Like many others, when I learned about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the word I most associated with him was, and is, justice. Among the countless ways we can conceptualize justice, my mind has lately understood it as: “What was supposed to happen did happen.” In this understanding, justice isn’t subjective; it’s based on truth, given the luxury that we know it and someone will listen to it.
This phrase sounds familiar; it’s the future tense of the spiritual cliché “Everything happens for a reason,” which gives us comfort in our more bearable pain, yet can seem too passive—if not blasphemous—in the face of tragedy or disaster. On this blog we’ve spoken about the productive ways we can question our own worldview and how the questioning can make our commitment stronger.
So here’s what I want to know:
Is pain really “meant to be?”
Am I supposed to be comforted by the fact that the universe knows pain is happening—perhaps even orchestrating it—despite the fact that many people down here in the sandbox are living a really shitty existence?
How do I make peace with the fact that we’re all on our individual journeys to truth, yet the systems in which we live often reject the principle of truth?
On the way to my New Year’s plans in the Pocono Mountains, an 18-wheel truck sideswiped the passenger side of my car when attempting to change lanes on a highway. My body was unharmed, but my car lost its passenger side mirror and endured tire marks and scrapes throughout the car, leaving the passenger side doors inoperable.
Here’s a summary of what happened over the next two hours:
- The truck driver tried to speed away. I took photos of the plate, business name, and driver, and when I signaled to get off at the next exit, the driver didn’t follow.
- The truck driver called in the accident and claimed I hit him. I’m sure he followed trucker protocol for when you know you’re screwed. The police station used a highway exit camera to see where I exited and saw me parked one street off the exit.
- I expected the cop to ask if I was harmed and to ask what happened, but instead he immediately began screaming at me, accused me of (a) a hit and run; (b) hiding from the cops; (c) being under the influence; (d) driving while on my laptop; (e) driving while on my phone, based on the fact that my phone and laptop were on the passenger’s seat of my safely parked car—off the highway—so I could record claim information for my car insurance.
- The cop yelled. Yelled, yelled, yelled, yelled. So much irrational yelling. There was no reason for him to personally be mad at me. He repeatedly asked if I wanted to “amend my version of the truth” after I respectfully assured him I was the victim. He interpreted my insistence of truth as my insistence that he was a liar. (He didn’t see the accident, nor were there highway cameras to capture it.)
- He issued me an illegible, hand-written citation on notebook paper (??) and told me that I was clearly at fault. I kept using “sir” and other polite words, despite my choking back tears and trying to control my shaky hands, because of how fucking scared I was of this tall, white cop with a gun.
As it often happens, the victim became the culprit in the blink of an eye. I’ll never forget feeling of shame of being so kind to the man who was destroying my spirit. I’ll never forget how I actually thanked him after he gave me the citation, just to make sure I could safely leave. I’ll never forget how I drove the remaining three hours to the mountains truly feeling guilty; He made me feel guilty. I became suspicious of myself, despite knowing in my rational mind that I didn’t do anything wrong, despite knowing I dealt with an unstable man who could not see reason. I thought about how worse it could (would) have been if I was a person of color. I wondered what he hated so much about me: Was it my Duke sweatshirt? My Apple products? My Florida license plate? My gay voice? My Spanish name?
The self-advocate and activist in me promised myself I wouldn’t plead guilty to this citation. I would fly back to Pennsylvania whenever I my court date was. I would deliver a breathtaking police-abuse-of-power manifesto that I—and many of us—have recited in our minds for quite some time. I would proudly use my annual leave days for court days to demonstrate that justice matters more than convenience. I would take a mental photo of the cop when the judge scorches his ass and affirms the obvious truth that he did, in fact, monumentally fuck up.
But the system had different plans. My uncle, a lawyer in Pennsylvania, reviewed my citations and told me that according to Pennsylvania law, a cop could reschedule or not attend a court date without notice or consequence. If the cop really wanted to delay the inevitable, he could defer his attendance—costing me hundreds—potentially thousands—of dollars in plane tickets and rental cars, not to mention multiple work absences, amplified physical and mental exhaustion—just for me to possibly be found guilty and have to pay the citations regardless.
So I broke my own pact with myself: I paid nearly $300 in citations (all my savings), pled guilty to reckless driving, and watched my car insurance spike. My car is still missing a mirror. My passenger side looks as if I took the world’s biggest paintbrush and smeared the doors with black and blue paint. I could be pulled over at any time based on suspicion alone, and it’s possible that even the money awarded to me from my car insurance’s damage appraisal will not be enough to cover repairs.
To ease the burden of my own guilt, I think about the cop a lot. I think about the childhood, adolescence, and adult years that socialized him into someone so angry. I think about how his gross display of anger and disgust towards me could have been an attempt to heal whatever or whoever hurt him—and how it, indeed, did not. I think about the rabid look in his eyes and wonder if he’s afraid of those same eyes when he sees his reflection. I wonder if he considers himself a person who is wounded and if he will let himself admit the pain. I wonder if he’ll ever take ownership for the way he’s perpetuated that pain—even if only to himself as he’s buttoning his uniform one morning.
It’s likely I’ll never learn answers to those curiosities, so I’m left with what I do know, which is my own understanding of this story:
- The truth of what happened was not enough to guarantee justice. What should have happened in response to the incident is not what happened.
- The systems in place (in this case, PA court policy) have the ability to—and successfully did—prevent justice. The “appeal process” is nothing more than a wolf in sheep’s clothing, offering a cheap option to the vulnerable that will rarely come to fruition.
- My decision to humor the system by pleading guilty to a crime I didn’t commit is different from acquiescing to the system. In my values system, a personal sense of peace trumps the need to “be right.” Still, I smirked as I made my payment, realizing a new trajectory for me to unapologetically say more, do more, question more.
- What the cop did to me (and undoubtedly many others) will return to him tenfold via karma. I don’t wish him suffering, but I do believe we’re held responsible for the negative energy we pump into the world. This belief makes me think justice is a personal experience rather than a systemic one—a journey of accountability that fills our metaphorical stockings with fine treasures or dark coal, for this lifetime or many.
- This incident did happen for a reason. Did I need to gain personal experience with a police officer who abused his power? Did I need to examine the role of power in my personal and professional lives? Am I answering to my own karma of power abuse in past lifetimes? Only time and continued reflection will tell.
Dr. King’s work tells us that justice is neither easy nor guaranteed. Just as the cop and I were certain that our respective truths were the truth, the cop’s truth outranked mine, as we live in a world that defers to power and privilege when resolving competing truths. I aspire to create, live, and thrive in a world in which truth matters more than power. I want consequences beyond karma. I want men with badges to know they’re capable of making people feel scared. I want to know I can be safe in the absence of truth.