To those of you marching in “Liberate [your state]” gatherings in capitals all over the Midwest, my sympathies are with you. Especially those few who are out there because the government is willing to let the unemployed die on the vine. We wouldn’t have anything to march about if we had the sort of economy that would allow folks to survive for more than one pay period without losing everything (or, alternatively, if all the vulnerable dead weight of society would just go ahead and die already). This whole thing is grossly unfair. I get it.
I have been in the streets many times myself, complaining about this or that. But I regret to inform readers that I will not be participating in any “Liberate Indiana” rallies. Nor will I be suing any governors or mayors for shutting things down. There are many reasons for my non-participation. Social distancing, yes. The time and expense, yes. The petulant short sightedness of a government-can’t-tell-me-what-to-do brand of libertarianism, yes. The well armed militia of Bushwhacker clones with the Confederate ﬂags, yes, yes, yes.
There is another reason though, one that originates in Michigan and blasts right through restrictions on travel and space-time. It is Aiyana Stanley Jones, who would be about to turn 18, but isn’t going to turn 18, and won’t ever turn 18, because she was killed by a Detroit SWAT team when she was 7 years old. This week marks 10 years since her death. I hope her story can survive another 10 years, and another 10, and as long as it takes for us to reach a place where we no longer shrug our shoulders and say “that’s the way it is,” but shake our heads in shameful regret and say “that’s the way it was.”
In May 2010, Detroit cops were chasing a murder suspect. In tow was a ﬁlm crew for the show “The First 48.” The SWAT team had the wrong apartment but needed to make some ﬁreworks for the cameras. So, they did what SWAT teams do: They kicked the doors down in the dead of night, and threw a ﬂash grenade into the front room. That device, supposedly designed to “stun” the bad guys lying in wait, caught little Aiyana Stanley Jones on ﬁre. When SWAT ofﬁcers raid someone’s home, they typically have their weapons in “low ready” position. That’s the position best suited for killing family dogs, which happens a lot, but it’s pretty good for killing people, too, especially if those people are close to the ground, as sleeping 7-year-olds tend to be.
And so, in the commotion over the entry, the armed men yelling, and the child on ﬁre, a uniformed rising star of reality television discharged one bullet that pierced Aiyana’s head, traversed her brain and exited through her neck. The cop later said that he was struggling with Aiyana’s grandmother when his submachine gun accidentally ﬁred. In the author’s professional opinion, that is a bullshit story, especially since evidence suggests that the bullet was ﬁred from outside the house.
In any event, the little girl died, and her family sat in a pool of her blood for hours before police decided to arrest her grandmother. The original murder suspect was also taken (from the correct apartment) into custody without incident. The courts were characteristically useless; a judge dismissed all the criminal charges against the shooter, who still has his badge. The only charges that stuck were against an A&E producer, who was convicted of lying about the video evidence. The city of Detroit, after dragging its feet for a decade, ﬁnally paid Aiyana’s family an amount insufﬁcient to stop so much as a single nightmare.
There are events, like airborne diseases, ingrown toenails or the closure of your favorite restaurant, that seem unfair. And then there are things that are so cosmically unforgivable that you feel like something must intervene to correct them, or the universe and everything in it will collapse. The death of Aiyana Stanley Jones falls into the latter category. It’s so unfair that I can’t reconcile it with my own pedestrian notions of reality. How could something like this happen without Michigan parents banding together and dismantling the police department brick by brick? Why are the people responsible not disgraced, unemployed, and incarcerated? Why didn’t the seas revolt, the sky split open or time itself stop to wait for the lethargic, fat legs of justice to catch up? Why didn’t the vengeful God of Isaac and Abraham, who opens sinkholes to swallow up Corvettes in Bowling Green just for fun, dispatch a killer virus, a swarm of murder hornets or a galaxy-crushing comet right then and there?
The death of Aiyana Stanley Jones has profoundly impacted the trajectory of my career, my activism, and my entire life. I have represented more than one family who lost their child, of whatever age and color, to state-sanctioned violence. I’ve watched the news of Philando Castile, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and countless others to see if this will be the ﬁnal straw; the sickening injustice that produces a long overdue, cataclysmic slate-cleaning. It never is. In most cases, no one gets prosecuted. In many cases, the families don’t get paid one bloody cent.
So, I’m sorry to say that I will not march to reopen commerce. I’m afraid the last decade has desensitized me to the trivially unfair, or at least anything fairer than, say, a public ofﬁcial murdering a ﬁrst-grader and blaming it on her grandmother. To you Michiganders protesting the tyranny of government today: Good luck. You are up against a massive thing; a thing that does not care how bad you’ve got it, a thing that subsists on a diet of unfairness, a thing that is built solely for the purpose of not caring. I won’t pontiﬁcate as to how you might have helped to build that thing in the ﬁrst place or pointedly ask “where the fuck were you 10 years ago when Michigan needed liberating.” But I will admit that with my wizened litigator’s eyes, it is hard for me to believe in the seriousness of the current protests. It is hard to believe in protest at all. It is hard to believe in anything.
Dan Canon is a civil rights lawyer and law professor. “Midwesticism”is his short-documentary series about Midwesterners who are making the world a better place. Watch it at: patreon.com/dancanon.