Last year, I served as the foreman on a jury for an unremarkable case with a remarkable ending. The owners of an apartment complex in one of the poorer neighborhoods of Los Angeles were bringing suit to expel a Mexican family on the basis of noncompliance with the regulations of the building. The family consisted of a grandmother, a mother and three boys, one of whom had lost an arm to cancer. (I mention this because of the horrible, almost comically inept moment when the court clerk asked him to raise his right arm, the best instance of obliviousness to another I have witnessed in my lifetime.)
The violations alleged by the corporation, which owned the complex, were so minor as to be almost laughable. Once, the family had run an electric cord over an area where others would stumble on it. There were some possible parking infractions. Another time, a shady relative had slept in their garage, and there were allegations of drug dealing, but nothing was proved. In short, it took the jury all of 40 minutes to unanimously conclude the association had not proved its case.
The Judge, who was both sharp and fair, asked the jury if they wanted to stay after and discuss the case with the two sides. Almost all of us agreed to do so. It quickly became clear that the association was trying to gentrify the facility, turn the apartments into condos, and seeking ways to expel this family so they could convert the apartment. Hearing this, of course, we were glad and grateful that we found for the defendants.
The remarkable moment in the case came at the very end. The Judge asked us if before we left, we had something we wished to say. The family mumbled thanks and the jurors wished everyone luck. We were about to disperse. Then one of the jurors, who was himself Mexican, turned to the family, and addressed the three boys:
"Always remember what happened here today. In your lives a lot of people will talk about how unfair the system is and how it is stacked against you. Remember that the system protected you, gave your family justice, and guarded your home. Live your lives to honor this judgment and what was done for you."
The moment was electrifying. It brought tears to our eyes and each of the boys nodded, acknowledging in their moment of relief and thanks, what had been said.
When I reflect on the moments that make me proud to be an American, I remember that trial and the man's statement. All Americans have witnessed this past summer that the system had deep flaws and needs work from all of us to repair what is prejudiced, or cruel or wrong. But each day in countless ways, America works. In a complex and fractured world, it manages quite often to deliver justice, even to those who think themselves outside the system. Our failings do not erase our achievements. As my fellow juror explained, believing in the possibilities of this great country is one of the ways we help make it better, and keep it great.