by Kate Layzer
This story is about what we bore witness to in court the day after our arrest. I share it because I think it’s urgently important in this life to shed our illusions. I believe it as a Christian—what else is the cross of Christ for if not to make us look hard at suffering and injustice, and be forced to see it? And I believe it as an American. Our ideals are vapor if we can’t be honest about how the system is actually working, in real life. Our group was incredibly fortunate to be there and to be able to help in a small way. But please don’t focus on that. Keep your eyes on the man in the handcuffs.
We were waiting for the Clerk of the Court to call our names when an African American prisoner was brought slowly in in handcuffs. We watched as he made his way painfully to a nearby chair, wincing with every movement. His body bore the marks of his beating in custody. The DA told the state's version of what had happened; his attorney told a different version, and then reminded the court that her client had relapsed last fall after his eldest child had been killed in a triple homicide in Roxbury. The judge set bail at 1,500—half what the DA requested, but an impossibly steep sum for a poor family. The man had been before the court many times before.
When we left the courtroom, all 16 of us free to go without so much as a fine, we encountered the man's wife and sister in the hallway, wailing—wailing at the targeting of their family member, at his beating, and at the bail which they could not hope to pay. Our lawyer from the Massachusetts Lawyer's Guild was there, and so was the representative from the Massachusetts Bail Fund. The MBF rep was offering to cover $500 of the $1,500, but it wasn't enough. Cathy Hoffman, the great and wise peace activist, who sees what needs to be done and never hesitates, turned to our group and said, "Can we help?" We scrambled for cash and checkbooks, and raised $700. It was enough. And we went back out into freedom more aware than ever of our privilege. How easy everything had been for us. How the police had treated us gently and with extreme courtesy. How the judge had dismissed all charges. How we had had checkbooks and bank accounts to draw from.
Praying and working for the day when the courtrooms of America aren't overflowing with black and brown defendants, when the poor hear good news, when the blindness of Lady Justice is healed, and the oppressed are set free.
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor." (gospel of Luke, chap. 4)
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