My teenage self snubbed modern music and I delved instead into music from the ‘60s. From Bob Dylan I developed a love for social justice folk music. It was from Dylan that I learned of the story of Hattie Carroll, a barmaid in Baltimore, mother of 11, who was murdered without warning by William Zantzinger, a wealthy white tobacco farmer. Dylan eulogized in song the life of a woman out to hurt nobody.
In a gross miscarriage of justice, Zantzinger was sentenced to six months in prison.
I was listening to Bob Dylan the other day while thinking about Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Florida teen who was killed by a neighbourhood watch volunteer in a gated community in Florida.
Hattie Carroll’s death was two generations ago. A generation ago it was the Rodney King beating and the subsequent miscarriage of justice when his attackers were acquitted. Today it’s Trayvon Martin, with so many more examples in between.
No crime is just. Society’s reaction to a crime decides what level of injustice gets tacked on. These racially-motivated injustices aren’t embedded in law, but stem instead from our culture of othering. Society can either choose to embrace our inherent interconnectedness or choose instead to other, to marginalize, to build walls in our society.
These previous examples come from the United States, a country with discrimination more often on the tip of the tongue.
The very need for a Missing Women’s Commission in BC shows that Canada has its own incidences of injustice. Then there are the ‘Starlight Tours’, where police in Western Canada would pick up intoxicated Aboriginal people and drop them off on the edge of town, in the winter, to sober up. Sometimes they froze to death.
Dylan wrote of Zantzinger’s sentencing that the judge wanted to show that “the ladder of law has no top and no bottom.” Yet we can pull from so many examples where the already marginalized are further marginalized through unequal application of the law. It is society’s reminder: we think you’re different, and will treat you differently.
So what about our society? Are our leaders fighting for a more inclusive, interconnected society or a more exclusive, unequal society? In the recent Ontario election, Tim Hudak was proposing to pull the welfare safety-net right out from under newcomers, a message that says ‘Yes, we need your labour, but we’ll be certain you don’t get treated equally.’
Stephen Harper’s government is preparing to push through yet another bill on refugees, further limiting their right to appeal and reserving the right to throw refugees into lock-up for up to a year for the crime of seeking a safe haven for themselves and their children.
We had a recent tragedy on our local roads when migrant workers perished in a tragic auto accident. The tragedy briefly brought to light the unfair and unsafe conditions migrant workers often find themselves in, without many of the rights Canadians take for granted.
In all these examples we choose instead to build barriers between people and use us vs. them language, denying our inherent interconnectedness.
And in this type of culture the potential for grosser miscarriages of justice grows. The kind of society we want is up to you and I, every day, in the laws we make, in the way we treat people, in the way we react to others.
Will the next generation be listening to songs lamenting racially-motivated miscarriages of justice? It’s up to us to decide.
The point in saying all of this is simply that we can choose to remove discrimination from our culture, bit by bit each day, by choosing to demand better not only for ourselves but especially for others. Or we don’t. Our culture is very much of our choosing.