Thursday, January 8, 2015

Revisiting A Night in Court

The slowdown in arrests by New York City policemen has taken its toll on the proceedings of a venerable institution—night court, as related in Thursday’s New York Times (  Forty-four years ago, as editor of Calling Card, a Brooklyn College newspaper, I spent time in night court. Here’s what I published back on October 15, 1970:

Room IIA of the New York City Criminal Court Building was filling up pretty quickly. By 8:25 p.m., almost all of the seats were occupied, but the stream of people seeking entrance didn’t subside. Women, some dressed up in fancy overcoats and beauty-parlor hairdos or wigs were, at time, joking with each other, but for the most part, they wore the concerned faces of mothers and friends seeking comfort in their time of hardship. The faces of the men also revealed the tense situation of the courtroom appearance. As if in an attempt to minimize their presence in court, the people talked in hushed tones about the everyday occurrences of life in our city—the men whispered about the last Jets game while the women talked quietly about the rising cost of eggs. All of them, however, were united in a common bond—they were all Black or Puerto Rican.

An appearance in court, even to an innocent bystander, evokes feeling of inconsequence and unimportance. One is overwhelmed by the austerity of the surroundings, the paneled walls of the room, the elevated seat of the judge, and, above the seat, the hallowed words, “In God We Trust.” To a Black man, the emotions seem to be even more exaggerated, for he lives in a white man’s world of equality and justice where even god is not to be wholly trusted—he, too, is probably white. Sitting there in court, one could sense their apprehension, their feelings of impending doom. Their only hope was a compassionate judge, one who wouldn’t set bail too high and force upon the accused a prolonged stay in the Tombs. 

As if in answer to their hopes the judge entered. The bailiff bid everyone to rise, and in stepped a man wearing a conservative grey suit. Immediately his most obvious characteristic was noted by all—the judge was just as black as the rest of the people in court. The honorable Dennis Edwards, Jr. seated himself and reluctantly, it appeared, ordered the proceedings to start. Tonight, the only business at hand was the arraignment of prisoners, setting their trial dates and the amount of money needed to post bail. Boredom traced its way along the lines of the judge’s face as he sat, head resting in the palm of his hand, listening to the steady drone of the bailiff. As each prisoner approached the bench, the only voice to be heard was the full rich baritone voice of the bailiff apprising the gallery of the crime allegedly committed by the accused. The monologue would continue at a steady rate for about fifteen seconds, during which time the prisoner was told his constitutional rights. How he was expected to understand this mumbo-jumbo was not the court’s concern. If the prisoner was Puerto Rican, all the better—no translator was present.

The sequence of events, the policeman bringing the accused to the bench where the charge was read and bail and trial date were set, was repeated for half an hour. There was little talking in the room, everyone straining their ears to hear what was taking place. One defendant, a Puerto Rican, when told his bail was $1,000, asked for a reduction. His wife, through the aid of a court appointed lawyer, said she could raise, maybe $500. Leniency by the court was requested. An indifferent denial was received.

And so it continued for thirty minutes, followed by a short recess and a resumption of more of the same. Justice wasn’t being served, only delayed, and the boredom of the proceedings could be seen all around the courtroom—the judge staring blankly at the walls, a court lawyer, waiting for assignment, biting his fingernails, and, in the last pew of the room, a drunk sleeping off his latest binge. His grey hair was strewn all over his head and unshaven face, and he wore his socks in the typical style of the Bowery bum—rolled down to the ankles. How he was able to stay undetected in court wasn’t hard to figure out—the guards were all too bored to notice him. As long as he didn’t snore, he fit in with the rest of the scenery just as if he were part of the woodwork. Perhaps he was dreaming about better times, when courts of law will be obsolete and only rarely used. For his sake, I hope he wasn’t dreaming about that, for when he would wake up and see where he was and what was taking place around him, the stark realization of our court system would be enough to drive the man to drink.