The Law Is Local!

Working people have been handed some tough losses at the Supreme Court recently. Over the span of a week in late August and early September, the Court lifted the federal eviction moratorium and silently laid waste to the remnants of Roe v. Wade. Immediately following these decisions, prominent voices in the press lamented the Courts choice tooverturnsuch important laws and precedents. Indeed, the Courts rulings, rendered according to the whims of unelected, conservative lawyersoften without even a veil of legal reasoningcause enormous suffering, especially to the most vulnerable. Yet, while the Court is certainly powerful, much of the wall-to-wall media coverage of these decisions misses an important fact: For the poor among us, many laws are overturned every day by local judges, police, employers, and landlords. For many people, the Rubicon was not crossed this summerit was crossed long ago.

In Philadelphia, where I live and work, as well as across the country, the poor and working class have been evicted during the pandemic when landlords just changed the locks and nobody stopped them, or scared tenants into leaving their homes, or even sought and received the outright approval of a local court. The same general framework holds true in the realm of reproductive rights. Poor people were unable to get abortions long before early September, whether because they could not take multiple days off work, they were manipulated by a crisis pregnancy center, or they were bullied by family or community. For these tenants and abortion seekers, the eviction moratorium and Roe were just words on paper.

What explains the barrage of cable news coverage and stream of think pieces analyzing the Courts reasoning and the decisions likely effects, but the relative silence as to the ghastly pre-rulings state of affairs? Political and cultural elites urge the rest of us to focus on the Supreme Courtand not on the evictions, denials of abortions, and all the other daily inhumanities forced upon poor and working people in this countrybecause doing so justifies the unjustifiable. It tells us we are a nation of laws, the courts decide what rights we have, and there is justice in it all.

For poor and working-class U.S. Americans, the Supreme Court and its rulings are often little more than a cruel illusion. Perhaps the most famous example of the Supreme Courts practical irrelevance is Brown v. Board of Education. In that widely celebrated decision, the Supreme Court declared that formal segregation in public schools was illegal. Following the ruling, however, white Americans employed a strategy of massive resistance to desegregation, which involved school boards that simply closed their schools for years on end, advocacy from prominent Senators committed to racism, white families engaging in violence and intimidation, and newly formed private academies that were able to avoid the Supreme Courts decrees. This local and extralegal organizing successfully rendered Brown all but a dead letter in large portions of the country. Now, some 65 years after Chief Justice Earl Warren waxed grandiloquent about the inherently unequalnature of segregation, a majority of the countrys children are called to attention by class bells in segregated, toxic, crumbling, or wholly inadequate schools. 

Although public education may be the most stinging example, the same dynamic plays out across every other societal domain. Take just two more examples from areas in which I work: immigration and employment law. Immigrants are technically afforded myriad protections in deportation court, from a host of arcane defenses against deportation such as asylum or cancellation of removal, to interpretation services in a language that the immigrant can understand, to a prohibition against being deported based on evidence obtained through illegal searches and seizures. Yet these rights mean nothing to most immigrants because they cannot afford a lawyer to assert their rights in court. Similarly, most workers in the United States, by decree of the Supreme Court and Congress, are entitled to a minimum wage and freedom from discrimination. These decrees, however, are little solace to the worker whose boss threatens her with physical violence or deportation if she goes to the courts, the worker who knows speaking up will get him fired without the ability to find another job, or the worker who cannot exercise her rights because she does not know they exist.

By directing attention toward the Court and the chimeric rights it defines, political and cultural elites cause the rest of us to believe that the Court (and the lawyers who litigate before it) are the real solution to our problems. If we want to better the world, the story goes, we should reach into our pockets and give to the ACLU. But this perspective teaches us that we are little more than audience members in a national drama we are unlikely ever to influence. 

This narrative also beguiles the public into forgetting that it is those closest to us who truly determine our rights: landlords and bosses, the local school board, a cop making a traffic stop for a burned out taillight. And over these local tyrants, ordinary people have every opportunity to exercise influence and powerbut only if we are organized. When a landlord neglects his property or tries to evict a tenant, organized tenants can protest, stop paying rent, or even physically blockade the eviction. Workers can form a union to negotiate as one, and strike if their boss continues to treat them with contempt. Local actors like school boards and police, too, are subject to local, community pressure tacticsthe type of tactics that are unlikely to affect the decisions of the Supreme Court. 

At a certain level, it is little surprise that elites preach a theory of change that centers other members of the elite as the true drivers of progress. If someones rights are rarely infringed upon by the arbitrary exercise of local power and if the individual is wealthy enough to hire expensive lawyers when needed, a law-centric theory of change might seem appealing. 

But for a huge swath of people who have no power in relation to the local tyrants who would control them, the eviction moratorium, Roe, and many other federal laws mean little. That realization drove DSA chapters from Philadelphia, to Washington, D.C., to the San Francisco Bay Area to spend the pandemic organizing tenants to fight landlords together. And it is one reason why DSA chapters tend to focus their fundraising on projects like abortion funds that cover medical and travel costs, rather than on lobbying the Supreme Court.

Ultimately, accepting the dominant narrative offered by elite voicesfalling into the trap of spectatorshipis a mistake. This law-centric theory of change, designed by and for those who already run the show, will never build power for working people because doing so is not its purpose. That is why those of us who hope to improve our conditions and rid ourselves of the arbitrary control that local power brokers hold over us must not look to the Supreme Court for protection. We can only look to each other.