Rachael Rollins isn’t sorry. Rachael Rollins doesn’t do sorry.
“I think I responded to a caller that was desperate,” the Suffolk district attorney said in a telephone interview. “All of this started with a caller who was desperate and had not been treated with the respect or dignity he deserved.”
Rollins was making a regular appearance on “Boston Public Radio" with Jim Braude and Margery Eagan last week, when a criminal defendant called in. What happened next set off a firestorm, centering on issues of race and privilege.
The caller, “James from Webster,” said he was having trouble figuring out what was going on with his scheduled trial. (With courthouses closed, trials are on hold.) Rollins told him to call his lawyer. James said that he had and that his court-appointed counsel wouldn’t call him back.
Rollins told him he could also try the district attorney’s office, which is where things went sideways.
An attorney — Rachel from Somerville — called in to say what almost any lawyer would say: that a defendant, however confused, should not be urged to call the prosecution for help or advice. It’s an adversarial system, after all. Rachel said he should call CPCS, or the Committee for Public Counsel Services.
That’s when Rollins became irate, accusing the public defender’s office of not answering the phones, not doing enough to help clients, and generally, not caring enough about their welfare.
If you’d given me 10 guesses as to the adversaries in Rollins’s next public confrontation, I would not have guessed public defenders as the answer. They are almost uniformly regarded as hard-working and overburdened advocates for people who can’t afford counsel. Moreover, they defend the very people Rollins says she is here to fight for.
So what’s up with that?
“Where I think my frustration comes from — you know, I’m not just the DA,” Rollins said. “I’m the sibling of people who’ve had public defenders — some good ones, some bad ones.”
She told me she tried calling CPCS herself right after the show and got the voice mail runaround before eventually reaching a general mailbox that was full and couldn’t take any more voice mails.
“Either they never check their voice mails, or they do check them and by 11:45 on a Thursday it’s full again,” Rollins said. “Every one of those voice mails is a ‘James’ desperate for someone to talk to.”
But this isn’t simply a flap over voice mail. It’s also become a raging debate about privilege.
“When you hear in my voice my disgust or outrage about CPCS not calling people back, it’s their overwhelmingly privileged staff that isn’t calling back poor, black, and brown people because they’re saying, ‘We’re overworked and we’re busy.’ “ Rollins said on the radio. “But it’s my people who are losing, no matter what.”
Rollins insisted that the idea that she attacked them for lack of diversity is inaccurate. Indeed, she said on the show that CPCS and DA’s offices share a need for greater diversity. She told me she has greatly increased the diversity in her own office, particularly among senior staff.
Still, she painted a picture of “privileged” white lawyers who make excuses rather than dealing with their Black and brown clients. That’s ridiculous and unfair. For all she knows, James’s lawyer hasn’t called back because he has the coronavirus or is dealing with someone who does. Who’s to say this is a referendum on privilege?
Rollins told me she never intended to attack public defenders as a group and didn’t believe she had. But she also made it clear that their hurt feelings were not her priority.
“This isn’t a game,” Rollins told me. “It’s about somebody’s life. It’s always been about the Jameses of the world for me. That’s why I do my job.”
Rollins personalizes everything: it’s both her greatest strength and her most glaring weakness. Her empathy for those who have been mistreated at the hands of a heartless and often racist system comes from a heartfelt place. Rollins is a true reformer, and that’s all to good.
But sometimes, in the heat of battle, she seems to think she’s the only person who truly gives a damn. Most public defenders care about just the issues — and people — Rollins cares about.
I don’t know why James’s lawyer didn’t call him back, and I’m not defending it. But a key part of leading a movement is understanding who’s on your side. If you’re at war with your allies, you’re fighting the wrong people.