Awaking to our final day of our two week stay at the utopian community of the Chautauqua Institution, I am confronted by the now familiar news of seemingly unnecessary killing of black men by law enforcement officers, of protests, and now of the killing of police officers in protest to those killings. As much as I love the peace and tranquility of Chautauqua, I am eager to get back to the non-utopian world of my life in the larger outside world, despite the conflict and dangers that lurk there.
As I think about the conflict that is erupting on our streets, I can’t help but feel that the legal system I work in has contributed to this problem by failing time and time again to deliver justice to the most vulnerable in our society. Too many times our courts have turned away empty handed those who have been harmed at the hands of law enforcement, while making excuses and carving out legal exceptions to the law. Too many times our elected lawmakers have weakened our justice system by choosing to build prisons rather than invest in struggling communities ,and have responded to problems such as addiction by mandating some of the world’s longest prison terms rather than offering treatment. Too many times those in power, or those seeking office, have cultivated the seeds of hatred and bigotry by invoking images of fear and prejudice in order to distract attention away from failed public policy and their own lack of vision or direction.
Our leaders need to deliver something greater than sanctimonious speeches and calls for civility while they continue to turn away empty handed the vulnerable who have been harmed. Within the legal system, our prosecutors and judges need to recognize that justice has to mean more than retribution, and that real harm can occur in the absence of monetary loss.
I don’t have all the answers, nor do I know all the questions that need to be asked. What I do know is that there remains much good in our country and that we have the potential to be better tomorrow than we are today. Our concept of justice can become richer than it is today, but for that to happen we need to let go of our fear of each other, stop vilifying those who live on the margins, and seek kinship with our neighbors wherever and whenever possible.