Why I Didn’t Dance For Rubashkin… And Why I Regret It

There is dancing in the streets. And no, I don’t mean the Grateful Dead song. Dancing in the streets throughout Crown Heights Wednesday night. Why? Because Sholom Rubashkin was freed.

Dancing, music, people handing out vodka shots, giving out blessings, celebrating. I first heard the news moments after it happened, but I did not celebrate — at least not initially — and I had to ask why. After all, here was a guy who was sentenced 27 years for bank fraud.

27 years. A sentence that was so over the top and crazy that four different attorney’s general had petitioned multiple presidential administrations saying, “Yes, he did wrong things. But 27 years, even for the hundreds of counts for bank fraud for which he was convicted, is crazy. It’s bad sentencing, it’s bad law, it doesn’t make sense.”

In 2009, Sholom Rubashkin was sentenced to 27 years in a federal prison. He served over eight and a half years and on Wednesday, President Trump issued his first presidential commutation. It was not a pardon. He remains a convicted felon. That’s Rubashkin… Trump’s a different matter.

Rubashkin served those years, and they will always be with him. But his sentence was commuted. In line with exactly what Republican and Democratic attorney’s general and law makers from both parties have been requesting for quite some time. This was, by all accounts, a triumph for justice and a move against over-sentencing and over-punishing, so why wasn’t I immediately and unqualifiedly happy? I really had to ask myself that.

The truth of the matter is, and I am not proud to admit it, my hesitation to celebrate was rooted in something else. Long before there was bank fraud, Sholom Rubashkin presided over a company in which hundreds and hundreds of people in thousands of instances, were taken advantage of, either because they were undocumented aliens or they were recent legal immigrants to the United States of America. It was the raids against Rubashkin’s meat processing plant in Iowa where those workers were mistreated, that gave rise to the research into his unsavory business practices, including the bank fraud for which he was convicted and over-sentenced.

And yet, my immediate reaction to the correction of that injustice was, “Really? I cannot believe it! I cannot believe that this is President Trump’s first commutation!” Yes, a terrible injustice was being undone, yet a big piece of me imagined it was being undone because the people who were wronged, most directly and immediately, were those undocumented aliens and recent immigrants from Central and South America. And how perfectly that seems to fit with the policies and practices of the current administration.

And then, without stepping away from those concerns one iota, I have to admit that something was wrong with me. Whatever differences and disagreements there are about policy toward immigrants in this country, how could I be so wrapped up in that debate, and so concerned about that, that it kept me from appreciating something that is being done well and justly? That just because I’m frustrated with, or even angry at, the messenger, that I couldn’t appreciate the message — that I am so annoyed with this president that I couldn’t immediately appreciate it, even when he did something we actually agree about!

Whatever problems I have with the current administration’s approach toward immigrants and immigration policy, when any of us get so wrapped up in our anger, in our frustration, in our righteous indignation, that we can’t appreciate that very often good things come from places we might not think are so good — when that happens, we have our own serious problem.

When I get so wrapped up in a particular position or political fight that even when justice is done I can’t immediately appreciate it because I don’t like the person who did justice, that itself is a kind of injustice. That itself is a kind of stupidity. That itself is a kind of dogmatic, doctrinaire response, which, if not as seriously misguided as the policies of the current administration I oppose, is damn near close.

Those initial minutes and hours of resistance passed, and by the end of the night, I was able to celebrate Sholom Rubashkin’s release. But the real question the morning after, and on every morning as we move forward, is: Are any of us really ready to put big notions of justice and country and mutual support ahead of the very real policy debates and differences we have? We should still have those debates and those differences. They are real, they are substantive, they are important and people’s lives hang in the balance of which way we go.

But people’s lives also hang in the balance of our ability to see past those differences and angers at whomever we oppose politically, and to appreciate justice when it comes, regardless of who brings it. Sholom Rubashkin knows that this morning and I know it better too.



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