Jury Duty, Prostitution, and Questioning Justice

7y3m67h9ae8g9pr5y5-5bre-11

Source: Wikicommons

“Thank you for being here today,” began Judge Andrew Sweet to the twenty-five of us assembled in the courtroom. After several hours of waiting, we had each been randomly selected and marched through airport-style security to Courtroom D of the Marin Civic Center. After another fifteen minutes of waiting, the bailiff came out and brusquely ordered us to turn off our cell phones and enter the courtroom. We filed in to the sight of Judge Sweet behind the bench in his black robes, and the prosecuting and defense attorneys stiffly standing and watching us file in with plastic smiles. The defendant sat at the table and looked down.

After welcoming and thanking us for obeying our summons (“Not that you had a choice” said Judge Sweet, chuckling politely) the judge reminded us of our civic duty, and then finally told us why we were here. “This is a criminal trial,” he informed us. “The charge in this case against the defendant is –” Judge Sweet hesitated a second, “ – prostitution”. Someone behind me gasped, and we all looked at the woman sitting next to the defense attorney, who kept her eyes down on the table in front of her. Though it wasn’t even noon yet, the judge then dismissed us for the day and told us to come back tomorrow for the voir dire, or the process of questioning and selecting twelve jurors from the pool of twenty-five of us.

I was pissed off as I drove back to Oakland. Pissed off that I would have to go back to San Rafael the next day, pissed off that the judge didn’t at least start the selection process and eliminate some people, and most off all pissed off that the Marin County’s District Attorney’s office was wasting taxpayer dollars and all of our time by prosecuting a minor prostitution charge. Of all the complex and systemic problems and injustice facing our society today, to pursue a case against a woman for prostitution seemed ridiculous. Didn’t they have more important things to do? The fact that the accused was a minority woman only indemnified the whole system even more, as the cynic in me wondered bitterly whether a white woman would have found herself in the same place.

I was conflicted as to whether I wanted to be selected for the jury or not. A significant part of me wanted to object to the whole stupid system and get out of having to serve. Another part of me thought of all the post-election conversations about the importance more than ever of everyone strongly participating in our civic duties and institutions in the new Trump era. If I were selected, I decided, I could at least help ensure that the poor woman would get every chance in the world to be found not guilty.

The next day at the beginning of the trial, Judge Andrew Sweet kindly gave us some advice as the lawyers prepared their questions to determine whether they wanted to kick us off the jury or not. “We all have biases,” Judge Sweet said, making sure to look at each of us in turn. “The question is, can you set aside your bias and judge whether or not the accused committed the crime based on the facts of the case or not?” If you cannot then that’s okay, he said, but you must acknowledge that now and be excused.

Several people exercised the right to retain their biases. “I don’t believe prostitution to be a crime,” bluntly stated an 18-year-old girl with mascara-caked eyes, in response to the prosecutor’s first general question to the group asking us how we felt about the charge. Yet when the judge asked if she felt able to determine if the defendant broke the law, whether she believed in it or not, the young woman quickly backed down and said “yes”. She was one of the first jurors excused. The man sitting next to me, in response to the question of whether he could be impartial given the fact that the defendant chooses to not take the stand, scratched his head and said “Well, that troubles me … I mean if you’re innocent why wouldn’t you testify and fight for yourself?” He was dismissed by the defense. Another man was dismissed since he regularly interacted with the Novato police through his work, and we were informed that the central witness would be a Novato City police officer. Another was dismissed because he sat on the same board as the judge.

And then there was the only potential juror dismissed by the judge himself. The man was a lawyer, and like the 18-year-old girl he said he did not believe prostitution should be a crime. Yet unlike the young woman, when pressed he did not back down. “I do not think I can in good conscience set aside the grey area of the law”, he said in lightly accented English. It would … be very hard for me to judge someone guilty of something I don’t believe in, he continued softly. I tried to imagine a job and life where he had the luxury of choosing which laws to believe in, and came to the snide assumption that he probably worked in patent law for a tech company. After the judge called both lawyers aside for a consultation, he returned to the bench and thanked and dismissed the lawyer.

“Beyond a reasonable doubt” is the phrase that kept resonating in my head, as myself and 11 other jurors sat in a tiny deliberation room behind the courtroom. Judge Sweet’s jurors room held a conference table with twelve chairs crammed around it, a tiny men and women’s toilet, a mini fridge, and a nearly empty cabinet with a few sad small packets of tea, coffee and sugar. For two days the twelve of us randomly selected strangers had sat through numerous breaks and waited for court to begin in the cramped jurors room, patiently abiding by the judge’s edict to not discuss with each other the one thing that had brought us together. The first day and a half, we obeyed the edict by remaining silent and absorbed in our phones throughout our 15-minute breaks. Finally out of sheer boredom we began discussing the weather, reporting to each other from our phones which local roads and areas had been flooded by the latest storm. By the last day, we were asking each other what we did and relating stories about work, family, and the like as if we were old friends. One woman upon learning my profession asked if I happened to know a Russian water rights activist. “He died last year,” she said sadly. A younger juror told me his construction company was working on the new Apple campus in Cupertino. “168 acres,” he chuckled, shaking his head. It was so big, he explained, the company was going to put in a transit center for their private buses, but would also need a separate shuttle just to get people from the parking lot to the main building. The new campus would definitely increase the traffic, he concluded, “which sucks for locals but it doesn’t matter though – Apple owns that town.” A physician and retired health care practitioner rattled off names of people they knew in common. “He’s still working?” asked the physician, surprised. “I swear he was close to retirement when I was working there.” There was a sense of camaraderie, an acceptance of each other and our task despite the wide range of differences in our age, ethnicities, and professions. The opportunity to be in a room and interact with a variety of people from different backgrounds is increasingly rare today, as we slip deeper into our homogenous social circles and online lives. As jurors young and old chatted with each other around the table, I wished that this type of respectful acceptance and collaboration could have been highlighted during the last election, instead of the media’s propensity to focus on (and perpetuate) the vicious polarization that instills fear about our country and its direction. But the thought was interrupted by the bailiff, who entered to inform us that the lawyers, defendant, and judge were awaiting us in the courtroom.

In the end the trial was not great. Both lawyers, from the district attorney’s office and the defense, were young, inexperienced, and made numerous mistakes. The defense attorney tried to dismiss a potential juror who had been interviewed but wasn’t yet even in the jury box. The prosecutor, annoyingly referred to as “the people” – though I don’t recall the people of Marin asking their local government to devote scarce and valuable resources to arresting and prosecuting a poor woman for trying to make money – awkwardly shuffled through and mixed up the order of her 36 items of evidence, which consisted of photos of the defendant’s cell phone messages. This required the other attorney and the witnesses to laboriously shuffle through their copies as well in order to find the page the prosecutor referred to. The prosecutor also stumbled over several “incomplete hypotheticals” in her enthusiasm to lead her expert witness outside his expertise to the world of the conditional (“If these items were to be found together on a person would you…”). She lost several objections by the defense until the judge kindly advised her to give up her line of argument. There was a grainy and shaky video from the arresting officer’s body camera, which consisted of several minutes of silence where the audio had been redacted and only about a dozen seconds of actual sound that we were allowed to hear.

Back in the jury room, once deliberations began there was silence at first. We quickly agreed that due to the confusing nature of the evidence – multiple texts from multiple people over multiple days which we heard in bits and pieces as the lawyers asked witnesses to read certain texts, or highlighted during the lawyers’ powerpoint presentations as they made their closing arguments. We laid out the 36 pages of evidence, separating them into distinct conversations. It became quickly apparent as we discussed the evidence that several people were already vocally leaning towards voting guilty.

Now that we were allowed to discuss the case, biases came out in the open, and some were ugly. “That woman must be on drugs,” sniffed an older woman. “Did you see her shaking?” “She seemed sleepy,” said another, “of course who wouldn’t be if you’re working the streets all night?” I was appalled – as if the poor woman had been prostituting right up to the minute the trial began! Several others, including me, were obviously on the defendant’s side. We gently and politely reminded everyone that we needed to stick to the evidence presented and the charge she was accused of – other opinions and observations were not allowable for consideration.

It was quickly established by all of us that there was little question that the woman had engaged in “sex acts”, as the lawyers put it. The multitude of texts from unknown numbers asking how long, how many “kisses” or “roses” per hour – standard lingo for pay rate, according to the expert witness – and text conversations negotiating the location of late night meetings cast little doubt. The second part, however, was much more difficult – and that was determining “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the defendant had received money for the sex act. There was no direct evidence, since the police officer had neglected to photograph the text which talked about payment. However the officer testified that he saw a text indicating that the cost of the oral sex the woman was giving the guy when they were caught was $60. And exactly $60 was found in her purse, right next to the hatchet that she was carrying for protection.

As the jurors’ conversation slowly started circling towards a conclusion of “guilty”, I felt frustrated. From the instant the judge described the charge at the beginning of the trial I had leaned towards “not guilty” – an admitted bias against a system that finds a single woman guilty of receiving money for sex acts yet makes no attempt to understand or care why. Judge Sweet from the beginning clearly and deliberately instructed all of us that the scope of our job was to simply determine whether the woman was guilty or not of the crime she was charged with – that we were not to consider other factors such as why the man soliciting the sex acts from her wasn’t being charged, or why her pimp wasn’t arrested. Justice, it seemed from our instructions, is supposed to exist in a vacuum – however I struggled to see how justice with no context could be justice at all.

It also deeply bothered me that what could be up to six months in jail for the defendant was likely for the young prosecutor a notch in her belt, perhaps even a platform for a future political career. I hated the fact that although I tried as hard as I could to find one, there was no other reasonable explanation for the evidence presented. But most of all I hated that we could not find out the context of the crime. We the people put this woman on trial yet we also loaded the dice against her – holding her to laws written and enforced by privileged people existing far, far away from the harsh reality that she faced daily. A high-end escort service, which I imagine are not hard to find, would likely never find one of its escorts in a courtroom charged with prostitution. This woman in front of us was here not because she broke the law against prostitution; but because she happened to be caught, and didn’t have the resources or knowledge to avoid the charges.

Yet we were repeatedly instructed that none of that mattered, that we didn’t have to agree with the law – we just had to decide whether she had broken it or not. We were to judge her, but who puts society on trial and judges it for rigging an unfair system? Or judges a process that asks people who have mostly benefitted from the existing unfair system to close our eyes to the root causes of prostitution, and ignore the why but simply focus whether she did it or not? It’s as if we began watching a race at the end and looked up to see the runners flash across the finish line. ‘Why, it’s easy to see who won,’ we say to each other nodding sagely. It’s obvious who crossed the finish line first. But how that person happened to be in position to win when we looked up, the sum of the events that put them in that position – those details apparently don’t matter, according to our sacred and hallowed institutions of law and justice. Just the end result.

The end result was we found her guilty. While the judge’s aide read the verdict, and as the defense lawyer made us each affirm that we had voted guilty, I kept my eyes on the judge. I felt too ashamed for my participation in an unfair system that shamelessly calls itself justice to look at the defendant. After we were dismissed I glumly trudged to my car to begin the long drive back to Oakland, and fell in step with another juror who was walking out – the young construction worker building Apple’s new campus in Cupertino. “She looked shocked when they read the verdict,” the person I only knew as Juror #6 said conversationally. I told him that I didn’t look at the defendant; I hadn’t wanted to see her reaction. Juror #6 didn’t seem bothered though.

Over the next week when co-workers, neighbors, and friends asked me how jury duty went I expressed my frustration with the system, and vented about my forced role in perpetuating a system that can find a person guilty of a crime and completely ignore the circumstances leading to the crime. I suppose the defendant could have testified, and she might have talked about being poor and having no choice but to make money the only way she knew how. She might have talked about needing to feed kids at home, and not being proud of her profession but doing it to take care of her family. She could have talked about why she had to carry a hatchet for protection, about the very real physical danger she faced every night while working – imminent dangers which likely make the long-term consequences of being found guilty of prostitution seem like nothing. She could have talked about wanting to leave the profession, about preferring to do anything else but having no other options. She could have talked about facing intimidation from her pimp (named “Daddy Koolpad” on her phone, as we discovered during the trial) for not working. She could have pointed out the injustice of the fact that she was being charged for a crime, while the man soliciting her services and the man pimping her were both out free.

She could have talked about any or all of those things. However, in our system of “justice”, not a single one of those details would have mattered. Which is perhaps why she chose to remain silent.

Advertisements

Post-election Anger and Angst

500-copy2

The day after the election about 60 million people woke up disappointed, and emotional. There were feelings of anger and betrayal by the losing candidate they had voted for. Incredulity, that so many fellow Americans had voted for the distasteful opposition. Fear at the direction of our country. Worry about the future. Marches, protests, and speeches of taking back “our government” erupted across the United States.

This of course was the general sentiment of half of American voters on November 5, 2008 – the day after Barack Obama won the general election.

Polarization is the current buzzword for describing our country, and as liberals and Democrats take to the streets running through the same gamut of emotions that conservatives did in 2008, the inevitable question is: how did we get to this bitterly divided place? How do we understand an invisible division that shows itself in media and voting results, but rarely seems to reveal itself in every day life? As one distraught Clinton supporter Tuesday night put it, how do we reconcile the confusion that comes from feeling as if we understand the campaign issues well, yet at the same time utterly failing to understand half of our country?

On election Tuesday, after work there was lightness in the air in downtown San Francisco. The late-day sun warmed the usual mix of government workers and groups of tourists walking past the homeless scattered around Civic Center. On the BART train people sported their “I voted” stickers on jackets and shirts, and several Clinton supporters wore pantsuits and “nasty woman” buttons. On the way to watch the election returns my friends and I checked in to see how each of us voted on California’s confusing array of propositions, and good-naturedly debated which of the two Democrat candidates for the Senate was better. The only questions in our minds regarding the general election was how long it would take for Clinton to reach 270 electoral votes, and whether Trump would actually concede or not.

As we left the train, a woman ran up to my friend’s wife and thanked her for wearing white, in order to honor women’s suffrage. The two women were strangers, and at least 20 years apart in age, yet they shared an optimism and sense of purpose. It would be the last hopeful moment of the day.

The train ride home that night was sullen, and quiet. The usual motley assemblage of late-night BART riders stared down at their phones, or out the murky windows. During the walk home the dark Oakland streets around me seemed tense, foreboding, as if the city itself – which has seen its share of hard times – was preparing itself. Around one in the morning a car drove around my neighborhood, loudly playing on repeat the YG & Nipsey Hussle rap song “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump)”; whose full song title is repeated over and over again in the refrain. After one last pass I heard what sounded like gunshots and then silence. That night people in Oakland burned trashcans in the streets and temporarily blocked highway 24, managing to get a 20 year old girl seriously injured after she was hit by a car. “Welcome to Donald’s America”, I thought to myself, darkly.

The next day I woke up and, along with 60 million other Americans wondered with dread what the next four years would bring. It was a beautiful, sunny and clear day in the Bay Area with only a few wisps of clouds overhead – an irony, considering the bitter, ashy taste of defeat that liberals and Democrats alike felt. However big the disappointment of Clinton supporters, liberals had cause to feel even more cheated: having swallowed their pride to support Clinton, they now find themselves bereft of both their conscious and their country.

During the morning commute people on the BART train were quieter than usual, more retreated into their headphones and smartphones than ever before. In San Francisco, many people purposefully wore black as a statement of mourning for the direction of our country. At my state government office, a coworker brought in “disappointing Wednesday donuts”, as she called them, which we munched and pondered what went wrong. Another coworker dispensed with office decorum and rules and turned on her radio to listen to the latest political commentary and Clinton’s concession speech.

While we struggled to understand what had happened and what it meant, many others didn’t have the luxury. A friend who works at a school texted me that kids were asking worriedly if World War III was going to happen, amongst other crazy questions. Another friend who teaches predominantly Latino children had her kids ask if Trump’s victory meant their families would get deported, and if people were going to show up at their door and ask for immigration documents. All she could say, she told me, was “I don’t know”.

In the absence of knowing what will happen, it’s easy to fall back on imagining the worst. The danger of politicians – and especially Trump – is that in their seduction of as many voting blocs as possible they become in essence a blank slate. One onto which supporters can project whatever values they want, and one in which detractors can project their worst fears. Like many, I entered protracted text and phone conversations with friends scattered across the United States. “What happened?” we asked each other with dismay. “What do we do now?”

The sentiment of many was the desire to retreat back into our isolated bubbles of friends and social circles where everyone thinks the same and agrees with you. Ironically this strategy is not too far from what Trump proposes to do with America – build a wall, self-isolate, and above all pursue self-interest. I think there’s real danger in this approach – because it is precisely this insulation that blinded all of us to the undeniable truth: that a significant, close to majority (and majority politically) portion of our population thinks much differently than we do. Comforting ourselves by saying “thank god I live in liberal California (or New York, or wherever)” and reassuring ourselves to our friends that we’re not crazy, it’s everyone else that’s nuts – this is what caused us to be blindsided in the first place. And this is what will continue divisiveness and lead to another fractured America and charged election four years from now.

Instead the alternative is to not retreat into our homogeneous ideological sanctuaries. Indeed, our civic and political institutions need our active participation more than ever. It is now up to all of us to ensure that minorities are not persecuted, that racist and sexist behavior is not allowed to creep into our society, and make sure that our system of checks and balances will shield us after being wielded against Obama for the past eight years.

Lunch at the San Francisco Civic Center farmer’s market on Wednesday was the normal scene – shoppers clutching their reusable bags chatted while browsing stands bursting with fall produce like leafy greens, persimmons, and the last gasp of summer fruit. A shaggy, bearded man sat next to an amp and plucked a guitar near tables arrayed with people enjoying fare from food trucks such as Waffle Mania! and All-Star Tamale.

But as I stood in line for food, faint yelling and cheers intruded on the calm scene. At first it was barely distinguishable from the usual spectrum of odd noises associated with downtown San Francisco, however as the noise grew louder people stopped and turned to see what the commotion was about.

About fifty or so high school students burst onto the scene, chanting angrily in unison “Not our president! Not our president!” They waved a variety of signs – most denigrating Trump, some stating in true San Francisco tradition “Love not hate”, “Latinos against Trump”, and a potpourri of other messages. This was not your typical apathetic “instructive for youth” San Francisco protest for extra credit – these students yelled fiercely and passionately, eyes narrowed in anger. One student, flanked by one of the nearly dozen adult chaperones had written “Fuck Trump” in bold black marker on her upper chest above her white halter top. Bystanders stood aside to let them through, and applauded and cheered in between taking pictures and videos on their phones. I thought to myself of how the media characterized Trump’s rallies, and what his supporters would think of this scene. Rather than making America great again, Mr. Trump by fanning the flames of America’s divisions and fueling partisanship had instead succeeded in making America hate again.

Later that afternoon multiple notices circulated on social media regarding planned protests. Occupy Oakland announced a gathering at 5 pm at “Oscar Grant Plaza” – the unofficial name of Frank H. Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland, dubbed so by the movement after the local unarmed, restrained black man who was shot in the back by police. Another unattributed announcement, simple titled “Fuck Donald Trump: anticapitalist march” circulated via Twitter inviting people to protest at 7 pm a few blocks away from the other protest.

East Bay Area demonstrations in particular often target transportation – either major freeways, or BART – which is ones of the areas where the perpetually congested region is most vulnerable. Therefore we received instruction in my office to leave an hour early, in order to try and avoid the protests. Most of my co-workers didn’t hesitate; gratefully straggling out the door soon after the announcement was made. I had other plans, however.

Walking around downtown Oakland at 7:30 that night, it took me little while to find the protest as it was already on the move when I arrived. Following the pairs and small groups of people purposefully walking toward Broadway Street, my brother and I finally caught up to the tail end of the march. We took a shortcut, and then turned the corner to the sight of hundreds of marching protestors flanked by dozens of police with plastic handcuffs swinging from their belts. One officer surrounded by his brethren carried a video camera swathed in protective plastic.

“In case they get attacked by protesters,” said the man next to us, when I wondered aloud at the camera’s purpose. “They can get it all on film and then be justified for beating [the attackers’] asses.” He laughed. “Yet when the police kill an innocent black man that video never sees the light of day!”

Reports later estimated 6,000 protestors, and the ones we saw mostly peacefully marched down Broadway under the watchful eye of the police. It appeared a loose coalition of diverse interests, which supposedly had undermined the Occupy movement in 2011 – I saw signs against Trump, for love and peace, against rape culture, for freeing some person I had never heard of, in support of the black lives matter movement, and one puzzling 15 foot banner on the side proclaiming “Trump is not the problem – let’s talk”.

After the marched passed by, the group holding the banner promptly rolled it up neatly, and headed out past us. “What does it mean?” we asked them, puzzled – were they Trump supporters?

“Donald Trump is the not the problem,” shouted one of them without breaking stride. “The whole system is fucked up and broken, long before Trump arrived.” I looked at my brother and shrugged – it was hard to argue with that. A few hours later a couple hundred of protestors spilled onto the 580 freeway – one of the major transportation arteries of the Bay Area – and shut it down in both directions. It was the beginning of increased confrontation with police, who resorted to tear gas and flash grenades, while a small faction of protestors threw rocks and vandalized several businesses, including an Audi dealership.

Over the next few days, people tried their hardest to find silver linings, rays of optimism no matter how faint that could console us that it won’t be so bad. We consoled ourselves that perhaps we had all been woken up, and that Trump’s victory would spur a concerted backlash of civic participation. A nearly all-blue electoral map showing the vote of citizens ages 18-25 circulated on social media. We refused to believe that half of America voted for the racism, xenophobia, and misogyny that Trump presented during the elections. What we could believe – possibly the one thing uniting all of America – is the belief that the system is broken.

cw0wxbzuoaa0txo-jpg_large

This map depicts how Americans ages 18 – 25 voted last Tuesday.

We tried to reassure ourselves there was no way Trump could actually achieve most of the things he claimed – that his outlandish statements were just election promises. Besides, we said, looking at each other hopefully – he’ll likely get impeached in the first year … right?

But we were really just grasping at straws, and our feeble attempts at optimism were tempered by the out-of-body experience watching Obama welcome Trump to the White House, and the sickening news like noted climate change denier Myron Ebell was tapped by Trump to lead the Environmental Protection Agency transition team. At a meeting of conservation managers two days after the election, participants made feeble jokes about the results, the Trump transition team, and the future. But then a federal agency manager reported in deadly earnest that funding for next year was uncertain for obvious reasons, and the room fell silent.

As the week dragged on, the mundane routine of everyday life began to numb the sting of Tuesday’s results. In Oakland and around the Bay Area protests continued. But during the day, people went to work, made dinner, and went about their daily rituals – life went on. On a bike ride through UC Berkeley’s campus, I saw a group of laughing students playing jugger with foam medieval weapons, and stopped to watch. As they romped on the open lawn next to Frisbee throwers and lounging readers, I hoped fervently that the Trump presidency would fail to harm this next generation.

On Sunday, just five days after the elections, the so-called “super moon” will rise over the United States; and due to the proximity of the two celestial bodies the moon will appear larger and brighter than it has in almost 70 years. Meanwhile, down on earth, the divisions in America have never appeared further apart.

Life in the Unemployed Lane

As a graduate student secure in my university bubble during 2008 and ’09 it was vaguely disturbing to read of the subprime mortgage crisis and ensuing meltdown of the U.S. financial system. While the heart-wrenching reports of those who lost their houses, jobs, and credit were certainly alarming, they were tempered by the ill-comforting fact that while our systems collapsed all around us those of us in the university hardly felt any personal impact. Certainly we had relatives and acquaintances who lost life savings in the stock market, and a few friends who as the most recent hired quickly became the most recent fired at companies desperate to purge their payrolls and assure investors that everything was okay. But these were vague stories, whispered along the grapevine around us as we relaxed at with family during Thanksgiving break, or recuperated at home or on vacation with friends from our finals stress. It seemed bad, we fellow students conceded to each other in the lab or cafeteria, as the increasingly shrill media fervently shouted unemployment statistics and lack of consumer confidence; however it couldn’t be that bad, right? After all, we all still had our loans flowing in to pay our tuition and living expenses, and some of us had part-time jobs that gave us some cash. Plus, our ace-in-the-hole was our spiffy higher education degree – how could those shiny certificates fail to provide for us? Life was rough, but we were poor graduate students living the no-frills life and already accepting of the fact that we lived on credit – a fountain of easy wealth which unlike the majority of small business owners, prospective home buyers, and anyone else was not taken away from us.

And then we graduated. The day after we changed our tassels to the other side of our brims, threw our caps in the air, and recovered from drinking ourselves silly in celebration; we awoke ready to start finally earning some real money and become productive members of society. But instead our hangovers were accompanied by a double slap across the face with an absurdly high loan repayment plan and a devalued market for our degrees. The debt cycle college and post-graduate students fall into after finishing the university has been widely documented: in 2008 almost 70% of graduating seniors received loan repayment plans for their debt along with their diplomas; and the average nationwide debt was $23,200. This represents a 24% increase since 2004 (Project on Student Debt, 2010), and if you throw in graduate school debt as well it’s very easy for numerous students starting their careers with forty to sixty thousand dollars of debt (if you go to law or medical school, this is the bottom end of the loan spectrum). While young people do plenty of stupid things with their money, the issues isn’t mismanagement. The issue is sharply rising tuition costs: for example, tuition at all the University of California schools rose 32% in one year, and is 300% of what it used to be 10 years ago (CBS News, 2010) many universities desperate to recoup losses from their plummeting portfolios and reduced public funding are unabashedly cutting education and student services, giving students a poorer quality educational experience yet charging them vastly more for it.

However the classes of 2008, 2009, and 2010 get to enjoy an extra kick in the gut – not only are we paying more for our degrees, thanks to the financial crisis our hard-earned diplomas are worth significantly less in the job market. For example, the average salary of a graduate with any bachelor’s degree fell by about $1,000 from last year. While some engineering and computer science majors are getting slightly more for their degrees, this is tempered by the decline of other majors including liberal arts, which fell from an average starting salary last year of $36,445 down to $32,555 this year; or an 11 percent decrease (Examiner, 2010). And the cherry on top is since no one is hiring, people with masters degrees and/or years of experience who are highly overqualified are applying for these entry-level positions!

For all that is ballyhooed about unemployment statistics, very little is said about underemployment stats. Underemployment occurs when someone who is overqualified ends up working in a position that does not need their high skill set, resulting in inefficiency. And economists, some of the same precocious ones who for years assured us that our markets and financial systems were sound, snidely point out that underemployment is another trend of a recession.

But to be perfectly clear, I am not trying to say that being underemployed is worse than unemployed. My heart goes out to those who have no employment, rising bills and costs, and decreasing financial resources to pay for them. These people in general have become doormats of our toxic system, unwitting victims guilty only of wanting the American consumer dream and believing credit agents when they were told they could have it, all for a low monthly payment plan.

However it’s still hard to not have a sense of indignation when filling out application after application for entry-level positions when I possess three degrees (I double-majored in college) and have paid over $50,000 in tuition. All of us graduating have not only impeccable grades, but loads of extracurricular activities, work experience, and polished references. Yet the job landscape is as barren as the Sahara. Several friends who returned to graduate school specifically to work in local government have given up, conceding that with the hiring freeze most cities and counties are wielding as a suture for the hemorrhaging budget deficits it is better to work elsewhere temporarily rather than wait it out. Most universities are in the same boat. Many large non-profits advertise that the best way to get a foot in the door is to work an unpaid internship for an indeterminate period of time and hope an opening in your specialization pops up (never mind about how to actually pay for living expenses on top of tuition loan payments during that period of free work). Those desiring work in the corporate sector can find jobs, albeit at a much lower salary than before and in a market that more values actual work experience over a fluffy degree.

Plus, there’s the demoralizing waiting game. I would much prefer an instant, professional rejection of my application than what has increasingly become more and more common: a month-long or more suspenseful wait until finally one of your repeated inquiries digs up either one of several possible alternatives: due to the billions of applications received for this position the process is taking much longer than anticipated (most likely); your application has been rejected but the organization felt no need to inform you of this fact (second most likely); or any number of bizarre scenarios in which the position had already been filled even before the announcement was sent out, the open job became a victim of the budget and vanished off the face of the earth, or the organization apparently self-destructed because emails and phone calls to every single person listed on their website are ignored. To be fair, a large cause behind this sick cycle is that many organizations have cut back their H.R. departments at the very time in which they have become besieged with reams of applications for any open position.

The disappointing thing about this situation (well, okay there are a lot more than just one) is that local governments, universities, and non-profits are exactly the institutions that need these recently graduated, bright, articulate, and socially savvy students. Degrees are becoming more and more interdisciplinary to reflect the entrenched problems facing our financial, social, and environmental systems; and rightfully so. Effective communication and management of these issues has drastically changed in just the last couple of years. Plus in the years to come, millions of baby boomers will be retiring and taking to their vacation pastures with them LARGE amounts of institutional knowledge. The time is now to get young and sophisticated workers into the workforce so they can begin the tasks needed to help their companies and organizations adapt to the ever-quicker changing world. This seems to make logical and smart institutional sense, but then again what do I know. I’m just another unemployed person skimming the want ads.

Note – this was written in 2010, and published in the Muir Beach Beachcomber in June 2011.