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The Thin Line of Social Order

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Another controversial court ruling, another night of rioting and looting. Last week Californians once again witnessed the temperamental acting out of those who feel they were on the wrong side an injudicious decision by a jury of their peers.

Last Thursday San Francisco-area transportation police officer Johannes Mehserle was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter for the 2009 death of BART rider Oscar Grant. Video evidence showed that while arresting Grant, Mehserle unholstered his gun, instead of his taser, and fatally shot Grant. Given the racial overtone of the tragic New Year’s Day killing (Mehserle is white, Grant was black), citizens of the East Bay felt only a conviction for murder would be true justice. So divisive was the issue, the trial was moved to Los Angeles.

Although first-degree murder wasn’t an option for jurors to consider, many Oakland-area citizens were still stunned by what they perceived to be a lenient involuntary manslaughter conviction, which, in conjunction with other charges, carries up to 14 years in jail for Mehserle.

Whether justice was truly served in the case is a question that will be debated for years to come. But the public response to the conviction is unequivocally wrong. By late Thursday afternoon, media outlets in San Francisco were warning citizens to leave downtown for fear of a violent reaction to the verdict. Riot police geared up for a long evening. While most citizens shared their disgust at the verdict through lawful verbal condemnation, those who have no respect for the law, judicial system or social order in general seized upon the public anger as an opportunity to be violent.

As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Officials said the main instigators appeared to be organized "anarchist" agitators wearing black clothing and hoods.” The so-called outsiders took advantage of the seething anger of local residents, inciting violence. They successfully turned mere emotional anguish into physical aggression.

Such anarchic acts are not just an assault on local authority and community, they are an assault on society at large and the very structure of social order. While such violence is an extreme example of anarchy, rebellion and disrespect for the societal order, there are less-violent but just as insidious acts that eat away at society—and they often come from the very government charged with keeping order and administering justice.

As the tumult in San Francisco was unfolding, a hundreds miles away in Sacramento, another form of rebellion was taking place. This time, violence wasn’t incited, but the same rebellion against social order was at its root.

State Controller John Chiang defied Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s order to implement a federal minimum wage for 200,000 state workers until the state budget is passed—which is currently almost two weeks past its constitutional deadline. A state court ruled the governor had the authority to impose such a pay standard until the legislature and governor agree upon a new budget.

In defiance of both the executive and judicial branches, Chiang whined that his department is physically incapable of issuing a $7.25 per hour paycheck to state workers. An antiquated computer system tied his hands. Considering this is the same politician who last year allocated $2 million in tax dollars to redecorate his office, his pathetic excuses were not well-received by the public. This type of lame excuse seem utterly illogical to a commonsense business world. If cuts must be made and then implemented, they are made.

Apart from the social contract that provides societal order, the life of man is, according to Hobbes, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Communities and societies are established to protect the weakest among us and administer justice. An orderly society can only exist when citizens agree upon the laws that will govern them and then abide by those rules. Without consent and then obedience, social order unravels quickly. From hooligans on the street, to special-interest-beholden politicians defying separation of powers, both are insidious forms of rebellion against society at large.

Although one form of rebellion is violent and physically destructive, and the other is played out in well-lit, orderly courtrooms, they are both rooted in the same destructive attitude. Anarchists want to destroy social order, preferring the solitary and brutish life described by Hobbes. Self-absorbed politicians bend social order to meet their selfish ends, regardless of the damage inflicted on the delicate balance of governing authority.

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