When The Bullies Are Grown-Ups

Aaron Swartz (ragesoss/flickr)

Aaron Swartz (ragesoss/flickr)

Last night, our school principal briefed our Parent Teacher Organization on the program that will teach our children about bullying: Not to do it, to speak up if they see it happening and to be sure to tell an adult about it.

Tell an adult? With computer prodigy Aaron Swartz’s suicide still echoing in my mind, I wondered: But what if the bully is an adult? Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig says that Swartz was “driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying.” Civil rights attorney Harvey Silverglate tells WBUR’s David Boeri in his report today that the government “terrorized this young man.” Emily Bazelon, a senior editor at Slate, writes similarly that Swartz “was on the receiving end of blatant prosecutorial intimidation.”

Bazelon has a deep background in the legal world and is about to publish a book on bullying,  “Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Empathy and Character.” So I asked if her research might shed any light on legal bullying. Does the current thinking on bullying among kids address what to do in a case like Swartz’s?

Her reply:

When it’s a prosecutor who is acting like a bully, schoolyard lessons aren’t really relevant. The power imbalance isn’t psychological or based on social status — it’s real, backed by the threat of prison or other criminal punishment. And it’s not something a defendant has any control over.

I do think there’s a lesson, though, about the role of the passive bystander —- and especially, bystanders, plural. Individual members of the public can’t change prosecutorial practices. But collectively, we can demand changes. Prosecutors work for the government—which means they work for us.

Those collective demands for changes seem to have begun. The Boston Herald reports on a petition to remove U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz:

A citizens’ petition at Whitehouse.gov launched Saturday demanding the removal of U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz over the prosecution of Aaron Swartz is gaining steam, with more than 26,000 signatures as of this morning — exceeding the 25,000 threshold needed to generate an official response from the White House under the Obama administration’s stated terms.

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