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In Other News There Is No Tooth Fairy

January 18, 2013

I am saddened, on multiple levels, watching my middle class, Caucasian friends suddenly figure out that the justice system is broken because of the suicide of Aaron Swartz.

I’ve had more than a few exchanges lately, that have gone something like this:

“OMG have you heard about Aaron Swartz?”


“It’s so shocking and outrageous!”

“Um…if you say so.”

“You’re not shocked or outraged?”

“Not really. No.”

“But witch hunt/unfair influence of MIT/information must be free/young rebellious genius lost to the world!”

“Aw. You thought the justice system was actually impartial, didn’t you? Bless.”


As the child of a parent who committed suicide I have views on that particular act and am both less sympathetic than others may be and less likely to blame the prosecutors or the school or anyone other than Aaron Swartz. He committed a crime by downloading 4.8 million academic journals from JSTOR by sneaking into a network closet at MIT, tapping into said network and illegally downloading millions of articles that he believed were or should be free.

He knew he wasn’t supposed to be downloading those articles and he did so anyway. He made a choice.

OK, well, that’s civil disobedience. There is much debate as to whether, in the course of such a protest, oneshould defend oneself against the charge or simply pay a fine and/or take one’s punishment. However, at no point in all of my activist training was there any section titled “Duck The Consequences.” I will agree that both the prosecutors and the school pushed for a sentence that was, by any rational standard, draconian but Swartz knew that was a danger when he started. If he wasn’t willing to take the consequences, whatever they turned out to be, then he should not have started sneaking into closets and illegally downloading articles.

I do feel badly for his family and others who cared for and admired him. So that is one level on which I am sad.

Watching people discover that the this justice system which, they have always believed is fair and, you know, just, is neither of those things. It’s had to find out that actual justice doesn’t matter nearly as much as the personal and professional reputation of the prosecutor and the whims of public opinion and political pressure.

Finally it saddens me that this is news to anyone. Right now, this second, there is a man awaiting death in six weeks for a crime of which he may be innocent. No one is entirely sure, since the DNA evidence hasn’t been tested. Why hasn’t it been tested? The state of Texas doesn’t feel like testing it. They could. They just don’t want to.

This case is just one of the many that could be reexamined, but likely won’t be.

Prosecutorial discretion is what keeps rape cases out of courtrooms. It’s what puts Marissa Alexander in jail for 20 years for not shooting a man who was attacking her.

This shit happens all the time. If you’re not a well off, white genius, it’s a lot more likely to happen. So yeah, the justice system does not function fairly and is rather arbitrary in terms of who is prosecuted for what. Yes, it saddens me that this crime is the one that matters enough to many of my friends to draw their attention to the huge issues that our justice system travails under.

What will sadden me the most is if those same friends fail to learn enough from this one case to care about all the other innocent people who are being hounded into jail and sometimes death via overzealous prosecution.

If you don’t use this new knowledge to affect change then you’re just blowing hot air.




2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 18, 2013 4:30 AM

    I feel bad that the young man felt he had to end his life. I don’t feel like his crime should go unpunished, but I do think they were harsh with the threat of 30 years. I think the system is broken when a murder, rapist, kidnapper can and often does less time etc etc. But, I think the young man was battling depression and other health issues that all combined contributed to his death. So sad for those who loved him as you wrote, and sad for us as who knows what his brilliance could have done in the future. So outrageous that they won’t test DNA for the mentioned man. It is not like they can say later “Oops”…Oh yeah, they can.

  2. January 18, 2013 4:48 AM

    I used to be a “do-the-crime, do-the-time” kinda gal, but then I began volunteering at a federal prison. My service was twofold: I took (and still take) an AA meeting inside, and I used to teach a pencil drawing class. That class opened my eyes, as I got to talk with women (it’s a female facility) one-on-one. The justice system in the U.S. could not BE more broken. First-time non-violent offenders should not be serving multiple-year sentences. Drug laws are changing, but not quickly enough to save thousands of families who have been torn apart. And yes, people of color are singled out, targeted, prosecuted and sentenced in numbers far greater than whites, who are able to afford better lawyers and who, frankly, are simply looked at differently by cops, lawyers and judges alike. But I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.

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