WATCH FROM HOME: Little Injustices

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From the Odyssey series
by Terry Kay Rockefeller
color, 59 min, 1981

How does justice really work in the United States? Who has knowledge of the law, access to the legal system, and the will and power to use it?

Anthropologist Laura Nader’s first field trip to a Zapotec Indian village in Oaxaca, Mexico, in the late 1950s, led her to study problem-solving in the local courts. There, “little injustices” were the meat of everyday courtroom life. In this small-scale Mexican society, where most interactions were face-to-face, and anger and conflicts needed constantly to be resolved, Nader found that emphasis was on balanced solutions rather than on blaming a guilty party. We see, for instance, a courtroom scene in which the judge orders a truck driver, accused of running over a basket of chilies, to weigh the damaged chilies and reimburse the owner, while the merchant is warned to be more careful not to place his baskets in the road. Villagers, found Nader, consistently had knowledge of and access to the law, and often brought their problems to this court.

In the 1960s, Nader returned to teach at Berkeley. In a decade of sit-ins, riots, helicopter gassings, and arrests, Nader asked why conflicts in our own society, in contrast to the Zapotec village, tend to escalate toward violence. Nader became acutely aware of questions of power and powerlessness in industrialized societies dominated by multinational corporations and other large-scale organizations.

In order to investigate how the American legal system works for those who seek and cannot find justice, Nader, who notes that “our way of life is in fact a consumer way of life,” turned to five thousand letters sent by irate consumers to her brother, consumer advocate Ralph Nader. In this film, we meet some of these letterwriters. “Everybody buys a lemon at some point,” one comments: the oven is flaking, the new car drives in reverse, the mobile home is immovable, the washing machine just doesn’t work. In each of these cases, the cheated owners have tried through letters, forms, and phone calls to remedy their problems, only to discover that no one will take responsibility. The powerlessness of little people against corporate enterprise is overwhelming; most people give up in anger, frustration, and ultimately apathy. One couple got action on their flaking oven only after Betty Furness, on national television, asked the company president, “What’s that stuff that’s falling into the food?” “It’s really a form of porcelain,” the president replied, and although not toxic, he added, he did not recommend eating it.

People in America, notes Nader, sincerely think that it is wrong to be “taken,” that it goes against the American grain. “I’ll fight them to the end!” says one indignant consumer. The channels for such fights, however, are often dead ends, or at best obscure, in part because of the growing gap between producers and consumers in our industrial society, one which is based on face-to-faceless economic relationships.