I'm reporting for my first jury duty summons at 500 Indiana Avenue. Though I have lived and worked in Washington, D.C. for over a decade, I have never been called to court for my civic duty to "serve."
Black men, young and old, line the halls of the courthouse. Some are lawyers and plaintiffs, but most of them are prey to an intricate web of systems—poverty, drugs, laws, codes, slavery, a deliberate erasure of histories and forced migrations, dehumanization, colonialism, patriarchy—all meant to entrap generations upon generations from birth. This is what I tell myself as I scan the inscape of the place. This is what hip-hop taught me.
There are Black teenagers frantically thumbing through torn envelopes to find the proper permits, documents, and proofs for their weapons. There are Black women swearing they haven't ever darkened that woman's doorstep, their own public defenders discrediting them in whispers.
In a mad dash out the main entrance and back down Indiana Avenue, a Black man set to appear in court slams into three strangers in front of me and grazes my arm. Minutes later, he returns with humble apologies for the guards on duty.
"My bad," he says to the officers. "I thought you was just tryna be nasty with me." Like most of the Black men funneling through security today, this guy has been here before.
With an indifferent wave of hand, the guard signals him through.
"You do realize that the metal detector didn't even go off, don't you?" huffs the white woman in front of me, incredulous at the brief inconvenience of being patted down.
My eye twitches.
During the second of what will be my sixth or seventh lining up of the day, a chorus of I-hope-they-don't-pick-me abounds in loud timbres and in whispers.
The Black woman in front of me with glassy eyes speaks in my direction without looking at me. "I hope they send me home," she sighs. "I just got off work at 5:00 a.m. If they pick me, I'll just have to go right back to work after this."
"I feel you," I say. "That's terrible."
When my jury's panel is finally called, about four hours after my sleepy arrival, I try not to nod off when the loud, artificial ocean-sounding "husher" is switched on. The husher is a constant, static noise that permeates the courtroom so no one can hear what is being said at the bench. The judge has just given a shockingly passionate speech about jury service as both duty and privilege.
I wonder what he would think if he knew that in response to the murder of Trayvon Marton, I'd written these lines: "When I go outside/ I don't ever/ have to worry someone/ will one day march in an/ impotent mob wearing/ a t-shirt with my name on it."
Eventually, I stand in line with my juror's survey crumpled in half, waiting to be called forward to the bench. I am reading a book called Letters from Burma by Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and champion of the democracy movement in my mother's home country. Suu Kyi was held under house arrest for thirteen years until her release in 2010, confined during both the death of her husband in the U.K. (he was not allowed to re-enter Burma and Suu Kyi would have risked being banned from the country permanently had she chosen to go to his bedside) and her sons' formative adolescent years. Time and again, this woman bravely put her country's needs before her family.
As I wait for the judge to beckon me, I make eye contact with the defendant, another young Black male. He is dressed in an ironed button down shirt, sleek wire frame glasses, and slacks. There's a small but noticeable teardrop inked permanently on his skin, just below his right eye.
The teardrop tattoo will be his undoing.
The system will not forgive him that. This is just one of the things I want to tell him. I want to hold both his hands in mine and kneel in front of him. Instead, I make a mistake and tell the judge the truth.
"You've marked here that you would not count the testimony of a police officer to be the same as any other person," the judge begins, following up with a seemingly rhetorical question, "Is that correct?"
"Yes," I reply.
"Why is that?"
"Well, I do not believe that police officers act lawfully or appropriately the majority of the time. In my personal experience, they are not truthful, especially in a court of law." I do not mention Vincent Chin or Fong Lee. There is no space on the questionnaire for that.
The judge is taken aback by my response, but composes himself and un-scrunches his brow to continue his line of questioning.
"So you're saying if a police officer came in here to testify, you would automatically assume he or she was lying?"
"No," I say, pausing, then pronouncing each word assuredly as I attempt to clarify my statement, "I would not necessarily assume that. But I do have a strong bias."
Now, I can see the judge wants to know everything, but not for the purpose of this case. If he could, I think he would put on the husher and take me into a low-ceilinged, fluorescently lit room where judges gather. He would ask more questions, "off the record". He would want to find out why my eyes slant under these black mascara strokes. He would probe me about my experiences with the police, which have been-as I checked the appropriate box in the juror's questionnaire—exceptionally negative.
The judge does not know Asian American women like me. He smirks a bit and concedes, "I am going to excuse you."
I am free to go.
I turn and march directly out the front courthouse entrance, splaying open the glass doors with one forceful push, past smokers clustered in duets, trios and quartets, in search of coffee and food. I'm satisfied and emboldened, but I haven't officially been "released" for the day.
I sit in the juror's lounge again. 30 minutes later, they finally let those of us remaining go with a simple announcement: "Turn your badges into the wire basket on your way out. Thank you for serving."
And it's over.
The first thing I do when I walk out of 500 Indiana is text my partner. He is an artist, a loving father, and a Black man.
I text him, "I told them F the police and they let me leave."
He texts me back immediately: "What? You can't fight the system if you aren't picked. Jury nullification!!!"
"Oh shit," I type back. "I got it wrong."
In a rush to honestly express my profound skepticism about the United States "justice system" and the armed officers upholding these laws, I'd completely neglected the possibility of jury nullification. Criminal law scholar Paul Butler describes jury nullification as "a constitutional doctrine that allows juries to acquit defendants who are technically guilty, but who don't deserve punishment. When a jury disregards the evidence and acquits an otherwise guilty defendant, it has practiced jury nullification. The jury is saying that the law is unfair, either generally or in this particular case."
While my partner (and so many men like him) has had a lifetime of sink-or-swim interactions with the violent waters of the Prison Industrial Complex, I have only recently been affected in personal ways. I cannot say that I would have issued a "not guilty" verdict—had I been selected—if I felt the man with the teardrop tattoo had, beyond the shadow of a doubt, committed murder.
My partner said that he was disappointed in my actions and reminded me this marked an instance of how I "show my whiteness." My mother is Burmese and my father is a white American. My own whiteness, he argued, allowed me the privilege not to be convinced of the need for jury nullification when it counted. He assumed I had not carefully considered the man before me with deep empathy. He chastised me for not recognizing that this man might serve a life sentence because of my inability to "toughen up," to overcome my own pain, anxiety and fears in order to potentially spare the defendant. He questioned my commitment to eliminating prisons, a topic we've stayed up so many late nights discussing. In my partner's eyes, the man's innocence or guilt was irrelevant. He, like Paul Butler, understands and believes that jury nullification has the power to "help make the United States more safe and free," and that "strategic jury nullification can safely reduce mass incarceration."
Petty theft and other nonviolent crimes, that's one thing, I say to myself, but what about the murder of another Black man? Would I be capable of nullifying a murder charge?
Should I be?
What do I do with the part of me that has absolutely no tolerance for sexual violence, rape, or other incursions into a human being's body? Should the woman in me that fears sexual assault above all else retreat to support the race-conscious potential of jury nullification to reduce incarceration rates?
I decide right then that if I could report again for jury duty, I'd trade my liberating fuck-the-police moment for a meaningful act in true service to my community. I'm still not convinced I could cast a not guilty verdict for someone I thought took another life. But, I do know that my country, my peers needed me in that room deliberating, not texting my lover about a fleeting personal victory.
I want to believe the strength is within me to unlearn all the charmed Paradise Valley teachings of my youth, but I'm not sure. I want to be the kind of Burmese American woman who is savvy and courageous enough to choose her country over her family. Until that day, I can only hope the United States of America radically transforms into a country worth ethically serving and that deliberation rooms across our country are occupied with thoughtful Americans who know that our select, thuggish, unethical enforcement of laws should be on trial just as much as the lines of "guilty" Black men lining the courtrooms of our cities.
It's all too late. Ten months after my failed opportunity at jury nullification, I can still see that young Black man, the ironic permanence of a single tear branded on his skin. The static crackle of the husher confines us both to that painful memory. The truth, though, is that one of us will always be free to go.
I got it wrong.
Photo courtesy Orion-Nova Productions.
Simone Jacobson is a Burmese American writer, performer, teaching artist, and cultural worker based in Washington, D.C. She has performed and taught in the U.S., France, Switzerland, and Uganda. The former managing editor for Words. Beats. Life: The Global Journal of Hip-Hop Culture, her poems have been published in Beltway Poetry Quarterly and The Tidal Basin Review, and will be featured in the anthology, Bop, Strut and Dance. She also tweets at @sim1ontharun.