Sunday, February 12, 2012

Jury Duty

They got me again. Jury duty. Third time. Second time was a few years ago, sitting around a jury waiting room in Jamaica, Queens that had the exact feel of a decrepit bus station in East St. Louis. That time, I was gone in a day, not even selected. First time was in the early 90s, in the Bronx, a six-week murder trial, and I’ll get into that later.

This time, in Kew Gardens, Queens, it really got to me. I know, I should be used to metal detectors by now. But I never will be. For jury duty? Really? They were calling me there to perform a civic duty. With a court-decreed summons. Am I really going to bring in a sawed-off shotgun under my coat to randomly kill people in a jury duty waiting room?

The worst part was the guards: incredibly rude and brusque, past the point of antagonism. Barking at people. Demanding they empty their pockets, everything, not even tissues or cough drops, empty them. Really? If I leave one Halls mentholyptus in my pocket by accident, it’s going to set off … the Halls mentholyptus alarm? Assholes. Incredibly rude assholes who eyed everyone waiting in line as if they were child rapists being brought before a judge. I get summoned by the Court, to take time out my life, to perform a civic duty … and all I do is get treated like dogshit by these community college dropouts with badges who have no need to be so openly antagonistic to people who clearly aren’t criminals, who can’t be, otherwise they wouldn’t be summoned?

It really put me off, this time, really hit home how deeply abnormal this process is, how courthouses, and schools, and so many other public institutions, are now. Just as bad as anything you’ll read in 1984 … this is where we are now as a society. I doubt the rest of the country is this bad, just a perfect storm of the New York City Prick Mentality and this awful lock-down mentality we now have with places like this.

I thought about it more. Especially with schools. Most urban schools have this metal detector/guards set-up. It struck me this time in jury duty how much this felt like I was entering a prison facility: the same level of scrutiny and disdain. I put myself in the shoes of a 12-year-old kid going to a cruddy inner-city public school, his first day outside of elementary school … where every morning means walking this gauntlet of shit. Probably for good reason, too, in their case, as there are predators-in-training stalking the hallways of many of these schools.

But let’s say I’m 12 years old, a relatively good kid, not a criminal … but every day when I go to school, I’m being treated like a criminal entering a prison. What kind of mentality does that give me towards the education system? Would I even know enough that there are places in the world where being metal-detected and wanded by guys with badges is a deeply abnormal and unthinkable process to put a 12-year-old boy through, going to a school, no less? I would be raised inside this culture where the expectation was that I was already under suspicion for having done nothing. And living in a world where the expectation would be that, sooner or later, I would do something requiring all these guards with their handguns and clubs to take action against me. Why else would they be there? Presumably to protect me … but if they’re there to protect me, why are they also treating me like someone they need to be protected from? I’m not carrying a gun, or a club. Should I be if I want to be on equal footing? A grown man carrying a gun and club projects one thing to me: fear. You need to be afraid of something to arm yourself that heavily.

That would play on my mind. It played on my mind this past jury duty assignment. How fucked this next generation of kids must be if they consider this kind of daily abuse in any way “normal” … when it’s about as far from normal as you could possibly get. I had this conversation with people at work and was alarmed how many of them think this is perfectly normal behavior. It just isn’t. It’s sick, and it warps people’s minds.

They’ll keep telling us it’s all to “protect us” … but at some point, you have to ask yourself, where does it end? Many of us can remember life before these drastic measures, when you could amble up to a courthouse anywhere in America and just walk in, as opposed to feeling like you’re bringing a carton of cigarettes to an unlucky friend incarcerated in Rahway. We’re so ramped up with this bullshit that I can’t possibly see how we could ramp down again to a relatively normal life where people walked freely into schools and courthouses. The only logical progression would be for things to get worse from this point, not better.

In a sick way, this whole process, especially with schools, seems geared towards making lower and working-class kids feel more comfortable and familiar with being institutionalized, to embrace it in some sense at an early age … so they won’t mind so much when it happens for real a decade down the road. To get used to guards making them feel less human, to be taunted by people with guns, to be made to feel they have to answer to people no one should ever have to answer to.

I can only grasp how awful prison must be, if this sort of treatment is a small fraction of the discomfort and disrespect inmates are exposed to daily for years on end. (I'm assuming it goes both ways, and inmates surely treat guards the same way.) Believe me, getting treated like dogshit in a courthouse is incentive enough for me to do everything possible to not fall under the care and control of any institution. I’m sure I’d figure out how to live and survive in that environment … but I can see, through these minute glimpses, how awful and soul destroying it must be. As with any institution, be it a prison or a hospital, everyone is there to treat you as a dollar sign, whether it’s you in a hospital bed running up a six-figure bill, or you in an orange jumpsuit feeding tax dollars into prison construction and employment. I don’t want any part of either and will do whatever necessary to avoid being part of either situation.

About that earlier jury duty in the Bronx … I’ve forgotten so much about the experience. Must have been mid-90s. I found an article about the actual case. And here’s an even better article about the mass murder leading up to that revenge murder our defendant committed. Read The New York Times article as part of the entry: it gives the entire history of how this story came to be, basically a neighborhood beef amongst teenage drug dealers that exploded into this awful story of multiple corpses. I don't believe the first link mentions that the defendant from our case was in a rival drug gang struggling for dominance of that neighborhood.

I think it was because of that murder on the courthouse steps that this whole era of courthouse lockdowns began – at least that was made explicitly clear to us at the trial, that this was why getting into the Bronx County Courthouse was such an ordeal. Being part of that jury was a terrible experience, as you could imagine, but at least there was a story to tell afterwards. How many of us are exposed to that world, where teenage kids push their bounds by falling into drugs and easy money, and then not have maturity or sense enough to quietly ease out of that life after making a small fortune? In this case, petty neighborhood beefs were tossed into the mix (in this case, a teenage girl slapped in the face in public) and resulted in seven deaths over, essentially, nothing but hurt feelings. When’s the last time you shot someone for hurting your feelings?

I don’t recall being as outraged at the time over my treatment as someone being scrutinized upon entering a courthouse. Why? Because that was one case where they should have sequestered the jury completely from the public. As noted, this was a jury for a high-profile murder case. Every day, I’d look out in the crowded audience and notice the actor Sam Waterston sitting there, dapper and small in a white shirt. Little did I know he was researching his role for his stint as a District Attorney on the TV show, Law and Order. He surely got an education with that case. But every day, there’d be a parade of teenage drug gang members, some in prison uniforms, others not, giving testimony as to what they knew about this revenge killing, and how circumstances came to be that these people found themselves walking around in bullet-proof vests and killing each other execution-style in cramped apartments.

And every day … I’d see these same punks and assholes, not a dozen feet away from me, eating lunch on the courthouse steps with family and friends! Riding elevators with me. Making eye contact. As a juror, I had zero protection from these people. They knew who I was … could have followed me home, if they wanted. The Bronx is notorious for having an ass-backwards attitude on providing guilty verdicts to violent felony crimes. I think part of that is that people who live there simply know or are related to people who have done time so that they tend to let things slide when it comes to making a hard call like that. But more importantly, they’re afraid of vengeance as most of the crimes are related to drug gangs and such. There are a lot of reasons why I left the Bronx, but this realization was one of them, that I was living around people who had lowered their expectations of life to match their physical surroundings, i.e., when you know a few guys who’ve done time for felony offenses, have a relative or two in jail for stupid drug-related shit, you tend to see the world through that sort of lens, where these situations most people find soul destroying simply become part of every-day life.

And, thus, we’re back to where I started, imagining myself as a relatively innocent 12-year-old standing in front of a metal detector at the local P.S. for the first time, and treating it like it’s no big deal. It is a big deal. What it represents. What it says about the place you live. The building in which you are to learn about life, and how to live in this world. What it says about you. Who you are. Who you aren’t. Why you should be made to feel like you’ve done something wrong, when you’ve done nothing wrong. Why you’re made to feel like you’re already institutionalized, when you’re just a kid, and life is spread out in front of you, waiting for you to live it, to sense that freedom … and have that freedom empty its pockets every morning, take off its belt, pass through a metal detector, and maybe have a rent-a-cop curse it and pass a wand over then wave it through after a pat-down.

How did we get here? More importantly, how do we get out of here? Is it even possible?

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