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Bobby Kennedy, His Killer and a Conscience Confronted
What to do with Sirhan Sirhan? What to do with us?
I guess I can talk a good game when I want. Don’t get me wrong — when I say something, I mean it, deep in my bones. When I joined the call for an end to our system of mass incarceration, I meant it: Tear down the private, profit-making prisons now, close all the other prisons and start over. Release the millions of Black and Brown people (many falsely accused and convicted) and restore their lives, their right to vote, give them jobs and a guaranteed income. Apologize for this crime against their humanity.
As you can see, I don’t really care about how the stands I take may affect me, my career or what anybody thinks about me. I mean, I care, I’d be an idiot not to care, but what I’m saying about not giving a damn is this: I know who I am, I’m confident I will not say or do anything that will bring harm to anyone, and while I am human and will therefore make mistakes, when I do I will express true remorse, ask for forgiveness and make amends.
You’ve probably figured this out about me by now. Yes, I am that guy willing to be booed off the Oscar stage on the fifth night of an immoral and illegal war, acting as if I wasn’t aware that the acceptance speech I was giving was, as more than one Hollywood pundit put it, “a career-ending move.”
And my reward for that insubordination, just a few days later, was to be told by the studio that they were pulling out of my next film. Shutting it down. All because I had spoken a simple truth — that the invasion of Iraq was predicated on a lie, and that we were never going to find any weapons of mass destruction there because there weren’t any there. I said this on a night when over 70% of the American public said they enthusiastically supported the war and proudly supported George W. Bush. In other words, I was cooked.
But then, just 15 months later, I showed the country a new movie (Fahrenheit 9/11), showed them how they were lied to, what the brutal human cost of that war was, and lo and behold, the nation did a one-eighty and sided with me. They came out to the movie by the millions. The majority turned against the war. Two years later they threw the Republicans out of Congress, gave the majority of the seats to the Democrats in both the Senate and the House — and that was the end of that for George W. Bush. The Dems blocked him for his final two years — and then we elected our first Black president, whose middle name was sweetly, ironically, Hussein.
So I learned a long time ago to never be afraid to speak my mind, to do so with self-assuredness after carefully researching what action we must take. Each time I’ve done this — calling for an end to that war, or for the elimination of a majority of the 350 million guns in our homes, showing how easy and affordable it would be to have free health care for all in the U.S., and exposing capitalism as the greatest terrorist threat on Earth — I’ve been met with hostility, threats and acts of violence. And that’s just from moderate Democrats.
So late on Friday afternoon, some 40 hours ago, the news flashed across the screen of my smartphone that a parole board in California had voted to release Sirhan Sirhan from prison, 53 years after he murdered Senator Robert F. Kennedy (minutes after RFK had won the California presidential primary in 1968).
In 1965, when I was 11, I met Bobby Kennedy. Visiting the Capitol building in D.C. with my family, I got separated from them in the crowd. I found an elevator and got on it, not seeing the sign that read SENATORS ONLY. The doors closed and the man standing there inside lowered his newspaper and I immediately recognized him as Bobby Kennedy. “Are you lost?” he asked me. “Yes,” I replied, my lip quivering. “I’ve lost my parents.”
The doors to the next floor soon opened and he took me to the Capitol Police. He told them about my predicament and offered to stay with me until they found my parents. “That won’t be necessary, Senator.” Kennedy turned to me and said, “Well, you got your first ride in the Senate elevator. That almost makes you a Senator!”
“Hey,” I replied, “you never know!” He smiled that big smile of his, gave the hair on my head a friendly dad-like tussle, and then took off to go back to being a Senator. Within minutes my mother arrived, not the least bit surprised at the sight of me.
The news of Sirhan’s potential release hit me hard this weekend. No, this assassin must not be set free. I thought, this must be very hard on Kennedy’s family (six of his nine surviving children have issued a public statement opposing Sirhan’s release; two are in favor of it). The assassin didn’t just take their father away. He killed the hopes of people around the world. Kennedy was going to bring the troops home from Vietnam, which would have saved 21,000 American lives and perhaps more than a million lives of Southeast Asians. I can’t understand why the gunman who helped destroy this country should ever be set free.
But wait — didn’t you say you wanted our racist prisons emptied? This Palestinian man is now 77 years old. The parole board said he is no longer a threat to society. Really? A senior citizen can’t fire a gun? So, ok — maybe not really close all the prisons? Or, let everybody else go but him? In moments like this, I ask myself, do I truly mean what I say? Do I not believe what I believe? What’s the frequency, Kenneth? I’m not the first to be confronted with such an existential moment.
Sirhan didn’t kill in a random act of passion. This was a pre-meditated, politically motivated murder. Sending him to prison was not to rehabilitate him, not for revenge, not even to punish him. It was to say that no one is ever allowed to end the life of someone running for office in a Democracy. If we let that become a thing, especially in a political climate like ours, we are doomed. For that reason alone, we must be clear: Murder a candidate, go to prison. Forever.
But here’s the problem, as my conscience now screams at me:
Either you are for radically changing our criminal justice system or you’re not. There’s no “some of it here, a piece of it there,” suited to one’s own personal whims.
In fact, the true test of whether one believes in what one is saying is if what we stand for is applied to everyone — including those we detest. If we believe in free speech, do we let our opponents publish their books, post their podcasts, hold their rallies if they’re nonviolent? Of course. But if they spread false information about covid vaccines — thus instilling panic so people don’t get vaccinated which will then kill others — that’s the same as yelling fire in a crowded theater, right? I think it is.
Even within our prison abolition movement, most believe that the humane system we must create also has to protect society from rapists, child abusers, violent men, pedophile priests, polluters, bankers, and Blackwater. But we will not treat them the way they have treated women, people of color, and the poor. We will be understanding and kind. And we will not let them harm anyone again.
Once a great philosopher asked if we could “love our enemies and do good to those who persecute us.” Whoa. That’s a lot. I get the “loving my neighbor“ thing — but love Sean Hannity? That may be a bridge too far.
Which brings me back to Sirhan. He has served his sentence. But I don’t want him among us. I also don’t think I get to have it both ways. Prison, as we know it, must end. It doesn’t work. It makes us less safe. Yes, we must keep the dangerous ones away from those whom they’d injure or kill. Can't we at least try to be like Norway?
My sister (who in 7th grade loved Bobby Kennedy) has been a public defender in California for over 25 years. She handles appeals for convicted criminals. I asked her recently how many convicts she’s defended over all these years.
“Thousands,” she said.
“And how many of them are that dangerous, so much so that we need to lock them up and throw away the key?”
“Maybe a dozen.”
“A dozen out of thousands??”
She paused to think it over.
“Ok. Maybe a half-dozen. The criminal justice system is not about justice. Most of the incarcerated just needed a job, an income. Drug and alcohol rehab. Mental health counseling. A chance. The very few who are the scary few — we need to be scared of those who are truly the threat. The ones who keep the poor, poor. Those who enforce inequity. Those who perpetuate institutional racism. The rich who don't pay their taxes. THOSE are the acts of violence against the rest of us.”
I know. That’s my sister. And I got another one of them, too. Same attitude. I asked the public defender sister what she’d do about Sirhan.
“This isn’t ultimately about Sirhan,” she explained. “It’s about the 160,000 citizens of California who are locked up — and most of them have not committed first-degree murder as Sirhan did. They are people who have been sentenced to life when their ‘third strike’ was stealing a slice of pizza or shoplifting a drill from Sears. 71% of the incarcerated in California are Black or Latinx. California is only 6% Black. But 29% of its inmates are Black!”
She added: “I think what the Governor needs to do is to have his attorney general go through every one of the cases of the incarcerated 160,000 and ask this fundamental question: Does this person honestly still need to be in jail or prison? The state attorney general should then set up an office that investigates this on an annual basis. Start with those who’ve been locked up the longest. Our inmates in California have been over-charged and over-sentenced — and many of them were innocent in the first place. An elderly inmate is not considered a threat. So I’m not thinking of Sirhan. Better to release the tens of thousands who should be released — and then release him, too.”
Somehow, somewhere, I think that skinny, kind Senator with the Irish skin I met on that elevator back in the day would also believe not only in forgiveness, and not only in society’s obligation to protect its own from violence, but I think he would agree that we do indeed have a cruel system for those accused of doing wrong — and a narrow, limited and bigoted view — classist and racist — of what we mean by “doing wrong.”
“But killing you was wrong, sir.”
“Yes, it was. Perhaps, though, I didn’t die in vain. But that’s up to all of you. What can you do to make my death a lasting contribution to a better world?”
Tears in my eyes, I can think of a thousand things. I guess I start by loving my enemy — and if the Governor decides to let him go, I will try to find my peace with that. While offering my love to Kennedy’s family. And recommitting myself to the efforts of bringing about a more just system.
After that, perhaps a game of touch football.