Justice for the Little People?

By Robert Bernstein   |   February 1, 2022

“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids all men to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread – the rich as well as the poor.” So wrote Anatole France in The Red Lily (1894).

It is difficult to express the injustice of the legal system better than that one brilliant sentence.

Wealthy real estate businesswoman Leona Helmsley was claimed to say, “We don’t pay taxes; only the ‘little people’ pay taxes.”

As a Sierra Club hike leader I have found the greatest challenge of most hikes in our area is not the hike itself. It is the challenge of getting to the trailhead. In most cases this means driving as there is no public transit to most local trailheads. And this means a difficult search for parking at most trailheads. One exception had been the Hot Springs trailhead. Until about a year ago when it started getting quite difficult there.

One day I saw tickets placed on cars on a street used for Hot Springs parking for many years. I asked a law enforcement officer what was going on. He asked which car was ours. I said we did not park here. “Then why do you care?” he asked. “Because I care about justice?” I replied, wondering if he would grasp this concept.

I pointed out to him that local property owners had illegally placed boulders and plantings and illegal “No Parking” signs on the public right-of-way, which had been used for public parking for decades. I asked him if he would be ticketing them. The look in his eyes captured the Anatole France quote perfectly. It clearly never even occurred to him that wealthy land owners illegally blocking the public right-of-way deserved to be ticketed, fined, or charged with a crime. Only the “little people” get tickets, fines, and criminal prosecution.

For much of the past year I have followed up with various elected officials and County staff to see if the public right-of-way can be re-established to allow parking at this popular trailhead. County Parks claimed that they manage the parks, but have nothing to do with how people are able to get to the parks. The elected officials claimed that a survey was needed to be sure that it really is a public right-of-way. When it turned out that it is, the next excuse is that the wealthy property owners might sue the County. For daring to enforce that the public land be used by the public and not by them?

I was reminded of another example in the 1980s. At that time, President Reagan was illegally funding terrorists in Central America. Our local member of Congress Lagomarsino was supporting this illegal behavior by his votes and also with personal fundraising. A group of us from the Central America Response Network held a peaceful protest outside his office at El Paseo. Santa Barbara Police came by and told us we had to leave because we were “trespassing.”

I pointed out that Mr. Lagomarsino was in violation of a number of laws, including the Neutrality Act, written by George Washington. I asked if they could please arrest Mr. Lagomarsino. To their credit, they decided to let us “trespass.” But there was no way they would arrest someone who was funding the torture and murder of thousands of innocent people. Only the “little people” get arrested.

Not to mention that refugees of this terror get placed in cages.

Stealing needed meds from a pharmacy carries a stiff sentence. But inflating drug prices for obscene profit is legal?

Why are bicyclists given tickets for riding on the sidewalk when county/city planners are to blame for providing no safe bike route?

Why are homeless people jailed while no one went to jail for the 2008 lending/housing crisis? And why are people allowed to flip thousands of houses, making housing unaffordable?

And the grandest scale example? The fossil fuel industry using our atmosphere as a trash heap. How do they get away with this Climate Crisis while “little people” get fined for littering?

How will this change? There are a lot more “little people” than there are rich and powerful. Change will come when they unify, see common interests, organize, and demand accountability.  

Robert holds degrees from Physics departments of MIT and UC Santa Barbara. Career in designing atomic-resolution microscopes. Childhood spent in Europe and the East of the US. Passion to understand the Big Questions of life and the universe. Duty to be a good citizen of the planet. 


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