Multi Media


By Marilyn Shaw

Marilyn Shaw
On Community Watch

(A Day in Traffic Court)

The crowd filed into the courtroom. Those with traffic tickets sat in the front. Those lending moral support sat in the back. A wide walkway separated the two groups. The,"Driving While Black," phenomenon. I had witnessed it and it had been a buzz of conversations. Now, all of it congealed and for the first time, I had the opportunity to see up close and personal one of its economic, apparatus in motion, Traffic Court.

The courtroom was dark. The corridor leading to it was narrow and deep and although it was sunny outside, it was dreary. Perhaps the way the light streamed through the three or four scattered windows had something to do with it. Maybe it had more to do with where I was, after all, it was a courthouse. There were no chairs nor benches in which to sit. There were no plants nor pictures that graced the walls. Only a dimly lit corridor and a few tall windows.

Although it was near empty when I arrived, it quickly filled to well over 200 people. Someone tapped me on the shoulder from behind.

"Excuse me," said a deep, youthful voice.

As I turned, a young, tall, Black man stood before me. He couldn't have been more than 21, 23 at best and he seemed a little apprehensive.

"Is this the court to show proof of registration and insurance," he asked.

I smiled and nodded yes, assuring him that he was at the right place. I had a chance to hear this question asked over and over, again. It became so frequent that, to amuse myself, I tried to guess how many times I would hear it asked before court came into session.

As I stood there guessing, I found myself looking over the wave of Black faces. They were primarily men, young men. I didn't find the numbers disproportionately higher, but dismally greater than any other group. Aside for a sprinkle of Hispanics and a White head now and then, there was a sea of Black folks. Overwhelmingly, I felt that our being there had little to do with minor traffic infractions and much to do about the illegal restriction of our movement. From the tone of conversations overheard, I was right on the mark.

The bailiff strolled through and parted us like Moses. She was about 5'3" tall, 110 pounds, but she was shored up by a cold piece of steel that she frequently teased with her fingers. That wasn't the only weapon she was carrying. She was also armed with all the experiences she had ever had or heard about Black people, the good and bad, fact and fiction. Now, she was vested by the powers of the court and any remark or unkind gesture directed towards her could result in ejection from the court, a delay in the hearing, or both.

"Listen up everybody," she started.

A hush fell over the crowd.

"What we're going to do now is let the folks come inside who have tickets. They're going to look at a movie for a little while … When they finish, we're going to sit them in the front of the courtroom. Those who came down with them will then be let in and will sit in the back of the courtroom."

She tilted her head up in an attempt to carry her voice over the crowd.

" the way...If you don't have your citation, raise your hands after the movie. We'll give you a sheet of paper and you can give us the information about yourself."

The crowd then separated into two groups. Those with tickets formed a vicarious line that wrapped around the corner outside the courtroom. They were then paraded inside and the bailiff closed the door behind. Those left behind scrambled to find seating on the ledges of the windows. I sat next to a middle-aged, well dressed, Black woman. She seemed quite distress.

"I don't know why the' keep pickín on my boy," she said in a heavy southern accent. This make' da' fif' time come'n down her' and I’m tired."

She wrung her hands. I touched her shoulder.

"The' just doing that caus' he Black."

She was right. Judging from the makeup of the crowd that just entered the courtroom, we were the only ones the police were picking on.

After a short time, the bailiff opened the door and we walked inside and sat in the back. I sat next to the woman I had just met. A White judge set at the bench. I knew that, just as the bailiff had fears and prejudices about Black folks, the judge was not at a disadvantage. With his many years of miseducation, he was a greater threat. He could speak and incarceration could follow.

Now, as it was explained to me, if a guilty plead was entered, the judge was generally quite lenient and frequently reduced the bail of the offender. If a not-guilty plead was entered, a court day was set. The offender and accuser (the police) would then able to, "face off." Who do you think would most likely win?

The bailiff called out the first name and a male, Hispanic walked up to the podium. The judge read off the offenses and asked what his plead was, looking up only momentarily over his spectacles to receive the responses to his solicitations. The process that was once slow to start, now streaked through like grease lightning. Somehow, I had imagined that it would last much longer than it did. To the contrary, a different name was called within a matter of minutes, literally. It was like like a processing plant, a cattle prod. Only with people, mostly Black people.

After a half hour or so, the person I accompanied was called to the podium. He was there for a tail light and proof of insurance. Although he had shown proof of his correction and insurance, instead of dismissing the case, the judge reduced the fine. We then walked over to the cashier to pay the fine and somewhere within that 15 feet of space, something strange happened. Although the fine was reduced, it was increased by what the cashier referred to as, "penalties and assessments." A whopping 117% increase. The fine was paid.

As we left the cashier, I looked over the crowd that was managed by ropes and steered by security guards.

"Keep the line straight," yelled a guard.

As the crowd moved closer to give up their offerings to the State's coffer, I thought, "What a racquet!" It was a racquet. A legalized, fundraising scheme and we were its greatest contributors. An obvious fallout for driving while Black.

Some studies have shown that, although Blacks represent roughly 14% of the driving population, 74% of all traffic citations are issued to Blacks.

Several bills have been introduced that would require police departments to maintain databases that would reflect the age, as well as race of individuals who are cited for traffic violations. None have become law.

On October 9, 1998, the ACLU opened a hot line for "minorities" to report racially motivated stops by police.

To date, there is no "systematic" record that tracks this phenomenon.

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