I got back in the car, turned off the hazards and drove to basketball. I had missed the first game. In those moments waiting for the next one, I reflected on the pigeon. The pigeon was my clients. My clients, like the pigeon, externally brute and brash, putting walls up as defense mechanisms while the criminal (in)justice system swirls and closes around them. My clients, alone in the cross-hairs of mass incarceration machine, in need of their public defender to stop for them, to slow traffic, to protect them from being crushed beneath the weight of the government.On a brisk Saturday morning, subtle sunshine met me as I stepped outside. I jumped into my car and hastily drove to the court to make the first game of that morning's edition of pickup basketball. I exited 880 South and turned left onto 1st Street. I noticed a still, dark object ahead in the middle of the lane. I drove past it. I looked back in my mirrors and saw the object move. It was some kind of animal.
I thought about turning around to help the unidentified animal but hesitated. I didn't want to be late to basketball so I forged ahead. As I drove further, my conscience yanked at me. How could I knowingly leave this helpless creature alone in the road so that a passing vehicle would inevitably crush and render it lifeless? I told myself, “You witnessed it move, so whether you like it or not, you've been entrusted with its protection and preservation.”
I turned around and pulled up behind the animal. I activated my hazard lights and got out of the car. I inched closer. It was a pigeon. Its head tucked securely beneath its wings as it maintained the bird equivalent of the fetal position. It remained still and paralyzed as cars whizzed by in all directions. Its face hunched down, willfully oblivious to the happenings of the world around it. I grabbed a t-shirt from my car. As dozens of cars whizzed past, I flicked the bird with the shirt. The pigeon exposed its head and wings but didn't move or fly out of harm's way as I had hoped. It remained paralyzed in the whirlwind of traffic. I shooed it again and again, but it didn't budge.
Bewildered, I thought of leaving. I felt the eyes on me from each passing car. I was the crazy man in the middle of the road snapping a t shirt in the direction of a pigeon at 745 a.m. on a Saturday. I started to leave, but again my conscience twinged. I hadn't fulfilled my trust. I put the t shirt over my hands and squeamishly reached down toward the bird. As I touched it, the pigeon fluttered its wings and exposed its legs. It finally moved. I shooed it out of the middle of the road to the sidewalk.
I got back in the car, turned off the hazards and drove to basketball. I had missed the first game. In those moments waiting for the next one, I reflected on the pigeon. The pigeon was my clients. My clients, like the pigeon, externally brute and brash, putting walls up as defense mechanisms while the criminal (in)justice system swirls and closes around them. My clients, alone in the cross-hairs of mass incarceration machine, in need of their public defender to stop for them, to slow traffic, to protect them from being crushed beneath the weight of the government.
I reflected further. The pigeon wasn't just my clients. It was me. 16-year-old me. Dad suddenly dead, family in chaos, transitioning to college, alone and collapsing amidst the sudden change. Public defender me. Buried slowly by the burdens of witnessing clients locked up, ripped from their families and loved ones, jettisoned to prisons and jails for months, years or even lifetimes. Weighed down by often having juries or judges tell me that my efforts aren't enough to save my clients from convictions and/or incarceration. The public me. Shrouded in a facade of perfection, seemingly resilient and unaffected, no tears or breakdowns or calls for help. The community passing by, not turning an eye, none the wiser, including myself, to the pain and tumult that swelled within. Me. In need of someone to stop, to check on me, to dismantle my facade and expose the complicated truths that lay beneath, to shelter me before I broke amidst the world's turbulence.
Me as this story's pigeon felt right. But it felt selfish. It can't just be about me and my needs. We're all the pigeon. My clients. Me. You. Us. We all, in varied ways, endure traumas, hurt, suffering. Family members dead, loves lost, victimization at the hands of oppressors, struggles with dependence on harmful behaviors and substances, failures, lapses in judgement. We veil ourselves in protective layers to disguise the aches inside. We speed past one another, fail to slow down for our fellow human beings. As life's traffic passes, we forget to stop once in awhile. To check on our family, friends and colleagues. To ask how they're doing and to crave their authentic, complicated answers. To probe beneath the pretenses, to guide one another out of turmoil, to heal together.
Who are (y)our pigeons?
Sajid A. Khan is a Public Defender in San Jose, CA. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @thesajidakhan.