Thursday, May 7, 2015

Off of the Sidelines

I had the most enlightening experience this week with the NYCLU’s Lobby Day in my old hometown of Albany, NY.  We were going in to lobby support from State Assemblymen and Senators for a bill that would increase funding to Public Defenders across the State.

The bill was the result of a successful lawsuit by the ACLU against 5 counties in NYS, where those who couldn't ordinarily afford an attorney were given substandard defense in court.  In NYS, the individual counties are responsible for funding Constitutionally-guaranteed Public Defenders for those defendants who can’t afford an attorney otherwise.  The problem is that demand far outstrips supply when it comes to Public Defense, so these Public Defenders often have such a huge caseload on their desks that they barely have time to review the cases they’re defending, or even answer the messages on their overloaded voicemail, let alone to do the necessary investigation to mount an effective defense for their assigned clients.  They’re given the bare minimum of resources to pay for such investigations or to support a staff to do the necessary work.  So, the clients are often put into a position where they have to plead guilty to crimes they often didn't even commit.  Innocent people are sent to prison, or bankrupted by exorbitant fines.  Their lives are often ruined because they have no effective defense against a system that, instead of presuming their innocence, makes a large private profit off of assuming their guilt.  

ACLU's lawsuit established the idea that the State is mandated to make appropriate resources available to the individual counties, and while it has begun to do so for the 5 counties listed in the lawsuit, it has not done so for all 62.  We were there to push for a bill that would require it do so immediately.

After a strong rally in front of the State Capitol building, which featured speeches by several State Assembly members, we divided up into teams to start meeting.  I was assigned to go to one of the speakers, who listened very patiently to my fellow team-mates’ stories and happily signed the Pledge to support the bill that we were passing around.  He admitted that there was a lot of opposition to our bill -- particularly from the Republicans -- and that the system was so broken that no single bill would be adequate to fixing the problem by itself.  I got the feeling that we were preaching to the choir in his case, but was told by other teams that other members weren't nearly so easy a sell.

With the Honorable Luis R. Sepulveda of NYS District 87

I brought up my concerns to the NYCLU staff, who were running the event, and suggested that our time and resources would be better spent convincing the opposition rather than preaching to those already on our side of the issue.  Taking this initiative paid off.  

Since I had only been assigned to one Assemblyman and, because I’d made my own travel arrangements rather than join the throngs on the chartered bus (I had gone up the night before and stayed in my childhood home), I was invited to tag along on the NYCLU’s most important meeting of the day – with the staff of the Interim Speaker of the Assembly and Senate leadership.  The meeting was run by the top leaders of the NYCLU and I was presented as an NYCLU member.  I got to be a fly on the wall for the real nuts and bolts of State politics, as concerns of financial feasibility and rhetorical spin were haggled over.  We came away hopeful that we'd potentially gained an ally, or at very least had one or two fewer power-brokers against us.  

I got to see first-hand how complex even the simple matter of issuing a statement can be, and how, the further up the food-chain one goes in government, the more complex and delicate the process becomes.  It was a sharp lesson for me in the difference between philosophy and reality.

But the “eureka!” moment for me actually came earlier in the day, during the rally outside.  As our public employees addressed us, we were accosted by a homeless man.  This man illustrated perfectly how completely the system has failed as he, in his simple eloquence, called us out with the voice of the very desperation our system exacerbates and feeds upon.  Everybody instinctively avoided or ignored this man, not listening to what he was saying.  It’s a shame that happened, as he was highlighting the very issues we were there to address.   As the rally was wrapping up, I approached him alone and pointed out that the issues he was talking about were correct and that my group was at the Capitol that day specifically to address them.  I handed him a $20 bill and received a tearful hug in return.  It was a true moment of humanity, odor and all.

Speaking truth to power rarely works.  Leveraging power works most of the time.  Directing power towards the greater good is of utmost importance.  But at the end of the day, we who fight for real positive change can’t afford to lose sight of the human beings that we’re trying to help, the way entrenched power already has.

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