“That which is not just, is not the law.”
William Lloyd Garrison
I have been thinking often, of late, about the function of law, the way it is utilized by those who need it and the ways it is used with the intent to wound, particularly by those who critique it most rigorously. Too often both in and out of the classroom, I have found myself facing folks—activists, anarchists, abolitionists–I have least suspected to invoke the law as weapon against loved ones, against friends intentionally and at times, most carelessly.
A few months ago, I found myself in a glowing disagreement with a co-worker about the design of our classroom. It was not, he argued, suitable for our youngest student. I countered that it was wholly appropriate and compliant, in every way, with safety standards designed for such an environment. I offered a few concrete examples. He—a brilliant, committed educator, anarchist/activist/queer/white—growing increasingly frustrated in our conversation, blurted out, “You know, I have already accepted that I work in an illegal place, but…”
I stopped him immediately, “Wait. You just said illegal. There is nothing illegal about my school, this classroom, regarding safety or otherwise. Absolutely nothing.”
“Yeessss,” he insisted, stretching his words. “Yes, it’s true, yes…”
“No, it is not,” I interrupted again. “This is my business—what I have done everyday for the last six years. I am a lawyer. I know, in fine detail, the laws needed to run this business.”
He told me I was being unfairly authoritative, accused me of being bossy, arrogant, using my “I am a lawyer” words to shut down our conversation. “No,” I insisted, “I just know how this works.” What was not spoken I know now, was the breach of trust, of loyalty, that had knifed between us long before the conversation had begun. I quickly excused myself from our conversation to prevent myself from cursing him the. fuck. out.
In the time between our silence and our next conversation, I thought about the way this educator, this white man who had worked with me for over three years, had both used the word “illegal”—an inflammatory word tossed to any small business owner– to describe my business practices and also insisted on this point after I initially responded with logic. I had offered examples of clear compliance, my knowledge of specific bodies of law, code sections governing my business, copious visits with inspectors and governing Ministry officials over the previous six years. None of the examples assuaged; he insisted on his point of “illegality.” I also found his insistence particularly bizarre, given his political self-label as anarchist, his activism directed at state interventions and state violence, and our many conversations over the years about balancing his political beliefs against teaching children about the role of state sanctioned actors—namely, the police—in a way that neither terrifies nor mollifies them. He had, after all, guided some pretty heady circle-times with our four and five year olds over the years, who, from their own rational curiosities had posed tough questions to him like, “If the police are so good, why do they carry guns that can be used to kill people?”
Recently, I have watched this syllogism of personhood and position—this waging of war with the law as ally– fail again more harmfully, more painfully. In a court case that began with two simple, primary motions—one, to extend custodial care to slightly longer visits for a father and a second, to advocate and request the right of a mother to homeschool a special needs-diagnosed child failing both emotionally and academically in the public system–, I watched a father (we’ll call him “Chris”), a well-known local Black educator and activist against police brutality and incarceration, use his presence before a judge to harm his parenting partner and ex. He used his court presence to amend his initial motion well beyond its initial scope and to request radically increased custodial time. These amendments were despite his own children’s disapproval. These amendments were despite his longstanding agreement with his co-parent (“Sharon”)—a mother, my friend, who had stopped work to support their son’s learning and emotional disabilities within a financially and care-deficient schooling environment when Chris denied their mere existence.
During the trial, Chris subpoenaed a mutual friend as a character witness—a Black, female, anti-police brutality activist, community organizer, and decades-long ally to Chris. This woman had expressly, clearly requested prior to the trial that he not involve her in the proceeding out of respect for her privacy, her compromised mental health, and her need to devote her energies to completing her graduate program. She was so traumatized by Chris’ court order that it caused her to self-isolate further. In this self-isolation, I witnessed her inch a few steps closer to a kind of madness we Black women work so hard to shuffle away from, but often—inevitably with age and in facing the fracturing confrontation between community and personhood—find ourselves dangling next to regardless.
I also watched on as Chris intentionally asserted positions before a judge that he did not personally hold and thus, place his own children onto a judicial game board with his hand, most advanced. At its simplest, we live within a legal system whose historicity—quite literally, its historic record– shares kinship with it’s neighbor’s Jim Crow legacy: It hates Blackness, certainly, but Black femaleness most of all. Nearly two years prior to the custody proceeding, over dinner at my kitchen table, Chris had shared his views on local public schooling with me so starkly that I had held them as mantra over the years despite a friendship that had come undone. When I had expressed my own commitment to try and open a primary school given the anti-Black terrain of my son’s alternative public school, he had responded matter of factly: “Yes. Every day, sending my kids to school, I have to accept that I am sending them into a minefield of violence.” His words settled in my stomach, indelibly, that day. Suddenly now, in court, I watched him insist on his son’s maintenance in his same school—the very school Chris had named to me a site of continuing violence—and angrily, vocally oppose Sharon’s pre-prepared curriculum and detailed daily schedule presented to the court as evidence of her well-thought homeschooling plan for their son.
Most significantly, mid-way through the trial, Chris decided to alert the judge to Sharon’s sexual history, subpoena his ex-wife’s medical records to include her history of sexual violence as part of the publicly recorded proceeding, to present her as mentally unfit, and to attempt to further castigate her character in front of the judge. The judge admitted Sharon’s medical records. Part of her medical record entailed information about the social and financial assistance that she had received for three years as part of a government-funded program that provides support for victims of violent crime—in this case, a sexual assault Chris had committed before their marital separation. Sharon had named her attacker anonymously, per her right under the legislation that both protected her and protected her right to shield her children—their children—from uncovering this information in the public record without forewarning or in Sharon’s private files at home.
How had Chris’ rage become so palpable, so grinding, so waged?
Six months before the custody proceeding began, I had met Chris—then still a close friend and mentor—one late afternoon in a café to ask him to respect the co-parenting boundaries he pre-established with Sharon, to alert him of a community accountability process I had begun to support Sharon, and to express my decision, borne out of an obvious conflict of interest in this work, to remove him from my PhD committee. I had come to the meeting prepared, soft but well-framed with words and intentions, and we spoke at some length about the process. Chris was angry, surprised, and asked me to repeat the three-tiered intent statement I and a group of women had prepared for my meeting with Chris: I told him that the intention of the community accountability process was 1) to support Sharon in her co-parenting as much as she needed (be present at drop-offs, shared events they would both attend), 2) to ask him to respect the simple physical boundaries she desired (to email only for important matters, avoid calling unnecessarily, stop visiting her family members), 3) and to ask him, finally, to seek out a relationship with a therapist in a way that would invite personal healing to begin from his side. I had invited him in my initial email to our meeting to discuss “my PhD committee,” and he was furious during our meeting that I had not alerted him to the community accountability process in advance. “But,” I repeated softly, steadily during our meeting, “I owed you this meeting face to face given our friendship, Chris. And, let’s be real for a minute: You would really have showed up here, now if I had told you the finer details of the reason for this meeting?” His rage only slightly subsided by the end of our hour-long conversation. Nonetheless, he stayed, we had made it through, and I walked away, determined in my integrity, my tone, and the words I had chosen during our meeting.
How was a war waged in this process, when we had prepared in our community accountability process for a safer place, and perhaps even, a ground for healing? How did things come undone so violently, so quickly?
I had so many questions after those three days in court, and the inquiries—all clip-speed new, unarticulable, unanswerable—left me dangling, bright white, and vulnerable. My head was a wholesome mess of mixed up images and ideas, the most painful thoughts and possibilities that had passed between Sharon and I in the year prior; I had no clear sight of their untangling. I thought of Sharon—this woman I loved so terribly—who had pressed her beautiful, full head of wandering, any-which-way curls into a taut, gelled bun, suited up in white and navy, and tucked away her laughter to present herself before an old white, French male judge who talked to her in sternly accented English for three days. I thought of her presentation—the kind of shape-shifting and respectability performance free Black women nail on first take when they know their kids could be snatched away. Through the glass cracks of the courtroom door, I watched her body upright, barely touching the gnarled oak podium, insisting her spine erect even as she turned left to her attorneys, right to face Chris, hour after hour after hour each day. I wondered, peeking through those glass cracks, how she felt inside, in her hips, her heart, her belly as she faced Chris’ embittered and demeaning attorney who interjected to Sharon’s testimony so often, she seemed to be moving constantly akilter—up, down, leaning to the left– in a body that had been wounded.
At the end of day three, the rage trickled in in such a flood that I thought it was certainly just a reactionary kind—the red red that arrives, for instance, when you have been disrespected in public, shoved by an angry stranger on a hot and crowed bus. I was wrong. A month later, sorting through a 20-page decision from the judge favoring all of Chris’ requests, I knew I had taken in a fresh rage, both peaceable and permanent. One that sticks tight; one that clarifies all things. One that makes ones work “attrapée sur le corps” like water, like skin, like children. Like love.
Here is the question I keep returning to: How will we guide the direction of this vacillating war away from us—those engaged in the continuing work of community accountability–so that we can find a way to live, love, sanely parent? What is safe anyway? And what does “safe enough” look like?
It was the war, I understand now, that we could not predict, that we did not expect in its totality. When a cease and desist letter alleging defamation arrived one afternoon in my mailbox a short time after my meeting with Chris, I was surprised, but hardly unprepared. I am a lawyer, and a few months prior, I had begun researching defamation on behalf of our small, community accountability group and brushing up on local case law precedents given Chris’ semi-public persona. While Chris was well-known in a tiny, much shared community of local activists and scholars that I also knew as well, I had not seen defamation as a deterrent given the integrity I was certain we had exercised in our process, as well as our commitment to refrain from both public naming and speaking with more than a few, close personal friends who knew both Sharon and Chris, but had not known of his past. We lawyered up, did further research, and sent back our response to Chris’ attorney, denying, unreservedly, all his alleged grounds for defamation.
Yet, the custody proceeding was different. It killed something in me I did not know could die. It was maddening…infuriating. Utterly irrational. After the proceeding, I reconciled that the gentleness I had reserved for Chris did not matter. It did not matter that I had not “bad mouthed” him in our shared community. It did not matter that I had shone a badge of pride, outwardly, for the integrity of our community accountability process—for the way that we had spoken about him as if he were present at our table during conversations. It did not matter that I had not named him publicly as the subject of our community accountability process. I understood that, moving forward, any act of integrity would be mine and mine alone, rather than performative or attached to another human being. I knew that strategizing would be a continued, collective effort, but no longer threaded with such concerns for a person in our community who had, indeed, done harm and continued to harm. Integrity, I reckoned, must be a personal project.
I have learned that “integrity”—at least as characterized by silence, non-naming, non-aggression–will not shield me from pain or violation, nor will it protect us collectively. I have, perhaps most importantly, learned that “protection” is an inherently slippery thing in this work. It is a blanket I have had to learn to unbound myself from, especially in my rawest, most desperate personal life moments if I want to do this work as a daily practice. It entails a willingness to be unearthed, to accept the bright white exposure of dangling emotional roots that denote no timely sowing. This has taken such tremendous effort, so much letting go. A willingness to come undone with the faith that I will always be put back together; a willingness, finally, to visit a spiritual death and trust that even at this precipice, I will not fall in, that my children will be okay.
I have also learned that it is crucial—“a duty,” Assata Shakur insists– to name harm when it has been inflicted and for me, to call out the person who commits continuing harm with such malicious intent. This writing, thus, serves as a letter to Chris. This is our, “I see you.” It is also this: “What you have done is unacceptable; we will not shut up; we will continue in this work with love as our guide. We will never back down.”
Written by Rachel Zellars