A few weeks ago I tried to describe the emotional impact of Kieran Fitzgerald’s “The Ballad of Esequiel Hernandez.” It’s been a long time since a documentary left me so incapacitated by grief. The first time was in the midst of violent anti-war protests against the Viet Nam war, in a room full of cynical boomers at the UCLA Film School, as we watched Albert and David Maysles’s “Salesman” and were reduced to sobbing.
“The Ballad of Esequiel Hernandez” is a superb example of a documentary that shrewdly reaches for the pain without pouring on the polemics. Only after delivering a blow to the heart does that pain slowly make way for rage about the larger social context in which Esequiel was killed.
Rage? That’s right. I’m no longer paralyzed.
Watching “The Ballad of Esequiel Hernandez” brought to mind every example of pathetically misguided criminal justice policies that have been adopted exclusively as public theatre, remedies designed to create elegant yet completely phony illusions of action.
Oh, I know that these “solutions” are sold to the public as the latest and greatest answers to public anxiety. And I know that a scared public is vulnerable to quickly adopting almost anything that looks tough.
It’s just that these “solutions” are so often scams, quick and dirty fixes proposed by some politician who knows that a politically successful policy will always trump an effective one.
And do we come up with some good ones! A mandatory sentencing law takes discretion away from judges, young men and women are imprisoned for life because they are present during a homicide someone else committed, the merchants of toughness continue the absurd and oxymoronic hunt for a fair and humane death penalty, boot camps open that are nothing more than modern chain gangs, and US Marines are deployed to the border to watch for drugs. Everyone is thrilled. Whoopee.
Mission accomplished. Society has drawn a line in the sand. Aren’t we the tough guys?
Which would be just hunky-dory if not for the fact that virtually no one is any safer. And even worse, as we revel in our new feelings of “security,” we completely miss all the ways that our faux toughness has created a whole new set of victims — innocent people on death row, juveniles tried as adults, 50 year olds entering their third decade of imprisonment for drug possession, and young men like Esequiel — shot dead on land that he and his family honored and tended.
When the Clinton administration decided to calm an anxious public by deploying US Marines to the border near Redford, Texas, it was engaging in pointless feel-good theatrics. It looked great. The US Marines looked great. We showed those creeps who was in charge.
Too bad an innocent young man in South Texas had to ruin all the fun.