What we can do about impunity

In Paris two months ago a feminist group went about and affixed stickers with female names to streets. This was more than about those streets that are named after people, and by people I mean 95 percent male, but also about the claim to the public space and how it has tended to be normatively male.

Are the street names going to change? I don’t know; I do know that this action was taken because they are never going to change – people in established positions, people in power are never going to change them – if there is no activity on the ground, from the ground, and in your face.

The division of political labor has the permanently pernicious effect that there is a political class – a circle which, as it were, runs both the discourse and the institutions of power. This effect is only partly off-set by “representative democracy”, especially when these democracies continue to generate judicial systems that are, basically, non and anti-democratic.

What has happened in the neoliberal era, as democracy from the street has been de-legitimated, is a slow, steady impunity creep that separates the powerful and wealthy from the rest in the sphere of justice. Not just rich crooks, but their minions, their protectors, the whole lot, are now less likely than ever to suffer the lot that is borne by the working class poor. It is from this point of view that I have been watching the discussion in the U.S. about whether or not to impeach Trump, look at his taxes, look at the Mueller report about him, get the Attorney General of the U.S. to testify before a Congressional committee, all that jazz, is being treated as a fun Washington thing. The political reporters will treat it all as a partisan butting head contest, with the main question being which butting head is going to be crowned the winner. In other words, elite shit. The winner doesn’t matter a damn.

Impunity is elite shit. It isn’t just Trump, it is the entire system, groaning under the privileges accorded to the most privileged and the jail sentences allotted to the least. Wachovia bank launders money for the cocaine cartels. Wachovia bank gets a fine, because, as Justice Department officials will tell you, we can’t do anything to disturb the fine economic activity of Wachovia bank. A small time African American dealer sells five caps of crack to an undercover cop. The dealer gets twenty years. The Justice Department doesn’t comment, because this is same old same old in every District Attorney territory in the U.S. And the wheel goes around, crushing us underneath it

So let’s put a stick in the wheel, shall we?

When the military junta in Argentina folded in 1983, President Alfonsin came to power, and started proceedings against certain members of the military high command who had participated in the Dirty War, as well as the leaders of the Monteneros (those who survived) for kidnappings and murders. However, the trials affected only a few. In 1986, the full stop law was enacted, the limited suits to those that would be enacted within 60 days of its passage, all others to be rendered null, and the due obedience law, in 1987, which halted the trials that had passed the full stop law. Then, when Menem was elected in 1989, he began issuing mass pardons, mostly for the military but some of them for the Montenero leadership (which, it must be said, has always been suspected of actually being led by agent provacateur, notably in the case of the leader, Mario Firminich – see Martin Edwin Andersen’s Dossier secreto for details).

Collectively, Alfonsin’s decrees were known as the impunity laws. In this way, the State covered up for the almost thirty thousand murders committed by the military junta.

Against this coverup, a civil rights organisation began to hold Tribunals against Impunity in Buenos Aires in 1990, with the aim of revealing as many facts as possible and shaming the state.


I’ve been thinking about this vis-à-vis the United States. It seems to me that we have been living through the era of Impunity, here: from the horrors committed in the name of fighting terror to the invasion of Iraq through the Obama directed drone war; from the unwillingness of the Justice department and the SEC to reign in or jail anyone for the financial meltdown of 2008 to the widespread fraud by the banks in the paperwork they have submitted to courts concerning mortgages; from the abolition of jury trial in the case of suits for damages to corporations to the Supreme Court’s increasing willingness to lend cover to any plutocratic attempt to buy elections and change laws in their favor. From, finally, the massive defiance of the Trump administration to recognize the Legislative branch as a co-equal, while being cheered on by the dysfunctional millionaire’s club known as the Senate.  On the cultural front, there is the impunity enjoyed by those in the media who have cheered along all these things, and who have never lost a dime for being not just wrong, but disastrously wrong; not just mistaken in their reporting or analysis, but being willing conduits of propaganda and lies. From their pumping up of Rogoff/Reinhart nonsense in the most recent Depression to the center-right logic of the editorial war against “entitlements” waged by the supposedly liberal press, we have an elite culture that collaborates with the predatory class because, well, it is owned by it.

And I’ve been thinking – wouldn’t it be nice if instead of letting the Barr refusal and the Mueller report play out in the miniaturizing purlieus of D.C., something happened on the Argentina model. We could have Citizen Tribunals on Impunity that could hold hearings and debates around the country. This does not require that Mueller himself testify: merely that we have citizens, equipped with the Mueller report, who could call, say, past figures in U.S. history, from the Iran-Contra hearings, for instance, or from the 00s. We could have impunity hearings about corporations. We could have impunity hearings about the broken broken justice system. We could have hearings about McConnell and the Senate. RFK in the sixties took a subcommittee to various locales in this country to investigate poverty. On similar lines, a tribunal against impunity could go to Ohio and take testimony on the opioid ruin wrought on that state by the Sackler family and other purveyors of narcotics. We could have hearings in Atlanta about the way the gutting of Civil Rights law is leading to massive civic fraud in state after racist state. We could go to Miami and have a tribunal about the intersection between plutocrats and the sex trade on the international level. We could go to California and have an impunity tribunal about the contribution of oil and coal companies to the assassination of the Holocene and the way it is pushing the planet to a point of mass extinction.

The Demonstration, as a technique of opposition, shouldn’t dominate and exclude other techniques. Impunity Tribunals can work. They can cut across party lines, laying the blame on whatever crimes or injuries have been committed by political or establishment figures.

Unless the sphere of justice is captured by the people, the people will suffer a re-feudalization of their status that will not make the years since 1776 seem like an aberration.


PS: A day after I wrote this, I read the interview Nancy Pelosi gave The Hill. I thought that it would be appropriate to add a comment to this article:


The Chickenshit Club accepts another member

There’s a book about the Obama administration’s failure to prosecute bankers and other wealthy people for crimes they committed in the runup to 2008 – and even for crimes like laundering money for the cocaine cartels, for which Wachovia bank was given a big fine rather than jailtime for the CEO. Jesse Eisinger wrote a book about it called the Chickenshit Club. Basically, the rationale was that punishing the institutions that committed and profited from crimes to the full extent of the law would threaten the existence of these institutions, which, it was further argued, would spread too much collateral damage. The exemplary instance was the punishment suffered by Arthur Anderson, which put that accounting firm out of business. Many 200 thou plus accountants spent weeks hunting for jobs, and many of them couldn’t pay the docking fees at their yacht clubs.

Obama’s Justice department swallowed the “chickenshit” method hook, line, and sinker. Take HSBC bank. Investigators found that it helped transfer funds from Saudi Arabia to Al Qaeda, that it laundered billions of dollars for the drug cartels in Mexico, etc, etc. Here’s a story about what happened next (from the New Yorker article by Patrick Raden Keefe):
“With four thousand offices in seventy countries and some forty million customers, HSBC is a sprawling organization. But, in the judgment of the Senate investigators, all this wrongdoing was too systemic to be a matter of mere negligence. Senator Carl Levin, who headed the investigation, declared, “This is something that people knew was going on at that bank.” Half a dozen HSBC executives were summoned to Capitol Hill for a ritual display of chastisement. Stuart Gulliver, the bank’s C.E.O., said that he was “profoundly sorry.” Another executive, who had been in charge of compliance, announced during his testimony that he would resign. Few observers would have described the banking sector as a hotbed of ethical compunction, but even by the jaundiced standards of the industry HSBC’s transgressions were extreme. Lanny Breuer, a senior official at the Department of Justice, promised that HSBC would be “held accountable.”
What Breuer delivered, however, was the sort of velvet accountability to which large banks have grown accustomed: no criminal charges were filed, and no executives or employees were prosecuted for trafficking in dirty money. Instead, HSBC pledged to clean up its institutional culture, and to pay a fine of nearly two billion dollars: a penalty that sounded hefty but was only the equivalent of four weeks’ profit for the bank. The U.S. criminal-justice system might be famously unyielding in its prosecution of retail drug crimes and terrorism, but a bank that facilitated such activity could get away with a rap on the knuckles. A headline in the Guardian tartly distilled the absurdity: “HSBC ‘Sorry’ for Aiding Mexican Drug Lords, Rogue States and Terrorists.”
We are now seeing the “too big to jail” philosophy applied to Donald Trump. Nancy Pelosi, who has been very public with her disdain for the very idea of “impeaching” Trump, has explained that
Impeachment is one of the most divisive things that you can do, dividing a country,” she said. “Unless you really have your case with great clarity for the American people.”
Just as the operation of HSBC is just too vast and awe-inspiring to, like, stop, so, too, the taks of impeaching the president – well, it is divisive,is what it is.
Impunity is in the blood system of the political elite. They are not going back on the chickenshit system. It is their system, and they are proud of it.




I am a translator, author and editor living in Paris. I finished a novel in March, and am busy trying to find an agent. In the meantime, I thought I'd like to start a magazine. Willett's is meant to be a venue for the review of books, personal reflections, and political bitching - and everything else.
About Roger 78 Articles
I am a translator, author and editor living in Paris. I finished a novel in March, and am busy trying to find an agent. In the meantime, I thought I'd like to start a magazine. Willett's is meant to be a venue for the review of books, personal reflections, and political bitching - and everything else.

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