Hundreds or people filled the hallway of the fifth floor of the Fairbanks Superior courthouse yesterday, gathered around two closed doors bearing the words “Confidential Hearing Do Not Enter.” They came one by one, trickling in to wait together, again, for justice. Grandmothers with their scarves and crochet needles, babies hanging from their mother’s hips, teenagers playing on their phones, nurses on lunch break, a relocated e-board meeting, beggars, CEO’s, activists, priests, people – they all came, and they waited.
For the last eighteen years people have stood diligently in the halls – pilgrims at the doorstep of a justice system that will not let them all the way in. And they have waited. They have raised money one dollar at a time, cake walks and spaghetti feeds, auctioned diamond willow walking sticks, and paintings, and hundreds of thousands of glass beads sewn to moose hide, and they have never given up.
Because eighteen years ago men in power took away four boys for a crime they did not commit on a whim and a terrible miscalculation. Four boys. Children. They did not care whether or not they were guilty, just believed they were disposable. That they would be forsaken and forgotten because they could not see them as human beings with value equal to their own children, because that is the dehumanizing reality of racism and bias. They were so, so wrong. It’s beautiful, really, how wrong they were.
“I go cover to cover on the case, and I just don’t see anything that would account for its staying power, its longevity, its life,” a former police chief said in reference to the case in 2012.
They forgot to account for the staying power of the truth and the longevity of love. For eighteen years no one who loved those boys, or loved people who loved those boys, or loved someone they could see in those boys forgot. Their persistence grew. The truth spread. Years of hard work led back to the courtroom where the case began, barred from entry to the room where fates would be decided, back to the hallway to wait.
After more than seven hours of waiting, the doors opened. The judge allowed the courtroom to fill to capacity, and warned the spectators that the court was a solemn institution of justice, and that he would not tolerate outbursts or demonstrations. The court was silent as the judge outlined the terms on which the four would be exonerated.
The State of Alaska agreed to release the men by dismissing the original charges, which from a legal perspective makes it almost as if the case simply never happened. As if they were never arrested or charged at all. As if the entire thing was, after all, only a nightmare.
The State further required that the four men agree to not sue the state for their wrongful imprisonment or the police and prosecutorial misconduct that led to it.
What are eighteen years of life worth?
There are some that believe the four should have waited in prison until they were offered monetary compensation. And certainly are owed better from the very system predicated on the notion that accountability should be calculated and exacted through the court of law. But money is only money. (You CAN donate money to them HERE).
No one lays awake at night an innocent man in a prison cell and has their heart break a thousand times because they miss money. People miss their mom, their brother, their best friend, their dad, their child, their lover, their sister. They miss Christmas and pancakes and birthday candles and coffee and giggles. They miss time. They miss love.
No one thought about money when the judge announced the immediate release of Eugene Vent, George Frese, Kevin Pease, and Marvin Roberts. They erupted into cheers. They cried. And they sang and danced a powerful song and a strong dance.
All of those people went home, cooked, and met at the tribal hall an hour later and put on one of the largest potlatches Interior Alaska has ever seen. With nearly no notice they prepared a feast, gathered, and waited one last time to welcome home the men who were taken so long ago, back when they were still just boys.
The four men came home. They walked into the tribal hall where for many years chairs have waited empty for them. And the people danced again.
Nuchalawoyya was the song. Literally translated from Koyukon Athabascan it means “where two rivers meet.” Much of meaning, in many things, is lost in translation. It also means a confluence – a place where people meet, where two things become one thing. The meeting of the Yukon and Tanana Rivers is called by the same name. It was a traditional meeting place for chiefs for more time than history can record, and it was place that saw gatherings in celebration and despair alike. It was the place that the Tanana Chiefs conferred so long ago to negotiate collectively for their people. The place is very near the modern day village of Tanana, a place where two worlds collided long ago. After the first settlers came they divided the place along an invisible barrier called the “mission line.” On one side, the church, the school, the clinic. On the other, the houses and forest. No Natives were allowed to cross the mission line after 5pm. The world is cut up with invisible lines. A mission line runs right across the courthouse steps. Nuchalawoyya is that place, and it is a song that remembers all of that and more.
It is a song that has been sung at many fundraisers and protests and times where these men were mourned or rooted for or lifted up. It has long been a cry for justice and last night the men for whom the song was sung so many times came home and walked right into that circle and sang that song, too.
The Fairbanks Four were exonerated and released because of the hard work and faith of people like you. To all of you who have read this blog, heard this story, donated, baked, dance, sewed, sang, hoped, listened – thank you.
George’s daughter was three when he was taken away. She is twenty-one now. The sound of her yelling “Dad!” across a room and run to hug her father – thank you for that.
Eugene’s mom holding onto him – this small woman whose son grew to a big tall man away where she could not reach him – touching his face and saying, “Is it really real?” – thank you for that.
Kevin flanked by his aunts, the sisters of the beloved mother he lost while in prison, shaking the hand of a little boy who wanted to meet him, who came and said “I did a current events report on you for school and got a hundred percent and that’s how come I knew you were innocent and am happy you are home.” Thank you.
Marvin’s mother peering through a locked door for the last time, tears finally of happiness on her face when he stood a free man for the first time in eighteen years – thank you for that.
And none of that could ever be purchased. The Fairbanks Four deserve better than what they got, but what they got is better than what those who did them wrong will ever see or feel or understand in a lifetime. They won.
The fight for justice is not over. It will not end in this lifetime or the next. But it is a privilege and a blessing to fight.
To Eugene, Kevin, George, and Marvin – welcome home.