Posted here in honor of my much better half.
Last day in court
It feels like being called to the principal’s office. Knowing you didn’t do anything wrong, but feeling guilty anyway. And I am the good girl; it’s the others who are the regulars, who don’t seem to feel as concerned. Their lives are already so desperate and irreparable, so what if they get another fine, have to pay court costs again. They can’t. Their families, if they have any left, don’t have anything, either.
Their attorneys have seen it all before and go through the motions of talking respectfully to the judge in the hushed tones of a library or church. Just like in church, all the petitioners sit in the pews, hoping for mercy and forgiveness at the raised altar where the judge sits in his black robes. The altar boy bailiffs make sure folks stay in their places until it’s their turn to testify. The attorneys, mostly young white men and a few young women in suits, sit in the choir-like jury box on the calendar days, waiting for their client’s name to be called. Nobody but the lawyers and the judge ever get to say anything. It’s a bureaucratic dance that the veteran churchgoers know; those not yet baptized watch in awed amazement.
What a waste of time for all involved. Most of the more than 100 cases called today will not be heard for months, if not years. The whole morning was spent just making sure the lawyer and his or her client were in the courtroom and would come back sometime in the future.
The only case actually resolved before noon accused a slender 22-year old African American woman dressed in a t-shirt and tight grey sweat pants with FITCH written on the back, of child neglect and drug use. The case was based on an incident two years earlier when one of her children was two years old and the other newborn. The cops had found a bong, a small amount of marijuana and a room that smelled of pot smoke.
The father of the children is already in prison. The judge told the young woman that she better get her life straightened out or else she’d be in prison, too, and “then where will your children be? They need their mother,” he said.
He put her on probation for a year. Rather than sending her to jail for 270 days, she will have to spend two weekends in jail, at the discretion of her probation officer. And she has to go to a class about child safety. The judge said he wasn’t going to impose the fine because she already had to pay her lawyer and he didn’t want to make it any harder for her to get on the “right path.”
She mutely agreed to everything, shook her head “no” when the judge asked if she had anything to say, and then flung out of the inner sanctum to a pew where she sat like a sulking teenager – arms folded tight, glaring disgust for it all. Her lawyer walked out of the courtroom without a look or a word for her.
The tragedy of those lives seems so much more important than anything I might do by appealing my voluntary arrest for trespassing in the State Legislature. I knew what I was doing, I have the time to come to court, I can afford to pay the fines. Now all I’m doing is contributing to the already dysfunctional and perpetually clogged judicial system. What good will it do for me to go to trial two years from now when the political world will have moved on.
Even though I just wanted to get it over with, I knew I should be grateful that the court cashier said I could save a credit card processing fee of $11.63 if I got cash from the ATM. The thin man in blue jeans at the next cashier’s window was saying he needed a payment plan for the $430 he owed, cause he “ain’t got the money now.”
Outside the courthouse I gave the cash the cashier had saved me to the black toothless man sitting on the bench who said he was 63 and hadn’t eaten anything in a couple of days. We shook hands when we figured out that we shared the same birth year and month, August 1950. I thought that there but for the luck of the draw, or some would say the grace of God, sat I. We may have been born the same day, but in an entirely different world with entirely different possibilities.
Perhaps this is the fundamental nature of what we are doing in the Moral Monday movement – making it more possible that your life isn’t determined by the zip code in which you are born, or the color of your skin, or who your parents are. We’re asserting that everyone should have access to nutritious food, education, and health care. That everyone should be treated with respect despite their gender, race or class. That we have the moral obligation to help those who are less able to help themselves.
I hope years from now the state is a better place because I was arrested. That my hours spent sitting on jailhouse and courtroom benches did make a difference for the teenaged mothers and the hungry senior citizens of North Carolina.