This has nothing to do the joys and absurdities of British culture. But Kris asked, “Would ‘please?’ be enough to get you to relate your court experiences?” [I dropped a passing comment about them in this post. It may not be worth going back to, but the blogging rule book says you have to link back to your own stuff because otherwise the world will end ten minutes sooner than it would otherwise. And it’ll all be your fault. Enjoy your extra ten minutes, folks.)
So go on, then, Kris, twist my arm. The tone’s different than what I usually write, but I was looking for an excuse and this is as good as anything else I’ll find.
Our story, children, begins in the United States—that’s a largish country on the North American continent, sandwiched between Canada and Mexico, although Mexico doesn’t go from edge to edge so it acts more like half a slice of bread than a whole one—and it takes place at a time when the civil rights movement had swept from the American South into the North, where it was taking on the less obvious forms of segregation.
Or maybe we should make that less obvious to whites, since if you lived on the wrong side of those invisible lines they’d have been obvious enough.
I was both white and seventeen, and I was aware of the invisible lines but—well, let’s say I was aware of them in the way a white seventeen-year-old might be and leave it there, because it’s too complicated to get into where it’s not the point. The point is that, with a friend or two from high school and in a teenage sort of way, I’d been involved in the civil rights movement for some years.
It was 1964 and New York was about to host the World’s Fair, so various civil rights organizations had planned demonstrations. The U.S. called itself the leader of the free world, and racism, segregation and the unaddressed legacy of slavery were a source of national shame. Probably not for everyone, but other countries weren’t impressed. It made sense to say publicly, in front of an international audience, “Address this.”
One of the movement’s most powerful tactics had been passive resistance—sitting down, sitting it, refusing to get up when arrested, and generally being peacefully disruptive. So at a meeting before the opening day’s demonstrations, those of us who planned to go were asked if we planned to get arrested and we divided into three groups: yes, no, and maybe.
I joined the maybes, knowing that I meant yes but wasn’t ready to say it yet. I’m not sure why that was. Something about being seventeen at the time means that I’m now left with a lot of blank spots where my motivations lay. It could have been that as simple as not wanting to talk to my parents about it beforehand, but I’m genuinely not sure. I may not have known at the time.
Long story short, I got arrested when a few people who’d been more certain of their commitment blocked traffic into the fair and were carried into a police wagon—what was called a paddy wagon at the time. I’m not sure if they’re still called that. I watched the arrests, then I climbed onto the hood of the van to keep it from leaving. It was as unplanned an act as it was unsurprising.
A couple of cops hauled me down and I should have gone limp but forgot. I heard someone on the sidelines say, “Is she okay?” and took it to mean, Why isn’t she going limp? but mid-arrest seemed kind of late to collapse, so I climbed into the van instead of being carried.
Great moments in civil disobedience.
I appeared in court that afternoon and when my name was called my mother appeared. I have no idea who called her or how they found her number. Maybe we’d all given contact numbers before the demonstration. At the time, I was young enough that my mother appearing seemed natural. I was released on bail, feeling both relieved and reduced at being handed over to her.
My parents were activists—they were working as union organizers when they met—and they were proud of what I’d done, although I don’t remember either of them saying so. Maybe it didn’t need saying or maybe they said it and it seemed so obvious that I didn’t register the moment. I was seventeen. Seventeen-year-olds can be heartless that way.
Fast forward. I got a notice to appear in court and found that my case had been merged with the cases of fifteen or twenty other demonstrators. One by one we were called to the front of the court and the charges read out.
The case was adjourned.
I got another notice to appear. By now it was summer and I’d graduated high school.
Same routine. I thought a few more people had been added, but I wouldn’t swear to it. The bailiff stood below the judge’s throne, facing us, and read name after name, including one woman Sandy Something, who had a string of charges that were threaded through the list instead of being gathered in one place, so that he called her over and over. With each new name, the courtroom had to wait while the person worked their way past the everyone sitting between them and the aisle and then came forward to join our small mob. It seemed to go on for hours.
As he got further into the list, the bailiff began a quiet monologue that the judge couldn’t hear.
“And Sandy Something,” he said. “Don’t forget Sandy Something.”
We couldn’t laugh. We were facing the judge and had to stand there like nothing was going on.
New name. Someone else stood and came forward to join our group.
“And Sandy Something, Let’s not forget Sandy Something.”
Finally we were all assembled. The prosecutor talked. Our lawyers talked. The judge talked. It was all going to be postponed again. The lawyers and all the arresting officers were trying to find a date they could all manage.
“I’m so glad it’s Friday,” the bailiff said. “I don’t know what I’d do if it wasn’t Friday.”
We couldn’t laugh.
The lawyers and arresting officers tried a different date. Somebody different would be on vacation. Another date. Someone else would be gone.
No one asked us if we’d be on vacation. No one asked the bailiff either. He kept talking, although by now, in the interest of keeping a straight face, I’d tuned out the words. I couldn’t afford to know. The whole thing was bizarre. Here was this guy, chatting away to us, while this whole formal dance went on around us.
Another date, another conflicting vacation.
The judge stood up.
“You figure it out,” he said. “I’m leaving.”
And the law, in all its black robes and majesty, huffed out of the courtroom, leaving a moment of stunned silence behind.
As I remember it, they didn’t take much time finding a date after that and we all went home.
That was my last court appearance. The lawyers worked out a deal. The people who’d blocked the doors on subway trains leading to the World’s Fair pleaded guilty to an out-of-date law, interfering with a steam engine, and were fined $5, which even then wasn’t an oppressive amount of money. For the rest of us, charges were dropped.
Which is why, when I’m asked if I was ever convicted of a crime, I get to say no.
I’m not sure what that tells us about the legal system in the U.S. My best guess is that it’s only in New York that a bailiff would carry on that monologue and a judge would huff out of his own courtroom, It’s one of many ways that I miss New York. But in fairness, I haven’t made a full survey.