We are all criminals

Odds are good that you don’t think of yourself as a criminal. Odds are even better that you’re wrong about that.

I have no doubt that you believe yourself to be a good, upstanding, law-abiding citizen. You’re not a murderer. You’ve never mugged anyone. You don’t steal cars or break into people’s homes. You’re not a drug dealer. How dare I suggest that you’re a criminal?

Because you are. As am I. As is almost anyone old enough to be reading these words. ‘Cause if you’ve ever broken the law, you’re a criminal. And the odds are exceptionally good that you’ve broken the law at some point in your life.

Right now, some of you may be remembering some youthful indiscretion. You swiped a chocolate bar from the corner store when you were 12. You had a sip or two of beer before you were of legal age to do so. Your lifetime record isn’t so spotless after all.

Some of you may even be willing to admit — in private, if not in public — that you’ve broken the law more recently than your wayward adolescence. You’ve smoked a joint in a jurisdiction where marijuana remains a controlled substance. You’ve brought a ream of paper home from the office to use for non-work-related projects. You’re also no saint.

Even those of you who try to live an impeccably sin-free life — you’ve never touched a drop of alcohol (much less anything on the shadier side of the law), and you wouldn’t dream of taking so much as a paper clip from your workplace without the express permission of your employer — have broken the law at some point anyway. Probably even within the last week. Crossed the street without waiting for the “walk” signal? Driven faster than the posted speed limit? Overstayed your allotted time on a parking meter? Congratulations. You’re part of the club too.

Okay. Fine. You’re willing to admit that you have done things that, technically, are illegal. But your transgressions have all been trivial, petty infractions. They hardly make you a criminal, right?

Except that they do. Jaywalking may be a much less serious crime than murder, but it’s still a crime. Your criminality probably doesn’t rise to the level of, say, Timothy McVeigh’s, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not a criminal at all. Simply that you’re not as wicked a criminal as he was.

The fact that we all break the law — and do so on a fairly regular basis — is something to remember the next time you hear someone say that Eric Garner or Mike Brown (or whoever the next unarmed person of color to be killed by the police happens to be) would be alive today if only they’d followed the law. Because there’s a cruel, hypocritical self-righteousness in justifying the deaths of those men by pointing to their “criminal” ways.

Especially since the crimes that were the immediate causes of their encounters with the cops who killed them — Brown and a friend were jaywalking, Garner was allegedly selling loose cigarettes — are precisely the sort of trivial, petty, ordinary violations of the law that we all commit on a regular basis. If what they did merits the death penalty, then there aren’t too many of us who should feel safe walking the streets these days.

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