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Fighting 'injustice anywhere' when 'anywhere' is Philadelphia

It's now been more than six years since the night that Dagma Rodriguez, a 33-year mother of three from the rugged neighborhood of West Kensington, said that she was sexually assaulted. Her assailant, she alleges, was a man who pressed her against a wall and began to fondle her.

"He started rubbing my breasts, rubbing my nipples," Rodriguez said. "I was so scared. My legs wouldn't stop shaking." The man kept talking lewdly, and kept fondling Rodriguez, until she began to cry...her assailant commanded her to "shut the f--- up."

It's a sadly familiar story -- the type of tale that might normally vanish into the dark night of a poor ,and largely powerless, community. But this case was different. Rodriguez' alleged assailant was a Philadelphia police officer, Officer Thomas Tolstoy, a member of what by all accounts was a rogue narcotics squad. She was willing to go on the record with her allegation -- and so were two other women who said that they, too, had been assaulted by the same Officer Tolstoy.

And the most important difference was that someone actually listened. It was two investigative reporters, Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker, who tracked the women down, and reported their story on the front page of the Philadelphia Daily News in 2009. They also reported in the same year allegations that another cop in the same unit had fabricated evidence on search warrants, and also something else shocking: More than 20 law-abiding bodega and corner-store owners -- most of them Latino or Asian immigrants -- said the narcotics squad had burst into their place of business, cut video cameras, and made off with food, cigarettes and cash -- thousands of dollars in all.

The stories immediately got the world of journalism, anyway. For their shoe-leather reporting in a tough part of the city (under withering pressure from the Fraternal Order of Police union and others), Laker and Ruderman were awarded the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. Back at home, the first baby steps toward justice were taken -- cops were pulled off the street, internal affairs officers were brought in, and information was forwarded to the U.S. Attorney's office.

And then...

Nothing happened.

Some two weeks ago, at a moment when it was clear that the 5-year statute of limitations covering many of the allegations had expired, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey conceded that there weren't going to be criminal charges (for officers accused of sexual assault and robbery! long do you think you or I would evade arrest with those allegations hanging over our heads?) and that he was taking the only avenue left: Internal charges. Five of the officers could be fired over the allegations, but even then they would go into an arbitration system that is stacked heavily in favor of cops and routinely returns dismissed officers to their jobs, even with back pay for overtime they would have worked.

In some ways, this is Philadelphia. More than 100 years ago, the famed muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens described America's founding city as "corrupt and contented"...and nothing has changed since then. Greedy politicians and crooked cops are rarely charged with a crime here -- even when their misdeeds have been reported in the media -- and in the rare cases that someone is charged, there's a good chance that a friendly judge (who, after all, comes out of the same corrupt Democratic machine) is likely to just throw the charges away. They count on a lack of public outrage -- one colleague here dubbed it "the Philly shrug" -- and it works.

But increasingly this is America in 2014 -- a nation that has two separate and ridiculously unequal systems of justice.

One exists for the insiders, the wealthy and the well-connected who by now are well aware that there are zero consequences -- or a painless slap on the wrist -- for their insider trades and their financial chicanery, or their corrupt dealings, or, if they have enough juice, even for their rank crimes like ransacking a bodega or groping cornered women.

The other is for the outsiders, the rest of us -- who walk on streets where law-abiding citizens are stopped and frisked by law-enforcement officers because of the color of their skin, where folks are arrested in one state for possessing or selling a drug that is now legal in other states, and where a muddled, seconds-long encounter with a cop might mean years behind bars.

If you've been half-awake for the past five years, you probably know this. But knowledge is one thing. Where is the outrage? How are we are going to fix this?

How are we going to fix a system where a millionaire who fatally runs over two tourists and leaves the scene can literally buy his way out of prison time, while a troubled woman who helped a boyfriend sell a few ounces of meth has been in jail for 20 years and has no hope of getting out any time soon? How are we going to fix a system in which the white-collar banksters and swindlers who triggered a financial crisis that caused severe economic pain walked away scot-free, usually with a bonus check in their pocket, while a woman who protested Wall Street and had a highly ambiguous encounter with the officer arresting her is now facing a possible seven years in jail?

In a climate where protected elites can literally get away with murder sometimes is it any wonder that abuse of power by officers wearing a badge is out of control, from Philadelphia to Albuquerque to the sidewalks of New York. But where is the outrage? And how are we going to fix this?

How can we be proud to live in a country where decent citizens stand up and say they were robbed or molested by a police officer -- and the system does nothing? I do not understand why this Philadelphia story is not in the national news -- night after night, until someone is charged. (There's even compelling  video of officers knocking out the cameras in a bodega...hello, CNN and MSNBC? Anyone home?)

The other day I stumbled across a picture of the signs that they used to have at the Pennsylvania border, which bragged that "America Starts Here." What if we could brag in Philadelphia, someday, that "Outrage Starts Here!"

Because outrage does work. Already, there's been enough of an uproar in Philadelphia that there have been a few  actual grown-up steps in the right direction, with the district attorney's office (which had deferred to the feds, initially) now saying it will look at the allegations of sexual assaults by Officer Tolstoy. But that's still not justice for the bodega owners who say they were ransacked and robbed; if you share the outrage, you can write the U.S. Justice Department, Division of Civil Rights, and demand a civil rights probe (which could, in theory, override the statute of limitation concerns). Even demanding action on social media (use the hashtags #UntaintJustice and #MyPhillyPD) helps raise awareness.

Dr. Martin Luther King said that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." And ultimately, America is going to have to deal with its injustice everywhere -- to demand that our leaders take real action against the con artists on Wall Street and declare an end to the excesses of "the war on drugs," including the absurd minimum penalties for non-violent offenses. And if they won't do that, we should elect new leaders who will. But you need to start with that "injustice anywhere," and right now "anywhere" is Philadelphia.