Often it takes a rare injustice perpetrated against a privileged young person for our society to recognize the common injustices we visit every day upon less-privileged minorities. That should be the case again this week as we mourn the tragic death of the computer prodigy and progressive activist Aaron Swartz.
Aaron’s story has been retold countless times in the media recently, in tribute to the many lives he touched and the impact he left. (Note: I had the privilege to work with Aaron at Avaaz, and I write this in the spirit of his commitment to social justice.) A precocious tech whiz, Aaron also suffered from depression and was being prosecuted by a Javert-like U.S. Attorney’s Office for downloading too many free academic articles when he took his own life at the age of 26. Aaron’s family has laid blame for his passing, in part, at the prosecutor’s doorstep.
The community to which Aaron belonged has been rightfully outraged as well at the overreach involved in charging him with 13 felony counts carrying up to 35 years in prison. Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig lambasted “the absurdity of the prosecutor’s behavior.” In The Guardian, Dan Gillmore wrote of “seething at Aaron’s prosecution by a federal government that has rewarded torturers and banksters while in this case twisting the law to turn what amounts to minor trespassing into a ‘crime’ worthy of decades in jail.” And MSNBC host Chris Hayes noted that Carmen Ortiz, the U.S. Attorney who prosecuted Aaron, may have higher political aspirations, seemingly hinting that should she try to attain those, the friends of Aaron will remember and will be there.
I share their anger that a prosecution like this was carried out by lawyers presenting themselves in court as representing the United States of America. But I’m also troubled that it’s often when the unfairness of our criminal justice system comes crashing down on someone like Aaron that we take the time to question what’s being done by prosecutors every day in our name, much more often to communities of color.