[Ed. Note: The following piece was written more than a year ago. It has since been edited, re-edited, re-considered, re-adjusted to accommodate new thoughts, and re-oriented to reflect new emphases … to within an inch of its life. This is exactly nothing like a knee-jerk, flailing comment-section rant post. Whether you think you agree, disagree, or would rather not consider the topic at all … please keep your hands and feet inside the blog at all times, and please save your flames for the very end.]
George Zimmerman. Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Darren Wilson.
Stand your ground. Mind your business. Handguns. Skittles. Hoodies. 9-1-1 advice. Armed. Not armed.
Prosecution. Defense. Witnesses. Evidence. Judge. Lawyers. Jury. Grand jury. Instructions. Limitations.
Media. Pundits. Agendas. Broader issues. About race. Not about race.
All of that went through my head, that night in July 2013, and then again last night, as my Facebook display let me know what the Zimmerman trial verdict was, and what the Ferguson grand jury decision was, respectively.
Please, let’s all be clear about this, before you read any further: yes, I do have opinions about both of these results. They’re based on what very little I know of the details of the cases; and I freely admit that I didn’t watch absolutely every moment of the Zimmerman trial on my favorite cable news outlet, nor have I caught every last detail from Ferguson, Missouri in the past several months. To be sure, I’ve read a lot of stuff since the Zimmerman verdict was read. Every time I peruse yet another article about that trial, I find another little new detail which encourages me to re-think things. And every time that happens, I strive mightily to leave my political views out of all this as much as possible.
It’s hard work; but I’ll try, by God, I’ll try.
I have a hard time setting aside my observations about this country’s continuing struggle with issues of race, its continuing struggle with guns, its continuing struggle with incivility, its continuing struggle with degrees of law-enforcement militarization (both physical and psychological), and its continuing struggle with the staggeringly pervasive influence on public policy and media content by money and those who possess lots of it. These cases carry a remarkable amount of baggage, in spite of all the folks on the teevee who will want to insist that they have nothing to do with anything.
If I had been on that jury, in the summer of 2013 … well, it would mean that somehow, after I expressed such sentiments, the various lawyers involved would still have allowed me to be on a member of that jury, and I’m not sure I would have begun these legal proceedings as an entirely impartial observer. Therefore, if they’d kept me the heck out of that courtroom, they would not have done their job very well.
If I were on the grand jury these past few months, I’d have to take all my concerns about all of those societal issues … and stow them safely in the overhead compartment. I could deal only with the facts of the case – significantly, the facts of the case as presented.
Not long after the Zimmerman verdict came down, I read a paragraph by one of my favorite thinking writers, and I was startled that he would write what he did. Then I re-read it, and the writing that surrounded it, and thought, what an intriguing thing to say, and possibly a gutsy one, all things considered. And it made sense to me. He wrote:
“…I think the jury basically got it right. The only real eyewitness to the death of Trayvon Martin was the man who killed him. At no point did I think that the state proved second degree murder. I also never thought they proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he acted recklessly. They had no ability to counter his basic narrative, because there were no other eye-witnesses.”
And not long after the Ferguson grand jury’s decision was released, a gentleman whose thought processes I admire greatly posted a link to an article about the Missouri laws that are in place regarding the two circumstances under which police officers are allowed to shoot people: one is when it would protect their lives or the life of another innocent party (what police departments apparently call the “defense of life” standard). The other is when it would prevent a suspected felon from escaping.
When I read each of those articles, sixteen months apart … the same thing went through my head: a flashback.
I was on a jury once.
The experience both did and did not reassure me.
Three times I’ve been summoned for jury duty. The first time, I was fresh out of college; and everybody settled out-of-court so fast it made our heads spin. They sent all us potential jurors home before lunchtime.
The third time, about three years ago, nearly, nearly saw me placed in a jury for a rape case. The judge conservatively estimated the trial’s potential length to be several weeks.
The second time, though, as a grad student on summer break, I was empaneled on a domestic violence case. The trial itself – presentation of evidence, witnesses, questioning and cross-examination – fascinated me. I gained appreciation for both sides’ legal counsels (and for friends of mine who do this for a living). I gained admiration for this particular judge. Afterward I described her as both “a compassionate and decent human being” and “puts up with exactly NO crap in her courtroom”. All morning, that first morning, there were objections, there were sidebar meetings, there were quiet dramatic moments. But there were no TV-worthy outbursts (the judge made sure of that: let’s all be grownups here). When the prosecution rested, I was ready to send the defendant to the big house. When the defense rested, I was suddenly not at all certain that the defendant was guilty of absolutely everything s/he was accused of.
And then, it was our turn to do a little work.
For two and a half days, we sat in a little conference room and looked at evidence. Read transcripts. Debated. Agreed. Disagreed. Reminded each other that we weren’t allowed to take this into account when dealing with the question of this charge. There were a lot of average people in that room who were faced with making above-average judgments about things, and felt properly humbled by the task.
In the middle of the second day of deliberations, eleven of us thought one thing, and one of us thought the opposite. I hardly remember the details, but I remember that this one person would not be moved. The dynamic in the room moved slightly away from “must do our civic duty!” and a bit toward “must see if we can wrap this puppy up, because our lives outside this courthouse are kinda on hold at the moment, and it’s eleven to one for cripe’s sake, doesn’t that count for something?” The one person was steadfast still; in retrospect I think that was admirable. We decided that we needed to ask the judge (in writing): we’re at loggerheads … this jury might be about as hung-up as a jury gets … we hate to ask you to fire up a re-trial, but man, nobody’s budging in here. We’re very polite, and all, but that may not last.
The judge took a moment to clarify the definition of a couple of terms (…sound familiar?), so that we would understand that this action qualifies as being guilty of this offense, but only if this other condition is met.
She reminded us that we were determining whether the defendant was guilty of a particular charge, and that we were not allowed to invent a different charge for her/him to be found guilty of – no matter how much we wanted to. (And never mind whether we felt the defendant was guilty of more- or less-serious charges than the ones s/he faced. Not the point.)
She spoke a few sympathetic sentences about the great challenge that deliberation provides jurors, and that very few cases are “open and shut”. And then she very kindly but firmly told us that it would be best if we took our backsides to that jury room. She did this by using just two words:
We slunk back to the jury room, our figurative tails appropriately between our legs: we hadn’t actually been working on this for very long. So … the negotiating and compromising began.
It felt a little … no, it felt a lot … like horse trading. The rule is: the jury has to be unanimous in its verdict. It has been this way for many many years, and we were not sufficiently important people in the grand sweep of American history to be able to change that because we wanted to. So we finally did come to agreement on a verdict that may not have felt satisfying, but did satisfy every juror in one respect: we had come to our decision based on the judge’s instructions and nothing else. That was our job, and we had done it as well as we could.
As I said, when I left the courthouse for the last time, I was both reassured and not reassured by the American jury trial system. I was reassured that a jury trial beats having to accept a dictator’s edict, any day of the week and twice on Sundays. With or without facts and evidence, even if the dictator does rule in your favor one day, s/he may not see things your way the next day, and there ain’t no appeals process.
Equally, I was not reassured. Yes, the trial process had caused us to take a hard look at our initial knee-jerk impression (hang the lousy son/daughter-of-a-gun high!) and to realize that the story being told was not as simple as “one party is completely guilty and the other is pure as the driven snow”. But it was one of the very rare times in my life when I wasn’t sure that compromise had produced the best result – the most just result.
But … we had been directed to follow the judge’s instructions. To the letter. And if that meant not bringing the verdict that otherwise made sense to us (well, eleven-twelfths of us), then that’s what it meant. And I wonder if the Zimmerman trial jurors, and the Ferguson grand jurors, had the same feeling. As could be said of so much of the related cable news pundit-blather, that supposition is strictly conjecture on my part. But it’s conceivable.
Today, and that weekend last summer, and twenty years ago, the American legal system did and does seem to me a curious and fragile construction. When “the law is a ass”, in that moment, at least, we have to abide by it anyway. When we hear a verdict and don’t come close to understanding how a jury could have gotten there … or when a verdict is legally correct but challenges our moral compass … it can be unsettling, to the say the least.
I wonder if it’s fair to paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill, here?… “It has been said that the jury trial is the worst way of administering justice, except for all the others that have been tried.”
He’s going to write about band again.
Well?? If you read this blog at all, you kinda know that’s a large part of where I live.
When I was a college student, it really was where I lived. To the point where one of the professors in the department from which I earned my actual degree noted that “we knew you were majoring in band.”
So at this time of the year, if I should happen to go to a college football game, or watch one on the teevee (and the sports broadcast outlet stoops to showing camera angles of the band) … or log on to my social media feed and read the posts of some college band-associated folks with whom I have relatively recently been connected …
I note that the activity does mean a lot to the people inside it.
Even if (in spite of the appearance of movies like “Drumline”) most of the world still thinks it’s an activity full of odd ducks wearing feathers on their heads.
Which, actually, it is … but in a good way.
This weekend … and, for some higher-profile groups (thanks to the successful football programs to which they’re attached), next weekend, or some time in December or January, will mark the last time some of their members will ever don those often-bizarre uniforms, and play musical instruments that were never designed to be played in the middle of a Polar Vortex, and sing songs and chant chants and commit relatively innocent hijinks.
(While rooting for groups of people wearing often-bizarre uniforms, including somewhat-short pants that were never designed to be worn in the middle of a Polar Vortex, grunting grunts and slamming into other people wearing inexplicable short pants, chasing after a ball that isn’t even round. All of which is a topic for another day; come to think of it, a topic for another day in this blog’s past.)
For this reason, tears will be shed late this afternoon, in a great many football stadiums across the nation; and in one in particular that I’ve been kinda attached to myself, for quite a while. (Here are some specific and wonderful thoughts about that from someone “on the inside” of that band, about to head on to what she calls “The Other Side”.)
And for another band that I’ve more recently gotten to know, that weekend was a week ago.
This fall, for the first time in a good long while, I was attached on a weekly basis to a college marching band. In this case, it was as an instructional assistant with a band of about 65 musicians. During the typically-intense pre-season camp, I ran music sectional rehearsals, assisted with the teaching of field drill, moved amplification systems, helped with the fetching of sandwich materials for post-rehearsal snacks. If it needed doing, I helped do it.
I had my face figuratively torn off by a brass section whose numbers-to-quality-sound ratio was off the charts.
I (a former marching saxophonist) returned to the world of “marching woodwinds are people too!”, although in this band, the woodwind players saw the front sideline an awful lot more than those in the outsized bands tend to do.
I helped move the pit. Grunt.
I got to hear the director describe for high-school exhibition audiences that her band’s traditional closing song is a reminder that band is a place where everyone can feel like they have somewhere to call home.
I got to drive the equipment truck. Which didn’t break down once.
My literal running around in the hot sun in t-shirts and shorts … and then in the increasingly chilly late-afternoon air, as the semester progressed and the daylight savings time change loomed ever nearer … helped to keep me from remembering that I’m a good thirty years older than half the kids in the band. Hustle out there, Rob!
But it helped me to remember – as if I really needed help to remember – that college bands are full of truly fine and decent people. (This past summer’s difficulties at Ohio State notwithstanding.) It’s almost as if they know that the world in general thinks the marching band activity is bizarre and worthy of mockery (gentle or not), and it just makes them even tighter with their colleagues. If we don’t support each other, who the hell is going to?
These folks worked hard. Not just on the field, where the music and the drill forced them to figuratively fly around the field – fast notes, fast feet, and you can’t hide or dog it and still survive halftime … but off the field as well. In smaller bands, a larger percentage of the band roster is called upon to be the student leadership. Taking individual ownership of the ensemble is a lot more likely – not that most of the membership wouldn’t take it anyway. For all but the folks who are in marching band to satisfy a music-major requirement, and even many of them, it’s their choice to be there. They choose to sweat in the sun, stand in the rain, freeze in the cold, and perform in a manner that frankly was unimaginable to musicians of three hundred years ago.
One reason I was hangin’ out with this particular band was that a summer-teaching colleague of mine is the director. One enjoys being with, and helping, friends.
Another reason I was rather deeply involved from the get-go, though, was that my friend the director was going to deliver a baby sometime mid-season, and one of the things one cannot do while having a baby is direct a college band. I certainly think it’s unwise to try, because neither of one’s “babies” will get the attention it deserves. My schedule made it possible for me to help out in this way – to assume one of the more public versions of substitute teaching that I can think of – so, happily, I did so. But I had to learn the system rather thoroughly first!
It had been nearly a decade since the last time I had been in front of a college band on a regular basis, in any form … and it was good to get back into that game.
Not because I desperately needed to be seen stepping to the home-side bleachers’ railing and conducting the pregame show, although that was part of the gig.
Not because I desperately needed to walk alongside the band during a Veterans’ Day Parade and say “thank you” to cheering spectators on behalf of the performers, although I did that, too. (I’m one of those weird people who actually likes parades. Always have been. Don’t judge.)
And not because I desperately needed to ask a group of college students “how … are your feet?!” Although in this particular band, that was how rehearsals ended. (And I only screwed up my part of that “feet together, stomach in, etc etc” chant once. One time! Who’s got the least articulate pretend-director anywhere? Y’all do. Sorry. I’m more used to giving the answers than asking the questions.)
But, I discovered, … Starred Thought™: “Surround yourself with good people.” When you hang out with people who are enjoying possibly the last moments in their lives during which they are able, nay, encouraged to take part in organized silliness … you experience life the way it really ought to be lived.
Vicariously, perhaps; but all the same, you do.
In a way, I’m cheating. My college-band “senior day” happened in very very late October 1988, and at the time I had no idea that it wasn’t going to be my last chance to leap up in the air and pump my fists when my team intercepted a pass, to gyrate weirdly to the strains of “Hey Baby”, to stand out in miserable weather for three hours and shout “harder rain! Wooooooo!”
Tears will be shed this weekend by college band kids, and those tears will be a curious and enviable mix – of disappointment that their college marching careers are over, but of love for the activity they threw themselves into and even more for the people with whom they shared it, for a year, or four, or more.
For many of them, this really will be the last time they get to experience this, in just this way. Some will become band directors themselves, but even that will be just a version of the experience. And of course, there will be Alumni Band experiences to look forward to; which will be close, but not quite the same. They’ll be near the playing of “Twist and Shout” and the band cheers and the mascot-kidnapping (have I said too much?) … but they’ll still only be looking over at the kids who are now actually in those beloved, bizarre uniforms.
But, at the very least, the memories will stick – of Senior Day, and of everything that came before – and the knowledge that “we were part of something insane and incredible and nobody takes THAT away from us.”
For my colleagues in the UMass fall-1987 senior group, perhaps all we have to do is hum “Still Crazy After All These Years” for that senior day to come readily to mind … and hot on the heels of that, all we have to do is hum “Silverado” or “Echano” (hey Harvard, yoo hooo!) or “Al’s Rag” or “Crown Imperial” … or “Oh, George Parks…”
So I consider myself very fortunate indeed to have had the opportunity to be near enough to another, more recent senior group, members of which may instead hum “Skyfall” or “Blue Skies” or “Dancing in the Dark” or “Runaway Baby” … or a tune that I have no idea about because I wasn’t on that bus…!
Because I do have some idea of what that feels like.
Because I was an odd duck, wearing feathers on my head.