According to Oliver Willis, some of us on the left are dumb because we aren’t ready to declare that a woman arrested for prostitution with her son present is an open and shut case of wrongness. He claims it isn’t about whether or not we think prostitution should be legal. It is illegal. She brought her kid. She involved “her child in what is very clearly illegal activity.” End of story.
But does Willis really think that people should never do anything illegal? Back in November, Willis claimed that Martin Luther King was one of the most important figures in black American history. And in this piece, he asked “Do people on the left think that Martin Luther King simply held one protest and those in power immediately rushed to pass the Civil Rights Act?”
I certainly don’t think that MLK held one protest. I know that he held many protests. I also know that he spent quite a bit of time in jail for breaking the law, as did a whole lot of other people in the civil rights movement. It was, after all, MLK who said “Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.”
But perhaps Willis just meant that children should never be involved in illegal activity, even the illegal activity he might find moral. It so happens that I am currently reading Freedom’s Children, interviews of people who were children during the civil rights movement. Kids were actively recruited by MLK and others to participate in protests and nonviolent disobedience. They integrated movie theaters and restaurants. They went to jail. They got their asses kicked. Does Willis think that shouldn’t have happened? I doubt it.
What about immigration, Oliver. You said Romney lost because he “embraced in a bear hug the most fringe anti-immigrant position out there.” You seem to support immigration reform and scoff at Republicans who use the term “amnesty” to refer to legalizing those who crossed our borders without papers. Do you think immigrants who crossed the border illegally with their children should be strung up from the nearest lamppost?
No. I don’t believe that this is really about legal or illegal. I think Willis would agree that disobeying unjust, immoral laws is perfectly acceptable. If not, he has some explaining to do about his love of MLK. This is about Willis’s opinion of sex work and the people who do it. It is about his willingness to dismiss and dehumanize someone because they did something he finds icky.
Back when I took my first class on the drug war, I had this click moment in my head. Even though I had never been in favor of the drug laws, even though I knew many people who were caught up in the injustice system, I never really recognized the scheme for what it was. How I never saw the process of dehumanization is incredible to me. I mean, I had been reading about Nazi Germany’s laws against Jews since grade school. I knew how vagrancy laws were used during Jim Crow. I understood how laws were enacted to criminalize certain groups and justify their oppression. But somehow I never saw it clearly when it came to the drug laws.
And it wasn’t until relatively recently that I really gave a lot of thought to the laws against sex work. Who are they meant to control? Where did they come from? Who is getting their freedom taken away? What is the result of the War on Sex Workers?
But Willis doesn’t want to ask those questions. He doesn’t want to ask why a person might do sex work. He doesn’t want to ask why sex work is looked down upon more than working for Goldman Sachs. He doesn’t want to ask why someone might have to bring their kid to work with them. To ask those questions would mean seeing that woman as a human being and not a “criminal” – that classification which justifies taking someone’s freedom, taking their children, marking them for life.
When someone dared suggest that perhaps the woman’s choices were limited and that we should try to understand more about her circumstances before we judge, Willis chose to get butthurt that people had lower standards for the poor. Apparently, he thinks that following the rules and working hard will eventually pay off for everyone – despite all the evidence to the contrary.
No, Willis. Asking questions, refusing to completely dehumanize that woman, is not a “degrading” assumption that “a poor person must break the law to eat and that that’s somehow okay.” It is an understanding that some human beings have more limited choices than others. It is an understanding that laws are often made for the purpose of controlling certain groups of people. It is the unwillingness to dehumanize and degrade.
Willis believes in “absolutes, ” by which he means that laws are laws and should be followed by all. Nobody gets a break. The guy who stole millions in mortgage fraud schemes is exactly the same as the starving guy who stole bread. For him, anything else means “no moral guidance, no right and wrong… anarchy.”
Except that “no moral guidance” is not what anarchy means. Anarchy means no rulers. It means no hierarchies that allow a few powerful people to make laws that oppress the rest. It means understanding that moral and legal are not the same. It means freedom, mutual aid, and respect. It means trying to understand what your fellow human beings are experiencing and not assuming that your morals and choices are universal.
Laws against sodomy, laws against miscegenation, laws against drugs, and laws against sex work have all been used to target marginalized people. And even when some of the people who support those laws have good intentions – like those who know how destructive drug abuse can be – they cannot just close their eyes to how the laws are used. That is immoral.