Over the past several days, mainstream media and social media alike have been inflamed by the story of 20-year-old convicted sexual predator Brock Turner, whose light sentence — just six months, likely three in reality, plus three years of probation and registration as a sex offender — has sent shockwaves through the country. No less than Vice President Joe Biden has spoken out about it, and it has spurred outraged protests against the judge who made the call. But that outrage has a dark side of its own ― Judge Aaron Persky has received death threats in the aftermath of the Turner sentencing, and that is absolutely not the way for advocates of social justice and survivors of sexual assault to make their protest felt.
In fact, it is a bona fide disgrace. According to Reuters, Persky (who is facing a recall effort after winning another six-year term on the bench this week) has received a "string of death threats" because of his sentence. In case you missed it when it happened, prosecutors had asked Persky to jail Turner for six years, but citing a number of mitigating factors (some of which, like the fact that Turner was drunk, have been criticized for normalizing and minimizing the crime of rape), he handed the 20-year-old former Stanford student a mere six months.
That has caused a lot of protest and official organizing against Persky, and however you feel about him, that is fine. But now, it sounds as if the furor has also descended on him in an deeply unforgivable, indecent, and harrowing way.
There's a necessarily disclaimer here, which is that our free-for-all digital landscape makes it harder and harder to pin responsibility on certain activist or social groups for their behaviors online. Thanks to instigating third-parties (the likes of which you can sometimes find on 4chan forums, looking to whip up trouble after major media events), and the fact that things like death threats and swatting have become dismal staples of online harassment culture, it is worth being cautious.
But at the same time, given the tremendous amount of heat this story has generated among social justice advocates online, it would also be more than a little naive to assume none of it was in earnest. Political progressives are not immune from behaving abominably, after all. So let's just say this: Whoever is sending Persky death threats, whether for chaos' sake or out of legitimate outrage over his sentencing of Turner, is playing a villain's role in all this.
No matter what your reasoning is, death threats and terror-inducing harassment are not OK. To the contrary, if you're a good, otherwise upstanding person who's outraged by Persky's sentence, and you decide to send him a message threatening his life, guess what? You're no longer a good, upstanding person. Death threats are not some kind of neutral tool that can be wielded for good or for bad. They're inherently poisonous and wrong, undercutting the basic, civilized norms our society depends on to healthily function, and irreversibly corrupting any justification or moral force their sender might have.
In short, you can be disgusted by Persky's decision, and organizing to get him kicked out of office (by signing these petitions, for example) is entirely in-bounds. But death threats? Come on. It's time for us all to do better than this, and to call it out whenever it happens, not just when people on "our side" are in the crosshairs.