Civic Engagement, It’s a Team Sport

I’ve read a lot of articles about how, because of out-of-control capitalism, corporate influence,, we have become a nation of consumers rather than citizens. I see examples of this all around me in the media and even in my daily life, I’m sure you’ve seen it too: people who focus their energies and lives on acquiring the newest, hottest thing to buy; people who slavishly follow trends; people who sink deeply into debt in order to acquire the “right” things; and people who are willing to buy knock-offs of the “right” things even if said knock-offs are made with methods that poison the environment or exploit child labor, etc. (And, of course, often we don’t even have the option to choose things made ethically and sustainably. Isn’t that fucked up?) It’s tremendously difficult to resist the brainwashing we’re bombarded with to buy buy buy! If you wear this, you’ll be loved! If you flaunt this, you’ll be respected! If you have this, you’ll be successful (or at least make people think you are, which is all that really matters, right?)! We focus on convenience to the exclusion of quality and safety, and even to the exclusion of our own financial common sense (like routinely buying single-use paper napkins instead of cloth napkins that can be reused for literally years). You know, heaven forbid we should have to cook something or wash something.

I’ve fallen prey to this sort of brainwashing myself; I don’t think any of us are immune and it’s SO pervasive that rejecting it often spurs judgement from others about being some sort of crazy hippie (I may be that, but it’s only partially related…) or even being un-American. It’s ludicrous, but influential, all the same. (I’m not going to delve into body image and the self-hatred most women and girls end up feeling about themselves related to their appearance because, though I don’t think it’s completely separate, I think there are even deeper and more complex issues of fear and domination that play out in those situations. That’s a whole other post. Or many.)

Anyway, we, as consumers, forget what it means to be citizens. It’s the modern form of bread and circuses where we’re so distracted by our pursuit of material status that we don’t have the time or inclination to question the bigger issues in the nation and the world. Our pursuit of things becomes the driving force in our decision making and as long as we get to have our things, we are largely apathetic about much of anything else. Also, we become defined by our things and we judge and define others based on their things and/or their ability to get things, their choices of things, and all that. We emphasize material competition rather than common fundamental truths and beliefs, like the desire for love and security, food and healthcare, personal freedom. No?


The upshot of this is, I got called to jury duty this week. (I can hear your groans from here!) I’ve gotten a couple of summons before where I didn’t have to actually report, and I’ve had to physically report one other time but I just sat in the waiting room for a day and was released. This time I had to report and I even got called into a courtroom to begin the jury selection process. As Eddie Izzard might say, it was exciting, in a very boring and tedious way. I sat in the “audience” (that’s what they called us, a term I found peculiar given the context) as other potential jurors were called into the jury box to begin the interviewing process. Names are drawn at random from the list of potentials in the audience and, as people are eliminated, more are called up and interviewed until 12 jurors and 2 alternates are selected. This process took about two and a half days; as you might imagine, there was a raft of complaints and much muttering and bewailing (albeit not directly in front of the judge. Mostly).

It was inconvenient, to be sure. There are many commitments and tasks I had this week that were not met or accomplished because I was sitting in that courtroom hour upon hour, never being called upon at all. But in addition to the tedium and inconvenience, it was rather enlightening. For one thing, I got to see, in real life, the judicial process, or part of it. I am someone who loves mysteries, crime dramas, shows with gruesome forensics, and the like. I don’t watch every courtroom or police drama or read every murder mystery, but I definitely enjoy those sorts of things generally, so it was fascinating to see something of the real deal. I mean, I was called in to a courthouse that solely handles criminal misdemeanors so there wouldn’t be a murder trial in my near future, but I learned a lot about the overall process. One of the most significant things I learned was about the decency of average people. That is to say, I was heartened by these people, my “peers,” and their commitment to doing what they were charged to do with willingness and integrity. I was struck by the diversity of their stories, moved by several of them, as they were revealed during the interview process. I, and everyone in the pool of potential jurors, was amused (?) by the fact that nearly every single person had the experience of having their car broken into. A comment on modern society, sure, but also a common thread in our humanity. Of the jurors who were excused because they were perhaps unable to be impartial, only one was because he was an overt bigot. The others were largely uncomfortable passing judgement on another human being and concerned about the consequences their decision might have on the defendant’s life. What if they were wrong? Could they make that call? For some, the answer was no. One woman who was eliminated was a devout Catholic. She had worked in the ministry and currently worked in public church outreach with socially and economically disadvantaged individuals. Now, she and I undoubtedly have extremely opposing views about important subjects, however I could identify with her compassion and sense of commitment to the greater good. Because of her work she felt she would be unable to impartially pass judgement on the defendant even if the DA proved his case beyond a reasonable doubt because of what she knew the fallout of incarceration could be. The jury is instructed not to speculate or consider punishment in its deliberation of the case, but this woman knew she couldn’t separate her personal experiences and sympathies from her potential decision about the guilt or innocence of the defendant, and she owned up to it. An ethical and honorable decision which I appreciated.

There were so many stories, so many histories that these peers of mine shared, mostly with complete frankness. One woman had two sons get shot and survive and two nieces and an uncle murdered, yet she retained a seeming sense of peace about the ebb and flow of life. One man had been driving on the freeway while his friend in the passenger seat was randomly shot and killed in an incident of road rage (or something); another man had been held hostage during a bank robbery, dragged into a getaway car and involved in the crash of said car before escaping unharmed (physically, anyway). There were doctors, lawyers, an astrophysicist, an engineer, a film producer, and a bank clerk, a supermarket cake decorator, a student, an artist, a Classics instructor, a mechanic. One guy was kind of a jerk, but not a bad person. Another guy was a rabid racist (and a teacher in the Hayward school district. Yeesh!), but he was most definitely the exception in the group; after the few of us who were excused at the very end were heading down in the elevator, everyone commented on how appalling it was that this guy was such a bigot.
I know, I know, I live in the Bay Area and folks here are widely known (infamous?) for being extremely left-leaning and radically liberal, but all of us prospective jurors were extremely diverse, with massively varied backgrounds, ethnicities, education levels, and experiences. Yet, virtually everyone impressed me as a thoughtful, decent person, despite our natural and enculturated differences.


I became powerfully aware of how important this all is. That is, civic duty and citizenship. How none of this works unless we all willingly do our part. Many people (including many I know) vehemently resent being called to jury duty and will do almost anything to get out of it, and I understand the reluctance and frustration because it can be ridiculously inconvenient, but I also know most of those people probably also want a fair and speedy justice system. How can we make it work better if we resent participating? How can we change something we don’t truly understand in its intricacies? How can we expect our country to work if we don’t each serve on jury duty at least once, work an election at least once, and vote every single time? I know the system is broken. I know things need to change. A lot. I also know that I can make a difference if I do my part, if we all just do our part. Maybe you and I can help to ensure justice is truly served. Maybe you and I can make this thing work better, just by heeding the call to serve. It’s not really so much to ask.

So next time you get that dreaded summons in the mail, won’t you please consider looking at it differently? Consider how important you are to making this whole thing work. Consider engaging as a citizen on a very large team, rather than begrudging the inconvenience. The country needs you. We all need you. For real.


“Let everyone sweep in front of his own door, and the whole world will be clean.” – Goethe

One thought on “Civic Engagement, It’s a Team Sport

  1. Beautiful! Moving. I confess I don’t know if it’s possible to move me enough so that I’ll ever show up for jury duty, but now I’m actually rethinking that decision (damn you!).

    Love the Goethe quote too.


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