Justice = Vengeance [in a Mad World]

On my way home last night after a pretty long, though decent, week at work I saw there was some sort of demonstration going on at the middle school across the street from my building. Someone on a bullhorn was using the standard “What do we want?!” call and response technique.

What do we want?!
When do we want it?!

As I have been up to my eyebrows in the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution at school in my government curriculum these past few weeks (not to mention the fact that I was curious…) I stopped. I listened a little more. I am down with justice.

Justice for Rashawn!!

I walked a little further and saw three young kids with a clipboard and posters calling for Justice for Rashawn. They were talking to an older couple as I approached and I leaned in to listen. On seeing my approach as a way out, the couple quickly scooted away the moment the kids turned their attention to me.

What do we want?!
When do we want it?!
Justice for Rashawn!!

‘What’s up,’ I asked them. ‘What are you guys doing out here?’

The smallest of the three, who I would soon learn was a seventh grade student at the school across the street, shoved the clipboard towards me and said, ‘We are collecting signatures to make the City try the murderer of Rashawn as an adult. He is going to get out when he is 23.’

‘How old are the suspects?’ I asked.

‘One of them is 19, so he is going to court for adults,’ said another student who had just walked up. ‘But the other one, the city says he won’t be in adult court.’

‘How old is he?’ I asked.

’14,’ they all said.

‘And so you want the 14 year old to be tried in adult court?’ I asked. ‘That is what the petition is for?’

‘Yes,’ they all replied.

The only boy among the group that was now four said, ‘You know, he planned it. He bullied Rashawn all the time and he always caused him trouble. He planned it out.’

‘But he was with a 19 year old?’ I asked.

‘Yeah, but we aren’t here about that, he is in adult court. We need to get signatures so the 14 year old will not get out of jail.’

‘Every signature makes a difference,’ the first girl said to me, looking up at me with braces and french braids framing her lovely olive complexion.

Then another passer by stopped. Probably about my age, with a thoughtful, well-worn face, he spoke with notable accent, and asked what was going on. I let the kids explain.

‘Put yourself in his mother’s shoes,’ the student who had walked up last said to me. ‘I mean, it’s not right. She deserves justice.’

I looked at the man standing next to me and he looked back at me. I wondered what his take on the justice system was, knowing that my sentiments were not going to sit well with these kids. He looked back at me and I said, to the group, ‘I am not sure I am comfortable signing this. I don’t think I support putting a 14 year old in the adult criminal system. I believe that we have the juvenile justice system for a reason.’

‘If he can act like an adult he can be punished like an adult!’ the boy said.

‘What makes you say he acted like an adult?’ I asked.

‘He planned this out. He is a bully,’ answered the one of the group who had not yet spoken.

I looked again at the man next to me, who gently shook his head.

‘Well, I am proud of you guys for standing out here in the cold for something you believe in,’ I said. ‘But I am afraid I can’t sign this petition. I just don’t believe in putting children in the adult criminal justice system.’

‘But he deserves it!’ one of the kids cried out.

‘He planned this out!’ said another.

‘All we want is justice!’ exclaimed the latecomer.

I looked at them and was overcome with sadness. Four young kids. Kids who are sure to make some pretty significant mistakes at some point in their lives – though I can only hope none that are lethal. Kids who are statistically so much more at risk than they even know. Kids of color who are fighting systems they have yet to even realize. Kids who have been taught that vengeance equals justice. Kids who have been sent out – ostensibly by adults – to elicit a particular response from the public under the guise of justice – of fairness.

I thought about how every year when I teach my sophomores about Hammurabi they are all totally down with the concept of an eye for an eye. Yeah, it’s harsh they say, but hey, if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime. I ask them if they would actually come to my class on time if they knew the punishment was lethal. They say yes. They say that harsher punishments will reduce crime, it is only logical. But the reality is they would not be on time. They would be late and want me to hear all the circumstances as to why I should consider lenience.

They are only sophomores after all.

And here were these kids, 7th and 8th graders demanding vengeance as justice.

‘What if it was someone you loved?’ they asked me.

‘Yeah, it could be your son,’ they said.

‘If it was someone I loved I would be devastated,’ I said. ‘But ending the life of another would not make it any less devastating.’

‘We are not asking for the death penalty’, they said. ‘We just want him to be in prison for life. Like the 19 year old.’

I looked at them one last time and wished them good luck with their cause, but said I could not sign their petition.

And I turned to walk away. The man standing with us also turned to go, ‘No,’ he said, ‘I cannot sign this.’

‘Well, thanks a lot for your time!’ one of them yelled. It did not sound sincere.

Walking up my stairs I heard the bullhorn again.

What do we want?!
When do we want it?!
Justice for Rashawn!!

They have no idea how likely it is that they will one day be on the other side of this equation begging for consideration and lenience for one of their own. It is such a terribly sad cycle.

If only they could see that all this effort is doing is perpetuating it.

Details of the Rashawn Williams tragedy here.


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