DECEMBER 25 - DECEMBER 31
On the second to last day of the year, in Brooklyn Criminal Court, the vast majority of the defendants peopling the packed arraignment schedule were Black men. Of around 25 men and women taking their turns standing before the judge, only one or two were White. Case files on the attorneys' desk stacked on top of each other, sometimes more than one warrant per person. One Black man was accused by a Rite Aid of stealing bottles of Advil and Motrin; they were, his lawyer said, for his sick children. Even more galling, the charge the state was bringing against him was drug possession, not petit larceny. Another Black man, elderly and ill, was given a chair only when his attorney told the court in some detail about his ailments. A Black woman, by the account her attorney gave, was merely present at an assault committed by her boyfriend rather than, as the state contended, part of it; the bail requested on one of her warrants was in the thousands of dollars. These and the other cases that stick most strongly with me, and which present their own kind of damning pattern within an already racist system, are ones where White prosecutors and White judges levy heavy charges and heavy bail on Black defendants.
Court Watching sometimes lays bare the small moments of humanity that exist within the court system, but more often, it's their absence that I notice. I've been struck, in the wintertime, by the frequency of accused people having been arrested without a coat, or in short pajamas, or in flip-flops. Twice in the last two months, I have seen frail, ill, or elderly defendants unable to stand before the judge. And even without harsher circumstances like these, the court is not set up for the comfort or understanding of people accused of a crime, despite the fact that they are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. The first thing I noticed about the Brooklyn Central Court building, for instance, is how imposing it seems, and how that imposition must be magnified if the reason you're there is because you've been accused of a crime. The limestone facade stands out on its corner of Schermerhorn, diagonally across from a very pricey hotel, and when you enter, there's a winding maze of crowd borders that shuffles you up to the metal detectors. The guards might direct you where to go, depending on the volume of people they're dealing with, or you might be left to find your courtroom yourself. You might have family and friends able to come to your arraignment, or you might not. Childcare, work, school, and all kinds of other obligations regularly make it hard for folks to trek to downtown Brooklyn even for the people they love the most.
When you enter the courtroom as a Court Watcher, it's almost as though you're watching a play from your seat in the audience. (And indeed, lawyers and other court personnel often refer to the pew-like rows of benches as exactly that: the audience.) It's a play in which everyone on "stage" (at the judge's bench, in the prosecution and defense respective warrens of desks, and among the court officers, clustering in various parts of the space) has the script, but the accused person and their family and friends (if they were able to get there) in the seats probably do not. They might not know exactly what's going on, and depending on which judge they're in front of, they might not get it satisfactorily explained. The performative aspect of the courtroom makes sense on some levels. Everyone sinks into the role they have to play. So too does the apparent detachment of regular staff that a lot of Court Watchers have noticed in previous reflections. The courtroom is a daily workplace for bridge officers, court officers, judges, and attorneys, and sometimes you have to detach a little to keep up a regular grind, but it's a daily workplace where other people's lives are irrevocably affected, every hour.
In my time Court Watching, I've gotten used to a lot of what's said, a lot of the legal terms and penal law numbers and other information that gets conveyed only verbally and usually very quickly and sometimes not over a microphone. I've gotten used to it enough to be able to understand most of it, but every time I'm there, I decipher something new, and often I'm struggling, in the echoey, drafty, chatter-filled space, to hear the words in the first place. As a group, Court Watchers share docket numbers and other data, very often purely because one or more of us can't hear it when the bridge officer announces it. How much harder would it be to understand it if my English was more limited, or my hearing in any way impaired, or my emotions high because I wasn't sure if my partner or child would be released that day or not, and if they were, if we could make their bail?
This noise problem (which Court Watchers have been encountering and advocating against for months, but which accused people and their families have been dealing with for years) feels to me to be a function of the insider mentality. When we Court Watch, we make inroads into one of the systems that most aggressively upholds white supremacy, and that also has considerable power to unravel it.
A pattern I didn't expect is the unevenness of how the narrative of the facts of the case, as presented by the District Attorneys and at the heart of the script of the justice performance, gets unfurled. Not every case's facts are shared, which, although sometimes the logical move when a case is easily resolvable on both sides, reveals a tension between efficiency and humanity, tension that I am learning shoots through all the other ways the law is handed down. The system's biases against people of color and poor people are revealed first and foremost by the manner in which a person is arrested by the police, an unendingly racist practice that continually reveals itself both within the NYPD and within other jurisdictions. It makes sense not to tell a story for every defendant if a story isn't needed, for sure, but that raises an important question: who is it needed by? So even though the real place for the extended story is the space of a trial courtroom, one of the spaces that comes after arraignment, the discrepancies sometimes seem to fly in the face of equal treatment under the law. It recently struck me the part of the point of recounting the facts of the case, besides getting the state's case on the record and giving the defense an opportunity to counter, is so the accused person can hear what the state has against them. Each individual deserves to hear their own story in plain and understandable language, and that is not always the case.
The auditory problem is a persistent one, and so far, the response from the court doesn't seem to be the right one. Several weeks back, in an afternoon Court Watch session, our group (and only our group, as far as I could tell) was approached by a court official and offered assistive hearing devices. While a kind thing to do, the offer skewers the source of the real problem, which is systemic. The courtroom is large and loud and drafty, and offering an assistive hearing device is a Band-Aid on a problem that may well marginalize additional people: those with actual hearing impairments. The irony at the heart of both the information gap and the hearing gap that regularly yawn within the courtroom space is that in order for a regular citizen to most fully understand the language and workings of the court system, the best course of action is to be arrested multiple times.
During a shift right before the end of the year, the judge cautioned a White man that the next step ahead of him was Riker's. I was struck by how rarely I've heard that caution from a judge—indeed, how rarely I ever hear the next step in the process said out loud to defendants. If their case isn't dismissed or if they can't make bail, that's where they're heading, sometimes for months. Why did a White judge warn a White defendant, and not the dozens of Black defendants whose bail she'd set earlier in that session? And I've seen other White judges repeat what feels like a script about the importance of doing better and working hard only when the accused person in front of them is a person of color. What I'd like to see in 2019 from White judges and White district attorneys is more of an awareness that the deck our society shuffles is unfairly stacked against people of color in insidious and constant ways; that whiteness or money or both does a heck of a lot to protect certain people from doing time in prison; that the story of what happened at a ‘crime scene’ is a lot more complex than what a police officer might notice; and primarily, that a conviction for a broken windows crime (especially) can derail a person's life in ways you might not even be able to predict. The responsibility of the justice system should not be to punish, and is rarely, in practice, to rehabilitate; it should be more expansive, more humane, more measured, and cease to contribute to the social structures of white supremacy.