Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Dark Charade: Courts, Banks, & Tax Collectors

"Courthouse," Sidney Larson, Acrylic, 1971

Robert Minor, Morgan, Mellon,
Rockefeller, 1922

The Minister—goes stiffly in—
As if the House were His—
And He owned  all the Mourners—now—
And little Boys—besides—

And then the Milliner—and the Man
Of the Appalling Trade—
To take measure of the house—
There’ll be that Dark Parade—

These astute lines come from Emily Dickinson's poem that begins "There's been a death in the house opposite." Great poetry goes so far beyond its nominal subject matter, and this poem has been haunting me. Yesterday my husband and I went to court because my credit card company is suing me. A year and a half ago, we had the choice of paying our credit card bill or our mortgage, and we chose to keep our home. From 9 a.m to 10 a.m. there were about twenty others on the docket also being sued by the very same credit card. They probably had to make worse choices. In the gallery we sat, the legions against whom other banks, a local dentist, vehicle sales companies, and the Boone County Tax Collector have brought suit. On the other side of the bar (which is called "the well," I've just now discovered, because unlike most of the defendants in the court, I'm educated, employed, have access to the internet, and can engage in research), at tables, in chairs lined up against the wall, and in the jury box, the lawyers lounged around, professionally dressed, sometimes smiling smugly or talking amongst themselves behind their hands. We spectators watched as “the dark parade” marched on, a Dickensian dark charade in which the justice system unjustly and systematically goes about its business of disenfranchising people of their homes, wages, automobiles, and well-being.
      I was crocheting an afghan as I watched the proceedings. The woman in front of me turned around to whisper, "That's so pretty." 
Thomas Hart Benton, "Kansas City,"1936, from Politics,
and the Law,  Missouri State Museum
      "Court is so boring," I replied, "I have to do something with my hands." The folks all around rolled their eyes and nodded. I'm fond of saying that if you have an imagination, you never have to be bored, yet somehow I think we turn numb to witness the "Appalling Trades" at work:  the corporations and the rich, in the guise of justice, stealing from the poor and middle-class, and sometimes imprisoning them for the crime of not being well-off.  The sweet lady who complimented me was dressed in jeans and a tattered sweatshirt. The bailiff gestured to her partner to remove his baseball cap. Then he came over for good measure, and gave them a stern lecture in low tones and threatened them with removal should they violate the court's strictures again.  I, who have the privilege of education and am a tenured professor, was dressed in a long brown skirt and blaser. I know how to comport myself in a courtroom—the appropriate dress, manners and language—because I've been taught from birth. In my senior position at the University of Missouri I have the luxury, if I feel like it, to show up for work in jeans and no one will think the less of me. Like the vast majority of the defendants in the courtroom that morning, my comrade in the gallery had no representation. Therefore, she  faced the inevitable ruling in favor of the plaintiff, who is amply represented not just by the attorneys, but by the elected legislators and judges. The plaintiff doesn't need this poor woman's money or possessions, though she desperately does. 
Eli Jacobi, All Night Mission, 1938
Meanwhile, the attorney representing our Boone County Tax Collector, a harried young woman, approached the bench with a foot-high stack of file-folders. Not a single person stood beside her to plead for mercy or leniency or more time. The judge seemed as bored as we were, as he pronounced, "Default ruling" too many times to count. I leaned over and muttered to Craig, "So, they're using our tax dollars to take away poor people's homes and make  them homeless. Instead the government could tax the rich, and use the funds to provide education and job training, so families can prosper, raise their children in a stable environment, and contribute to the community." 
     I was preaching to choir, of course, and Craig answered, "Some of these people probably don't even know they're about to be evicted and their homes sold out from under them." And he's right. On the Boone County Collector webpage we find that very warning, clearly stated in bold letters:
Failure to receive a tax bill does not relieve the obligation to pay taxes and applicable late fees.
Never mind that some poor people don't have access to the internet or the newspapers. Some, because the public schools have failed them, don't even know how to read. And what happens after your property is taken from you for failure to pay taxes you can't afford because your nation is in a depression? And what if the depression is the direct result of policies and laws made by the legislators and judges, who are in turn owned by the wealthy, their corporations and lobbyists? What happens is that the wealthy now have the opportunity to buy your home at a fraction of its value at a tax auction. The back taxes, which were more than everything to you, are next to nothing for them. They will buy your home and "flip it" and make a huge profit. They will dispossess not just the powerless and unrepresented and not just people like me, the employed and represented, but many, many of us, and they will make record profits. And what will happen to those profits? Will they go to making a better society? To education? To health care? To peacemaking? To feeding the hungry and putting a roof over the heads the homeless? No, those record profits will go to writing legislation that will further disenfranchise you, will make it harder to vote, will send your children to war...and so on. I can't believe I'm about to say this, as I'm loathe to echo the tea-partiers: this is taxation without representation, and it is tyranny.
     When we got home, I called my attorney, who is on a mission to help people like me. I was fortunate that I could cash out an IRA, and pay him his retainer. I was lucky because my attorney is patient and ethical and was willing to wait a month for me to come up with the funds. I told my attorney the latest: my husband, who is preparing our taxes, calculated that he’d made one-sixth the money he made in 2007, when our romance began. I make a good salary, and I am among the tiny minority of the middle-class who feels somewhat secure that I will keep my job. Until the crash, my husband, a small business man, was  making a fine living. (Well, he's doing very well, even now, in comparison to others in his field.) One of the things that I find annoying is the common wisdom, promulgated by most the media on the left and the right, that somehow those of us who have debts we cannot pay were irresponsible when we took them on. This is misinformation. We did the math, looked at the moneys we could reasonably expect to receive in the future, and we took one of those balance transfer deals: 0% interest for the first 6 months, 3% percent for the next 6 months, etc. My husband had a contract that would have allowed us to pay off the whole debt and have a good sum left over. But that contract was cancelled. No, we were not irresponsible; we weren't paranoid enough. We assumed that the world economy would have ups and downs, not that corporate greed would bring about another great depression. My attorney listened patiently, and then said: "Welcome to my world. Your case is just like so many others I see. Then there are the folks whose homes have been illegally foreclosed, whom we are also trying to help."
     I reported the courtroom scene and summed up, "The justice system is just a tool for the rich to rob from the poor and middle-class." 
     "Yes," my lawyer said, "We are governed by Wall Street," and so on, more preaching to choir. Or is it? Somehow I doubt that my attorney and I align ourselves with the same political organizations. The walls of our beautiful county courthouse in Columbia, Missouri are adorned with murals by Sidney Larson, whose teacher was Thomas Hart Benton. Benton, like Grant Wood, is often dismissed for his "regionalism" and his leftist political leanings. There was a time when I regarded these perhaps propagandistic murals as evidence that despite it all, this is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, with an unassailable First Amendment. I still believed passionately in our system, for all its flaws, despite the fact that the Supreme Court appointed President Bush, despite the unpatriotic Patriot Act. Despite everything, I considered myself a lefty, peace-nik, patriot. I was so happy after Obama was elected and I could go to Greece and not be embarrassed to be American. The American Civil Liberties Union's Executive Director, Anthony Romero, has said he's "disgusted" with Obama's record on civil liberties. Bill Quigley, a human rights lawyer, recently wrote an article worth reading, 20 Ways the Obama Administration Has Intruded on Your Rights 
From George Orwell's manuscript of 1984
    I still want to have faith that people who witness injustice and express their outrage can make a difference. My husband doesn't like me to write about this because he feels that somehow he's done something wrong or failed. He absolutely has not failed. He's one of literally millions who works hard, gives as much as (if not more than) he receives, and who is suffering not just economically, but psychologically and spiritually. I believe the dominant narrative is a huge problem, if not THE problem: those corrupt forces in power are telling our stories, blaming their victims, and brainwashing the victims into blaming themselves. Change means occupying the narrative. So I asked my attorney, "Can I write about this on my blog? Will it harm my case?"
     "Yes, of course you can. Please do."
     "Well, that makes me happy. I'll go ahead and exercise my First Amendment rights."
     "Yes...oh, wait a minute. In one my cases, the other side used my client's blog against her...