One of the best things I’ve read lately was a Twitter thread by Rebecca Kavanagh, a Brooklyn-based public defender I’ve been following for a few months and who tweets about her experiences representing clients, many of whom are low-income or homeless. Most of Rebecca’s Twitter threads are dispatches from arraignments at night court.
One of the things I like about Rebecca’s Twitter threads is how beautifully written they are. Take this stanza, below, which begins, “I didn’t grow up here…”
Note how she manages to say what she has to say without actually saying it. Another person might have written that, as she has no family in New York, she chooses to spend Thanksgiving with other people who won’t be celebrating. But Rebecca doesn’t say any of those things. She just states that she’s not from here, and we get the idea.
I’m the last person you’d expect to find on Twitter, given that I mostly like old things — old languages, old movies, old technology. I missed the birth of social media, having been otherwise engaged, and must have spent all of 20 minutes on Facebook over the years, before deleting my account last summer after the Congressional hearings. I don’t know Tumblr from Tinder, have no idea what Reddit is, and only recently learned that there’s a whole other meaning of the word “influencer” that has something to do with people making a living without doing anything but posting things on Instagram. But I don’t think I could live without Twitter. It’s a language and a form of theater, but it’s also a window into places you couldn’t easily or ordinarily go, and Twitter threads and people like Rebecca are partly why.
Twitter threads are little essays in miniature. It’s partly Rebecca’s grasp of how to use the form that makes her threads so compelling. The part of her Thanksgiving thread just above actually reads like a little sonnet: three quatrains and a couplet.
The Thanksgiving thread is about a policy that’s supposed to have stopped, whereby cops go after drug users rather than drug dealers and use a particularly cruel and inhuman method of entrapment, asking people who are clearly suffering from withdrawal to buy drugs from them and then arresting them. But Rebecca takes her time getting to the point, going back and forth between the general and specific. She’s making a virtue of necessity. There’s only so much she can tell us about her actual clients, so she sets what little she can share against the bigger picture.
What Rebecca is doing there, where she uses the @ symbol is called “tagging.” She’s sending her tweet to the person she’s talking about in it (Bill de Blasio and Eric Gonzalez, the district attorney for Kings County, Brooklyn). She’s tagging the people she regards as partly responsible for circumstances she is describing — she’s addressing the fact that politicians often pay lip service to the idea of criminal-justice reform without actually implementing policy. Rebecca isn’t writing to have a direct influence, but in the hope that someone else will read it who might.
Most of Rebecca’s Twitter threads are also about how no one is really paying much attention to new policies that have been announced in the name of criminal-justice reform, though sometimes she tweets about conditions at the criminal court building itself. In September she tweeted about broken doors and burnt-out lightbulbs.
Rebecca isn’t the only person who tweets from arraignments. A colleague of hers, Eliza Orlins, does the same thing from Manhattan. Eliza did a thread the other day about how the cops in Manhattan were still arresting people for fare-beating — even though they’re supposed to have stopped doing that. Then Rebecca amplified Eliza’s thread by retweeting it.
The other night, I contacted Rebecca on Twitter via direct message to ask whether she got any response from the Mayor or the Brooklyn DA to her Thanksgiving tweet-thread. She said she hadn’t, though it was the most popular one she’d done. And back in the fall, when she did that thread about the broken doors and burnt-out lightbulbs in the area where public defenders have to meet with their clients in Brooklyn, someone from the Mayor’s Office contacted her privately to let her know the bulbs had been replaced. “Small thing, but it happened,” she wrote. “But the most frustrating thing about being a public defender is that you do feel no one hears you and there is no accountability. But when you tweet, people do and sometimes there is.”