A Jury of His Peers: A Naïve White Girl At the Trial of a Black Man

Above: “Moot Courtroom” by College of William & Mary Law Library is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When I heard that the jury for the trial of George Floyd’s accused murderer was being re-examined to see if they might be tainted by knowledge of the $27M settlement paid from the City of Minneapolis to the victim’s family, I thought back to the last time I appeared for jury duty. It was about 10 years ago.

I got the summons in the mail. I did the whole thing where you call the phone number and listen to find out if you have to go in. I drove to the Baltimore County Courthouse. I sat in the waiting area and watched some boring 90’s rom-com the staff put on the television.

I got called into the courtroom for the jury selection process.

I remember thinking that room was horribly stuffy, with dark wood paneling on every wall, and no windows to the outside. My memories of that courtroom may have melded with memories of the more severe church interiors of my past. I truly remember sitting with the other jurors in rows of pews.

All the way at the very front, there was the high altar of the judicial bench. We stood as the judge entered. As everyone sat back down, the defendant’s attorney took his place on one side in front of the bench and the prosecutor on the other.

Two guards brought in a defendant wearing a prison jumpsuit and handcuffs and ushered him to his seat. He was a tall, thin, very young Black man arrested on drug charges. A Black child. I couldn’t look at him as he sat in a far area of the room away from the pool of mostly white middle-class, middle-aged jurors.

A process began in which a person at the front of the room would call out a question, and everyone who could answer in the affirmative would have to stand up, then give an explanation if called upon.

“Does anyone here have family or friends who serve or have served in the police force?”

A handful of people stood up.

“Do you know anyone who has been convicted of a drug charge?”

A handful of people stood up.

As the questions continued, I wondered when I would get to stand up, but there didn’t seem to be any I could be sure applied to me. At some point, I either loosely interpreted one of the questions or invented a reason to speak.

I raised my hand, stood up, and called out, “I was involved with Occupy Wall Street!”

It had been more than ten years since I fled the cult in Kansas. I had worked my way up to a full-time corporate job where I excelled and was highly respected. I had achieved my goal of earning enough money to make myself and my children untouchable to the cult. We had resources. We were mobile. I felt that we were reasonably safe, but not enough to let my guard down.

In order to leave a cult where a woman’s God-given role was to make a home and nurture children, I’d had to confront the fact that out in the real world, parents had jobs and their children grew up without them. I chose to face that rather than accept the cult filling their minds with manufactured limitations, lies, and hatred.

Early each morning, I dropped my three babies at daycare. I would return to retrieve them more than ten hours later, with just enough time to give them dinner and put them to bed for the night.

In the morning, we’d do it all again. And so, while I stared into a computer screen 20 miles away, a daycare assistant watched my youngest child take their first steps. They spoke their first words, and I wasn’t there to hear them.

I’d say that I was angry, but while anger was indeed part of what I felt, there was a deep, wrenching grief entwined with it. I carried it with me everywhere, along with the desperate, defiant hope that the fairytale motherhood the cult had sold me might still be possible somehow.

I didn’t know anything about white privilege, the prison industrial complex, or the war on drugs, but a strong conviction was growing within me that there was something very wrong with America. I had broken the bars of my childhood imprisonment and believed myself free, but only until I had explored far enough to encounter the next set of bars.

I wasn’t even an artist yet. I was spending as much time as I could on social media and news websites, trying to understand concepts that were entirely new to me: protest, human rights, grassroots, power and oppression. When I was not at work or actively tending to my children, I sounded off on Twitter about liberal topics like climate change, factory farming, poverty, and the worthlessness of the obnoxiously wealthy. I was reaching out into the world, but I didn’t know who or what I was looking for. Perhaps if I flailed around in my cage enough, I might find a weak spot or an opening for escape.

When Occupiers made camp in Baltimore’s McKeldin Square, I believed that such brazen defiance of “The One Percent” could only come from deeply understanding the baffling anatomy of my new prison, American Capitalism. I had to know what they knew.

I kept thinking of going downtown to participate with the Occupiers, although I didn’t actually know what that would look like. I had grown up mostly without television and popular culture, so I had only a vague idea of what a protest was. I pictured crowds of people crammed shoulder to shoulder in the streets, jostling violently, practically crushing one another. I could see young people of all different skin colors, with pierced faces and ears, dreadlocks, and tie-dyed shirts. My vision of protest was loud and terrifying, with an endless stream of angry people grabbing a shared bullhorn and shouting the poetry of resistance while marchers pumped their fists and shouted their agreement.

I did finally go to McKeldin Square after work one day, not for any particular march or activity, but to take bags of food to the camp. Feeding human beings was something I knew how to do. It was not something I associated with risk. As I walked into McKeldin Square, I found it empty and quiet. I passed a dozen or so tents set up on the sidewalk. I went into the larger white mess tent and dropped off my donations to no fanfare and little acknowledgment. I idled about a bit and left. As I drove my mini-van out of the parking garage, I paid $18 with my credit card.

I was bolder on my second visit. A handful of protestors decided to walk out to the curb and hold signs as evening traffic crawled by. I took one of their homemade signs and stood with them. Later, after dark, one of the leaders asked if anyone had a van to pick up hot food from an old church a few blocks away. Seven or eight protestors, who were indeed of all different skin colors, piled into my van and we drove to the church.

Once at the church, we went inside where another diverse group of people were cooking enormous pots of stew and laying out sheet pans of dinner rolls. In a nearby room that must have been the sanctuary once upon a time, a dance troupe was practicing. I reveled in the venerable smell of the old building, and the sounds of feet leaping and sliding on aged hardwood planks echoing through the acoustic space.

There was something familiar here. It felt like home, but free and alive. But there was no judgment. No hate. And no one to own me.

I drove back to McKeldin square gently, carefully while this precious carload of my fellow prisoners chatted and shrieked with laughter, trying to hold the lids on the huge pots of stew to keep it from sloshing out. I didn’t go back to the protest again. I was still climbing the corporate ladder and was quickly gaining height. If I were to fall all the way back down to the first rungs, what would happen to my children? Firmly in the grasp of the system, I wanted to be free, but I wouldn’t risk making my children vulnerable to a different kind of imprisonment.

“I was involved with Occupy Wall Street!”

Had I been? Did what I had done even count? I wasn’t sure. It was a confession of not just what I had done, but of everything I would have done if I could have, and still wished I could do.

I knew I would never vote to convict this Black child. I could not yet quantify my largely abstract fears for my own children. I hardly understood my own world and my own imprisonment. I would not presume to understand his. I could not help but think of his mother. I would not pass judgment on her son.

The defendant’s lawyer and the prosecutor began to argue in tense whispers. They conferred with the judge.

The judge called me to the bench.

No one else had been called to the bench. I faked a confident walk up the aisle and stood less than 5 feet tall between these two attorneys, thin gray-haired white men who towered over me in their drab suits as the gray-haired white judge on his throne towered over the three of us. The men were in the midst of an ideological tug of war over me.

“No”, said the prosecutor. “She can’t be on this jury. Occupy Wall Street is against drug laws.”

The defense lawyer was thrilled to the point of jumping out of his skin.

“But how do you protest?”. He turned to me excitedly, his eyes wide as if he couldn’t believe his luck. “You would only do that through acceptable and legal means, right?” His eager face begged me to agree.

I hesitated.

The judge, trying to mediate and obviously trying to be patient with the lawyers, prompted me to answer. “Would you protest with violence and rioting, or would you only protest through legal avenues, like writing your congressman?”

All three men froze, staring at me, anticipating my answer.

“I would do it only through legal avenues”, I said finally.

I intended to tell the truth. But even as I said those words, I knew I didn’t believe them. The truth was that I didn’t know what I would be willing to do for freedom. Not just my own freedom, or my children’s freedom–anyone’s freedom. The very idea of freedom.

The judge didn’t believe me either, or the decision may have been moot before I even approached the bench. I was dismissed.

As the years passed, I saw coworkers and acquaintances called back to jury duty multiple times while I received no summons. I began to wonder if the court system had a way to permanently exclude people who might cause the kind of animated discussion that I caused in front of that judge’s bench.

Remembering these events in the context of Derek Chauvin’s murder trial, I thought about how you might go about choosing a jury for the police officer the entire world saw crush the life out of a man during what should have been a routine call. Do you look for people who not only live without any internet or television, but also no awareness of systemic racism, biases, and racial power constructs? Or do you look for people who may have seen the footage, but are seamlessly integrated into a system where Derek Chavin needs our empathy when he has a bad day at his dangerous and honorable job?

It only begins to make sense when you consider that “fair trial” doesn’t really mean “fair” in the sense of well-researched, well-thought-out, just, and unbiased. In the American system, “fair” can only describe something that does not challenge a status quo in which whites are always presumed innocent and Black people are always guilty, even when a white man executes a Black man in the street.

Derek Chauvin will have a jury of his peers. The problem is that people like George Floyd and that Black child I could not judge ten years ago will also have a jury of Derek Chauvin’s peers.

I was rejected from the jury pool because of what all three men arguing over me knew. I would have interfered with the duty of the court to maintain the status quo, and the status quo demanded that they lock away a Black child.

Originally published at https://artistroseanderson.com.

Artist, storyteller. My childhood in an ultra-conservative cult is a lens on constructs of race and patriarchy in America. Speaking truth to whiteness.

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