The Rule of Law

October 29, 2017

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Justice is a concept no Constitution can entirely contain. Unless life ascribes meaning to the law, it is all written in vain. Every generation has a democratic duty to redefine its concept of justice, accounting for the sins of the past, the realities of the present and future gains. Is justice to be defined as arbitrariness and impunity, as so many claim? Or will it uphold the moral rectitude expected from those in the highest offices, which so many have longed for in vain? The true meaning of justice is defined by the universal application of a fair, humane and equitable law, not by muted words on a page. Words that speak loudly only to oppress the poor, while freeing the rich to shield their special interests, as if no pressing social concerns remained. I entered law school in search of justice; I left with a spirit stained.

 

The Brazilian Constitution described a world nowhere seen around me. It spoke of education, healthcare, and public safety; it spoke of human dignity for one and all, human rights and every issue remotely germane. It spoke of a sovereign state that held the monopoly over the use of force, peacefully settling disputes and sparing citizens from resorting to physical force. A mythological maze of 364 articles, each containing countless sections, all describing a reality unseen even at considerable strain. Almost two hundred years had elapsed since the first Constitution, eight times drafted and redrafted again and again. The only legal certainty had was that changes in law never quelled social unrest, assured institutional stability or brought true democratic gain. Changes were made to the law, but the same economic and political power structures were frozen in place. All this was taking place in the last country of the Americas to free its slaves, if only in name. The same extreme social inequalities and injustices of centuries past, remain a reason for national shame.

 

My professors took pride in the letter of the law, lauding its long reach and intent. But letters whose perfection is perpetually imprisoned within the discolored pages of vast codes and statues only cry out in tragic lament. They are never free to change the world and breathe the fresh air of true democratic acclaim. They are never free to improve the lives of those whose oppression is every generation renamed. When the law itself remains imprisoned, a citizen is free only in name. Only on bail was the letter of the law released by those with money to secure their claim. The price to pay exacts more than words can say. Rights that must be purchased are privileges in disguise, awarded to powerful vested interests by high-class prostitutes calling themselves respectable lawmakers. When the law becomes a product freely sold in the marketplace, only to those with the means to pay, citizenship is no longer an unalienable right, democracy delayed to an undisclosed future date. 

 

Almost every law was held to be the most advanced of our age, modern in every way, inspired by the latest legal debates. But this alleged modernity, imported from lands far away, was translated into the barbaric reality of a society in fear of itself: when skies darkened, bullets rained. Banks were fortresses and every customer treated as a potential criminal offender. The security apparatus set in place, with bulletproof revolving doors, metal detectors and heavily armed guards was an oasis for the privileged, amidst a desert of destitution, repressed social need and pain. This is not to excuse the behavior of violent criminals, for I have faced them when words alone could not restrain their rage. The sober fact remains: no citizen can freely go about his daily business, unafraid of an unexpected violent encounter that could his life suddenly end. The second highest tax burden of the Americas, but the price of freedom remains unpaid. What explains so much civil strife and violence, if not the legacy of centuries lived in chains?

 

Centuries of authoritarianism are still alive in the state today. The military police that patrols the streets are trained for war, not just to guarantee public safety in a civil way. Police brutality remains a constant problem, but even police officers themselves are hunted as prey. When taking the bus home from work, it is not unusual to conceal the uniform worn that day. Revealing their identity can mean a death sentence at the wrong time, at the wrong place. The hunter of yesterday can easily become tomorrow´s prey. There is a war raging in every city, one that over 60,000 victims in a single year claimed. No other country in the world is as violent in absolute terms, this is the Brazilian way.      

 

When I walked my dog at night, I was one of the few in my neighborhood who ventured outside when darkness reigned. I knew most the homeless, treated them with respect, and spared a meal when their stomachs complained. In turn, they warned the violent criminals of the area to spare the man who walked a lion. Only in later years when they disappeared was the truce broken, but by then I walked alone, though still accompanied by the same concerns of previous days. The law of the streets was uncodified violence that ruled the lives of young and old, rich and poor, all in different ways. Professors spoke about the rule of law. The streets spoke about the rule of fear in the domain of pain.

 

All of this was taking place in the city that was once the first capital of Brazil, once the center of the African slave trade. Slavery was abolished in 1888, though its specter remains alive today. Equality before the law was a concept studied in books, but unseen as a universal mandate. Within cities, rich and poor coexist in close proximity, though living in different worlds, light years away. Who can argue that the legacy of the past is not a burden carried today? Injustices corrected by the letter of the law remain a distant reality for vast segments of the population. Some struggle for a plot of land to cultivate, some struggle to build a small urban home, on places where there are no property titles to guarantee ownership, on places not ruled by the vast legal tome.

 

When I worked pro bono at a legal clinic assisting the poor, they used different words, but only to express the same desperation. A seamstress was illegally fired because her boss knew she lacked the funds to take him to court. Of the twenty seamstresses who worked in her shop, she was the only one who sought legal redress. Another woman could not conceal her tears. An alleged member of a death squad had threatened her family, and she was protected only by silence. She would have contacted the police, if her assailant were not a member himself. The silence, of those unprotected by law, is felt by many who languish in prisons today. It is also felt in myriad public schools and public squares where people are present, though the state remains absent.

 

There are those who believe in a sign of change, but I would not venture a guess so soon, lest hope be also slain. My graduation from law school was attended not by honor, but by shame. This is the stain I bear to this day, one not easily washed away. One that reminds me of questions I would much rather not consider today. Where is the rule of law when I leave my home, but never really feel safe? Where is the rule of law when the social problems of yesterday are here to stay? Where is the rule of law when life is ruled by the dictates of fate? These are questions unanswered, silenced for another day.

 

 

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©2017 by Andre Lamartin