A nearly silent crowd of Alaskans flanked by reporters filled the hallways of the Fairbanks Superior Court this morning. They passed methodically through security and made their way to courtroom 401. The crowd lingered around a closed door, and on that door hung a sign that said “Confidential Hearing – Do Not Enter.”
Behind the doors the crowd was barred from entering, Judge Paul Lyle heard arguments from attorneys for the Fairbanks Four and the opposing counsel on the sealed brief, or “secret confession,” of Jason Wallace. The statements of Jason Wallace, filed under seal so that the court could determine if the statements could remain sealed under attorney-client privelage, have become a focal point for supporters of the men known as the Fairbanks Four. Those supporters gathered beside the doors sealed against them and prayed.
No one there expected to be admitted to the courtroom. Instead, they came simply so the world could watch them linger. Watch them locked out of the court from which they have sought justice for seventeen long years. Stand there simply so that the human beings who together make up the justice system would have to walk through a gauntlet of humanity – so that all who were admitted into the room would see the faces of so many who are shut out. Those who feel abandoned and betrayed by what they have seen inside a system whose promise is blind justice, and equality for all. Those who live in limbo, those who are used to doors they cannot enter.
Behind those closed doors, secrets stayed secret. Attorneys argued, witnesses were called, and under the cloak of anonymity and the protection of a seal, one side fought to keep a murder confession hidden for more than a decade a secret, and the other side argued for an end to the era of secrets in the Fairbanks Four case.
No one likes the “race card,” which is a way of saying no one likes to talk about race. Sometimes the truth is hard to hear. Rarely is it harder to hear than it is to say. Always, it is important to do both. But for the first peoples of Alaska and those who live among them, doors have been built, locked, closed, and labeled in ways that change lives for generations. It is important to understand that in order to understand the depth of common pain that resides in those hallways, and the determination to not remain unseen. It was not long ago at all that children were stolen away and locked behind the doors of mission schools where they were tortured and altered. Many never walked out. It wasn’t long ago that the stores that line the downtown avenues just beside the courthouse had signs hung in the windows that said “No Dogs or Natives Allowed.” It was not many years ago that a sign in Tanana prohibited Natives from crossing the “mission line” that cut their ancestral home in two.
And it was seventeen years and one month ago exactly today that four young men were taken away for a crime that they didn’t commit and locked behind doors. Doors that they cannot walk out of. Doors their family cannot cross over. Doors that, deep down, everyone gathered in the hallway knows they may never walk out of. Behind locked doors are secrets, opportunities, histories, loved ones, strangers, stories, and in this case, the truth.
“It reminded me,” said supporter Misty Nickoli of the somber scene in the hallway, “of the gatherings at a person’s house, after they die. They way people hold onto dignity and do what they have to do even when it is a time of grief. It’s hard. Those times when you just know that the future isn’t always fair. But we have to keep going.:”
In this case, in the case of the Fairbanks Four and the case of equality in Alaska, it is time for doors to open. It is important to fill those hallways and linger outside the doors so that someday, some bright day, our children will not have to. Until then, the hallways will remain full if people who know there are forces that pass through man made doors and lines, and that they are part of that power.
Photo credit goes to the lovely and talented Carey, sister of George Frese.
You can and SHOULD read news on this hearing. Many times, the press does their job spreading information, and we do our job telling a story. Here are some articles and newscasts.