December 14, 2014

Maybe The Other Guy Isn't the Problem

When I was 19 years old, I received a summons for jury duty. Just a year before, I had voted in my first election, and now this. It was so exciting. I arrived at the courthouse early, checked in, and settled in for a long wait. Before long I was assigned to a panel of about 100 candidates, from which a final suitable dozen might be chosen.

The case was a brutal murder, rape, and robbery. One by one, in the process of voir dire, the lawyers questioned each of us. Some of the queries seemed hopelessly irrelevant to the matter at hand, but after a while I figured it out: They don’t care about our knowledge of the criminal justice system; instead, they want us to reveal our hidden biases. Hidden, perhaps, even from ourselves.

That’s right: No one, neither the People nor the Defense, really desires to have a jury of impartial, blank-slate citizens. What they want instead, is to find jurors who bring as much baggage as possible – in their favor, that is. Such is the nature of the beast.

When the grand jury in Ferguson, MO, failed to indict Officer Darren Wilson, many in the community (and beyond) sniffed a conspiracy. Surely, a jury with only three black members could never weigh the evidence fairly to avenge the untimely death of a young black man. White men protecting their own, again.

But here’s the thing I learned while serving on jury duty. There are many reasons why I might either love you or hate you, without getting to know you, and render an unjust verdict:

I’m black and you’re white.
I’m poor and you’re rich.
I’m a union member and you own a factory.
I lost my house to a foreclosure, and you’re a banker.
You remind me of my evil boss, who is a Muslim or Republican or homosexual.
I want to avenge the injustices of the past.
I was a victim of the same crime that you’re accused of.
My brother/daughter/dad is a cop.
My brother/daughter/dad was killed by a cop.
We’re from opposite sides of the tracks.
I have a pre-existing political agenda.
You have a pre-existing political agenda.
You look like my ex-wife.

…And yet, when a jury hands down a decision we don’t like, we reflexively cry “racism.” It couldn’t be anything else. Even if (as in Ferguson) we don’t even know who the people are. Those protesters didn't want an impartial jury; they wanted a jury with the same predispositions as themselves.
In the town where I live, the local politics are brutal. Our residents are engaged and vocal, and the City Council meetings attract big crowds. A few years back, a neighboring city went to court to keep us from building a new hospital. Yeah, it’s like that. Never a dull moment.

One prominent local resident, over the course of several years, ran for every public office imaginable: City Council, State Assembly, Congress, school board, on and on. And she lost every time. After a while, she began to complain very loudly to anyone who would listen: We’re a city of racists and sexists. Surely, she lost because she’s black and female. Oh, really?

For anyone who is paying attention, her claim is demonstrably false. Or at least, according to the facts in evidence. We already had, and still have, both black and female public officials in our community. Anyone who desires to seek public office, can. We don’t need to change the way we hold elections, as some have proposed, just to satisfy a noisy few.

Sometimes in life, you won’t get your way. And sometimes, it will be because the other guy didn’t play fair. Or, perhaps, you just didn’t persuade me of your view. You’ve got your rights? Well, so do I. I’m allowed to disagree. I’m allowed to choose the candidate I think is best for the job. I’m allowed to speak my mind. I’m allowed to vote “guilty” for a defendant of another race.

Just like you.

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