Not For One Side Alone
Yesterday morning, the morning after the grand jury failed to return an indictment against Darrell Wilson in Ferguson, MO, I had to appear in family court. My son’s father brought false allegations of “Alienation” (a charge made largely by middle-class white men against middle-class white women and one that is enough to trump anything else involved, including pedophilia) against me two-and-a-half years ago and we have been in court ever since. During this ordeal, I have experienced a great deal of injustice. I have come face to face with the most brutal forms of misogyny. The injustice and misogyny have caused me to feel rage greater than the force of the Nile river. And I have lost all faith in the concept of justice within our legal system.
In the early days of the case, when my rage would abate, the tears used to come and I would cry myself into an exhaustion that depleted but never extinguished the rage. Now, the tears no longer fall. They well up but then recede into an inner tension that I carry with me at all times. This tension feels a lot like fear, but I’ve learned that it is not fear at all—it is, rather, the rage, submerged in the tears I can no longer cry struggling to keep itself from drowning. It’s my dignity fighting the humiliation and trying to keep my sense of self-worth alive. I walk around with this inside of me every day.
Today, New York woke and went about its business the way New York does in the face of tragedy or travesty. Stoically—but wearing a pall and dragging its feet along with its heart down the steps into the subway. As a white woman, I also carried a bit of caution, a wariness that some random streak of violence might erupt on the platform of the downtown 6 train and hit me in the face. The other white people seemed equally leery. They kept their eyes down, their faces attempting to express innocence and remorse at the time. When the train arrived we held back, entered cautiously, tried not to take up too much space.
But I wanted to sit, because I needed to close my eyes and pray—my ritual on the way to our court appearances. I hold an object of my son’s in my hands and pray for his protection. A seat opened in the middle of the bench, and as I sat down I accidentally bumped slightly into the middle-aged black woman next to me. She jerked away and reacted with a “humph!” I moved my bag away from her and went about my prayers without looking at her—eye contact would surely only serve to escalate and make me the object of her anger. It was far more than I could handle this morning. I prayed. I asked the Great Mother to hold my son in her arms today. I asked the Great Father to give us both strength. I tried to focus on my prayers, but I couldn’t concentrate. Everything that was floating around in the air in that subway car kept cutting into my thoughts. I looked up.
There was a young black man sitting across from me. He was about 18 years old, dressed like a public school student, jeans and a hoodie. Not too tall, but stocky. Medium complexion. He looked sort of like Michael Brown. He had his head resting on one hand and he was lost in his own thoughts. But I could see the look in his eyes. And I recognized it.
It was disappointment and rage submerged in tears he can’t cry anymore. Human dignity struggling against humiliation. Loss of faith, not only in justice but in basic human decency. Loss of faith that borders on the loss of hope. Hope hanging on by a long-eroded subway strap, accessible only in a collective memory or the faded image of an advertisement from another era.
So I closed my eyes again and I prayed for that young man. And I prayed for the woman next to me. I prayed for everyone on that subway car. I prayed for Michael Brown’s mother and Trayvon Martin’s mother and the mothers of all the other slain young black men whose names I don’t know. I asked the Great Mother to hold them in her arms and I asked the Great Father to give us all strength. And I asked both deities to show mercy on us in our ignorance and our failures and to guide us to uphold the dignity of every human being. I prayed until I felt a little bit better—until that tension had receded just a tiny bit.
I was not always so inclined to prayer. Perhaps the old adage “there are no atheists in a foxhole” should be replaced by “there are no atheists defending themselves in the American court system.” When there is nothing of substance to hold onto, we grab onto whatever we can. An invisible subway strap. The image of an omnipotent being who can work miracles.
I opened my eyes and the young man and the woman next to me were both gone. I got off the train at Canal Street and walked to the courthouse on Lafayette Street, where the words of Eleanor Roosevelt greeted me as I entered: “Justice cannot be for one side alone, but must be for both.” And as much as I wanted to, I could not imagine how that ideal is possible in a society and system as obviously biased and broken as ours. I went upstairs to wait outside the courtroom for our case to be called. And I continued to pray.
Liza Case is the author of four full-length plays, including The Unspoken Ones, and Baby Strike!, both of which were honored by the Jane Chambers Playwriting Award. She wrote the screenplays for several short films, including Destiny, which played on the Emmy-award-winning PBS show The Short List and IFC. For ten years, she published and edited the New York Independent Film Monitor. Liza received her B.A. in Creative Writing from CUNY and her MFA in Dramatic Writing from NYU. She lives in New York with her son, Harlan.