By Joe Phelps
In January I was ticketed for failing to follow directions at the scene of an accident. I was innocent, I tell you.
I know. Everyone says that. But righteous indignation compelled me to have my day in court. I didn’t need a lawyer. I’d explain the situation, show my convincing photos and this travesty of justice would be quickly resolved.
I now know the meaning of “the wheels of justice grind slowly.”
A Wednesday evening court date conflicted with my schedule, but I arrived for court with evidence of innocence and anxious to plead my case. What a disappointment to learn after an hour that the purpose of this particular appearance was to schedule another court date.
A month later I arrived as instructed before 9 a.m. and entered the uncomfortable silence of a room full of those awaiting trial. This might take a while, I thought.
During the next hour it dawned on me that I was in a scene like the children’s game “Which one of these is not like the other ones?” I was the only “person of no color” in the room, which prompted the question: Why would only persons of color, and one white guy, be required to show up for court?
We averted our eyes from each other throughout the next hour as we listened to names called and cases dispatched. Yet our numbers weren’t shrinking. In fact, as we entered Hour Three, not one person in the courtroom had heard their name called. More surprising: None of my fellow court waiters appeared to notice or feel frustrated but me, though surely some of them were missing work, too. Or paying for sitters. Or missing class.
As the only person of no color, I felt safe wandering into the prosecutor’s office to inquire why so many invisible people appeared to be cutting in line. I was tutored that cases in which attorneys appeared on behalf of the accused have the privilege of jumping to the head of the docket (thus nullifying the definition of the word docket), while the rest of us wait.
“Then, why didn’t you just schedule us to arrive at 11:00?” I asked. I was told to sit down.
An hour later my case was called. Showtime!
Wait – the officer who issued the citation was not present, so the case would be rescheduled. I’d seen enough “Law and Order” to ask for a mistrial or a writ of habeas corpus or a stay of execution or something legal sounding to avoid a repeat. No luck.
So a third time I joined the community of the wooden benches, even taking on this community’s blank stare.
And the reason for this ordeal became clear to me: I needed to see how our judicial system, like many institutional protocols we take for granted, favors those with resources and connections, to the detriment of those without resources, or in my case those too stubborn to use them.
The result: Those least able to afford to take off from work, pay for parking, hire a sitter or miss school, are forced to show up on time, only to wait and watch while those with means go first.
I reported my discovery to a person of color friend, expecting his shared indignation. Instead, he looked at me curiously. “You don’t know the half of it.”
He’s right, but the little I know exposes the injustice and disrespect heaped on persons who are poor and powerless and often “of color,” as Michelle Alexander describes in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
I’d glimpsed the ways in which our systems betray our national ideal of “liberty and justice for all” through laws and procedures that are inherently racist.
They may not appear so on the surface and may have been written originally with naive or even noble intent, but the result is the same: Certain persons, particularly black males, are disregarded, disrespected and disproportionately imprisoned with longer sentences than their white counterparts, even though the ratios of crimes committed by races are equal.
In other words, our dominant culture plays an invisible race card on a regular basis, creating risks for “driving while black.” Or “shopping while black.” Or “voting while black.”
In March, four young men in our city were arrested for “sitting while black.” Police were searching near a crime scene for four suspects, and these four were found on their front porch. Despite evidence of their innocence they were booked and jailed.
It took considerable time, energy and money but this week the court exonerated them. But not before one missed his high school prom and graduation and all had their reputations impugned and their lives traumatized. Perhaps no one intended racism, but like pollution, it’s the invisible poisons that are the most insidious.
Now we know. So now we must eliminate these invisible poisons. For, ultimately, we all breathe the same air and drink from the same well. As our church youth say, “No matter the road, we walk it together.”