Late in 2015, incensed by the perceived lack of justice afforded to Steven Avery (as documented in Netflix’s new Making A Murderer series), someone with the initials “D.R.” sat down in San Bruno, California; typed WhiteHouse.Gov in their URL bar; and petitioned the president to pardon Avery. While that might seem like a noble enough cause—if Avery wasn’t given a fair trial, perhaps the president could do something about it?—it was a fool’s errand in more ways than one. In practical terms, Avery was convicted of a Wisconsin state charge, so it’s the governor’s prerogative to pardon, not the president’s, as the White House explained in its response to the petition. Second, and more to the point, it simply shouldn’t be the president or his staff’s responsibility to react to every pop culture-inspired whim the American people have.
Yes, the Avery petition has its roots in actual criminal justice even if it was sparked by a Netflix show, but it’s just the latest in a string of misguided petitions submitted the We The People petition site. While most are politically inspired—recall Barack Hussein Obama, outlaw the Tea Party, “take action to fight secret money immediately—and redeem your failed money in politics legacy,” whatever that means—the petitions that have historically gotten the most ink aren’t the ones based in pure justice. Instead, they’re the ones like, “Change the national anthem to R. Kelly’s 2003 hit ‘Ignition (Remix),’” or “Secure resources and funding, and begin construction of a Death Star by 2016,” a petition so popular that it led the White House to change the number of signatures required before it officially responds to a campaign. (The minimum is now 100,000, up from 25,000.)
A government official told Mother Jones back in 2013 that silly petitions like the Death Star one are fine because the We The People site “puts some bureaucrats out of their comfort zones and reminds everyone we are working for the people,” that doesn’t mean that the people’s whims—this writer’s included—aren’t inane sometimes. Moreover, just because we can fill out a brief internet form encouraging the president to deport Canadian nightmare Justin Bieber back to the Great White North doesn’t mean we should.
There are a few reasons for such a cessation, not all of which are entirely chiding. First off, let’s be practical about this. The president’s a busy guy. Not only does neither he nor his staff have time to care about Justin Bieber’s immigration status, he might not have the actual power to do something about it, à la the Avery petition mentioned above. Beyond that, sometimes querying the president just isn’t the way to get the job done in the most efficient fashion. While it might be cool, for example, for the U.S. government to somehow push all its military funding toward the construction of a Death Star, the bureaucracy of that project would be a nightmare. You’d have to get countless politicians and government operatives on board, which could take decades. The Death Star is a project for the private sector. Petition Richard Branson—he’s already dabbling in the space race and can single-handedly allot funds for, at the very least, an exploratory committee examining the logistics of a planet-vaporizing battle station. (Let’s use #BuildADeathStarBranson, and direct everything to @RichardBranson.)
More seriously, what about that Steven Avery petition? What would be the best way to help his cause? Well, there’s a Change.Org petition asking Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker to pardon Avery, but he’s already said he won’t pardon anyone during his term in office. Better still, you could send an email to Wisconsin’s attorney general, Brad Schimel, asking for a state review of the Avery case. You could call and send a letter there, as well. And, hey, the state’s Department Of Justice is even on Twitter! What if the 100,000-plus people who signed that White House petition were instead tweeting twice daily at the Wisconsin DOJ, asking for a deep dive into the Avery matter? That would be harder to ignore.
Another way to enact a little frontier internet justice would be to kick some money over to the Center For Wrongful Convictions, a Northwestern University-based organization whose roster includes Steven Drizin and Laura Nirider—the lawyers featured in Making A Murderer for their work to clear Brendan Dassey’s name. It’s that kind of small gesture—$10 sent via PayPal, for instance—that, when multiplied 100,000, 10,000, or even 1,000 times, can make a big difference. (If you’re in the Chicago area, the Center also has volunteer opportunities for those looking to perform data entry and do light clerical work in their spare time.)
For some, petitions like “Convert At Least One (1) National Park Into A Dinosaur Clone Park” are political satire, a jab at a government that’s already been turned into a media spectacle and lacks any air of austerity or solemnity. That’s fair. The dog-and-pony-show that we, the American people, see on television masquerading as politics is, a lot of the time, more entertainment than government. But these petitions—the ones that compel our public servants to spend hours of the day and public funds pondering the visa status of Justin Bieber—only perpetuate that mentality.
Ultimately, as Americans and as denizens of the internet, we can spend our leisure time however we please. If we want to park our asses on our couches and watch 10 hours of well-made dramatic television about a guy who may or may not have been wrongfully convicted of murder, more power to us. And if we then want to fill in a quick web form urging our president to pardon some guy we saw on TV, great. That’s perfectly legitimate.
It’s not productive, though. It’s a Band-Aid on a hole in the dam. Clicking a We The People petition might make us feel a little better about ourselves—like we didn’t just spend our entire day idly scrolling through Tumblr and analyzing which of our high school classmates has aged the best—but it won’t make for actual change. And the thing is, actual change is not out of reach. It’s negligibly harder to email Brad Schimel than it is to email Barack Obama, and it’s only slightly harder still to kick your Starbucks money for the day over to the Center For Wrongful Convictions. In all fairness, those outcries aren’t necessarily the ones you’ll see written about jokingly on sites like The A.V. Club. But the focused, thoughtful grassroots efforts are the ones that could ultimately make a difference in the lives of people like Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey.