Thursday, January 18, 2018

A Day in Court

I was called for jury duty yesterday and actually had the day off from school anyway. All these years, I have never served on a jury and truth be told, I would love to. But not now, one week before I begin my work as a traveling music teacher. I actually made it to the first round of 12 people, but whether it was my pin that said “Make America Human Again” or a comment I made about the crime of “driving while black,” I was dismissed before I had to make my plea for hardship at work.

But I was duly impressed anew by the whole system of our courts. And while the fake President tries to tweet America down to its knees, I feel this shameful year as the true test of the strength of our democracy and one that strangely enough, we’re passing.

I, like many, have seen and been terrified with the parallels between what’s happening with the rise of Nazi Germany in 1933, but am more and more convinced that the bid for tyranny is failing because of three important pillars of our history. As follows:

1) Our Legal System:  The radical concept of “innocent until proven guilty,” the right of trial before one peers and the President swearing to uphold a legal document called The Constitution are three things that are helping prevent the re-appearance of a Hitler and his like. Is it flawed? You betcha. Mere accusations firing the likes of Garrison Keillor, black folks in the South with all-white juries, 45 crapping all over the Constitution with policies like the Muslim ban and (temporarily) getting away with it are just some of the ways the system is broken and imperfect. But imagine our country now without it. Imagine “guilty because the government says so,” no trial with impartial juries, no allegiance to the Constitution and the power to change it at will. None of that would be good news. Flawed as it is, the accountability our legal system demands and the possibility of a fair trial through the jury duty process of the guy or girl next door helping decide guilt or innocence “beyond a reasonable doubt” based on authentic evidence that must be provided and proved—well, let’s not take that for granted.

 2) Free Speech and Freedom of the Press: Fresh on my mind as I just saw the excellent movie The Post about the publishing of the Pentagon Papers. Nixon and his cronies came very close to hiding the lies to the public of all the decisions made by Presidents from Truman to Nixon about sending our young men to die in Vietnam because they couldn’t admit or accept that we were losing a dubious war. It was the courage of Katherine Graham and Ben Bradley that felt their responsibility to speak truth to power over hiding power’s agenda that helped bring Nixon down. In Hitler’s time, in China or Turkey today, one couldn’t wear T-shirts that said “I’m with the Resistance” and post criticisms on Blogs or Facebook or write editorials in newspapers. Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah would be in jail and the book Fire and Fury would not be a NY Times bestseller. All of that makes a difference. Our long history of such free speech is not one even the most conservative amongst us are likely to freely give up.

3). The Electoral Process: The fact that we elect leaders to represent the people rather than have them self-appoint or select their own is a huge roadblock to tyranny. It creates an accountability that lets politicians know that their decisions matter and are being considered when re-election comes around, hold them to some standard if for no other reason than political survival. Again, the system is mightily flawed. From voter suppression to incarcerating black folks for dubious felonies to gerrymandering to the ridiculous one-day to vote and release from workplace to people like the Koch brothers buying elections to downright tampering with machines (the infamous chads) to the Electoral College. All of that needs to be fixed. But nevertheless, someone like Barack Obama can be elected and serve for 8 years. (And again, someone as clearly unqualified, hopelessly incompetent and morally bereft as you-know-who can also!). 

But one of the most important policies in place is term limits. Hitler ruled for 12 years and had not he lost World War II, would have continued on indefinitely. As long as our system doesn’t entirely collapse, we have a guarantee that we merely need to survive 4 or 8 years before there is the hope of turning things around yet again. Once more, we should not take this for granted.

And so I was happy for practical reasons and disappointed for citizen-participation-reasons that I wasn’t selected for jury duty. But that morning spent in court with the everyday folks from diverse neighborhoods participating in a system aiming for fairness and justice renewed my faith that we will survive of all the travesties of such justice that are being thrown our way. There are countless modern-day Ben Bradleys and Katherine Grahams amongst us refusing to be silent and I have great hopes that the Democrats can take back the balance of power in the House and Senate and stop (or at least continue to slow down) the daily assaults on the Constitution. These three venerable institutions that aim for checks and balances to unbridled power are what’s keeping a semblance of democracy going. While we have them, let’s use them to the maximum. While you can read these words without fear of being thrown in jail, please read them. And add your own. 

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