Unequal Terms

From WordPress’s Daily Post:

“Did you know that today [October 16th] is Blog Action Day? Join bloggers from around the world and write a post about what inequality means to you.”

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I had to report to jury duty this week – and (somewhat to my chagrin) got picked to sit on a jury. (My first time with that.)

It turned out to be a criminal case: aggravated robbery and felonious assault with a firearm were the charges. Both the victim and the defendant were in their early twenties. And they knew each other – apparently from previous prison stints.

But they weren’t grizzled, hardened criminals. I mean, I don’t know their full histories – but my take? They were a couple of really stupid kids. It was very difficult to see them otherwise – either of them.

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The experience of sitting on a jury was more challenging than I would have expected – and that’s because neither of these young men was an innocent party. That was clear. And yet we, the people sitting on the jury, had to pick through what turned out to be a lot of circumstantial facts and do something with the charges.

“Beyond a reasonable doubt” is a really ambiguous and stressful concept to wrap your mind around when you’re talking about sending somebody to prison.

So I sat there with my fellow jurors all day, listening to the story of these two people – who young as they were, had already made such a mess of their lives. And I found myself thinking again and again about choices. Everybody does stupid things at that age….but the problem here? Their stupid things involve guns and gangs and prison. How do you pull yourself out of the cycle of that? Clearly neither of them was doing a stellar job.

I found myself wanting to know the answers to the human questions. Not the crime stuff alone, but the rest. I wanted to ask them: What were you thinking? Why did you do what you did? Why aren’t you doing something else with your life – something more productive and, frankly, interesting than cycling in and out of prison? Why are you wasting yourself? Your youth, your brains, your potential.

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I’m not idealistic about the justice system we have here in America – but I do think there are decent people who work in law enforcement. And I want to believe that there’s good intention more often than not – and I do believe this.

But what bothered me a few days ago as I sat there in that jury box, was how punitive our system is. Punitive in an unbalanced way. Not that I didn’t think this before….but you think it in an entirely different way when it comes out of the realm of intellectual and becomes about a person – a person sitting right across the room from you who has already been in prison and is very possibly going to go again. And then what for him?

Not that I don’t think there should be consequences for breaking laws; of course there should be. But is a few years behind bars going to suddenly make that kid in the courtroom see the light and become a law-abiding, contributing member of society? I don’t see how. And that being so, doesn’t that mean that only half the important work is being done? What’s really accomplished in punishment that doesn’t open a door for positive change?

I mean, if I just hammered my kids for breaking my rules without guiding them to make better choices next time, how would they ever learn anything? (Besides perhaps to come up with better and better ways to get around me.) How would they grow and develop?

It was really troubling, sitting in that jury.

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I mentioned before that I’ve come across a few things online lately that have resonated with me very powerfully. One was the Humans of New York Tumblr.

If you get a chance to look at it, do. It’s pretty amazing. I had looked at it before, a while ago, but I didn’t realize that the photographer (Brandon Stanton) was now taking his project internationally – and some of the pictures were really moving. He asks questions of his subjects – and their responses are sometimes just gut-wrenching.

There was one in particular that literally brought me to tears the other day. It was of a woman in a refugee camp. (The Tongping Internationally Displaced Persons Site in Juba, South Sudan, according to Humans of NY.) She was asked what her largest goal in life is. She said:

“To find my children. They are five and seven. I told them I was taking a short trip to Juba and I’d be back in a couple days, but then I got stranded by the fighting. They were crying so loud about my leaving, I had to sneak away while one was playing and one was sleeping. That was almost a year ago. I haven’t even been able to hear how they are doing.”

As a parent myself of a five and seven-year-old, this absolutely ripped my heart out. I can’t imagine the daily stress (and stress is MUCH too mild a term) that would come with a forced separation like that.

Actually, I CAN imagine it – and that’s why it’s so horrible.

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My 5 and 7-year-old, watching cartoons before school.
My 5 and 7-year-old, watching cartoons before school.

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Sometimes the inequality that exists in our world is just overwhelming to me. No mother should be separated from her children like that – uncertain when or how or even if she’ll ever find them again. And yet those things (and much worse) happen every day. How can that be?

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And here’s the thing: what that poor woman in South Sudan is dealing with is something that I will most likely never even have to consider. And why? Because I, by absolute luck (nothing else) was fortunate enough to have been born in the United States. And I birthed my children here. That’s it.

When I think about that I realize how utterly inadequate a word like “inequality” is. Grossly unfair is perhaps closer…but still not strong enough.

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And yes: there’s inequality aplenty here in America. I didn’t need my jury experience to prove that to me. But my jury experience certainly put a human face on that reality. The defendant in question during my jury duty time almost certainly didn’t have the same advantages I did growing up: the educational opportunities, the sort of safe and stable childhood that gives you room to imagine possibilities, to dream, and to find ways to make those dreams happen.

And what a shame that is.

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I respect Brandon Stanton so much for not only seeing, but also making it impossible for others to ignore the essential human-ness in the people he encounters.

What I mean is, I wouldn’t necessarily think I’d have much of anything at all in common with a woman in a camp in Sudan. And right there is the pit you can fall into. Because, more often than not, it’s easier to see the differences between ourselves and other people….and it shouldn’t be. The truth is, I have more in common with that Sudanese woman than not. We’ve lived entirely different lives. We live on different continents. We come from different cultures and speak different languages. But we’re both women and we’re both mothers. Our kids are even the same age. And that’s a considerably deeper connection than any of those differences are disconnections.

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It comes down to empathy. When those moments come wherein you grasp – even just for the few seconds it takes to view a picture and read a caption – that we’re all alike, all over the world, it becomes much harder to detach from other people and their suffering.

And that’s when inequality becomes more than just “too bad.” It becomes intolerable.

It’s painful to me to see things like that Humans of New York photo…or to look at that defendant’s face as the verdict was read in court. But those moments are really important. That kind of discomfort is really important.

I don’t know what I can do to make things better….but turning away and pretending inequality doesn’t exist or that it has nothing to do with me certainly isn’t the answer.

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I just want to add that I wouldn’t necessarily have written a post like this if it weren’t for “Blog Action Day.” I think about subjects like this not infrequently, but I rarely blog about them. I guess I just don’t often feel qualified. I worry about saying something ignorant or uninformed.

But that doesn’t mean I have nothing to say. And the umbrella of Blog Action Day made it much easier to get it out there.

I’m grateful for that – and I really appreciate WordPress promoting the opportunity to take part.

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