Grit in the Face of Injustice

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Willie Santana
Assistant Public Defender for the Third District

Anyone who has sat through any of Buck Lewis’ lectures on leadership will relate to the word “grit.”  He defines “grit” as a combination of passion and perseverance.  In fact, grit is how people not only survive but thrive in difficult situations.

Grit changes paradigms.  Grit changes the world—not only because it allows individuals the passion to be bold and courageous, but because it allows individuals to be patient, persistent, and resolute.  Making difficult change requires both passion and perseverance—it requires grit.

I recently started reading Ordinary Injustice by Amy Bach.  In this book, she says“[o]rdinary injustice results when a community of legal professionals becomes so accustomed to a pattern of lapses that they can no longer see their role in them.”  That line from the introductory chapter of the book captivated me. Respect for the rule of law is one of the defining concepts of the American way of life, and I hold this notion as one of my core values; it is fundamental to who we are as a people.

In my relatively short legal career, I have had the privilege to serve as a prosecutor and as a public defender.  Both jobs are the best jobs I have ever had. When I was a prosecutor, I loved my job,because I love the law and enjoy seeking justice. Indeed, the prosecutor’s role is special.  Their job is not to win the case but to seek justice. Currently,as a public defender, I love my job,because I love the law and enjoy seeking justice.  And if the rule of law means anything, it means that it is not just citizens who must follow the law—the government must as well.  Specifically, public defenders (and criminal defense lawyers more generally) hold the government accountable.

Those ideals are easy to articulate, but what does one do when the government does not follow the law?  Or even worse, when the violations of the law are “a pattern of lapses” that erode the basic foundations of the justice system in such incremental and insidious ways that it is hard to pinpoint how and where it all went wrong?  What does one do when your caseload is so large that it is a lot easier to just trudge through the trenches than to worry about the systemic issues?  Or when it becomes overwhelming to think about tackling wider issues and your clients’individual cases simultaneously?

Challenging a system that has warped gradually over time requires not only so many resources, but so much work, energy, effort, and patience that the easy answer to those questions is “nothing.” However, leaders must resist the push to do nothing.

Challenging such a system requires grit, which means it first requires a willingness to be bold and courageous.  The most dangerous sentence in the English language is “we’ve always done it this way.”  This sentence is dangerous on two levels. First, it can be used as a shield for the status quo. The status quo makes us complacent because it is comfortable and easy.  We’re often caught thinking if it has always been this way, then there must be a reason for it.  Or, if others are okay with things “this way” then we should be too.  Secondly, it can be used as a sword by defenders of “the way.”  “This way” works; it works for everyone else and it has worked for years. Who are you to say that it must change?  “This way” is “our” way and if you want to be one of “us” then you must conform.  Resistance to “this way” can be challenging, because nobody wants to be the “other.”  To withstand the sword and shield of “we’ve always done it this way” requires boldness and courage.

Courage is important, but so is patience and persistence.  Change is hard; change is slow. As Nelson Mandela put it, “[change]seems impossible until it’s done.”  The truth is that systems that result in “ordinary injustice” were not created overnight.  It is also true that “ordinary injustice” was never the goal of these systems.  In the same vein, the people currently participating in these systems are not shadowy conspirators seeking to impose injustice.  Indeed, the reasons behind insidious erosions to the rule of law, the presumption of innocence, and the rehabilitative function of the law happened gradually over time for innocent reasons. Reasons such as the need to better manage court dockets; to more efficiently use the resources of the taxpayers; or to save on court costs, time, and resources that are already restricted by budgetary constraints.

Because these changes happened gradually over time, walking these changes back will also happen gradually over time.  Change to these systems will require careful strategic planning and the patience to carry out that plan.  It will require employing multiple strategies: practical, legal, and political.  Change will require recognizing where the biggest impact can be made, while simultaneously balancing the risks to the people hurt by the system—your current and future clients.  It will not only require the patience to challenge small practices and to build a record to tackle larger issues, but it will require a willingness to collaborate with internal and external players whose resources, timelines, and approaches may differ from yours.  In a few short words, it will require patience and perseverance.

A review of Ordinary Injusticecontains another line that has stuck with me:“[the criminal justice system has embraced]an assembly-line approach that. . . puts the interests of the system above the obligation to the people.”  Simply, an “assembly-line” approach to justice is injustice.  The victims and witnesses of crimes, the criminally accused, and the convicted are all people.  People with complex lives, with mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters. They are the product of their choices and their environment—they are us. The only way we can treat their lives as sprockets in an assembly line is if we cease to see them as people.  And we do. We have developed a wealth of apathy and a dearth of empathy.

Can we overcome these problems?  I think the answer is yes, we can. But challenging this ordinary injustice will require us to substitute our wealth of apathy and dearth of empathy for a wealth of both leadership and grit.

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