Woody Allen, whose reputation is under close scrutiny these days, got one thing right, at least: 80% of success really is about showing up. At least in courtrooms. Especially if you’re white— and we’re defining success as making a positive impact on our broken-down criminal justice system.
Let me explain: Years ago I’d read somewhere about a group of white women who’d simply appeared in their community’s courthouse whenever racial-profiling cases were scheduled and sat, quiet yet attentive, in the courtroom’s first row. What a great idea, I thought—then promptly forgot all about it.
But eight years ago, reading about the upcoming trial at Cambridge (MA) Courthouse involving a group of African-American high school students and the Medford, MA police, I recalled those quiet, attentive women. Since I’d cleared my calendar because my first grandchild was due to be born, I had time, I realized. I could do this. I could show up.
So I did. Every day for a week, wearing whatever approximated professional in my closet, I went through the courthouse’s security, took the elevator, and sat in a first-row seat that allowed me to watch the jury. Although I am usually an I’m Just Going To Let This Experience Wash Over Me; I’ll Make Meaning of It Later kind of gal, I decided to publicly embrace my "White Supremacy Culture" so took copious notes. By the third day, a defense attorney told me: "You being here makes a difference."
Encouraged by that lawyer’s assessment—although the ramifications of his statement break my heart—I have continued this quiet, attentive witness. For the past seven years, because I spend every Wednesday night at a Sharing Circle with “ex-offenders and those who care about them,” the men and women I have been showing up to support are people I know and love. (Other members of the Sharing Circle show up, too.)
But it wasn’t until two years ago that I truly understood what I was actually doing: Since that summer my grandson had been born, I’d been showing up in support of defendants in cases of probable racial-profiling. (One particularly egregious case involved NWB; “napping while black,” for example.) To be honest? Sitting in those courtrooms, quiet and attentive, I was more than a little self-righteous. More than a little convinced I was on the side of the angels. More than a little dismissive, shall we say, of the police and district attorneys; i.e. The Bad Guys. More than a little bit hoping that my mere presence would mean that The Good Guys would win.
But in the summer of 2012, I arrived at Suffolk Courthouse to support a dear friend at the trial of two men accused of murdering his son. Were the accused, two pudgy, no-affect young men of color in well-ironed oxford shirts, the Bad Guys? Were the team of detectives assigned to this case and the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office the Good Guys, now?
Struggling with this paradigm-shift, I realized something. My presence in those courtrooms had never been about Good Guys and Bad Guys; that kind of binary thinking had been a product of the up/down, Guilty/Not Guilty environment surrounding me. No, my showing-up witness has been a kind of embodied prayer: let justice prevail. Let truth shine forth. Let the better nature of our angels come through. Above all, let the Right Thing, whatever it is, happen.