Introduction: What is Justice
Once upon a time, one of the justices of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals was a tiny little old round-headed bald guy named Timbers. No, really. Timbers was his name. William H. Timbers. Justice Timbers did little that was memorable, unless you count his long, long, long tenure on the court as an achievement in itself. By the time he’d become that tiny little old round-headed bald guy – so tiny, in fact, that counsel, standing at the lectern, looking up at the judges ranged above them, could see nothing of Justice Timbers but that tiny little old round bald head, poking up over the bench – Justice Timbers was known mostly for his irascibility. He was particularly harsh on lawyers who made the mistake of trying to slip a little feeling into their legal arguments. Like that memorable day when a very young lawyer, unschooled in Justice Timbers’s preferences, dared to ask the court to give his client justice. “We don’t do justice in this court,” Timbers’s tiny round bald head grumbled. “We do law.”
Justice Timbers is not the only person to dislike the very concept of justice. The most renowned faux lawyer to badmouth justice was Portia, who famously commented at an infamously truncated show trial that mercy, dripping through its metaphorical strainer, is much to be preferred. However, Portia herself turned out to be unreliable as a moralist. She was, after all, arguing on behalf of a privileged member of the bigoted dominant class of Venice against the poor merchant whose only crime was to worry too much about his daughter. And, oh yeah, to be a member of a persecuted minority.
And that’s the problem justice always has. Those with power and privilege tend not to like it as much as the folks without. Even the good guys in the dominant class don’t easily understand the need for it. I am reminded of a panel many years ago when two stalwarts of the left – Peter Gabel and Patricia Williams – locked horns. Both were professors at lefty law schools. Both believed absolutely and without reserve in the duty of all lawyers to use their legal training in the service of human needs, social justice, and equality. Both were thoughtful, kind, and generous people.
Peter – the opposite of Justice Timbers in all things except the accidents of gender, class, and race – was on the panel to argue that formal court trials should be replaced with more informal mediation between the parties, on the grounds that legal rulings, with their emphasis on the Law, on Rights, on Justice, succeed only at dividing people, whereas mediation, with its twin goals of conciliation and compromise, promote harmony and bring people together.
He did not understand why he was unable to convince his colleague Pat Williams, an equally liberal, thoughtful, and generous person – who happened to be Black and a woman. She continued, despite his best arguments, to argue in favor of formal trials. Women, working class people, Blacks will always be on the short end when it’s a mediation, she might patiently have explained to him, because the privileged don’t give up their privileges just because you ask nicely, or even because you explain, totally convincingly, why they should. They give them up only when you make them. And the only way to make them is to go to trial, remind the court of the rights enumerated in the Constitution, and insist on justice.
I might add, as recent events have suggested, that there are two ways, in addition to lawsuits, to get justice. One is to protest. The other is to vote. And both of those prove Professor Williams’ point: the guys with privilege don’t give up their privileges just because you ask. Women, working-class people, Blacks get justice only by fighting for it.
So: Protest. Vote. And, if that fails, sue.
devours depletes destroys
our unreturning reality.
I snicker at his footwear and how his ankles are exposed, this young man in the lobby with his missionary tracts. He’s being ignored. Except by me and I don’t know why I bother.
He’s clean-shaven and backward, I think – then there’s a leap in my thoughts. If he were my boyfriend, that might give my mamma back some of the hope my ‘unsuitable hook-ups’ have taken away. Hope might be the difference for her. The doctors don’t tell you that, but everyone knows.
I go over, look him in the eye and say I’m ready to accept Jesus into my life. He’s okay in looks but with those pimples, it’s good that he’s religious. Yes. He’s got one foot in heaven. Just like Mamma.
Nathan is his name, he tells me, as if he can think of nothing else to say. He looks around. I know they work in teams during these salvation sweeps, but no one is there for Nathan. He’s startled, like I’ve propositioned him to do something unseemly. This is too easy. I smile as I look him in the eye.
“You must meet Mamma. This day, our story … her prayers are answered.” His white skin splashes with red as he blushes. I take his wrist and lead him to Mamma’s hospital room. One of his mentors notices him, nods his approval, and my own holy man walks a little straighter. He believes!
Mamma looks our way. I link elbows with Nathan.
“My friend is offering lessons in heaven. I thought you’d like me to know Jesus.” A flicker of something crosses her face before she turns away. She sees a charade. The nurse checks the I.V., then brushes past.
Nathan speaks. “May I?” His voice breaks within this brief sentence and his face grows redder but he disengages my arm, straightens his tie. He approaches my mother, grasps her hand as if she’s made of glass. Stroking her hand, he begins to speak with her, his voice low, soothing. Her responses exhale a word at a time. Is this the conversation she’s waited to hear?
I feel a pressure in my chest, a shame. She’s dying and I’m stupid. My hands fly to cover my face.
“Yes,” I hear my mother say and I become aware of the sunlight from the window; clouds must have moved. He holds the water straw to her lips. Is that what she said yes to?
“You can let me do that.” I say before he can get a hook into us, before either of us believes we need his comfort. But he holds the water steady.
“Drink,” he says. She does.
The H-Bomb’s Thunder
Josephine on the first Campaign for Nuclear
Disarmament march from Trafalgar Square.
Today I found a crumpled songbook.
On the cover an unborn baby screams
as strontium 90 rains from the black sky.
We walked four days as crowds grew to call
for an end to war. Josephine refused all rides
as bubble-sized blisters grew on her feet.
Nights with Quakers on school gym floors.
Hot jam donuts at six a.m. in empty streets.
I met my bully boyfriend on that march.
House the homeless, help the needy
shall we blast or shall we build?
We knew we could change the world.
I was a freshman in college when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed. I was sure justice would inevitably follow his death, that the riots of that year and the summer of 1967 would be the last riots, the marches would soon be over, and justice would triumph.
On May 26, 2020, I saw Gayle King on CBS This Morning get rattled – really rattled. We both saw the video of a police officer kneel on George Floyd’s neck. I was tucked in the north woods at the cabin, as safe as one can be.
“It feels to me like open season … and that sometimes it’s not a safe place to be in this country for Black men … This is really too much for me today,” she said.
I felt sick.
When the KMart where I biked to grab shampoo and Band-Aids was broken into and looted, I was still 200 miles away. I heard no helicopters, no chants of “I can’t breathe,” no crash of broken glass at the post office where I sent Christmas presents to my grandchildren. I heard the whoosh of a pleasant wind through the tallest Norway pines. My daughter told me I was lucky to be at the cabin and not in my Minneapolis house. I suppose I was as lucky as one can be. I didn’t tell her I had already planned to leave as soon as it felt safe to go back, but I always feel safe.
I pulled off I-94 East onto Lyndale Avenue in Minneapolis, blocks from my house. All the businesses were boarded up; some had “open” scrawled on the plywood. Most were covered with extraordinary artwork proclaiming “Justice for George,” and similar messages in dramatic colors and letters taller than me. These had appeared like magic as soon as there were boards to cover the windows – broken or not.
I was stunned; and a week of crying jags started all over.
Still, I felt safe driving my neighborhood streets, getting out of my car in my driveway and going into my house, empty since the pandemic hit. I was alone, elderly by COVID-19 standards, female and safe. But I’m white.
I felt safe on my bike ride to Chicago Avenue and East 38th Street. Safe as I paused by the field of white crosses in front of the homemade “SAY THEIR NAMES” sign. The “S” on NAMES had fallen over. I thought of putting it back up, but it didn’t feel right to touch anything.
The names also filled a wide swath down 38th Street, covered with flowers gently withering in the summer sun. I stared at their names, the wilted blossoms hugging the pavement. These people were not safe while I was.
It’s been more than fifty years, and here we are, still howling about justice and covering our past sins like the paintings on the plywood lining the streets in Minneapolis.
With My Hair Not Yet Grey
Who, do they think, shut down campuses, and transformed what they read in school?
Got laws on the books to protect their bodies?
Got clubbed and gassed in Chicago? Rode buses to D.C., protesting
with a quarter-million throats unleashed?
Who, do they think, prepared the ground for them to discover,
at age 14 – maybe 15 –
that change is something to both desire and fight for
that it won’t come easily but it can come, visible
but only if you can look back,
a good 50 years now, to see that
have changed. So that hope can surge
for every generation
even those now rolling their eyes
as if our pasts and their future were not intertwined,
as if some explanation were needed,
as if every generation does not dream of justice, and still ache to build the world anew.
Justice For All
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Standing tall, I placed my hand over my heart as Miss Shelley our first-grade teacher, led us in the morning Pledge of Allegiance. Except I didn’t know the words. So, I mouthed it.
We’d been taught the Pledge in kindergarten. But I was kicked out of kindergarten. For being a crybaby and disrupting others.
When I finally learned to recite it, I had no idea what I was saying. Or why.
Justice for all.
In sixth grade, John asked me to the school prom. There were two Black students in our class, and John was one. He liked me, and I liked him.
One spring day, John rode his bike to my neighborhood, and I hopped on his handlebars; something we did in Brooklyn in the late 1950s.
My next-door neighbor spotted me. She wasted no time barging into my house to let my mom know.
“Do you know who your daughter is hanging out with?” she shrieked.
Justice for all.
Not long after that my friends and I were playing at our local park. Some boys started taunting us.
They got into our faces and said, “You killed Christ!”
I had no idea what they were talking about. I didn’t even know who Christ was and I certainly would know if any of us killed him.
Justice for all.
Attending Brooklyn College in my late teens, I majored in Education. My first student teaching assignment was in an all-Black school/neighborhood in Bedford Stuyvesant.
My first day of student teaching in a first-grade classroom, I was asked to get the kids on line for lunch. I did my best to settle them down. One boy glared at me and said, “Get your white motherfucking hands off of me.” Of course, I didn’t have my hands near him. But he already believed I was the enemy.
Justice for all.
A lifetime of witnessing racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and every other “ism” proves liberty and justice for all is a myth. It’s liberty and justice for some.
I’ll put my hand over my heart for the Pledge but just like first grade, I’ll mouth the words.
Sometimes I won’t even do that.
We Got You, Friend
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear…”
camouflage in combat boots feds in riot gear in military-grade guns grab him from the
sidewalk who are you protesters shout use your words they shout to the feds to the tear
gas use your words to the youth in black mask to his silent hard hat what’s your name the
crowd shouts to his arms tied tell us your name they yell to his mask to his black t-shirt’s
words “God Is…” not a sound from his back to the crowd head down unmarked car not a
word from the feds we’ll get you out we got you friend the crowd yells to the tail lights to the
tear gas to the weeks protesting the knee that killed GEORGE knee on the neck nine
minutes knee on the neck four hundred and one years WE CAN’T BREATHE graffiti six feet
high on the concrete base of the federal building FEDS GO HOME painted red dripped down
a pillar TAKE DOWN THE AMERICAN PLANTATION
Justice in Martinez
first Black American woman poet
Sculpture by Meredith Bergmann
Photo by Elsa Lichman
I was raised in the 1950s in Martinez, a working class refinery town of 10,000 people on the Carquinez Straits in the San Francisco Bay Area. I was not really aware of class at the time, though I was aware of various ethnicities, since I went to a Catholic grammar school. We were all of Italian, Irish, Portuguese, Mexican, or combination backgrounds. Mine was Irish and English. When I went to public high school, I noticed two other ethnicities, Japanese and Black, though just a few families.
Fast forward about 60 years. Martinez is now a town of 38,500, a commuter town within striking distance of San Francisco and greater Bay Area jobs. It’s still the seat of the monumental county court house, but a new jail has replaced the small granite building I knew as a child. Main Street, which used to have a Woolworth’s and JCPenney, now has antique shops, restaurants, and three coffee houses for tourists and locals.
In July 2020, I was shocked to see my once sleepy hometown town featured on national TV! A white couple, MAGA-costumed in red shirts, were painting over a BLACK LIVES MATTER mural that had just been completed on the street in front of the courthouse. The woman was roller-painting black over the bright yellow letters, saying: “Not in my town!” while the man was videoing and spouting inanities like: “There’s no racism! Read your history.” A spectator was videoing him with his phone. That citizen video of the Trumpish pair defacing the mural went viral and even the Washington Post carried the story.
The director of Main Street Martinez, Justin Gomez, had received permission from the city to paint the mural. After repairing it swiftly, he organized Martizians for Black Lives and held a pro-Black Lives Matter rally at the Martinez waterfront a few days later. Although the protest received threats from right-wingers, the large rally was peaceful. My brother later told me there was a massive police presence in the background that deterred the disrupters from attempting violence.
Justice was swift for the pair who defaced the mural. They were identified and charged by the district attorney’s office with three misdemeanors: vandalism, possession of vandalism tools, and violation of civil rights (a hate crime). The DA who approved the filing, the first woman and Black person to serve as DA, has gotten death threats. On August 4, 2020, the couple pled not guilty and are due back in court in October.
I see my hometown now in an entirely different way. I’m proud of the new citizens of Martinez who believe Black lives do matter and are willing to join in the fight against racism. I feel chagrined that Martinez has a bigoted contingent that the Trump era has encouraged to come forward. Will justice be served if the BLACK LIVES MATTER defacers go to trial? It remains to be seen.
Transitory: A Catalog of Trans Murders in July & August, 2020
under turning 23, Brawley, CA. Dior H. Ova, 32,
stabbed in a hallway in the Bronx, July 26.
Twenty-four-year-old Queasha Hardy, shot
in Baton Rouge, July 27. Aja “Rocky” Rhone-Spears
came to a vigil for a gun victim, stabbed in Portland.
Every day without a new murder, a momentary peace.
The Woman Who Lied About Emmett Till Is Still Alive.
You are 84. You say his murder has ruined your life. You say you feel sorrow for Till’s mother … especially after you lost a son of your own. You say white supremacy was wrong, are glad it’s gone. You must not be watching the news.
Your then-husband and brother-in-law got away with murder. You never even went to trial. But then, you didn’t admit your lies for more than sixty years, the statute of limitations on perjury long gone.
For the record, in case anyone hasn’t heard, you’ve admitted that Emmett Till, fourteen, did not assault you, did not say, How about a date, baby?, did not speak suggestively to you. He was neither lewd nor insulting, he did not grab you around the waist while uttering obscenities, and you were not scared to death. Did he whistle? You say you don’t remember.
You’re exposed, Carolyn. The world knows who you are, what you did. It appears you’re looking for sympathy and understanding. I can’t imagine how much you’ll find. Especially since you’ve insulted the white supremacists by saying that they are gone – and good riddance. They’re a touchy bunch.
I can’t wish for you an easy death or salvation. I can’t imagine how either could serve justice. Nor could I wish for you all the excruciations of hell, even if I believed in such a place. Would this be enough to fit your crimes: To be utterly alone in a nursing home staffed by non-Caucasian aides who know who you are. They’re not bent on revenge. They deal in mercies, their impulses kind. But who could blame them for putting before and after photographs of Emmett Till next to your bed, just out of reach, replacing them each time your daughter (who visits once every month or two) or some white administrator takes them away? Who could blame anyone for not offering sympathy or comfort when you wake screaming in the night, tell anyone who will listen about your nightmare: underwater, unable to breathe, or see with the one eye you have left, a cotton gin wheel held around your neck with barbed wire, and you praying praying praying for a bullet that would put an end to it all.
Eight Reasons Why George Floyd is Dead
and killing black people is normal
in the USofA
because the fractured crevice of racial hatred
born of four hundred years of slavery
Jim Crow mass incarceration police brutality
corrodes hearts minds institutions in the USofA
because choke holds by hands or
knees block the breath of life
because the president tells us
white supremacists are very fine people
because infatuation with
lynching the public ritual of it
resides in the temporal lobe in the USofA
because three armed officers-of-the-lawless
stood by dispassionate while
standers-by begged for mercy
because TRAVON MARTIN 2-26-12 ERIC GARNER 7-17-14 MICHAEL BROWN 8-9-14 TAMIR RICE 11-22-14 FREDDIE GRAY 4-19-15 SANDRA BLAND 7-13-15 PHILANDO CASTILLO 7-16-16 STEPHON CLARK 3-18-18 BREONNE TAYLOR 3-13-20 AHMAUD AUBERY 5-6-20
THE LIST GOES ON
Because each morning white people in the USofA
open our eyes and have amnesia
Black Lives DO Matter
I raised my daughter in Oakland – the land stolen from the Ohlone tribe – near Fruitvale Station where unarmed Oscar Grant (a Black man) was shot in the back while lying on his stomach as he was being handcuffed, killed by a white policeman who “meant to Taser him.” Now I live on Pomo lands, a few miles from a town named after Confederate Army General Braxton Bragg, who owned over 100 slaves but never set foot in northern California. In 2015 the California Legislative Black Caucus sent a letter to Fort Bragg requesting a name change due to Bragg’s legacy of fighting to preserve slavery. The letter was ignored, but the issue is alive again, with many residents supporting a change and others wanting “history to be preserved.”
I taught in a segregated Black community in West Las Vegas during voluntary integration. I had only two white students: a liberal professor’s son, and a troublemaker no other school wanted. The year after I left, under a desegregation plan mandated by law, white students were bused into the Black community in new sixth grade centers, one year only. In each remaining grade, first through high school, Black children were bused into the white community.
I remember sitting in an auditorium, my Black child next to me, as we watched Black Nativity on stage. I saw proud parents snapping photos as preschool children dressed in Sunday clothes sang their hearts out. I cried, knowing the struggles ahead of them, with their skin color creating a lifetime of discrimination.
At my daughter’s sixth birthday party, our house was filled with children and parents from her predominantly Black school. The white puppeteer we hired presented a story about a bad little Black boy who turned white when he became good. As people left, my white friend told me how nice everyone had been, sounding surprised.
My film discussion group recently watched Just Mercy, focusing on racism and lack of social justice in the south. I reminded them it doesn’t only happen there. My daughter’s husband was stopped last month outside of Boston. Two Black men on a deserted road at night, stopped for “seeming to be in a hurry,” although they were going below the speed limit. Their car was searched before they were released. My daughter’s response? “At least they didn’t plant anything.”
Then there are the social media battles. My distant relatives write rants showing no understanding of their racist assumptions: “I do not support BLM. They are a terrorist organization. Who has the guts to agree with me?” is one example. Comments that follow are even more depressing. And now, derisive texts about Kamala Harris, questioning her birthplace, her ethnicity, her qualifications, show what she’s put up with all her life.
My daughter and her Black friends post daily about racial injustices. I respond in support, while countering racist comments from others. The divide is scary.
My daughter is tired. So am I.