Criminal Justice and Slow Violence in Keilee Fant v. City of Ferguson, Missouri

Ed note: This post is the first in a four-part series on Teaching Law and Political Economy through Keilee Fant v. City of Ferguson, Missouri by Angela Harris. Look out for the subsequent posts in the weeks to come!

Teaching Law and Political Economy through Keilee Fant v. City of Ferguson, Missouri
Part I: Criminal Justice and Slow Violence in Keilee Fant v. City of Ferguson, Missouri

Angela Harris – 

More than ten years ago now, Emma Coleman Jordan of Georgetown Law Center called me on the phone and invited me to join her in what she laughingly called an act of “academic imperialism.” She wanted us to collaborate in assembling a casebook – the first in the United States legal education market, we believed – on “economic justice.”

The target of our imperialism was a bifurcation within legal education. Emma and I, at Georgetown and Berkeley respectively, saw two distinct groups of students in our classes. Social justice students took courses on critical race theory, constitutional equal protection, and civil rights, while business-minded students focused courses related to economics, like securities regulation, international trade law, business associations, tax, and banking.

One effect of this divide was that our politically progressive students tended to have little understanding of how markets and market-related institutions work. Instead, they found themselves limited to a moral language under which, for example, corporations could be denounced as “evil” but corporate power and its workings remained opaque. A second, more subtle effect of this divide was to impoverish our teaching about structural inequality. The infamous “public-private split” in legal doctrine reinforces the popular belief that market power represents freedom while government embodies coercion. A similar split, insidious in a different way, limits anti-discrimination law to individual and interpersonal relations: the “intent requirement” in constitutional and statutory law protects institutional and structural subordination. At the same time, business law courses and “law and economics” seminars seldom engage with race, gender, or other forms of subordination – save for a day or two on “corporate social responsibility.” Our imperial project, then, sought to pull down the walls, disrupting both the citadel of law and economics and the cloister of critical race theory.

Though we didn’t succeed at building an empire with our book, we did develop an approach to teaching law and political economy that LPE teachers and scholars can use today. In a series of four posts, I’ll outline that approach using Keilee Fant v. City of Ferguson, Missouri, a class action filed in federal court in the Eastern District of Missouri in 2015. In my Economic Justice classes, I use the case to teach students about ways in which structural inequality in the United States is produced by both racial domination and capitalist exploitation, and what this inequality looks like in the age of “neoliberalism.” I also use it to teach students about how legal doctrine shields this structural inequality from effective challenge, giving them a perspective on the intellectual apartheid of legal doctrine and legal education. In this first post, I explain how I use the complaint in Fant to frame a discussion of law, political economy, and the “slow violence” of the criminal justice system. Subsequent posts will discuss how I use the case to teach students to connect racial and economic inequality to the concepts of neoliberalism, legal geographies, and municipal finance. Each post presents a different way to advance the LPE project in the classroom.  Continue reading

The Movement for Black Lives Offers an Abolitionist Approach to Police Reform

Amna Akbar – 

For several years, I have been thinking about the rise of racial justice movements that account for political economy—specifically, those with anti-capitalist commitments. I am thinking of the Movement for Black Lives, and aspects of the immigrant justice movement. These social movements mark the revival of anti-capitalist racial justice politics in the United States in a way that we have not seen since the civil rights, Black power, and Chicano movements of the 1960s and 1970s. As these movements continue to organize in the face of growing global inequality and right-wing populism, they offer another way forward.Black_Lives_Matter_logo.svg.png

To illustrate the creative potential of studying radical social movements, consider the question of policing. The Movement for Black Lives is the leading example of a contemporary racial justice movement with an analysis of political economy and a vision to transform the state. In my forthcoming article, Toward a Radical Imagination of Law, 93 N.Y.U. L. Rev. (forthcoming 2018), I consider policing through the lens of the Movement for Black Lives policy platform, “A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom, and Justice.”

I compare the Movement’s analysis with the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Ferguson and Baltimore reports. The Vision and DOJ reports offer alternate conceptualizations of the problem of policing and the appropriate approach to law reform. The comparison offers a study in the difference between an abolitionist approach to police reform, and a more traditional one.

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California Bans the Box, Twice

Noah Zatz – 

A core LPE theme is the construction of markets through political choices institutionalized in law. Those choices create an economy structured by whatever matters politically, including race. My Bailey series has been developing this theme in connection to the criminal regulation of work, in particular the use of criminal punishment to compel work. The more familiar racialized criminal justice/labor interaction concerns how the state marks individuals with criminal records, which employers then use to deny work.

Over at OnLabor, I’ve got two new posts up on some of the more technical aspects of using employment discrimination law to counter criminal records exclusions. The first one flags a familiar rules vs. standards problem in deciding when criminal record screening is permissible. The second one explores what kinds of evidence appropriately demonstrate the disparate racial impact of criminal record exclusions. In both cases, my jumping off point is innovative new regulations issued under California’s state employment discrimination law.

At some point I will share some thoughts on how these coercive and exclusionary dynamics work together.

Is “the Market” the Enemy?: Racial Exploitation in Bailey v. Alabama

Noah Zatz –

vote communist

“In our current moment, anticapitalism and struggles against state violence and incarceration tend to be separate movements.” So wrote renowned historian Robin D.G. Kelley recently in a new preface to his classic book Hammer and Hoe, which examines the largely Black Communists of early-mid 20th century Alabama. Kelley’s protagonists, in contrast, saw struggles against economic inequality and exploitation and also against specifically racialized state violence as “inextricably bound together.” This same milieu produced the groundbreaking 1911 case of Bailey v. Alabama. There, the Supreme Court struck down under the Thirteenth Amendment Alabama’s use of criminal law to hold Black workers in peonage.

This post extends my prior treatment of Bailey. My focus here is on Bailey as a case study in “racial capitalism”, and I want to challenge specifically the common conflation of all things “economic” with the outcomes of “markets,” even markets understood in Legal Realist fashion to be structured by laws of property and contract. Like Kelley, I do this with one eye on the contemporary, and in particular on the separation between critiques of “precarious work” in today’s labor markets and those aimed at our racialized carceral state.

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State Power and the Construction of Contractual Freedom: Labor and Coercion in Bailey v. Alabama

Noah Zatz – 

If forced to choose, I might pick Bailey v. Alabama as my favorite contract law case. That is, if it even counts as one. Which is pretty much my point. Decided in 1911, Bailey is a criminal case – Lonzo Bailey was convicted for fraud.  It is also a constitutional case – the Supreme Court struck down the conviction as violating the Thirteenth Amendment’s prohibition of involuntary servitude. A labor case, too – the criminal statute specifically targeted workers who took advances on wages and then later quit before paying the debt. And a race case, though the Court denied it – Alabama’s “false pretenses” statute was one cog in the wheel of Jim Crow neoslavery. But yes, also a contracts case (in a libertarian’s casebook, no less!) because the Court used the case to erect a boundary between criminal and civil consequences for breach of contract.

This overflowing of conventional doctrinal boundaries makes Bailey the perfect vehicle to deliver key insights of a Law & Political Economy approach. So much so that I will do it over multiple posts.

In this first installment, Bailey punctures the ubiquitous conceit that there is or could be an autonomous sphere of economic life – “the free market” – that stands apart from politics, from contests over whether and when to authorize the coercive exercise of governmental power. That contrast between economic freedom and political power is ubiquitous, as in the language contrasting “private” law with government “intervention” in the market (via “public” law). This conceit renders unremarkable what might seem contradictory: a ubiquitous politics that abhors government regulation (of “the economy”) yet thirsts for a state that is “tough on crime.” Continue reading