Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Unheathily obsessed with justice

It's funny how the decisions with the most memorable results are the ones we don't remember making.

A few years ago, I was walking through Fair Oaks mall in Northern Virginia with my mother. I remember it as a slow day at the mall without a lot of people around. Otherwise, it was an ordinary day. You could hear the muffled echoes of lots of people like my mother and me, casually chatting as we shopped. The air smelled like pretzels.

I perceived the man first by hearing the echo of his footsteps behind me. I registered that someone very large was running very fast. I turned to look and he raced by. He wore brown pants, a flannel shirt and a stocking cap. He could have been any other guy in the mall if he hadn't been running.

He had just passed me when the words "Stop! Thief!" echoed from behind him.

I don't recall the logical process that led up to the decision I made at that point. I don't actually recall making a decision at all.

Rationally, I know that I dropped my purse at my mother's feet and took off after the guy, but I really don't at all remember the part where I decided that was a good idea. I can recall a few seconds later, running past stores and doing my best to keep up, feeling a crazy sort of determination to catch the guy. There were more cries of "Stop! Thief!" and I turned to see mall security about forty yards behind me.

I kept running. The guy only looked back once, his face registering a certain degree of shock that a justice-obsessed fat girl was chasing him, and not doing a terrible job keeping up, I might add. He ran faster. I ran faster. He took a left at Popeye's Chicken and I followed, cutting through the restaurant to gain a little bit of time on him. I'm not a runner, but I was a Fairfax County teenager once and I know how the local malls are put together.

Mall security was faster than either of us, but I suddenly couldn't hear them behind me. I turned my head for a moment, They hadn't made the turn and were running in the wrong direction.

I paused for a moment, turning to yell, "He's going THIS way!" The security guys turned and started running toward me. I started chasing the guy again. By then, he was almost to the parking lot. I followed him out the doors, then stopped, panting desperately as he took off across the parking lot. Seconds later, I was pointing to him and watching the security guys chase him down and catch him.

My lungs hurting, I turned to go back inside the mall, A crowd had gathered and was appraising my panting and sweaty self.

"Did they get em?" Someone asked.

"They got 'im." I said lamely, suddenly very self-conscious. My mother was asking me if we shouldn't check in at the jewelry store and see if they wanted to give me a reward, but I just wanted to go home. At that point, I was planning to become a reporter when I got out of school, and looking at all sides of a story was natural. I started to wonder about the thief I had just chased down. He could be a decent person. What if he was stealing to support his family?

I eventually came to the conclusion that Jean Valjean didn't steal a diamond ring from a jewelry store in the suburbs. But that and my boyfriend's admonitions that the thief could have had a gun and I shouldn't have been so quick to play Wonder Woman contributed to a couple of nights of troubled sleep over the incident.

I don't know when fairness became such an important virtue to me. It's probably the natural outgrowth of having been the older sister of rambunctious twins who seemed to get away with everything or maybe it comes from looking around at the world and seeing so many little injustices playing out around me.

My whole career, I've been trying to work for fairness one way or another, be it as a reporter for a small town paper or a fundraiser for Members of Congress. Law school would give me the tools to work for fairness in a more direct way and I am excited to apply my analytical skills to problems that really effect people's lives.

I've grown up a lot since that day in the mall, and my years after college have taught me that running underground newspapers, protesting injustices and chasing after thieves in the mall aren't the only way to work for a better world. The longer I've been out of school, the more I've come to recognize that being able to make real change involves playing the game and making small changes within complex systems. I consider myself fortunate that with my writing skills, research ability and logical mind, it's a game I'm well-suited to play.


LinguistFriend said...

OK, so keep spending time on your LSAT stuff. I don't know how much choice of courses you get in law school that would relate to areas of specialization. Then when you get out of law school is a time at which you have to make a decision
about available positions. I hope that democratic government will have reclaimed its former popularity in the USA by then so that you can work in an area that will make you rich and you don't have to fight that one single-handed.

Anonymous said...

I hope you get a big scholarship for wherever you attend -- it's hard to pay back loans by doing justice ;-)

But there are *lots* of opportunities in law school to get involved with social justice. My clinic probably will have me working on landlord-tenant disputes (i.e. keeping people from being made homeless). But you also discover that there are two sides to the story: the landlord might be trying to cut legal corners in evicting the tenant, but the tenant also has done something dumb to violate the terms of his lease that drove up the landlord's cost of maintaining the building. I suspect by the end, I'll want to convince NYC to change its rent regulations and eviction law -- which probably would require lobbying for about a decade. I haven't even had much success trying to change things within the law school itself (though I suppose I'll take another shot, thanks to SCOTUS), so a big city bureaucracy is more than I'm likely to bite off.

Anonymous said...

If you do look for loans for school, don't forget to also look at grants. You don't have to pay back grants, and there are lots of them out there waiting to be claimed.

Jamie Goodwin said...

I just want to say great post! Fantastic story! Thank You for sharing

Amir said...

I'm going to post your story on my facebook and hopefully others will get some sort of motivation from your will to get justice done. Thanks and hats off!