Where Our Voices End and the System Begins, or: The Limits of What We Make Happen

emmetttill

What power do our voices really have? Will the American system ever be a system of equal rights? 

I keep waiting for the anger to kick in. But I don’t have enough hope or surprise left to be angry. I’m just depressed.

For the record, for those out there saying Trayvon Martin’s death is (only) as tragic as any other child’s death, and that George Zimmerman’s trial was about George Zimmerman, not the safety of children of color, racism, etc., I do not grieve for Trayvon Martin any more than for any other unacquainted child’s death. That is, I grieve a little, because no parent should have to lose her child, but I grieve only a little, because I do not know Trayvon Martin or his family, and this is how we get on as human beings. For the record, what people are grieving for when they do not know Trayvon Martin but do know someone like him, is not Trayvon Martin’s death, it’s the reaffirmation that equal rights are very much not yet alive.

For the record, I do not wish George Zimmerman ill, I did not celebrate George Zimmerman’s arrest because of who he is as a person or for what he did as an individual—I will never celebrate a man going to prison, even if that is the appropriate action. It may be a thing that is right, but I find no celebration even in a justifiable personal loss. When Zimmerman finally faced charges, what I celebrated was the idea that the law worked for people of color, too, that everyone faced the same laws. That was hope, not for a man going to prison, but for the system.

That hope was clearly misplaced.

For the record, these opinions have been, and will be, written elsewhere, by journalists and bloggers and tweeters and Facebookers and so on across the country.

I’m not writing because I want to express the same opinions. I want to write about expressing our opinions.

I mean to think about how our words, how the voices and actions of the masses, how whatever representation we have via social media, larger media, protests, etc., can only take an issue so far. Or at least only do take an issue so far.

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Ordinary people with hope in the system were responsible for bringing George Zimmerman to trial. Defense attorney Don West acknowledged that even as he blamed our voices for putting Zimmerman on trial. In the last week or so, social media has helped spread word of Wendy Davis and women’s rights, has helped spread information about the loss of the Voting Rights Act, has made gay marriage a key political and social win. But we, the people, despite what Don West says, didn’t put Zimmerman on trial. We couldn’t do that. Zimmerman, and the idea of equal legal treatment—for this is how precedent works in the American legal system—was put on trial by a handful of people, and the decision in that trial was made by (only) a handful of people.

The Texas abortion laws, despite a “people’s filibuster,” despite public outcry, were passed by (only) a handful of people, a group who closed off the law even more to outside voices, our voices, going so far as to disallow tampons (the real concealed weapon).

Before any of these decisions, the Supreme Court decided for the people whether America treats voters (i.e. the people) equally. They also decided whether marriage was equal—one decision they got right, but which still, I am thinking more and more, should not have been in their hands.

The point where we stall our voices to wait for a decision is where democracy—decision by the people—ends, and the system—decision by a few select people—begins.

There are many now who will go back to the fight, who will go back to spreading the word and taking these cases to . . . the system. Yet they will always be leaving their faith at an altar, and I wonder if it is time to stop worshipping something that was never intended to work for all the people who have faith in it now. The American democracy—a republic—was supposed to work by the few representing the many. This is a system based on the systems used by the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Yet (B.C.) when those systems were needed, it was impossible and even discouraged for people to vote directly, to speak their opinions to other people across the country, to lobby for themselves, to form real grassroots movements, to educate themselves on the issues, to etc. Many of those things were true, too, in 1776. But, one would like to think, not now.

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The founding fathers didn’t create a government that cared about 21st century concerns. OF COURSE they did not. They didn’t create a government that was supposed to work for hundreds of millions of people, or people of different races, or people of different religions (not just different kinds of Christianity), or people of different regional cultures, or so on.

When do we stop having so much faith in this system that our actions are always to take an issue on the system’s door and hope that the system changes it? When do we start changing the system to represent the people as they are now? So that when an issue is laid at the feet of the system, the system walks in the people’s shoes. So that the system has only to stand up for what is already inherently a right.

In fact, the success of an idea, in forums other than lawmaking (such as the business world some love to hold up as the shining example of America), tends to be tested in the opposite direction. A few people present something to the masses and the masses determine its value. And yet we live in a society where it seems as if the right lawyer can make anything right or wrong within the law, where the right lobbyist can make anything a law. Where, yes, circumstantial evidence is thrown out but, still, a circumstantial trial is how law is made. These nine judges, these six jurors, these two lawyers.

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I am not advocating for some vigilante system here. How “ironic” that would be, in the Alanis Morrisette sense of the word. I am advocating for a system that does not uphold vigilantism, that listens instead to the voices of the many raised for a common cause. Is that not supposed to be our government?

With Trayvon Martin, our voices only went so far. We have the power only to get the case into the system, to make the filibuster heard. Social media seems (at best) only to have the power of marketing: to energize or expand a base; to sell, not to change anything. The system is supposed to enact the change, and as so many have said, the system is broken, or rather was not made for the people who rely on it now.

And it is not only the systems we have in place but the systems we have made. Larger media is only interested in the beginnings and endings. There is no dearth of “reaction pieces” or journalists looking to be the first on whatever issue. And then the media is only too happy to move on to the next story. At times, it seems like what we have is a news cycle of apologies. Force the apology, get the apology, react to the apology, and move on. There is always something else to turn to. The process of enacting change or failing to change is a hole to be filled with something else to “break” or analyze.

Since the verdict, there have been many essays already, many voices raised, some not an hour afterward. There were many voices raised to get Zimmerman on trial, too. There were few in the meantime, maybe because we had faith that we had done what we could—put Zimmerman in the hands of the system, put equality on the line where we believed the line was straight—or maybe even because we didn’t think anyone would listen.

It isn’t the system that has failed us. It is our own voices, which stopped when they were needed most, when they were needed to stand up to the system, or even to stand in place of it, not to wait to see what the system would do and then to “take action” again with a reaction piece, to mourn or to say, get back on the horse.

How “ironic” that I am writing this now. I get that. But we have to start somewhere. And in the absence of hope and surprise, maybe we need to surprise the old by creating something new to put our hope in.

–photos via Twitter

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About Matthew Salesses

Matthew Salesses contributed to the very first day of The Good Men Project. He writes the "Love, Recorded" column about his wife, baby, and cats. He has written for The New York Times, NPR, the Center for Asian American Media, Salon, The Rumpus, and others. He is the author, most recently, of Different Racisms: On Stereotypes, the Individual, and Asian American masculinity. See more at his eponymous website. Contact him via email or @salesses.

Comments

  1. Joanna Schroeder says:

    Matt, this is a really smart post. Thanks so much for writing it.

    We’re all gutted, we’re numb. I watched a lot of the trial and was frustrated with the prosecution. So many mistakes, but the idea that the system failed a boy it wasn’t designed to protect really explains it all to me – in very clear horror.

  2. Thank you, Joanna. This one was rough.

  3. The best thing I’ve read by you Matthew…IMO.

    And then being the resident turd in the punch bowl ……
    There is irony in the newspaper headline accompanying this article, which I can’t revel in.
    The more things change, the more they stay the same.
    “….. Teen Shot….”
    http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/chi-family-teen-shot-to-death-on-way-to-visit-infant-daughter-20130715,0,5037971.story

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