No One Is Immune From Problems

By Donna Britt
Friday, January 13, 2006

Most people have an immunity problem.

I don't mean folks who catch everybody's cold or Capitol Hill types who crave the kind of immunity that could protect them from lobbyist Jack Abramoff's tattling. I'm talking about the immunity that most of us believe on some unspoken level is ours -- the kind that's supposed to protect us from life's ills.

You'd think we would know better. We shake our heads when famous athletes believe they should get away with spitting on an opponent or brandishing a gun, asking, "What do they think they are, untouchable?"

As if life never had to remind us that no human is immune.

You can be a universally respected journalist for one of the nation's finest newspapers, living on what one neighbor called "the ideal Mayberry RFD block," and be killed during your evening walk. You can be one of your working class community's best-known and -loved political figures and discover that a pair of youngsters whom you invited into your home are holding a gun to your head.

Those who knew retired New York Times reporter David Rosenbaum describe him as uncommonly helpful and engaging. He brought his wife flowers each week, and he hand-fashioned Valentine's Day cards for female office mates. Such a man should be immune from hoods who'd sneak up on and batter somebody for his wallet. Was anyone surprised that his grieving neighbors kept saying how astonished they were that something so heinous happened in their community?

As for Marion Barry's very different immunity issues, one of my first memories of the Ward 8 council member is from 1990, when then-Mayor Barry, during a freewheeling interview with a female Los Angeles Times reporter, bragged of his sexual skills, announced, "I'm invincible" and asked: "Co-caaaaine? How folks use that stuff?" On Tuesday, we learned that Barry had reportedly failed a routine court-ordered drug test related to his recent tax troubles -- a problem that could compromise his plea agreement or land him in jail.

I was still digesting Barry's recent announcement that he'd been robbed of $200 by local thugs who had helped him bring in his groceries. Some questioned the entire episode. Others were surprised that Barry perceived youths whom he'd just met as trustworthy.

What struck me was Barry's self- perception: as someone whose longtime community activism should have immunized him.

"There is a sort of an unwritten code in Washington, among the underworld and the hustlers . . . that I am their friend," Barry said of the "betrayal." Even D.C. Police Cmdr. Joel Maupin was "very surprised" that youths aware of Barry's identity "went ahead and robbed him anyway."

In a world in which people repeatedly prove they're capable of anything -- that's surprising?

Over and over, people whose experiences suggest they shouldn't feel immune -- the poor, the disenfranchised, minorities -- are continually shocked by their vulnerability. As a woman of color, I've experienced prejudice -- both subtle and face-smackingly obvious -- hundreds of times.

Each time, foolishly and inevitably, I was stunned.

This week, I watched as a gentle young man whom I've known since his childhood -- a man with no criminal record, against whom there wasn't a shred of DNA evidence or a single witness other than his accusers -- was sentenced to two years' imprisonment.

The prosecuting attorney's case against my friend was detailed and exploited every defense inconsistency. My friend's court-appointed attorney seemed minimally prepared, ignoring obvious leads while leaving largely unexplored holes in the prosecution's case.

My friend's defense hinged on what his attorney correctly described in his summation as "the $64,000 question": Why would my friend's accusers falsely claim that he had harmed them?

When my friend took the stand to testify in his own behalf, his "defense" attorney never asked that question. Instead, he later offered -- unconvincingly -- his own supposition.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe some would insist that my friend got the best possible defense. Watching the proceedings in that courtroom, I found myself shaking. Not because I "knew" my friend was innocent. Only he and his accusers know what passed between them.

But even the most elemental knowledge of court proceedings suggested that his defense was inadequate.

Did I mention that my friend is an unemployed 23-year-old black man who couldn't afford to pay a lawyer?

Yes, poor white defendants can get terrible representation, too. But a disproportionate percentage of indigent defendants in this nation -- the ones who are assigned lawyers who often have little financial or emotional investment in mounting vigorous, committed defenses -- are black or brown. I knew this.

So why was I surprised?

Because of the hushed inner voice that suggests that my education, job, lovely neighborhood and devoted loved ones somehow protect me -- and by extension, friends who lack similar resources? Because on some bedrock level, I believe in the ideals of a justice system that fails hundreds of its citizens every day? Because it's our nature always to expect the best?

Whatever the reason, I should have known better. Like many law-abiding black folks aware of American history, I harbor a basic, unshakable distrust. I marvel at certain people's uncurtained windows, blithe acceptance of wiretapping ("I'm not doing anything wrong!") and astonishment that awful things can happen in their 'hood.

Yet, like everybody else, I sometimes forget:

Nobody is immune until all of us are.

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