Monday, November 24, 2014

ham sandwich

A grand jury could indict a ham sandwich.

-- Sol Wachtler

You can indict a ham sandwich. I know this to be true. I've seen it happen. I colluded with the process.

Seven years ago I served on a federal grand jury. It lasted a month. We heard forty or so charges. We approved them all. Not once did we fail to indict.

Before the grand jury there was no defense. The prosecutor presented the evidence for "Probable Cause." You couldn't challenge their statement. You couldn't raise alternative interpretations. You couldn't speak up for the circumstances of the defendant; you couldn't hear from the defendant; after all, as the prosecutors said, the person wasn't yet actually a defendant. To indict is not to convict, they said. This person will have their day in court, they said, and then at trial they can raise all the concerns that you good people are raising now. Don't worry about the effect of your actions. It will all come out well in the end.

Yeah right. Few of them will ever get a trial. They can't afford it. Not many of them will be picked up pro bono by a competent lawyer. They'll cop a plea, confess to something they did or didn't do, without a briefing on the indelible consequences of that plea, because they have no other choice; so they'll do anything to avoid the trial. They'll testify against someone else, the bigger fish, and be left on the trash heap.

Forty or so charges came before us, and we indicted every person charged. You could tell that a few of those people were felons, and one was running an industrial scale marijuana farm. Many of them had committed the deadly crime of returning to the United States after being deported. Seven or eight had, at the instigation of pals or a pimp or a boyfriend, moved a package from one place to another, a package containing just ever so slightly too much weed. We indicted them all, in twenty minutes or at most an hour.

Now I would view that work in a very different way.

So now I know for sure that you can indict a ham sandwich. Unless the ham sandwich is a white police officer.

And now I'm marveling at the special grand jury, with its very special process, called into being around that police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. That grand jury has made a decision, and their decision will be announced in a few minutes. I will finish writing this before their decision is announced.

But now, before we hear what they have done under direction of a reluctant prosecutor, I remember that I know what a grand jury is, and this was very different.

The person who would be charged, (that person who is "not yet a defendant" and may never be one), got to speak his piece to the grand jury. The prosecutor has not even recommended a charge. All interpretations of the evidence have been presented -- all the ways in which the person suspected might not actually have done the things of which he might be charged. In other words, it's a trial, though we have not been told so -- a trial with no prosecutor. The implication would be that the jurors are pressed to look for the standard of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, a standard vastly higher than the routine standard of probable cause to bring a charge. That's why it's taken so long. The people I indicted seven years ago got twenty minutes. Darren Wilson got three months to make it go away.

Maybe there's a better way to indict people than grand juries. If so, tell me what it is. But this was called a grand jury, and given that I know what a grand jury is, I cannot fail to see that some people get very special ones. I hope that what it looks like is not what it is. I won't know until the decision is announced, and it hasn't been announced yet.

This is what it looks like. It looks like the killer of an unarmed jaywalker has special protections, provided he has a badge and a European heritage. If that isn't true, if that isn't what the prosecutor meant to say, he should have done things differently. Now we'll see. I'm waiting.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

tumblin' down

. . And the walls come a-tumblin’ down . .

-- African-American spiritual

We’re on our way to Canaan, to the New Jerusalem.

-- European-American spiritual

When justice rolls down like waters, I ask myself, when tyrants and bullies are overthrown and the good guys win, what will the world look like? We think we know, but we don't. We don't know because we think we know. We work with tropes, linguistic models of transformation, but we need to interrogate those models. My love is like a red red rose, but she will not appreciate it if I spray her with pesticide or prune her in the winter. Lions might some day lie down with lambs, but will the lambs then sleep well, or should they? We must search our poems of liberation for their actual consequences. There is a boundary beyond which we cannot press our metaphors. As we stand at that boundary, our imperfection of purpose is exposed.

This kind of thinking is not fun. It’s about metrics rather than proclamation, statistics not rhetoric, prose not verse. Or rather, it’s like telling your dream to the analyst, both of you knowing that the dream is already in its Secondary Revision, and now you’re aware that the walls of the room didn’t meet in the corners, and you can’t actually fly. So now in our mortality, our limitation of strength and stamina, and in the face of history’s unfathomable creativity for violence, by what standard shall we measure our hoped-for resolution of American original sin?

The book of Exodus became a world-wide trope of liberation. Enslaved people, the story says, must walk out of the enslaver's authority. Moses, supported by accelerating divine violence, convinces the Pharoah of Egypt to "let my people go." The enslaved Hebrews cross the sea, vacating the place where their labor had been stolen. Then Moses learns what his real problem is: his own people would rather eat from the stewpots of Egypt than face the wilderness. So begins the forty years of wandering, in which the covenant between God and the chosen people is redefined. The generation of escape, including Moses, will die before the Israelites come into their Promise. What precisely is that Promise?

I stand on the shoulders of giants. I thank the Moses generation. But we have got to remember now that Joshua still had a job to do.

-- Barack Obama at Brown Chapel in Selma, Alabama, on March 4, 2007

Dr. King said the night before he died that he had gone to the mountain-top and “seen the Promised Land,” but by casting himself as Moses he assigned the realization of promise to another generation, a “Joshua generation.” Barack Obama, in his progress toward presidency, flirted with the role of Joshua.

But the Joshua-trope has not taken hold, and not merely because black liberation is incomplete. It fails because it is unsuitable. Joshua's "job" is not to liberate but to exterminate. He leads us not into right relation with the oppressor but into violence toward the innocent. Instead of establishing justice in the land of their oppression, the Israelites inflict new injustice on people in another land who had done them no harm. The lightning war of Joshua has served as a manual for the advance of Europeans into the American West (“empty” except for Indians), for the trek of the Boer Piet Retief into the interior of South Africa (“empty” except for Zulu and Xhosa), and models the expansion of Germany into Lebensraum (“empty” except for racially inferior Slavs). "You must doom them to destruction," says Yahweh to his shock troops, "Grant them no terms, and give them no quarter" (Deut. 7:1-2, Tanakh).* No people standing in the way of the formerly oppressed wants to be designated as Canaanites. The often-sung Battle of Jericho, whose walls came a-tumblin' down, is no more a freedom-fight than was Wounded Knee. The Osage Indian theologian Robert Allen Warrior warns us that "Yahweh the deliverer became Yahweh the conqueror."**

"Thank God it never happened," said my Old Testament professor, and many a rabbi joins in the sentiment with a sigh of relief. Neither archaeology nor the deuteronomic history as a whole support the violent boast of Joshua's book. Those pesky Kenites and Kenizzites and Kadmonites and Hittites and Jebusites, not to mention the Philistines, were not exterminated. They survived to trouble the kingdom for the rest of its existence.

And even if the story were true, it would still be unsuitable. Our formerly enslaved brothers and sisters did not walk out and go elsewhere, as many a white supremacist hoped they would, but stayed here to claim their freedom among us. And that's why their liberation still lingers. There was no getting rid of our scarlet letters. The Pharoah and those he enslaved must figure out how to live together.

Every American should thank God that Joshua was not our general, and the Civil Rights Campaign was in no way like the book that bears his name. White Pharoahs didn't get to export their sins and inflict the consequences elsewhere. We stole the land of Indians and the labor of Africans, and now we must live with those we stole from, and they must live with us. It has taken, and will continue to take, some reckoning and repentance, some forgiveness and restitution. The true Land of Promise, the land where we hope to live in peace, is the very land where this story started. The New Jerusalem is Egypt transformed, with hearts broken and born again under divine sovereignty.

*Tanakh: A New Translation of the Holy Scriptures According to The Traditional Hebrew Text (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1985), p. 285.

**"Canaanites, Cowboys and Indians," Christianity in Crisis, 49 (September 11, 1989): 261-265

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

strange martyr

We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning.

-- Archibald MacLeish

Colleagues of mine who come from the St. Louis area think that tomorrow will see an announcement concerning the possible indictment of Officer Darren Wilson, who shot Michael Brown to death on August 9.  Some sources are saying that he will be cleared of any charges.


For Michael Brown, Strange Martyr

We don’t know what you died for.
We don’t know what you lived for.
We don’t know what you were doing.
You weren’t carrying a placard.
You weren’t carrying a weapon.
You weren’t trying to become a public figure.

Now in death you are a public figure,
Your death is a placard, but blank.
We only know what you were not doing:
You weren’t committing a capital crime.

What you were doing is yet to appear.
In fullness of time something will happen,
And what happens will fill the placard.
The sentence hung on you from birth,
Strange fruit of the guilty tree, spelled out,
Falls ripe on the hot center stripe.