The best of America. It flowed out of the mouth of some twenty something hipster in a carefully chosen torn red t-shirt as he mounted the steps to get a closer look at the Mt. Rushmore Monument in the Black Hills. As soon as I heard it, I thought to myself, what the hell does that even mean?
As I walked under all of the United States state flags following this guy, I tried to answer the question for myself, the best of America. Physical feats? Engineering feats? Military conquests? After all, we can kick the shit out of anybody. Well, most people, excluding Afghanistan and Vietnam but let's ignore those guys for a second, shall we? Ain't that enough? Look what we can accomplish. Then following this logic, I started thinking about Americans in general and what the best Americans look like.
I stepped up to the railing and looked up at Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln staring out over the landscape. While I've seen it before, it's still strange because we seem to use this iconic image to sell America as the greatest country on the face of the planet. As I looked up, and thought to myself, in my ridiculous rhetorical fashion, so these are the best that America has to offer? I can't really deny their various accomplishments although revisionist historians have certainly had to reconsider whether what these guys did was as masterful as we were taught in elementary school. But then I thought about something else.
The Black Hills here in South Dakota are geographically and spiritually critical to the Lakota people. This is their Garden of Eden, their fertile crescent, their Mecca. What must it be like for the Lakota to see this place scarred for any reason? Then, I considered taking it a step further and carving four white U.S. presidents into these mountains, a country younger than the Lakota and also one that has repeatedly kick the shit of of the Lakota. Nothing like seeing your conquerer's face carved onto the doors of your place of worship.
I then traveled to the Crazy Horse Monument only a couple of miles away and also in the Black Hills. Strangely, it felt like a much different experience and seemed to acknowledge the existence of a people in a way that Rushmore had decidedly scrubbed clean. But it did something else. It brought to mind what Americans looks like. As I looked around at the crowd, I saw Lakota there as well and I knew immediately that these were Americans too. Some, maybe the best that America had to offer.
So, what the hell does any of this mean? The best of America comes from many different places and holds many different perspectives. Not really sure what the right answer is. As for the best of Americans, seems to me that some of them certainly are white and are carved on a sacred mountain that some consider highly offensive. However, I bet some of them look nothing like those four rich dudes regardless of what that 20 something hipster said.
I'm here to do some preliminary work on a documentary that my partner Dan Patterson and I are working on about the Lakota people. So that's why I'm here in the Badlands at the epicenter of their culture, tradition, and identity. And yet, I'm completely overwhelmed.
How the hell do you take all of this and then package it in a way to do these people justice? They have been screwed by everybody who has ever touched them and I'm just one in the latest, right? That's my problem. There is more to these people than poverty, and despair. There is more than just little kids playing the dirt in front of tar paper shacks. We need to find that. We need to articulate that.
The Lakota Nation, or, Sioux, as many know them, have been in this place for longer the than U.S. has been in existence. A minor point, right? To some, maybe. And yet, we know so many of their names like Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Spotted Tail and Rain Cloud. These people didn't take much shit while the U.S. and settlers and profiteers shoveled bucketloads onto them. I know a little something about having problems with authority so I like these people immediately. Can't help it. Of course, what these people have experienced is almost beyond comprehension. Think Little Big Horn. Think Wounded Knee. Think just about every contact you have ever heard of and thousands more you haven't.
Two of the poorest reservations in America are still here, Pine Ridge and Rosebud. An estimated 25,000 people live here. We will go to these places and spend time with the Lakota. But if you think we are simply going to do poverty porn or some shit like that, you should probably move along. Nothing to see here. Nope. There is beauty and honesty and love and food and culture here that doesn't fit into the Indian as victim box. And I'll be damned if we don't capture that.
The Badlands demand nothing less. These people demand and deserve nothing less. And yet, I have heard this idealism spouted from so many who then simply role out the same shit. Well, Dan Patterson and I refuse to do that. Not this time. Ain't gonna happen. That's right.
You heard me you bastards.
Just found the rough audio from my first radio show for Air America in Afghanistan in December of 2009. I'm laughing because I'm exhausted and yet so keyed up. Hope you enjoy it. reall a blast from the past for me.
He sits quietly in this courtroom gallery, in jeans and a worn cotton shirt. Second row on the left. His young face thin, his eyes dark. He smiles timidly and puts his face down. Jirayu, not his real name, has been sitting here since 1:00 p.m. today and its now after 4:30. His mom sits quietly next to him, clutching her purse in both hands and staring off into some distant spot. I watch them both out of interest because I'm Jirayu's attorney. It's a hot muggy day somewhere in Minnesota.
The judge, wrapped in his black robes, has been shipping people off to prison one after the other for more than two hours now and doesn't seem to be giving it a second thought. All in a day's work. No fuss no muss. He's very polite and smiles and then lowers the boom only after giving the person false hope that they will not spend the next few years in a concrete box with an hour of sunshine and three hots and a cot. The sweat beads off of his bald head and he wipes it away with his right hand and rubs it on the bench in front of him as I wait my turn.
Jirayu sticks out in the gallery compared to most of the people around him. Most, if not all, are poor. He's definately that. While many are African American, there is the occasional white guy just to break up the monotony. In Minnesota, the contrast between this mix and the general population of the state couldn't be more different. Lots of Andersons and Knudsens here in Minnesota. None in the courtroom though. And then there is Jirayu. He was born in Thailand and was raised by his single mom along with his seven brothers and sisters.
Jirayu was picked up by the police for possession of drugs. Not a lot of drugs really. Frankly just enough to numb him from the difficulties that he faces in his own life. He's never really been able to pull it together. As an immigrant, his English hasn't really stuck and he struggles to get out the right words. As a result, he hasn't been able to to get a job that pays that well and he still lives at home with mom and his brothers and sisters.
As a criminal defense attorney, its always strange approaching any criminal case. My attitude from the beginning is that I don't particularly give a damn whether my client did it. In fact, I regularly avoid asking the question out of fear that he or she will tell me the truth. After all, the state has the burden of proof and I like the state to prove their cases, if they can. Most of my frequent flyer clients know how to play and understand what's going on. Its the newbie clients that have to be brought up to speed.
Jirayu is one of my newbies. He has no experience with this sort of thing. Well, not totally true but he's only been arrested for traffic offenses like driving without a license or no insurance. These are technically crimes but, well you know...
But I'm having a serious problem with Jirayu. He doesn't want to cooperate with me. He doesn't seem to understand how the game is played and what he is supposed to do. Instead, from the beginning, he keeps blurting out in broken English, "I guilty." Again and again he says it. Damn it, how am I supposed to deal with this?
Possession of prescription drugs that aren't yours is a felony and Jirayu wanted to plead guilty regardless of whether we had issues to fight at the pretrial stage. He wanted to take responsibility because that is apparently what his mom taught him growing up. "OK, if that's what you want." So he put his faith in me as his criminal defense attorney to convince the Judge with the sweaty bald head not to shoot him out of a cannon.
So here we sit on sentencing day. Jirayu's name is called and we stand before Judge Hot and Sweaty hoping for a break. The prosecutor runs down the trite list of horrors that come from drugs as he describes the paltry amount Jirayu had to smooth out the edges in his jagged life. I almost laugh at the baby face on this prosecutor. Don't even remember being that young, that much full of sanctimonious outrage. Instead I look at Jirayu and then back at mom in the gallery clutching her purse with both hands. She's looking at me now.
When the prosecutor completes his diatribe on the evils that shall not pass his lips, the Judge turns to me, not with the intent of listening but more out of obligation that he has to do so. "Alright Jack, say whatever you have to say so we can start aiming the cannon." It's in his red faced, hot and sweaty demeanor if not in his words.
Jirayu turns to me too as if willing me with his eyes to help him.
"Judge," I say, "Jirayu did it. He screwed up." Very lawyerly, don't you think? I continue.
"Jirayu is trying to finish school but is struggling. Jirayu is trying to maintain a job but he's struggling. His mom is struggling. His brothers and sisters are struggling. He has substance abuse issues and frankly if I had seen what he has seen, I would too. Whatever you have, I want that and a little more."
The Judge is now looking at me in a way that he usually reserves for defendants. He seems to be eyeing the bailiffs like they should grab me before I run from the courtroom. What the hell, I'm on a roll.
"Jirayu did this and has challenges. You could certainly accept his plea which he willingly gave regardless of my advice and wrap a felony around his neck like an anchor for the rest of his life. This should be just about enough to sink him for good. You could do this. You have the right. But to what effect? What the hell would that accomplish? Being tough on crime for its own sake is a failed exercise and anybody who honestly looks at the war on crime would admit that."
I look at Jirayu.
"Instead, I want you to cut him a break."
The Judge pulls a finger from his ear that he was apparently using to amuse himself while I spoke. I smile. Its the kind of smile I use when I tilt at windmills and try to work sweaty judges who seem to enjoy their jobs a little too much.
"How about not convicting him of this and help him kick his habit? How about helping him move forward in this life? How about providing a solution. Help him by not accepting his plea?"
Well, the Judge didn't seem to expect this and I apparently took him off of his game. He's already aiming the cannon, right? Jirayu on the other hand seems confused but hopeful in a way the I haven't seen in his eyes since he sat down in the courtroom some three hours ago. Mom sits in the back clutching her purse.
And here comes the boom. I can feel it.
"Alright Mr. Rice. I'll bite. I'll give you what you ask for." He proceeds to Stay Adjudication of Sentence and places Jirayu on probation requiring chemical dependency treatment and no more jail. Jirayu is confused. Hell, I'm confused. I stare at the Judge for a minute and then have to explain what this means to Jirayu There is no conviction and that he may never have a felony on his record if he does everything he is supposed to do.
The Judge is really sweating now. Time to get the hell out of here. I hustle Jirayu out of the courtroom as fast as I can and before the Judge changes his mind or gives the bailiffs the cue to grab me.
As we pass into the hallway, I feel a hand grab my elbow, Shit, I think. Got me this time. I turn. It's Jirayu's mom. "My boy ok?", she asks. "Yes", I tell her. No conviction. He goes home today.
At this point, she does something extraordinary. This poor woman who has raised 8 children by herself reaches into her ragged purse and pulls out a hundred dollar bill and tries to push into my hand. This is an enourmous sum for her, I can tell by the way she holds the money. How many hours did she have to work to make this? She has tears in her eyes.
I smile and hold my hands up in refusal. "No money," I say. "Thank you so much, but no money."
She seems to understand and smiles. She puts her hands together in a traditional South Asian Namaste farewell, clutches both hands around her purse, and walks away with her son.
I'm not sure why I do what I do sometimes. Nobody in power gives a crap about Jirayu. Nobody will remember what happened today beyond maybe Jirayu and his mom. Hell, I'll likely forget by next week. Maybe that's why I do it. Because nobody else really cares and because I remember now, right now.
I stand here in the hallway, alone. That's enough.
I appear on KOA Radio in Denver Colorado with my old friend Steffan Tubbs on Thursday, June 5th. Bowe Bergdahl was released this week after 5 years in captivity in Afghanistan. Th Americans traded 5 Taliban fighters who have been held at Gitmo since 2002. Steffan and I will discuss a recently released video as well as the back story behind this.
Hope you can watch.