The first time I observed court was quite overwhelming. Everything was fast-paced, too quick for me to keep up. For each case, a court officer reads aloud the case number. At the Poughkeepsie City Court, this is a combination of the letters “CR” and some string of numbers. He only announces this once, so as the defendant enters the other court watcher and I have to scramble to find the matching case form we prepared to record what happens. For the first ten or so cases, I felt that our hasty shuffling of the pages was loud and distracting – I felt uncomfortable accidentally bringing any attention to us. After some time, though, the necessity of speed overrode my concern about being too loud. Around this time, I also started to feel more familiar with the court’s language.
This was about the same time that a jail inmate was escorted into court. She was a black woman bound in chains, clad in an orange jumpsuit, and flanked by six police officers. One might assume she was accused of a violent crime, but that was not quite the case. Her top charge was read aloud – petit larceny – essentially shoplifting an item from a local Rite Aid. It was unclear what exactly the item was, but still, it was only shoplifting. This was striking. I felt like something was off – there was some dissonance between her alleged offense and the sheer number of police officers surrounding her. Why did she, as someone who was accused of a nonviolent offense, require such excessive security? There were many other inmates from the city jail brought to court after her, even some who were accused of violent offenses, but none were subjected to such high security. This left me thinking, was the level of security happenstance or in fact, evidence of racism?