A Jury Of Your Peers

Started reading a book yesterday, borrowed from my friend Anastasia, called Detroit: I Do Mind Dying — A Study In Urban Revolution. Remembering that this year’s U.S. Social Forum (with its defensive hodgepodge of Lefty traditions) was hosted in Motor City, I’m especially interested in learning about the particularly radical, revolutionary history of the place.

Just began, so don’t have much to comment on yet, but the history of one legal case struck me something serious.

It’s a retelling — an entire prologue — of the amazing case of James Johnson: a Black auto plant worker who, in the summer of 1970, after being suspended for refusing to cooperate in a work speed-up, shot and killed a Black foreman, a white foreman, and a white job setter on the factory floor.

Remarkably, “the jury found James Johnson not responsible for his actions.”


In part, because of who the people on the jury were.

The preceding year, Ken Cockrel [Johnson’s legal defense], assisted by Justin Ravitz, one of his law partners, had challenged the jury selection which had resulted in an all-white jury for the New Bethel case [in which Black nationalists were accused of shooting two police officers].  Cockrel and Ravitz had argued that, given that the New Bethel case involved racial violence in a city with a black majority, the defendants, who were all black, were being denied a jury of their peers as guaranteed in the constitution.  In the Johnson case, Cockrel, again assisted by Ravitz, argued that the criteria for Johnson’s case involved class as well as color.  The final jury was just what Cockrel wanted.  It was sexually and racially integrated.  Ten of the 12 jurors had direct work experience in the city of Detroit, two were auto workers themselves, and three were married to auto workers. (10)

And in part because of what their experiences enabled them to understand.  Namely, institutional oppression.

The defense’s presentation was complex.  Johnson’s relatives and friends came from Mississippi to testify about his boyhood in one of the backwater regions of America.  They told all the familiar Southland horror tales.  These included an account of how a five-year-old James Johnson had seen the dismembered body of his cousin on a highway following a lynching.  The jury learned that Johnson had enlisted in the Army, only to be discharged for psychological problems.  They learned the details of a work history in which inferior education and racism led from one poor job to another in a pattern characterized by emotional outbursts and threats from both Johnson and various employers.  They learned, too, that Johnson had finally found a steady job at Eldon, where he had worked for three years, supporting members of his family as well as himself.  His attorneys presented evidence that Eldon was one of the most dangerous plants in the United States and that the UAW was unable or unwilling to protect workers on the shop floor.  As a climax to the defense, Cockrel took the entire jury to the scene of the crime so they could judge conditions for themselves.

Amazing, sometimes, the wild divergence between worldviews of oppressed people and the hegemonic narratives with which we are all raised.  And which, to some extent, permeate our interpretations of dhammic principles (i.e. the first precept: avoid killing).

How do we think about individual responsibility and culpability, not to mention self-defense, within a landscape of institutional oppression and continuous assault on working and poor people — which means, by majority, people of color?

According to dominant narratives, institutional(ized) oppression consists of aggregated bad decisions by individual people: imperfections or flaws in an otherwise reasonable system.

Separate but equal?  An invention of The Southern Racists; good thing the Supreme Court finally saw the light and righted lawmakers’ wrongs.

Unsafe working conditions?  Not a matter of large-scale economic, systemic imperatives, but a fault that managers/boards/executives could correct, if they could only be convinced to manifest their true personal “values” through their business practices.  (Encouraged, ideally, by pressure from government watchdogs.)  In the meantime, while progress inches along through the usual channels, individuals cannot and must not take up arms in self-defense against The System.  That’s what filing a complaint is for.

Perhaps, instead, we should take a cue from James Johnson’s peers, and recognize today’s omnipresent institutional violence as equally dangerous, harmful, and urgent as interpersonal violence.

At the end of 1970, the year in which James Johnson had reached his breaking point, the huge Goodyear computer, located where the Chrysler expressway intersects the Ford Expressway, indicated that the car production for the year reached a total of 6,546,817.  In Solidarity House, the international headquarters of the UAW, the research department records showed that injuries in the auto factories that year exceeded 15,000 with an unknown number of deaths.

As Buddhists and practitioners of dharma, how might such a refocusing affect our reflections on interdependence, on the precepts, and on karmic consequences?  I’m guessing it might shift us closer to the interpretation of the second precept (“avoid stealing”) that Thich Nhat Hanh offers in For A Future To Be Possible: Commentaries On The Five Wonderful Precepts, which includes the training:

I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth.

Happily, the emphasis on institutional wrongdoing, on “profiting from human suffering,” seemed to win out at least in this one case.

On May 12, 1973, James Johnson, represented by Ron Glotta, a white lawyer who was a member of the radical Motor City Labor League, was awarded workman’s compensation for the injuries done to him by Chrysler.  The courts ordered Chrysler to pay Johnson at the rate of $75 a week, retroactive to the day of the killing.

2 thoughts on “A Jury Of Your Peers

  1. Liz December 29, 2010 / 8:54 am

    What an excellent, in-depth post. I’m definitely going to check out the book. I need to soak in more history, and someone close to me grew up in Detroit in the early 70s, so I will recommend it to him as well.

    The comparison of car sales to deaths of workers struck me, hard.

    I’m going to add it to my extensive to-read list on GoodReads. Would you recommenced For a Future to Be Possible to someone who knows a minimal amount about religions?

  2. kloncke December 29, 2010 / 10:44 am

    Thanks, Liz! Glad you were feelin’ it, and thanks for stopping by.

    Yeah, numbers can tell a chilling story.

    I haven’t actually read all of For A Future, but Thich Nhat Hanh is a very accessible and wonderful author in general. Doesn’t rely on Buddhist jargon; he explains everything carefully and beautifully — at least from what I know about works of his that are famous in the US. He and Martin Luther King were mutual influences, and nominated each other for the Nobel Peace Prize. So if you can get down with Dr. King you can probably get down with this guy!

    Thanks again, take care, happy reading, and hope to keep seein ya on the cyberwebs!

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