Under Flags, Guns, and Judges: How the Courtroom Mirrors the Wider World
From Fireworks - by EastWest
05.09.15 - When a friend was arrested during the recent rebellion against police and white supremacy, I found myself in a lot of court rooms. I've been in court rooms before, hell I've even stood before a judge a couple of times. Every time I've been in a court room, I've hated it. The entire system is designed to take agency and power away from everyday people; the State holds all of the cards.
When you enter the building, Sheriffs, who have taken time off from being prison guards and evicting people, are there to make sure you don’t have any weapons upon entering the building. You then have to find the right court room, sometimes realizing that you have been moved to another department without even knowing it. Court doors open generally at 9 AM; early enough to be annoying and late enough to force you to take time off work, get someone to watch your kids, and mess up your entire day.
Upon entering the court room, you find that the room is hierarchically divided. The largest part of the room is reserved for you to sit. The chairs are shitty and uncomfortable. There are signs everywhere telling you what to do: no talking, no reading, no sleeping, no being on your phone, and you risk being in jail yourself for trying to communicate with a prisoner. Dividing the chairs from the rest of the court room is a gate which is guarded by the bailiffs who are armed with guns. Their main job is to constantly police those who have come to watch the proceedings. Beyond the bailiffs are the lawyers and the court workers who have the ability to walk freely between the main area, into the holding cells of the prisoners, and even talk with the judge. These people have various jobs, all of which allow the court to function, record information, and more over, act as a conduit between prisoners and the judge.
Hidden and out of the eyes of everyone are the prisoners. Brought in from jails and prisons often far away, they sit in holding cells and wait until they go before the judge, hoping to catch a glimpse of romantic partners, family, friends, or legal defense. Woken up often before the sun has even risen, they are then packed onto a bus for court. The racial breakdown of both the prisoners and those in the courtroom also is telling. The prisoners are almost all people of color. If they are white, they are almost all from poor backgrounds and neighborhoods. The bailiffs are almost all white, so are the lawyers and the judges. This is a colonial system of control and violence.
The judge sits at the top off the court room. They look out on everyone else and everyone looks up towards the judge. The judge is distinguished from the rest of the room by not only the fact that they sit at the highest point in the room, but also because they wear a huge robe, have a gavel, and take long and annoying breaks which prolong the proceedings. We usually even have to stand up when the judge enters the room; as a sign of obedience. But even beyond and above the judge lies huge American flags which watch over everyone. The placing of the flags is important, because it serves to give the illusion that the judge is compelled to action by lofty ideals which animate and guide them. The judge is directed by concepts like “justice,” and “democracy,” which ensures that the “rights of everyone” are respected. Everyone knows this to be fairytale; they simply take sides in the war. They either support the repression of the poor, despise it, a shrug their shoulders in indifference.
The majority of us, those that work or suffer because we have no work, who do not own property and sell our labor to those that do, sit in the chairs that make up the majority of the room. The police are there to enforce the rules of the courtroom, but more over to protect the authority of the State and to stop the majority in the room from freeing the prisoners that enter to be sentenced.
The lawyers also mirror those we interact with in the rest of society. Like social workers, child protective services, case managers, and bosses at work, they are a human link between us and the government. There are lawyers representing the District Attorney (DA), who stand for the interests of the State and those of the elites. They also exist to enforce the morality of the State on the rest of us. While this at times appears to be carried out to “punish” the bad people: those that steal, those that hurt and assault, those that kill – in reality as with the police, this has nothing to do with protecting the “innocent.” Instead, it has everything to do with the control over the entire population.
But while the State has high powered and highly educated lawyers at its disposal, who also have time to research laws to throw people in jail – what do normal people have? We have by and large (since lawyers are expensive), public defenders, who are lawyers who take on multiple cases of people accused of offensives at one time. These lawyers act as our representatives and speak for us. While in a court room, those facing charges by and large, say almost nothing to the judge. Instead, the judge talks mainly to the lawyers, with the defendant speaking only in short answers.
Public defenders are often nice people and mean well. They generally become lawyers because they know that the justice system is broken and they want to help people caught within it. However, ultimately their role is to simply smooth out the process of extracting money from someone (via a fine) or getting them sentenced to a ‘correctional facility.’ Just like how modern unions and non-profits take the fight out of the streets and workplaces and place them into board rooms between bosses and bureaucrats, public defenders act as specialists that help play out a dance between the State and the rest of the population of repression.
Ultimately, a normal person walking into a court room facing charges has little to no resources. We face the full power of the State against us and the police to contain us. Armed with only an over-worked and stressed out representative who attempts to advise us to what decisions will hurt us “the less,” we have few options.
The large decisions; decisions which will affect a person the rest of their life, largely happen behind closed doors. In meetings between the judge and the two groups of lawyers, deals are made. It is in this way that many people “plead out.” This creates a steady stream of cash into the State’s pockets. It also ensures that millions of people will be locked away in correctional facilities, be placed on probation, sent to juvenile hall, or out on parole.
The courtroom is a miserable and horrible place. Many times that we go to court our court dates move or change, or if we are lucky, are thrown out all together. The whole system is arbitrary and pointless. It does nothing to offer relief or help to those that are harmed by individuals. Instead, it takes people away from their families, locks them in cages, and breaks apart communities. This does not happen on an even keel across the social spectrum. Indigenous people, African-Americans, Latinos, and the poor moreover all face the brunt of the State’s assault. Such a system is not designed to make poor and working-class communities free or safer – but instead keep revolt from spreading.
There is no way to reform the court room, just as there is no way to reform the prison. We can fight conditions and push for changes to make things better for ourselves, but ultimately out of these struggles we have to destroy and abolish these systems of power and control forever from our lives.