He stared at me like he knew me. Like, if we lived in the same hood, we would kick it. We probably would. Hennessy is my favorite drink, too.
The entire courtroom is a spectacle of state power. Black body after black body. Latino immigrant in need of a translator after Latino immigrant in need of a translator. A sprinkle of white men in business suits. All packed into a cold, sunless room decorated with framed portraits of gray-haired white men. The kind of pictures you see at country clubs or in the dean’s office at a Historically White College and University.
Each uniform reflects a different relationship to power. The prosecutor’s European-cut suit. The casually dressed woman sitting in the second row sporting a Hermes bag, which occupies its own seat. Nursing scrubs. A royal blue yarmulke and white tassels dangling from black slacks. The cop’s badge, baton, and gun holster. My basketball shorts, dingy gray t-shirt, and chocolate skin. The judge’s black robe seemingly concealing his flaws and finitude.
In the courtroom: he is god. “Law and order” is the de jure theology and white supremacy the de facto religion. For true democracy to flourish we must become atheists of The State. “If it brings me to my knees,” singer Frank Ocean declares, “it’s a bad religion.” This exceptional country brought Michael Brown to his knees, before bringing his lifeless body to lie in a pool of his own blood. Ferguson is no anomaly. Every 28 hours in America a black person is killed by police, a security guard, or vigilante. People like Aiyana Stanley-Jones, shot and killed while asleep by Detroit law enforcement in a raid designed to arrest her uncle. She was seven years old.
America, as it stands, is a bad religion.
Still, most remain faithful. Despite the system working against us, we continue to pay our civic tithe to an unholy and utterly undemocratic Republic. There seems to be no other choice.
“First offense results in a $500 fine, up to six months in county jail, and 25 hours community service. Second offense results in a $1,000 fine, up to one year in county jail, and 50 hours community service.” The judge resembled a seasoned priest, casually offering repentance for those who’ve sinned against The State. “Third offense results in a $2,000 fine, up to three years in county jail, and 100 hours community service. Do you understand?” he asked.
If it weren’t for the translator, probably not. He was from Ecuador, I think. Or Guatemala. The black woman in the nursing outfit looked anxious—probably dreading the job she’d return to after this, a job in which she’s overworked and underappreciated but won’t leave because it’s just enough to make ends meet. In this case, just enough to get on a payment plan for past-due traffic tickets. The man sitting across from me typified the proverbial black uncle who shows up early to family BBQs and tells vivid stories about things your mama considers bad. I wonder if he knows how much his head nod, which somehow flowed perfectly with the rhythm of his limp and the swing of his cane, meant to me. I could use the encouragement.
A month earlier I was pulled over twice in less than an hour. Deal, New Jersey—one of the most expensive zip codes in the United States—is the American Dream on steroids. The Jose Canseco of white suburbia. But it’s a nightmare if you’re driving while black. The first time I was stopped, I was allegedly going 32 (miles per hour) in the 25 and using my cell phone. When I showed the officer my phone history—my last call had taken place two hours earlier—he walked to his car and, after what seemed like an hour, returned with a handwritten warning. He never apologized for being wrong, for wasting my time. He was the one who needed a warning. Him and the system he’s paid to protect. I took my “warning” and drove off. Fifty-three minutes later, another cop pulled me over. He claimed I didn’t stop at the stop sign. I did.
The first thing I noticed was the demographic mismatch between the community and courtroom. Despite Deal’s overwhelmingly white population (91.6 percent) at least half of the defendants were people of color. I couldn’t decide what was more upsetting: the racial disparity or the fact that I wasn’t surprised by it.
The young man in the green jumpsuit is staring at the judge now. The guards switch the cuffs to the front so he can sign some papers. There are four letters, “MMCI,” tattooed across the back of his uniform. That could easily be a college acronym.
I thought about my college days in Atlanta. Cops raided a house party, macing a crowd of soon-to-be black college graduates after a fight broke out. Ten minutes later, I was in handcuffs. Booked. Jailed. Praying that driving under the influence wouldn’t prevent me from walking the thin line between graduation and Princeton’s campus.
I couldn’t take how much we resembled one another. We could’ve been brothers, or college roommates. I’m no sociologist, but it seems to me that the distance between us, between the classroom and the cell, has more to do with capital than crime. After all, I had the money to post bail and pay for a decent lawyer. According to legal scholar Michelle Alexander, 90 percent of criminal cases never go to trial. That means, for most us, plea bargains are the only game in town.
But what kind of “deal” is that? If your career is paid at the expense of the countless Americans coerced into forfeiting their constitutional rights: a pretty good one.
“Yes, your Honor” he said, as if the judge was an annoying teacher who intentionally called on him in class, knowing he didn’t do his homework. A woman who looked like his mother stared into the cold air. She looked numb. Everyone was in a varying state of fatigue. Everyone except the judge and the lawyers and the cops. They radiated with energy.
One of the lawyers brought his son to work. He was dressed like his dad. The judge loved that. I thought it was cute, too. But then I thought of Tamir Rice and how, if he were to appear in court at twelve, there’s a good chance he would’ve worn a green jumpsuit.
My stomach growled; my rage grew hot.
I was taking notes on my phone before it died. I ran out the courtroom to try and find something to write with. I found cops instead. “May I borrow your pen?” I asked before I recognized the officer’s face. I try to avoid conversations with law enforcement unless I’m cop-watching or protesting. Not because they’re all bad. They’re not. But because they have the power to do terrible things without consequence. Using the pen of the same sheriff who unjustly stopped me felt like a peculiar kind of protest. I thought of Audre Lorde. Perhaps the master’s tools can dismantle the master’s house. Perhaps not. A pen is a far cry from a nine millimeter.
But in that moment, it was the only weapon I had.
“Don’t worry, we don’t bite,” I scribbled on the edges of my worn-out ticket as the Honorable Scott J. Basen joked with an elderly defendant, a white woman, walking slowly towards the stand. I beg to differ, I thought to myself. That’s precisely what the system does. Or maybe Judge Basen has never been on the receiving end of the system’s voracious appetite.
By noon my hunger was gone. I was the last defendant in court. The only black cop in the courtroom began laughing. I wondered if it was at me. The judge was surprisingly rude. He hadn’t been to the other black defendants. Was it because I didn’t call him “Honorable” as I approached the stand? I could see it in his eyes. His gaze was condescending. It affirmed what he already knew: I am not a Good Negro.
Before I could open my mouth, he ordered me to see the prosecutor. I was exhausted. I thought of the young man in the green jumpsuit. Then of his mother, and the many untold stories of everyday people, American citizens, and undocumented immigrants who exist beneath the gavel. There was a line to see the prosecutor. I stepped outside for fresh air. I gazed out, looking at the multi-million dollar houses, the majestic fountains, the manicured yards. I tried to imagine kids growing up here in green jumpsuits.
Nyle Fort is a minister, organizer, and scholar based in Newark, New Jersey. He is the founder of Strange Fruit Speaks, a liturgy commemorating the last words of black people killed by police and vigilantes, and of Books and Breakfast, a political education program providing free books and breakfast to local youth and families in the greater Newark community. Currently, Nyle is pursuing a Ph.D in Religion and African American studies at Princeton University.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]