Villa Posse, Fresno’s most notorious gangs, but a gang nonetheless. (Jim Guy, “Are they a gang, or just clowning around?”(July 18, 2009) FresnoBee.com.)

So this new “gang” the Fresno Police Department has identified is not quite as bad as the Bulldogs or Villa Posse. But they’re still a gang. (And as almost any criminal defense attorney in California can tell you, many police officers, prosecutors and judges definitely cannot tell the difference between a “gang” and a “criminal street gang.” But that’s for another article.)

It’s actually not entirely clear to which gang these mentally-challenged police officers believe Juggalos belong. “Juggalos” is a name given to males; females have apparently been labeled Jugalettes.” Basically, they are…

…young people who sometimes put on clown facepaint and wear clothing with the emblem of a running man carrying a hatchet — the logo of a rap label called Psychopathic Records. (Guy, supra.)

Other than this and the fact that, like other people do with their friends, they sometimes hang around together,

Juggalos also are responsible for fights, drug use and occasional property crimes, police say. (Guy, supra.)

Folks, this is exactly why anti-gang legislation is — to put it as mildly as I can — pure bullshit.

Are Juggalos or Jugalettes responsible for these crimes? Or are people who wear facepaint and know other people who wear facepaint responsible for these crimes? Or are hominids with dark-colored hair who know other hominids with dark-colored hair responsible for these crimes? What about creatures with skin sometimes seen in the vicinity of other creatures with skin? Are they responsible for these crimes? Maybe things that move upon the earth with two hands each containing five fingers and occasionally hang out with other things that move upon the earth with two hands each containing five fingers are responsible for these crimes.

How about none of the above? It’s not Juggalos, or Jugalettes. It’s not people who wear facepaint. It’s not hominids with dark-colored hair or creatures with skin. Or, at least, it’s not merely “things that fit those descriptions.” Regardless of whether or not they sometimes hang out with others like them. Human beings who actually commit crimes are responsible for crimes. Individuals commit crimes.

This modern trend in American “justice” — and, really, there is no longer anything just about it — this trend away from the individualization of guilt is not simply a violation of the very foundational principles of this once-great nation, it is unsustainable. Eventually, if we continue locking people up for longer and longer periods of time just because they happen to know other people with whom they share similar perfectly legal interests, we’re going to run out of prisons and the money to build and run them.

Oh, wait…that’s actually already happened.

And yet we continue, seemingly inexorably, down the slippery slope to almost total reliance on generalizations to determine who is committing crimes and how — and how long — they should be punished.

Although some degree of generalization is involved in all human reasoning, reliance almost entirely on generalizations seems a long way from the individualized suspicions that are meant to define probable cause. (Andrew E. Taslitz, Reconstructing the Fourth Amendment: A History of Search and Seizure, 1789-1868 (2006) 88; italics in original.)

Ironically, the case Taslitz cites for that principle was already hastening our slide over the edge of reason and down the slippery slope. In Maryland v. Pringle (2003) 540 U.S. 366, the United States Supreme Court held that a man was properly arrested for committing the crime of possession of a controlled substance because he was a passenger in a car with some other people where the substance was found. Mr. Pringle was a passenger in the front seat of the car. When the driver was stopped for speeding, police searched the car and found cocaine hidden behind an armrest in the back seat. Nobody “fessed up,” so the police just arrested them all.

Normally, this would be a pretty piss-poor reason to arrest. You’re going to arrest everyone who was near the drugs, even though the drugs were hidden from view, because you don’t know to whom they belong? Yes, said the ignoramuses on the United States Supreme Court. According to them, people don’t just get into a car containing drugs without knowing the drugs are there. But as Taslitz states,

[M]y own life experience in high school and as a prosecutor shows that the contrary may often be true, that is, that sober people, users, and dealers can all be friends and yet, in certain settings, the sober ones are thoroughly unaware of their friends’ criminality. (Taslitz, supra, at 88.)

And that, my friends, brings us back full circle to the stupidity of the apparent chain of reasoning that has lead the Fresno Police Department to believe that Juggalos, or Jugalettes, or people with labels that start with “J-U-G,” are gang members — worse yet, criminal street gang members (because the story states they are subject to “greater scrutiny and punishment when crimes are committed,” which is only true of criminal street gangs).

People who wear blue jeans may know other people who wear blue jeans. Heck, you might even run into two of them talking to one another in public. You might even be a person who wears blue jeans and who has friends who wear blue jeans. These facts do not mean that every time someone who wears blue jeans commits a crime, you have some connection to the crime. It doesn’t mean that if you later (god forbid!) commit a crime, you should be charged for the crime, with a gang enhancement added on because of the blue jeans. The same is true for people who wear Oakland Raiders jackets, blue shirts, red Fresno State baseball caps, Girl Scout uniforms — heck, the same thing might even be true of guys who dress up in militarized uniforms, complete with badges and embroidered insignia, who share a common name, sign or symbol, and two or more many of whom commit crimes! (See Penal Code section 186.22(f); “What is a Gang?” available at www.streetgangs.com/laws/definition_gang.html (last visited July 18, 2009)(5/2016 edit: “What is a Gang?” no longer available; see Youth Gangs and Definitional Issues: When is a Gang a Gang, and Why Does It Matter?” at http://www.streetgangs.com/academic/2001.Finn-gang_define.pdf.)

And it’s probably also true of music lovers who paint their faces and dress similarly to other such music lovers and are called, or even perhaps call themselves, “Juggalos” or “Jugalettes.”

It’s time to stop clowning around with the concept of justice.

It’s time to evolve beyond the mindset of primeval slugs who cannot tell the differences amongst individuals who commit crimes and individuals who don’t based on the idea that “they all look alike.”

It’s time to stop putting troglodytes into uniforms, slapping guns and badges on them, and pretending they have enough common sense not to shoot or lock us all up just because we aren’t one of them.

Special thanks to Dr. Henry Delcore (moniker: “Hank”), good friend who is interested in some of the same things I am and sometimes wear clothes similar to clothes I occasionally wear, which makes him a fellow gang member under the FPD definitions, and anthropology professor of California State University, Fresno, who emailed me the link to the Fresno Bee story. I’d read it in the paper this morning, but then he emailed me the link so you can read it online.
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