It was fifty years ago that Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and I have posted about it before. It is, as I’ve said on many occasions, something that inspires me when I am feeling quite the coward.
There is very little in my life that requires absurd amounts of courage. In fact it is all quite normal and humdrum. I have two boys that I need to raise to become men. If I screw it up they could become total douchebags or just general horrible guys to date or marry or have at your workplace or terrible bosses. I mean, this is a daunting task but is parenting a child really an act of bravery? It’s just what human beings do. You have sex (or in my case, you don’t) and then voila, nine or so months later you have other humans that are entrusted into your care.
(We don’t think of this being a parent things as an act of courage, but it should be considered such. Will your boys and girls be as brave as MLK? Will they be as brave as you? Will you show them your strength of will so they will know what it looks like? Let me ask you this – are you not afraid of what might happen if you don’t? I am. Always. Afraid of what could be if I don’t do it.)
I have a job. Some call it a career. I defend people accused of crimes. Some are guilty, some are not. I don’t know the difference on a regular basis. There is simply no time to contend with those details. And yes, to me they are nothing more than details. The defense is what matters. How much intestinal fortitude does it take to do this work? I am scared a lot of the time. But what is this fear? Of what? Of getting it wrong. Of screwing up. Of losing. And if I lose there is just so much at stake.
(But at the end of the day is it not just a job? Don’t I just move on, go on to the next case, the next client. I get do-overs all the time. But not with that client. Not with that person. I need to be strong. I need to push through. If I don’t do it, then who will? For him. For that person over there. Who?)
I have friends who have problems. Some big, some small. This life is filled with chaos and complexities and we navigate our way through sometimes with a GPS as faulty as the new apple maps. Our way is not always as clearly defined as we might like and we stray and fall and meander back and forth. Â Sort of like this post, which isn’t dissimilar from others where I simply can’t seem to get to the point.
But there is a point, and it is about MLK and it is about Birmingam
In January of 1963, Governor George Wallace (whom I’ve heard tell was a great politician) gave his inaugural address:
Â I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.
Can you imagine? You are black. You live in the South and you are told that forever more, as long as these people are in power, you are less than fully human. So, what do you do?
Of course, you go to Alabama.
You go with MLK.
King was arrested on Good Friday, 1963, during one of the non-violent protests. They held him in isolation. A group of white clergymen said King should not have protested, said he should not have gotten arrested. Said he and other blacks should be patient. Patient.
But they could not. How much longer? How long is too long? Who would tell them but the white folks in charge. No more waiting.
I went to the American History museum last week. They have a lunch counter there where these sit-ins were held. A lovely young black woman dressed in lunch counter gear was heading up a demonstration. She had four white volunteers sit at the counter and us, the crowd, got in real close. She told us to stare, then mock.
And she said focus. Focus. Can you stay calm? Can you stay focused?
Is your goal worth sitting here and enduring this?
I sometimes wonder at the comparison of what I do and how I live to that of the blacks protesting segregation during that awful time. Is it fair? After all, my clients are accused of committing crimes and the protesters were just ordinary black people. But then I remember that at the time, blacks weren’t just people like me and you and you white guy over there. They were all criminals. And they were fighting for justice. Which the white guys thought they were already giving them.
Governor Wallace ultimately changed his position on segregation. He said it was wrong of him to stand in front of the schoolhouse doors preventing blacks from entering. And you know, that’s a good thing. But he fought long and hard to continue the unjust and broken system in the South.
That is, in fact, what we do now. All of us who clamor for longer sentences, more laws, a tougher stance on X, Y, and Z thing. We want to go on, throw the gauntlet down. Not acknowledge that this system is still racist. It is broken. It does not work and does not accomplish what we want to accomplish.
MLK said this. He said
We know through painful experience that freedom in never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. . . For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was notÂ AmosÂ an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was notÂ Martin LutherÂ an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” AndÂ John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crimeâ€“the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists
I can’t believe that there aren’t people there, who like George Wallace, can have an awakening and realize that our criminal justice system in its current fashion is unworkable. We must stop taking flesh and putting it behind bars, taking it out again, rinse repeat. We must be extremists for justice and for real change.
Focus. Focus. The goal is worth it.
There is a lot going on in the news right now. Bombs have exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. People are dead. Others are severely injured – run a marathon and then lose a limb or two. Speculation is rampant about who did this and why. My twitter feed is buzzing and I am trying to retreat to the silence within myself. And I re-read an article I posted earlier today and it made me cry again. Each time I look at it I well up. That’s right. Just looking at it and knowing the power it had over me.
I dare you to read this and not feel it. And then ask yourself what about this made you feel the way it made you feel.
It’s not flowery or excessively gushy. It doesn’t have what you would expect from a persuasive writing piece. In fact, when I started reading it I didn’t get it – how was this an article that made all these people well up with tears – but I kept going and I felt in right there – you know, that deep down place that you venture into only on rainy days and Mondays. And today is, oddly enough, both rainy and Monday.
I wish I could write like that. I wish I could bludgeon people over the head with nothing more than a dandelion. Â In the wake of this day, the blood on the streets of Boston, I look at this and am reminded that each of us is capable of so much love.
Don’t forget it people. Just don’t.
You never get a second chance to make a first impression. But,sometimes its good enough just to get a second chance.Posted: March 29th, 2013 by Mirriam.
Every day it feels like I answer the same question over and over and over again “Mirriam, how can you do it? How can you defend child molesters and rapists?” I am always amazed that no one asks how I can defend murderers (probably because most folks know that some people need killing?) but so it goes.
I am trying to be a bit more social – as I posted about before – and maybe because I seem so normal when I tell people what I do they are sort of stunned. “YOU? But you look so petite and gentle. You have kids. You don’t drink to excess on a regular basis and your shirt is almost never wrinkled.” To which I respond “I know, I know. I am just a fragile gentle flower and my kids are probably going to be okay despite my chosen line of work. And I don’t drink to excess on a very regular basis and I have a good dry-cleaner.” And then I try to play freeze tag or talk about the latest Oprah book or whatever but people will never freaking stop.
And why should they? When what we do is newsworthy and they make tv shows about it and well, there are so many famous criminal defense lawyers these days it just has to be asked about and talked about and you know what, good. I’m glad to do it. But then I get on my soap box. And we all know how that goes.
“Oh, you do it to defend the constitution, right? To make sure people get a fair trial?” Well, um, yes. That’s a part of it.
“You do it because you have to do it since that’s what you swore to do.” Not really, I didn’t swear to defend anyone when I joined the bar.
“You do it because you don’t know if they are guilty but if you knew you would be okay with them getting convicted.” Well, I guess if that makes you feel better.
The answer is no to all of these. I’ve written about why I do this job a million times and I’m not going to do it now. But let’s say I do it because I am a big believer that every single one of us is better than this.
This morning I got an email from Jim Wyda who is our Federal Public Defender. I don’t know that I’ve ever met Mr. Wyda, but we on the CJA panel get emails from him regularly. He keeps us as informed as those who work directly for him at the Federal Public Defender’s office. I think I like him and I have worked closely with some of his attorneys and I think they do a bang up job. Anyway, this email was an article from the New York Times about something called “The Mercy Project.”
So here comes our law lesson for the day. Back in the deep dark stone aged days of the federal criminal justice system, otherwise known as pre-2005, the sentencing guidelines we currently use to establish for how long people should go to federal prison were mandatory. What that means is that the court used a chartÂ to decide the sentence. No one cared who you were, what you did, if you were sick, if you were doing well now, if you were ever going to commit this kind of crime again (we have studies for that, you know). No one cared how you grew up or how bad your part in the crime was. MANDATORY. So, folks who committed pretty insignificant crimes went away for long periods of time. No ifs, ands, or buts.*
And then, one day, it changed. The sentencing guidelines were no longer mandatory. Hurrah! Freedom for all small time offenders!!
What? No? Hmmm. . . So, what changed? Well, the courts were free, after the 2005 decision, to fashion a “punishment that fit the offender and not merely the crime.” ” But, what happens to all of those people who were sentenced under the old system” you so wisely ask. Well, unfortunately, nothing. They stay there and languish and wait until the government is satisfied that they have extracted their fair share of flesh. And in walks the Mercy Project. Under this proposed project, lawyers can work pro-bono and try to find ways to get old cases back into court. Once we do that, we can ask judges to reduce the sentences looking at the folks who are physically standing in front of them and all that they are and all they have accomplished. Neat, huh?
I had a chance, recently, to do something like this. I had a case that was sent back to the trial judge for resentencing. I was so hopeful the judge would want to go back and do the right thing. My client had been in prison already for eight years, she’s a paralegal now, she can cut hair. She has helped so many other women prisoners (many came to speak for her at sentencing) and the judge did do what we asked him to do but did not go below the new guideline range. And that happens. Many judges are still reluctant to vary from that chart. It feels safe to them, especially since most appellate courts won’t touch a sentence if it is in that range. And, if you are a lifetime tenured judge – uh, why not be safe (I’m not really sure about that one but maybe that’s a post for a time where I am feeling bold enough to take on the judiciary? Maybe?)
But here’s the thing. Why not give judges a chance. After all, they really are as human as the rest of us and they can have changes of heart and mind too. They can revisit and rethink and maybe sometimes they go home and come back and think it’s ok, what they did is good and right, and maybe eight years later they realize they wanted to do something different if only they could have. If only. Until it is the end of days we have another chance to make things right and why would we not give those human beings who seem to have all the answers all the time the opportunity to do just that? Let them show mercy the second time around if they couldn’t the first.
I don’t know how many judges would do this thing. How many would admit they were wrong and should have done otherwise. But we won’t know until we try.
I do this job for many, many reasons. But mostly for this reason: because there is goodness in each and every one of us. And we all deserve another chance, even you, Judge.
* Butts, heh. Oh, did you expect a cite or some really intriguing footnote?
Also, to read a better written post on Mercy, and the Mercy Project, read Gideon today.
Now and again I’m allowed to venture out among normal people and talk to them about the things they do and think about. It seems I do myself a disservice by only engaging in shop talk with like minded people. I mean, what’s the point of all of this preaching to the choir on these things?
Here, for example, is a typical conversation between two criminal defense lawyers. We shall call them Harry and David:
Harry: Â ”Hey, the death penalty is bad.”
David: Â “Yeah, it’s not a deterrent. All the stats show that. And there are so many innocent people who have been exonerated.”
Harry: Â Â ”Totally man. It’s just wrong.”
Harry: Â Â ”That prosecutor is such a douche. I can’t believe he doesn’t know his job”
David: Â Â ”Doesn’t he know he is supposed to seek justice and not just convict?”
Harry: Â ”Man, I don’t know why the judge didn’t take into account the fact that my client was (insert horrible, tragic, can’t even believe a person could go through that and still live event here) when he sentenced him.
David: Â ”Dude, if you couldn’t get the judge to listen on that, we need to overhaul the whole system.”
Seriously folks, isn’t that how it goes? Sure, we may talk in more technical terms and fill in the blanks better. But that is the general gist of it all. So, when I do get out and about and the conversation goes like this:
Me: Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â “I think the death penalty is wrong.”
Friend: Â Â Â Â Â ” I think child molesters should get put to death.”
Me: Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â ”What if you were accused of molesting children?
Friend: Â Â Â Â Â ”I never thought about it like that.”
Isn’t it our job, we people who write and talk and get on our soapbox, isn’t our job to make them think of it like that. And if we don’t do that then what are we doing?
Gideon wrote eloquently about Aaron Schwartz and his prosecution. If you don’t know who Aaron Schwartz is and what happened to him, I invite you to read here and here. Gideon says, basically, hey you guys who are so up in arms over Aaron Schwartz, you thought it couldn’t happen to you. But it does. It happens to smaller yous all the time. It happens every day. Everywhere. And while what happened to Aaron Schwartz is a tragedy, it is the one we are all too familiar with.
I’ve been defriended in real life and on this world wide computer for my never-ceasing preaching. I am called judgmental by those who hold views that I find appalling. It is disconcerting to me that so many people truly believe that because they don’t “do anything wrong” they will never face the terrible wrath of their very own government. I hope beyond all hope it is true for every last one of us.
For you. And for me.
There is a day when I hope my conversation with people will go like this:
Me: Â Â Â Â ”Hey, how about all that amazing justice that we’ve got here?”
Friend: Â ”Yeah, we really are lucky.”
I’ve joined a gym.
This is probably not the most provocative way to start a blog post. If you stop reading now I will understand. I mean, I’m supposed to GRAB YOUR ATTENTION in the first sentence. There has to be a hook. Â A reason for you to look up from twitter or grumpy cat to read this, right? Well, tough shit. This is what I have for you thus far.
I joined a gym. And really, the technical term for it is box. But that makes me giggle. Like a 14 year old boy or a 42 year old woman. And also, it makes me feel pretentious like oh yeah, you turds go to a gym. I go to a, er, um (box).
I’ve joined this cross-fit craze and I am a true believer. So, if you think this post is about cross-fit and how awesome it is, it kind of is. Because it is awesome. After 6 weeks I feel stronger, I feel healthier and I feel mentally more alert (keep the commentary to yourselves). But really, this isn’t about how great my gym is. It’s a warehouse set up with ropes and rings and barbells and kettlebells and terrible things called prowlers. There are orange home depot buckets placed strategically throughout in case you lose your lunch (haven’t seen it happen yet). The workouts are always interesting and challenging and, while intimidating at first, the coaches (yes, you get coaches like for real) are there to cheer you on and tell you when you suck and make you better.
I go to a place called Crossfit Rubicon here in town. Sometimes I go at 5:30 a.m., other days I’m at the 4:30 pm class. Â One day I went at noon. And that day, my friends, is the reason for this post.
I don’t write much about Afghanistan anymore. My dad is still there working hard at rebuilding the health care system. It’s going okay, but of course it has it’s share of setbacks. I read the news every day and I don’t get the same feeling of panic I did years ago when he first went, when I imagined he was killed in every roadside bombing incident or every suicide bombing event in Kabul. He was right, after time you just grow to accept the conditions you live in. He lives in a war zone and we live with it.
I went to workout the other day and a woman walked into the box with a “property of Afghanistan athletic department” sweatshirt on. It actually made me stop what I was doing. I was, right then and there, eight years old and being asked where I was from. I said “Afghanistan” and they said “Where is that?”
That was how it was until 2001.
My country was invaded by the British, and we won. The Soviets came next, and my people beat them back. In 1984 people would ask “Where are you from” and I would say “Afghanistan” and they would still say “Where is that?” It would appall me that people did not know that my country was involved in a war with the country we, here, were in a cold war with.
Really, Americans? Really?
So, on Monday, I was at crossfit as a grown woman and there was a sweatshirt with my country-over-there’s name on it. And if I could explain to you how it felt, how surreal it all was, I would. But I don’t know if there is a description for it. Â I felt like I was in another time and place. And it showed. Both Chef (the good owner) and his wife and co-owner, Hronn, had to ask me to please pay attention.
I could not.
She’d been there. To Kandahar. This woman with the sweatshirt. She’d walked among my people. She knew how they smiled and laughed and talked.
There are wounded veterans at the box. There are men with prosthetic limbs who have gone to my country -over -there and seen the land and smelled the air and come back not the same as when they left. I am hit with it every time I walk in there. It is one thing to know it. You know, how you know things in your brain? It is another to see it. To be there with it.
I was eleven when I told my grandmother that the first child to call her grandma was killed by Soviet gunfire. That was just the first. There have been dozens of deaths since then. And those who are not dead but lived through it are injured in places we cannot see.
And I joined a gym where it all comes together for me. My people there and my people here. And it makes the world that much smaller and the workout that much harder.
You know, we are all so good at compartmentalizing. This is my gym, this is my job, this is my history, this is my baggage. These worlds, we hope, will never collide because if they do they will, you know, get it all messy and mixed up and it will be hard to withstand. But in a wholly unexpected place, a wholly unexpected thing has happened. Two of my selves have combined and it seems that I have survived it thus far.
It makes me wonder, what if other parts touch too?
And yes, this happened because I joined a gym.
I am trying to write one true sentence. The truest sentence I know. Trying to write what I know and see and hear and do. Not to describe. Â But it is, indeed, difficult to come upon the past as if it was now and write it as if it hadn’t already happened. How do I tell of events as they occurred hours ago without this thing called time tainting it with feelings and thoughts and ideas?
I cannot write a true sentence about things that were. And I don’t know things that have not happened yet. So all I can do, all I can try to do is tell it like I think it was. And you, dear reader are left to wonder if that is really how it happened.
The story is one we hear told over and over again. Indeed, I said as much to the judge. “Your honor, you have heard this numerous times in this Courthouse. My client’s mother was a crack addict who has been clean now for 6 years. Her father was incarcerated and she never knew him.”
The Judge said “Your client needs to learn to make better decisions.” And I wanted to stand up and say “Yes, your Honor. But how? Who will teach her?”
Who will teach her now?
The judge, of course, is doing his job well. I am not angry at his decision nor do I consider it to be terribly unfair. I don’t like it and wish it had been different. I asked for it to be different. I asked for it to go my way. I laid it out. I tried. I tried. But I am the pit stop on the way to the end. I am the hand holder, I am the one to try to make it easier, this inevitable conclusion of the things that have been done. I am only one person in this woman’s life. I am one person 20 years too late.
I could not teach her. By the time she got to me, the damage had been done.
I don’t envy judges. It is, I think, a thankless and probably less than satisfying job.
Doesn’t it seem so glamorous to sit in a flowing robe and sit above the well? To be called “your honor”? Doesn’t it have a feeling of other worldliness to be called Judge?
And yet, really, my job and the job of the Judge are not so different. We both are caught up in this hopeless cycle. What will be the sentence? How long? That is the question. Over and over and over again.
Dear Judge. I know. By the time they get to you, it is far too late. Even I can help a little bit. I can tell my clients what they should and should not do once they are arrested, once they are indicted. I can tell them how to make it better for them and then they choose.
And their choices. Well, that’s where we come full circle, isn’t it?
You, Judge cannot help them make better decisions. You could not tell them right from wrong. You were not there to hold out hope to the young girl whose mother smoked crack and whose father was in jail. You were not able to tell her “There is more out there for you. Do not lose faith. This is not your only way. Believe me. Believe me. Please.”
Neither was I.
I was making other choices. Some good. Some bad. And but for the Grace of God. . .
The religion in which I was brought up has the concept of purgatory. All people will go and suffer for their sins. The choice of how long is up to you. Â Perhaps a Judge views his sentence not as hell, but as purgatory. A temporary place to go while you get your shit together and come out better, with a clear vision of the heaven that is sleeping in your own bed again and hugging your children who have now grown without you near them.
I don’t know.
I have not yet asked a judge these questions. How do you feel when you are the end of the line? There is nothing left for you to do but tell them how long their time in purgatory will be.
And Court is adjourned. And we leave and walk away.
I feel that the ending of this post should be sharper. That I should write a sentence with such clarity that it will make you sit back in your chair and gaze off into the horizon, contemplating my words and how they’ve left you breathless and bewildered. Â But I can’t. Because if I did it would not be a true sentence. And if I did, it would not be the truest sentence I have ever known.
I think, though, that that sentence has not yet been written. Not by me anyway.
So I’m clicking through my blog post drafts trying to see if something clever catches my eye and it seems I’m really good at coming up with nifty titles, but the posts themselves are empty and I’m left to wonder WHY DID I NOT FUCKING WRITE THE BRILLIANT SHIT THAT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE IN THERE?
I didn’t even leave myself a clue. Not even a hint at what I might have wanted to say. I can’t see my past self and ask it “what were you thinking when you titled this ‘schoolhouse rock.’ Was it about schools? Was it about rock? Was it about the fact that the Schoolhouse Rock segment on the Preamble to the Constitution made you want to become a lawyer? (That is actually true. Watch it sometime and tell me it doesn’t give you chills. If it doesn’t, then you probably are not a lawyer) I have no idea. But I’m certain it was something wonderful that is now lost for all of eternity.
In the meantime, my kids are learning about Martin Luther King, Jr. and I can see if I look back, that I’ve had drafts of brilliance about him as well. See, when I think of the things I do and the reasons why and when I think of the knee knocking fear that overcomes me sometimes while going through the day to day – the fear that gets me to write a title but not the words – I am reminded of the bravery of the people who turned our nation on it’s head. What a legacy to leave behind, to make real change in the system.
(Certainly, we are not done yet.)
My boys say “a bad man killed Martin Luther King. This man wanted the laws to stay the same and so brown people couldn’t go to our school. He wanted us all to not have friends who were different.” It’s neat to think they don’t know of a world like that. They go to a school filled with kids who are brown, black, yellow, pink, peach and stark white. They have names like Ethan and Zubair and Talya. (She is Indian and said I looked foreign. Ha, the pot calling the kettle black.) What I wonder though is if this sense of equality will make them complacent. Is the diversity which they have come to accept, will it make them believe that it is like this everywhere all the time?
Look, I am brown. I am muslim. I have a bizarre name and don’t look like other people. I’ve never walked into a room that wasn’t a family party and said hey, these people look like me. But, I never knew that I was different. I did not know it. How strange is it to go through life clearly being one of a kind but not knowing it. And, I wonder if this made me less inclined to, you know, be a bit more daring. To stand up for my fellow brown people.
I will admit, I was one of those who believed all people could just lift themselves up by their bootstraps. If you lived in the ghetto it was because you chose it. All of it started and stopped with your choices. Period. End of sentence. Full stop.
When I graduated from law school, when I was in law school, I wanted to be a prosecutor. It was my life long dream. Did you hear that? A muslim woman from Afghanistan wanted to be a prosecutor. Does that make any sense to you? Right now, looking back on it, it makes no sense to me except that I now understand that I did not realize I was different. I wanted to be like my white colleagues and because I lived a fairly sheltered, privileged, and yes, diverse life, I thought I was like them.
Everyone gets treated like the brown girl whose dad is a surgeon, right?
Naive. Silly. Complacent.
Pretty brown girl gets her way. Well, doesn’t everyone?
I didn’t know that blacks were treated differently. I lived with blacks and they were treated like me. Because, well, we came from the same socio-economic class. And that, my friends, will sometimes make all the difference.
I’ve told the story that I didn’t realize how unbearably unfair our system of justice was until 9/11. It was a shocking eye opener for me to realize holy fucking shit, we actually do not treat everyone the same.
Brown girl with her green-brown-hazel eyes held tightly shut.
So now I wonder about my kids. Will the ease of their life make them think they are the same as everyone else? That all people who are brown are treated the same way, as long as they live in a suburb of DC? And how do I get them to understand that the world is still filled with bad men who want the laws to stay the same – that racism and sexism exist and it is up to me and them and their kids and their grandkids to make sure that at some point in the future of this world we make it stop.
Today I asked my kids if they wanted to be a lawyer like mama. They laughed “no mama, you are a girl. Lawyers are girls” That, my dear reader, is the world they live in.
Can you even imagine it?