Ageism on Trial
Modern-day America is a bad place to be young. We have an increasing multitude of insulting age-laws confining youth to second-class citizenship: curfew laws, graduated driver's licenses, age-limits on buying nicotine gum?! We also have courts enforcing a double-standard of justice. In the Summer of 1998, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that if an employee is sexually harassed by a co-worker or manager, the employer is legally responsible even if the employer didn't know about it — that same week, the Supreme Court ruled that if a student is sexually harassed by a teacher, the school is not responsible unless the victim can prove school authorities knew about it and took no action.
But more than that, ageism is ingrained in our culture, influencing the minds of nearly everyone, and causing youth to face hostility and unfairness at every turn. This was something my public defender did not understand, at least not at the beginning of our trial. But the prosecutor sure got it, and she used it to full advantage.
At the age of 21, I was on trial for "obstruction of justice" after I interfered with police trying to club a defenseless (and as it turned out, innocent) man.
The jury was not a jury of my peers. Most of the jurors were well over 40. Those younger than 18, of course, were prohibited from even being considered to sit on the jury, tilting the age-balance against me.
During jury selection, some potential jurors admitted that, because of my youth, they could not presume me innocent. "I'm a high school principal," one man announced, "so I know what kids that age are like. If police say he did something wrong, he probably did." (At 21, I was older than high-school-age, but not enough older.) Those who admitted this prejudice were politely excused from the jury. Those who kept quiet about their prejudices were allowed to stay.
In this trial, the prosecutor did not have the facts on her side, nor did she have the law. But she had ageism, and she played it like a pro. For her closing remarks to the jury, she pointed at me and started with the words "This young man...", emphasizing my age, reminding the jury I was not one of them, I was not entitled to the same consideration and fairness they would demand for themselves. Later she told the jurors, "What we have here is a young man who has just been watching too much TV." My TV-viewing habits had never come up in the trial. They had nothing to do with the facts. She threw this in because it is an ageist stereotype, another reminder to the middle-aged jurors that I wasn't one of them. Were she trying someone black before a jury of twelve whites, she might have said, "What we have here is a black man who has just been eating too many watermelons."
Ironically, the prosecutor was counting on the jury's TV-viewing to deliver the verdict that would help her conviction-rating.
The jurors had heard two stories in this trial and had to choose one to believe. From the prosecutor, the story was of police engaged in a routine arrest when they found a youth standing too close for safety. They politely asked him to move back a few steps, and — for no reason — the kid stubbornly refused to get out of their way, leaving the officers no choice but to arrest him.
This story would make little sense in real life. But on TV and in movies and in novels, this scenario is acted out all the time: evil, unreasonable kids refuse to cooperate, just to make life difficult for blameless adults.
From the defense, jurors heard another story. White cops were threatening to club a defenseless black man. When they saw a bystander several feet away, they ordered him to move several feet further (to the other side of a view-obstructing bus shelter) so they wouldn't have to worry about heroes or even good witnesses. The conscientious youth swallowed his fear and politely said no, hence his arrest.
The jurors never saw anything like that on TV. Pop-culture portrays youths as predators, not as good Samaritans.
I should point out the key element of this story was never contradicted by evidence or testimony. The police who testified never denied they had brandished a weapon and threatened a defenseless man. They simply glossed over it. My public defender did not ask them about it because he assumed they would lie, and he did not want their denial on record. The prosecutor, also, chose not to ask them about it while they were under oath.
Though my story was not contradicted by evidence, it was contradicted by popular stereotypes. On sit-coms and dramas, young people are base and self-centered. In movies and in mystery novels, we routinely see young people raping women, beating the elderly, and terrorizing innocent adults everywhere.
The news media bolster that stereotype. They give wider coverage to crimes committed by youth, and they emphasize the ages of young criminals while they bury the ages of older criminals. The effect of this has been documented. A 1994 Gallup Poll asked respondents to estimate the percentage of violent crime that is committed by teenagers. The real number was 13%. Yet two-thirds of respondents mistakenly guessed the number would be more than twice that. And one-fourth of respondents believed teenagers alone commit more than half of all violent crimes! As Gallup Poll Monthly concluded, "because of recent news coverage of violent crimes committed by juveniles, the public has a greatly inflated view of the amount of violent crime committed by persons under the age of 18."
Politicians pander to the misguided and reinforce their stereotypes. President Clinton has been known to rant about "13-year-olds with automatic weapons" without ever mentioning that the average American is twice as likely to be murdered by someone born the same year as Bill Clinton as to be killed by a 13-year-old. Clinton has never said a word about 20-year-olds conscientiously defying punk-cops.
So my jurors took all they had heard from the media, from our political leaders, and from the entertainment industry, and weighed that against what little they had heard in court. They returned a verdict of "guilty."
Afterward, the prosecutor asked for off-the-record feedback from jurors. One juror complained the prosecutor had not made her case clear enough and had left the jury unsure of how my alleged actions violated the law. This juror did not seem to worry that she had just convicted an innocent person; she was simply upset the prosecutor had given her too little ammunition to use in the jury room against that one pesky black juror who spent several hours arguing for "not guilty" before caving in to the crowd.
This experience wounded whatever faith I had left in "the system." Frankly, I was surprised I had any faith left. Events like this are all too common. That high school principal who assumed I was guilty before the trial even started was typical of every principal I ever faced at every school I ever attended, and of principals and other adults throughout our nation. In her book Schoolgirls, Peggy Orinstien got one high school principal to admit on the record that, in dealing with a dispute between a student and a teacher, he would never take the student's side no matter what the details.
Our whole society seethes with hatred for the young. I can count a hundred movies I've seen where an adult hits a child or teenager and the youth simply accepts it rather than hitting back or pressing charges. I haven't seen one movie showing the reverse. Rapists who prey on children are cheered-on by porno mags (Barely Legal), rock stars (Queen, George Michael, Sonic Youth, The Cherry-Popping Daddies), and novelists (Joseph Hanson, Vladimir Nabokov). In supposedly Christian churches, preachers impress upon their followers that children are to be viewed as property of their parents who deserve physical punishment if they disobey. (Ironically, the Bible quotes Jesus many times suggesting it is a sin to subjugate yourself to your parents (1), so clergymen are putting bigotry above their own Bible.)
My public defender juggled a few other cases at the same time as mine. One was a child-abuse case. They had caught the man when his daughter wound up in a hospital after being thrown down a flight of stairs. The same District Attorney's Office that prosecuted me dropped the charges against this man. They claimed the stitches in the little girl's face didn't constitute enough evidence for a trial. Like other politicians, D.A.'s are tough on crime when the perpetrators are young, but soft on crime when the victims are.