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The Ira Glass Infatuation Post/ This American Life Roundup: DIY

Act 1: I saw what happened.

Anya Bourg reports a moving tale of individual versus system in this classic TAL episode, DIY.

We are introduced to makeshift investigator Carl King of Crown Heights, a regular J.J. Gittes who goes where the law will not, working on behalf of individuals smashed down by law. He spends 20 years trying to get his childhood friend Collin Warner out of jail after being wrongfully accused of murder in 1980. It seems like a clear-cut system vs. individual scenario–but perhaps it is a lack of checks and balances on different parts of the machine. One faulty cog in this shitstorm is the young, eager-to-be-liked Thomas Charlamain, probably sporting a Scarface jacket. He makes the story from his imagination real with the kind help of a Bushwick detective who applies duress so he would pick a random dude out of a line up. But don’t you feel bad for a guy so hard up to be accepted that he does a bit as star witness? Bad cop’s circular logic is the scratch on the Minute2WinIt lotto card that scores Warren a conviction at random. Rastafarian teenager is Kafkaed into a jail cell: “This just happened out of the blue. One day I was free and the next I was locked up.” All of Flatbush knew the Trinia was innocent but the higher ups would have none of it. “You know this guy Norman told me he was going to murder my brother,” says Martel Hamilton. I swear it’s Twilight Zone staged by Brooklyn’s finest. The interrogations, the arrests, the jury, the clear as day evidence yet the dumb as dirt jurors, all mise-en-scene for our upside down set where the fate of the innocent is in the hands of the guilty. Martin Luther King Jr. put it nicely: “Justice denied anywhere diminishes justice everywhere.” Thanks, Brooklyn.

Relating what we’ve learned to the real world, we find a case stranger than fiction in which another Brooklynite, juggling cyclist Kyle Peterson (aka the Cyclones’ 7th inning stretch entertainment) had to sit shiva for his innocence twice since 2007 for riding his unicycle, technically still making him a pedestrian, on the sidewalk. Last week the case was overturned, and he is currently suing the NYPD for $3mill to teach em a lesson. In conversation with Jewcy, we had a little Q&A:

Jewcy: When you were fucked by the BK cops, did you feel any sense of justice was on your side? Do you feel like you, the individual, have a fair chance against the system?

KP: In my case, I think that as far as having a chance, that’s not so much the problem. The problems are the times I’ve needed the police and called them, and they didn’t want to come…They are willing to be unhelpful, and that creates a lot of friction between themselves and the community. People especially in Brooklyn and Crown Heights don’t seem to have much respect for the police. If they got on the side of the people they’re serving, their jobs would be a hell of a lot easier.

At the point in Collin Warner’s case where he was giving testimony before a jury deciding his fate, “people were laughing; police were placing bets.” Even more deranged is the relationship of the innocent to a system that finds him to be guilty. “The rules don’t apply to me because I’m innocent,” he said, sound philosiphizing that Madoff’s lawyer was rumored to give to a client. But it doesn’t work out so well for Warner, prolonging his imprisonment due to his lack of admission of guilt (which Bourg rightly points out, would be lying). where he too found that

It calls forth that cliche 2010 fallback of literati, the Soviet suffering experience. But it was not merely a fad: Siberia in the 80s for a Jew was equal to a Brooklyn penitentiary for a black man–chances are primed that justice will land you in those hellholes indefinitely. Yuri Tarnopolsky (who wrote Memoirs of 1984 upon immigrating after years as a refusenik activist that put him in Siberia) gave us some insight on his views of the relationship he had as an individual in the Soviet justice system.

YT: Ultimately, the only group of people in the world who could help end the refusal and protect the activists were the American Jews. There were no two opinions about that. I felt that I had to do something in order to give them some information about what the refusal meant for us and how it crippled our lives. By 1982 it became clear that Andropov was changing the course regarding all dissidents of any kind, as well as the refusenik activists, from tolerance to terror. One in our group (Alexander Paritsky) was arrested and got 3 years, by the way, in one of the worst labor camps. I later learned about that camp from some inmates who had terrifying memories. I asked my wife if she could hold out in case I was arrested. I told her that I was about to do something suicidal. She said yes.  I wrote a detailed description in English of what refusal meant for us, went to Moscow, openly called an American correspondent and met him, without hiding, in his car in Pushkin Square. He agreed to take my “Description of Disease,” as I called it. He asked me why I was doing it. I said that I had no choice. I was arrested on March 15, 1983. I never said a word to the “investigators” or at the “trial” and signed no papers (except one insignificant paper by the end of my term). I had no defense against my fate. I had two imperatives: “I have to do something” and “If Paritsky can survive, I will too.”

What did I have? As other people in a similar situation, against all odds, from polar explorers to Nelson Mandela, I had hope. But I had something else. I believed in American Jews and they were a powerful force.   So, it was not just “individual versus the system.”  It was “individual versus the system” plus American Jews versus the system. American scientists also played an important role and we have to thank Ronald Reagan, who ironically, later started the Cold Civil War against liberals.

Act 2: We was still kids.

This last remark of Tarnopolsky’s in which he finds that citizens on the free side of the wall were the true holders of justice leads to Act 2 in Brooklyn. Remember Carl King? He spends two decades with Collin in the back of his mind, and eventually gets his resources together to magnetize the brother of the victim and even the man who got away with murder to the side of ethicality, with the help of a housing lawyer working out of his kitchen. Warner is a free man after 21 years. In the end, this somewhat organic drive outside of the judicial branch toward justice holds the most gruff. Like a unicyclist with a lawsuit or a refusenik with American ties, it is like what  where somehow a system organically exists and moves toward justice.  it’s the reason Wikipedia inexplicably works and atheists are still mensches. That even beyond a system, individuals do good work. Galileo gets the last word, for once: “In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.” If only both weren’t undervalued in this economy.

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