*For a class assignment, I covered an evening in night court near Canal Street in Manhattan. I was supposed to detail the court proceedings and the setting. All I could see were people of color who been over the bullshit. *
The chatter is incessant, both quiet and loud. Crackling snack wrappers reveal people who are starving and over it. A young boy in a blue coat slumps across the wooden bench because bedtime was long ago. Girlfriends, fiancees and mothers wait as their loved ones enter the court. Young men await their friends, cousins, brothers or uncles. Some shout, “This is stupid!” and ‘I’m ready to go home’ like their favorite player just missed a critical pass.
Despite these virtual cheerleaders, tonight is no Sunday night game. There’s no cheap beer. No hot dog stand. This is night court. The judge rests her head in her hand as prosecutors read off charges with monotonous impatience.
Everyone just wants to play their role and go home.
Occasionally, laughter falls down like confetti remnants because though an assistant district attorney (ADA) tripping down the aisle is hardly a halftime show, everyone is grateful for the timeout. Another ADA sits asleep at the prosecutor’s table. I wait for the judge to reprimand him like the police do the rest of us for texting, but he never does catch the heat. Cool. It’s funny to watch “The Law” be human like us. When he does get up and walk around, his rolled up cuffs reveal grey socks and Adidas. His crew cut, button-up and skinny black jeans make him best dressed in the room, but his nodding off says he just wants to go home.
Runner-up for best dressed is a woman channeling Cookie Lyon in a black fur coat. She also brings Cookie’s foul mouth. “What the fuck!? Kids don’t supposed to be in here this late,” she says. I silently agree and the boy’s mom probably does too, but she keeps facing forward. She is there to confirm to the judge that her loved one lives with her and is no flight risk. She just wants to play her role and go home.
As defendants file in and out, some of their stories stick with you. People look visibly checked out as a lawyer fails miserably at defending a man accused of squeezing butts in the street. I preoccupy myself with counting cookies an officer sneaks behind his notebook, but pause because when a woman admits her addiction to a controlled substance for a 3rd degree possession charge, it seems the judge isn’t the only one who should listen. I cannot help but see defeat in her stance. Her story is sad and I think my deceased great aunt who spent her life battling heroin must have stood before judges with a similar head tilt. My family always let her come back when she got out of jail because really, addicts just want to go home too.
Police officers escort a man down the aisle. He drags his feet and my mind back into the courtroom. The man appears to be homeless. His clothes are dirty like the people I see pleading for relief on the J train. This is the only time I see police wear purple latex gloves to escort a defendant, and I feel whatever weight pulled his chin to his chest. His shame told me he’d rather be home but well, you know…
Then two guys step into the courtroom in matching leather jackets and distressed denim jeans. I learn from the prosecutor they dress that way because they are “known gang members.” Coulda fooled me. Armed robbery is their charge, but all I can think about is how they thought a 2015 version of a Grease outfit could scare anyone. Their lawyer informs the judge they are only accused of armed robbery because the accuser is mad he was sold fake drugs. Some “gangsters” should just play their role and stay home. Seriously, they were just babies but let the prosecutor tell it, they were “demons” a la Mike Brown.
The next man is no gangster either, though charged with weapon possession. His lawyer argues that he works for a packing company and had the knife from work. Fair enough. The lawyer continues explaining the man may lose his bed at the Brooklyn shelter if he misses one more day from the packing company. Another day in jail means no job and no bed. (FYI: Shelters can be shitty. Some require a lot of things people wouldn’t need a shelter for if they had). So he just wants to play his role and go home. Even if it’s temporary.
I gather my things and scoot from the room, leaving with the clear record and dinner plans I came in with. My head, however, is fucked up because every single person I saw walk in and out of Sunday night court was Black or Hispanic. I sat there close to 2 hours. They usually take care of the defendants within minutes. So I saw 20 something people roll up to the judge. All Black. Or Hispanic. As tired as the lawyers, cops, security guards and judge may seem—people of color are more tired. Fatigued by systematic oppression that profiles, handcuffs and drags us through court rooms— our lives hanging in the gallows of a place stained and sustained by white supremacy.
I think of the addict, the stylish baby gangsters and both homeless men, wishing there was something more I could do to help.
But I just came to play my role and go home. I feel like shit.
I’m a 24-year old 90’s baby. I just moved to the Big Apple to attend New York University for magazine journalism. SoTwitter and Instagram where I tweet about all your favorite shows and of course, the take-down of white supremacy.yeah, the mid-twenties are about to be super lit. And I ride for black women with no days off. Buckle up. Follow me on