Foley Square, NYC * December 4, 2014 * Fuji X-E1
When the grand jury failed to indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo for Eric Garner’s death, I thought somehow, somewhere along my legal path I had missed something. For a long moment, I navigated the crevices of my brain—my criminal law classes, my legal internships, my experience gathering and analysing evidence on President Uhuru Kenyatta’s defense team before the International Criminal Court—for an element or a legal rule I had overlooked that would justify the Staten Island grand jury’s outcome. As the newly minted lawyer, I fleetingly thought I must be the one at fault because how could the well-greased system fail so damn miserably.
In my constitutional law class, we often debated about whether the legislative or judicial branch of government had the final say in our exquisitely engineered checks-and-balances system. Unwaveringly, I argued on the side of the judiciary. It’s impartial and it can rule legislation unconstitutional—it rightfully holds the trump card. In the wise words of Arthur Weasley from Harry Potter: Order of the Phoenix, “Truth will out!” (and indeed, Harry is subsequently acquitted of bogus charges by a special tribunal, despite it being controlled predominantly by the Dark Lord’s poppets). I have spent years studying for the LSAT, six semesters of final exams and the Bar exam to stand behind lady justice with my fist held high as her faithful soldier.
And yet, on December 3, 2014, the day the grand jury announced its landmark decision in the death of Eric Garner, the same day I was sworn into the New York Bar, I was perturbed and humbled by the brokenness of our justice system—as if I were seeing an aging parent as mortal for the first time.
I am not so naively wide-eyed as to think that my system of justice is infallible. But I did have faith that, ultimately, the truth will out. That a district attorney in possession of such platinum video evidence and witnesses could easily make a convincing case to meet the significantly low burden placed upon him for an indictment. That racial politics could not triumph in such a slam-dunk case to combat police brutality.
In college, I found my voice demonstrating in the streets for social justice and against U.S. involvement in Iraq. I pursued a law degree because yelling and marching were never loud enough for me to make an impact. Since December 3rd, I have returned to the streets because having a voice in the justice system is not sufficient either. In solidarity with my angered peers, I lean on the unofficial fourth branch of government that has the final say: collective civil society.