Why I Joined Writers Against Racial Injustice

In the last week, we’ve raised more than 20K for the Equal Rights Initiative in their work against mass incarceration, excessive sentences, and racial inequalities. We hope to do more.

Several years ago, I found myself on a jury that became a useful, if unpleasant, introduction to the racial complexities of Boston. The man charged must have been eighteen though he looked twelve, his mother sitting alone in the courtroom with her hands tucked under her knees. A knot of a person, she couldn’t speak English, so she sat wide-eyed and terrified though she didn’t miss a day. Her son had been charged with battery of an officer and carrying a concealed weapon. The prosecutor was young and shiny. The defense attorney had a bad suit. There were twelve of us of course, plus an alternate, of every age, class level, and occupation. There were four white people on the jury—a silent college student, me (an uppity university instructor), and two white men. The rest were people of color, at least four of them black. The judge chose one of the white men to be our foreman and that was where the trouble began.

Picture it: Two cops pull up in an unmarked car to a traffic light, spy this man-boy, jump out of the car and race toward him for reasons unknown. The kid puts out his hand in defense as any sane person would. One of the officers runs into that hand full on—and that became the battery charge. Who battered who? Then the kid ran. They say he ran hitching up his pants, and that, my friends, was the reason the cops believed he had a gun in the first place. Of course back then when the style was to wear your pants on your butt, I’d think anyone would have to do some hitching unless he wanted to moon everyone instead.

Why did he run? Was he guilty of something? Terrified? Neither or both? Along with the pants, the simple fact that he ran became another check in the concealed weapon column. One of the cops took off after him. Now here’s where the kid had bad luck, because that day Mayor Menino was on a walk through that part of the city flanked by officers for a photo opp about battling crime. When the kid ran, these cops got the call. So there wasn’t one cop chasing the kid, there were six. And you bet they wanted to catch their man to impress the mayor and make sure that photo opp worked.

Have I told you yet that the kid was black? Did you already assume this? What does that say about this whole mess, about us? The cops, in any case, were white.

The jury received maps and photographs of the serpentine nature of the chase, through yards, over fences, down alleyways. It lasted hours. And why? We never received more information than that battery charge and the hitching of his pants. Later a cop testified he’d seen the kid running away from him through a dark alleyway holding a gun high over his head. No one else had seen the kid with an actual gun. When they finally caught him, those pants were empty. Later, when a gun was found tossed in a bush somewhere along that crazed knot of yards and streets, it was tied to him. The post hoc fallacy in full force. For myself, I couldn’t fathom a kid running with a gun like that. Was he wading through high water and didn’t want to get it wet? The fact that this particular cop was known for producing a police newsletter rife with racist comments was the icing on the cake.

This was Dorchester, a part of the city renowned for reports of crime and shootings. Years later I discovered a different Dorchester: a place of community, history, arts, family, work, love, and pride. I’m sure I’m guilty of oversimplifying. Back then, white families were only just moving in for the low prices, and black families were trying to hold on to what they had. Our foreman was the head of one of these white families, and he wanted to protect his children from the perceived violence. For him, the kid was the epitome of a bigger problem. And he was determined to hold fast to his convictions to save his new neighborhood from itself.

We argued in the jury room for six days. The two white men were the final holdouts, and finally the foreman by himself. The evidence was thin. Still our foreman held fast to his savior ideals more than the realities. I believe he had good intentions. He was scared. And his kids—all of them adopted and mixed race—were his life. We had to agree on our decision or we’d be a hung jury. Then it would all start again. We passed the unloaded gun around the room to “examine” it, but really we wanted to hold it whenever we felt frustrated and enraged about our discussion. There’s something frighteningly satisfying about holding a gun when you’re pissed off (hence, the 2nd amendment). There was a lot of talk about race and cops. I remember a sixty-something black woman from the area who tried to quietly explain her distrust. An older black man didn’t say a word. He looked exhausted and sad. The fact that we’d gotten $50/day to serve was a slap for folks who had hourly jobs and feared losing them the longer our disagreements went. At one point, a Latina refused to come back the next day, she had an elderly mother at home who needed her, and if she could have wrung the foreman’s neck she would have. As for me, I was on summer vacation and was only losing naps.

In the end when we gave our verdict, the security guards in the room were noticeably shocked. Not guilty. The guards had thought it an open-and-shut case. (They were all white.) I walked out of the courtroom feeling I’d accomplished something. I thought I might even write about the experience some day.

But I didn’t and I haven’t. Not really. I’m still ignorant and oversimplifying issues of injustice and race. I’m still not doing enough. I think about that older man who didn’t say a word. What did he know? What had he experienced to beat him down so? I’m not the one who should be talking here. I hope at least to pave the way for others, to give them power, voice. To foster their equal rights and then some. Thank you in these recent days for helping us try to help them. There’s more we can do, but this is an incredible start. The complexities are such that we need to support those who understand them, who can act, who have long been trying to speak their truths. In any way we can.

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