With the release of Ava Duvernay’s powerful series “When They See Us,” there has been an explosion of reactions to the prosecutorial work of attorney Linda Fairstein and her “investigation” of a rape that occurred in Central Park in 1989. In the few hours since the release of the series, we have seen boycotts of the attorney’s writing, condemnation of her behavior, withdrawals of awards, and significant distancing of officialdom from her actions. While I am grateful for this level of public attention and engagement, I find myself wondering: Why did it take more than 15 years for her to be called to such a public accounting? Why did it take 11 years for New York City to pay out the settlements to the young men who lost years of their life to this injustice?
And for the white people in the room: Why do we continue sleep through the devastating effects of racism until a massive media storm wakes us up for a minute and makes us feel like we should? (NB: at a later date, we will discuss why we continually wait for people of color, in this case the powerfully talented Ava Duvernay, to do the heavy lifting rather than doing our own investigative work to develop our own understanding the role and effects of white supremacy in our communities.)
I want things to be different this time. As our attention has once more been called to the way white supremacy is embedded in every one of our systems and structures, I want to believe that we will deepen our efforts to dismantle it and begin to make reparations for the death-dealing damage that continues to be done to our Black neighbors in the name of public safety. But as I watch the media circus set up tent for this big event – an outrage-driven evisceration – I am disheartened. I’ve seen this too many times before. I believe that for many of us, this outrage will only endure until the media moves on to the next thing and we dutifully follow them to the “safe zone” where getting lathered up over the latest presidential tweet occupies all our energy.
How I wish that this could be more than just a moment – that this would be THE turning point that moves us all from awareness and outrage to life-changing action! If we’re going to do that, we have to begin by saying out loud, every day: “This is not an isolated incident.” Linda Fairstein is not just another icon which prompts indignant 180 degree turns of self-righteous backs. She is not just another opportunity for social media to erupt with condemnation and the inevitable #notall-ness that follows. We have to admit that while it feels good to join in the collective identification and quarantine of her and her work with boycotts and denouncements, there is more to do than simply add her name to the list of notorious white supremacists and move on. It’s time to affirm that for every Linda Fairstein we see onscreen, there are hundreds, even thousands of prosecutors, district attorneys, and attorneys general whose work damages and destroys lives EVERY SINGLE DAY. We cannot allow her to be tokenized. We cannot allow her to become a symbolic, cathartic scapegoat on which white people can dump the sin of racism and send off into the desert with our gratitude. She must serve as a catalyst for us to deepen our efforts to dismantle white supremacy.
The time for this work has long since passed. It is not enough to isolate, censure, and punish individuals for the harm they cause. We must take up the soul-changing, life-saving challenge of identifying racism in ourselves and in the systems we have long trusted. We must dismantle the systems that continue to produce people like that prosecutor. And we must identify, isolate, and destroy the structures within which their work is encouraged and nurtured to full flourishing. Otherwise, all our boycotts and denouncements are pointless. There will be another Linda Fairstein. And another. And another. The time to intervene is now.