Law in Contemporary Society

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OliviaLiSecondEssay 1 - 08 Jun 2017 - Main.OliviaLi
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The Streets in Thermopylae

-- By OliviaLi - 08 Jun 2017

From the minute I landed in Jackson, Mississippi, two weeks ago, I worried I made a mistake about where to spend my summer internship. Jackson is a sleepy place where I felt spent just from driving on the interstate, and I was wondering if I subconsciously picked a place awash with fatigue as a way of dealing with the competitiveness of law school. The prospect of idling for two and a half months at a small public interest law firm made me blush with anxiety — like I left my keys on the kitchen counter, like I just made a dumb call and should have gone to a more established agency in Philadelphia. But how important did I think my time was, really?

I started thinking of ways to spend it that didn’t include my job at the Mississippi Center for Justice, whose lawyers had been oddly silent since I got hired in the winter. I could volunteer at the art museum downtown. I could visit the Saturday farmer’s market on High St. I could run every street of Fondren and Bellhaven, since Mississippi is a place where sour cream is served as salad dressing.

I did just that early one morning. Six minutes into a podcast about how health insurers are fleeing the market in Tennessee, I tripped in a crack in the pavement and tumbled for five feet along the choppy curb. On my back, I clutched my knees to my chest. The road carved a two-inch hole over my left kneecap and frayed the skin of my palms and elbows. I was too dizzy to stand up.

A plastic surgeon in Ridgeland, a suburb just north of Jackson across the county line and a destination for white flight, explained to me, as he anesthetized and stitched my knee, that the roads in Jackson crack atop the shifting Yazoo clay. Municipal government is no match for an earth that moves so imperceptibly, but so severely. The clay’s whims split roads, walls, and house foundations. It’s like a devastatingly slow earthquake. The soil under Jackson was not meant for an era of suburban sprawl and recreational fitness. (Eudora Welty called Mississippi “backward” when there were still 15 cent movies.)

As he plucked gravel from my flesh, the doctor asked me what I was doing here. I told him I was working at the Mississippi Center for Justice, and he wondered why I wasn’t interning a law firm, because he knew some lawyers in Jackson who had plenty of money and some boats. “I don’t want to work 100 hours a week,” I said, which I realized was an answer about what I didn’t want, rather than what I did. He assured me his boat friends spent plenty of time with their families. I scrunched my nose, thinking his boat friends are shills for the payday lending lobby, and boats are fucking boring, and that’s why I’m not going to work at a firm. But he wasn’t yet finished with my knee.

After seven stitches were in, he asked me what my actual plans were. “I want to work in policy,” I said. He toyed with me as he closed the wound: “A raging liberal, huh? Let me tell you something: The government just spends people’s money. Every time they get involved, they just take money for themselves or waste it. Like Obamacare. You see, I believe people would be better off if we let the market handle things. I pay taxes for schools— the public schools aren’t worth shit here — and I pay my kids’ tuitions too. But I’ve got five of them, because we’re Catholic … You must think I’m not compassionate. Anyway, when you’re in D.C. writing those liberal polices, just remember you were treated by a private doctor when you tore up your leg here in Jackson.”

He gave me a pat on the back and a prescription for antibiotics, and I told him that I appreciated his compassion for my left knee.

I thought it over, and the doctor’s bedside jest also sounded like a plaintive and serious speech about the order of things, made to a person who might well work in D.C. one day, a woman who could be a policy advisor to a senator, if she could get over the feeling that she hasn’t earned such an ambition. Lying on the table, I chuckled at the him: Was he seriously worried that I would steer the reins of government, that I would use national power to solve national problems?

I hobbled into work a couple days later to find that the Center had lost some funding and three attorneys since I interviewed with them in February. It got grant money to bring on an impact litigation fellow, but the lawyers had no one to sue, which was an obvious problem, given the contingencies of the grant money. Finding a lawsuit seemed urgent to me, but I was told that if I got to the office at 9:00 am and left at 5:00 pm, I’d be the first and last person there.

I found the staff’s inertia irritating. Weren’t we in the kingdom of payday lenders and for-profit colleges, reigning over the obese, uninsured, and unbanked masses? Perhaps the lawyers at the Center were tired of shoving the boulder up the mountain: Prison is the new Jim Crow, check cashers are the new sharecroppers, redistricting is the new poll tax.

I politely declined my supervising attorney’s suggestion that I pack up at 4:00 pm that day. When he shut the front door to the office, I shook my head at the computer screen: “Jesus, doesn’t anyone take themselves seriously around here?” I stuck around to finish reading an article about how only two percent of welfare applicants in Mississippi are actually deemed eligible to receive cash assistance, and deep poverty has exploded here. The thought of dragging some fuckers into court made me smile.

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Revision 1r1 - 08 Jun 2017 - 04:25:14 - OliviaLi
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