As the only non-lawyer working in our office every day, I’ve sometimes felt like I’ve awoken in another country, one where everyone else fluently speaks a language I only speak well enough to order a coffee or to ask someone for directions to the nearest museum. Thankfully, this language gap has lessened a little over time and much of the “legalese” has become more familiar. For me, this familiarity is fundamental. I’ve found that there’s a world of difference between “knowing” something and “understanding” something. Significantly, working here has shown me just how deeply this difference has applied to my perception of our Constitution.
Like most people, I encountered the Constitution for the first time in elementary school. There, it existed as one of many dots on a timeline, just another date to memorize. In high school, it was the foundational document that gave us a bicameral legislature and lots of politicians who would then make laws from these two houses. It was certainly more than a dot, but it remained impersonal and altogether insignificant to how I saw the world. In college, everything in life began to take on more layers of complexity, including the Constitution.
I decided early on to major in history. These were the classes that inspired me most and they provided a context for the Constitution that I hadn’t really encountered before. Suddenly, I saw this document, not just as a means of laying out government structures, but also as the ultimate set of parameters for how the government and the people should interact. I began to actually think about “rights” as they were extended to some and not others across time periods, e.g. women, immigrants, and people of color… For all of this context and complexity I’d acquired, the Constitution was still something distant, not altogether relevant to my life or anyone else living in the here and now.
In my brief time working here, I’ve been able to see just how wrong I’ve been. I have seen how relevant the Constitution is in the lives of our clients. Unfortunately, these people didn’t have the luxury of taking the Constitution for granted as I have. They’ve been stripped in the streets of Oakland for all to see. They’ve been beaten, tased, pepper-sprayed and mocked when in the middle of a medical emergency. In many cases, these are people whose lives have been taken from them and we’re trying to help mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, who are left behind wanting answers.
It’s true. I knew what the Constitution was before I came here, but I never understood the extent to which it is relevant, it is real, and it is present in our lives. My hope is that all people, particularly those in powerful positions, would come to “understand” the Constitution as well.