Last summer, as my brother and I were driving a UHaul with all my stuff from Austin to Chicago, an Illinois state trooper pulled us over. I was moving from Austin, where I was in grad school, to Chicago to start my job on the Obama campaign. We had just pulled out of our hotel outside Bloomington, it was first thing in the morning. I wanted to make it to Chicago by lunchtime. The state trooper was parked in the highway median a mile or two after we got on the road. I didn’t think much of it since I didn’t think we could possibly be speeding (the speed limit was 65 and anyone who’s driven a fully-packed UHaul knows it’s hard to go faster than about 70, especially when you’ve just gotten going). The trooper pulled out into traffic and was behind us a for a few minutes. I still didn’t think anything of it. Then he did something strange—he pulled up in the left lane right next to the truck, peered in to look at my brother, who was driving, and then pulled back into traffic behind us. About two minutes later, he turned his lights on and pulled us over.
He wouldn’t tell us why he pulled us over, but he asked my brother to come back to the patrol car with him. My brother went, and I was scared. I took a picture of the cop car and posted it to Twitter just in case I needed my social media army to come to the rescue. About ten minutes later, the trooper came up to my window and, after asking for my ID and a bunch of other documents, said “I thought I smelled marijuana in the truck, am I wrong?”
He let us go, after I informed him he was very wrong about the marijuana. My brother downplayed it but I was furious. Clearly he had looked in to see who was driving the truck and decided us bi-racial kids were the type who fit the drug-smuggler profile. According to my brother, this had happened to him many times before. I didn’t know that. He’d never mentioned it.
I was reminded of this story in the aftermath of Aaron Swartz’s death (which I wrote about here). Much of the immediate reaction has focused on how unfair Aaron’s prosecution was. I agree. But the calls for action have focused on reforming cybercrime law. Which is great and noble, but I can’t help but wonder why people recognize the unfairness of Aaron’s prosecution not as a flaw in cybercrime legislation but as a flaw in the justice system as a whole? Prosecutors treat people unfairly every day, by the thousands. Proposed sentences are ridiculously out of line with alleged crimes. People who can’t afford bail rot in jail for months awaiting trial, and often get shitty legal representation. Prosecutors are gleeful about ruining people’s lives. And that doesn’t even touch on corruption and abuse during the arrest and questioning process, or police harassment like my brother and I endured.
Bryan Stevenson, the Founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, gave a searing TED talk last year. He received the longest standing ovation of the conference and raised over a million dollars from the TED community in the days after the talk. At the time, TED committed to making criminal justice reform part of its TEDxCity2.0 program. It’s not clear from the website that that action happened.
Bryan Stevenson’s subtle challenge to the TED audience, to have empathy for those who are the victims of injustice in our legal system, resonates now as we think about how to take action in the wake of Aaron’s death. Aaron’s prosecution was not really about unfair cybercrime laws, it was about an unfair justice system. One that ruins lives constantly. From what I know of Aaron’s work he was a geek with overwhelming empathy. He recognized the need to spread the benefits of democratizing technology beyond members of the tech elite. Might it be a more fitting tribute if Aaron’s Law addressed broken sentencing rules for all crimes, not just cybercrime? Do we, in the tech community, have the ability to make our advocacy not just about issues specific to the platform but about making the platform available to address issues of inequality and injustice for everyone affected by it?