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Friday, October 25, 2002

If people were made of paper, this just might work

By Scott Harrison


Just Us

I decided it would help my case if I went on down to the courthouse and sat in on some other cases. Maybe I’d learn something. Maybe I could turn things around.

I got off BART at the Civic Center, walked down 7th Street, past the jail, to the Hall of Justice at 850 Bryant Street. Once through the front door, there were metal detectors and officers checking through purses and bags. On one trip to the courthouse I saw a Sheriff’s bus pulling out of the jail parking lot, belching smoke, filled with men, bars on the windows. On the back of the bus was an ad: “Career Opportunities. Call the Sheriff’s Department

I took an elevator to the second floor. I walked down a corridor and poked my head into a few courtrooms before finding one with a jury seated and listening. The chairs for the audience were empty. I took a seat. I took out a pad of a paper and a pen. An attorney was walking back and forth talking to the jurors.

Slowly, after the prosecutor finished making her closing argument and the defense attorney spoke fifteen minutes or so, I started to understand what had happened. A young black man (the defendant, who was sitting up at one of the lawyer’s tables) had been standing at a pay phone in the Mission District of San Francisco a few weeks back, trying to call his new lover. A white undercover policeman happened to be in a parked car watching him. The young man, who hadn’t noticed the undercover policeman, got angry because his lover refused to take his call. He sent his water bottle flying toward the street. Completely by accident, the bottle hit the bumper of the undercover policeman. The bottle broke and splashed the bumper but did no harm. At that point the officer jumped out, showed his gun and badge under his coat, and told the young black man to pick the water bottle up or he’d charge him with a felony. He didn’t arrest the young man but told him to go sit down on the sidewalk by the wall. The policeman went to his car to call for uniformed officers.

Meanwhile, the young man fled down the street in a panic, knocking on doors and trying to get help because he was frightened. He tried to tell several people that someone was going to shoot him and to please help. The young man thought he might be gunned down in cold blood. Eventually he was apprehended and charged with a felony. Several uniformed police dealt with him roughly, banging his head as they put him into the police car. He was taken to Mission Police Station where, in the holding cell, he was handcuffed to a pole with his hands behind his back and not told what he was being charged with or read his Miranda rights. He said many angry things and vented his frustration, which led to a new charge being put on him for interfering with the duty of an officer of the law. The woman police officer who charged him with that was across the room behind a small window in the booking office.

So these were the charges that the jury was solemnly considering. When the court took an afternoon break and the young black man, the defendant, walked past, I wanted to say to him in some way, “I can’t believe all these people are serious. I can’t believe this is all about a water bottle.”

I couldn’t express my idea in time. But as he walked past me (maybe because I was the only person in the audience to watch all this) he gave a nod. It was so quick and so simple but contained the most astonishing amount of self-dignity. It was as if he had said, “You just deal with it, Mr. White Guy. You deal with it. As my people have in this country for 400 years.”

I returned a few days later and found another trial to observe. This was the situation: A thin middle-aged white woman had been making a wax sculpture. She used several lit candles and at one point left the bedroom, returning sometime later to find half her bedroom on fire. Trapped on a balcony, she yelled for help. She took much of her clothing off and suffered burns to her back and singed hair when a fire worker rescued her by pulling her off the balcony and onto a neighboring house.

It turned out that the woman lived alone. Her mother had died not long before. This woman was known by her neighbors to have serious emotional problems. She had spent time in mental hospitals. When fire investigators inspected the house, they found she had filled the oven with old newspapers and painted things on the walls. Generally they found all sorts of odd and unusual things throughout the house. So they decided to charge her with arson. Immediately after her arrest, she was acting so troubled that the jail transferred her to the mental hospital ward. But at the trial expert witnesses were prepared to testify the fire was an accident. The frail woman with gray hair sat up at the defense table. She had been in custody a year and three months.

A number of courtrooms I went into were engaged in ceaseless details of long lists of cases. I would quietly walk back out and try to find a courtroom with a trial in progress.

Then one day I found a jury trial with a man accused of domestic violence. This was the type of trial I had been looking for. I sat and listened to a witness being questioned. For the longest time I had no idea what was going on. The lawyer seemed to be asking one question after another, revealing the details at a snail’s pace. Lawyers are paid a lot to go so slowly. Imagine a taxi driver who won’t go over seven miles an hour. But it was worth the wait because gradually a picture materialized. A bizarre sad picture.

Imagine a married couple. Both are Jewish. When they first were married, the man was not particularly devout. Then years into the marriage, after they had a son, he “converted” to a very stringent, orthodox form of his religion. Yes, this reminded me very much of my wife. There comes a point where this kind of religion is not a passion but an obsession. The man was a nice man and he tried in various ways to tug his wife into the more involved rituals and practices he found so meaningful. But she simply wanted no part of it. She did not accept what her role was to be as wife and woman in her husband’s orthodox practice. She cherished her freedom. She does not want to become ultra-orthodox as he was. So their relationship became a living hell for both of them, but for opposite reasons. They might have just separated but they didn’t. Meanwhile, their son increasingly became the source of their civil war.

Then one day there was an incident. The wife accused her husband of throwing her against a wall, slapping her ten times violently, shoving her around, pushing her down, making a series of violent threats, choking her, and so on. The difficulty was that upon cross-examination she confused all the details, repeatedly contradicted herself, and couldn’t seem to credibly testify that any physical abuse had actually happened. She had called the police but there were no marks where she said her husband had slapped her on the face so violently. In fact she didn’t even mention the slapping to the police until several days after the incident. Meanwhile she had gotten full custody of her son and possession of the house. She had filed for divorce.

I will be truthful: I did not see this trial from start to finish and listen to each witness but when I left the courtroom that afternoon, nothing would have caused me to think the man was guilty. Yet what of the year and a half of pure hell the woman endured because he’d taken the turn into such devout practice? Hadn’t he essentially deserted her? What about her son? It seemed to me the woman too had suffered a lot. Maybe her husband had told her, “I will keep my son and get rid of you with my lawyers!”

In another courtroom I did finally see someone who appeared to be guilty as hell (at last!). The man was charged with writing bad checks. He had a heroin habit and went into big department stores buying armfuls of things. Using bad checks. The store security watched him on camera as he picked out several items without seeming to care about size, price, or how they looked on him. He’d gotten someone's name and bank account number and had checks printed up to match some fake ID’s he had.

The security guards stopped him out in the parking lot. He begged them to let him go. Said he was a drug user. Said he’d give them money. Said he’d never come back. Looked to me like he wasn’t going to go back for several years whether he liked it or not. He looked like he’d already been in a few times.

I haven’t watched television for about ten years. I do watch a bit when I’m traveling and at a hotel, but even then I get so infuriated by the commercials that I usually flip it off and read a book. At the end of the summer I went to visit my mom up near Seattle for a few days. She enjoys television, so for several nights we watched “Cops” and other law-and-order shows. I saw how the police got the bad guys and always managed to perform a number of public services.

The universe of television seems exactly upside down from the world I’ve been in. Compassionate, humanitarian lawyers. Fair and even-handed justice. Good and bad. Black and white. All things clean, arranged, and sorted in the shoebox. But when I step into one of the courtrooms and sit and watch, it seems something is terribly terribly wrong. It seems the only thing our system wants to do is grind people up. Fairness, kindness, and real justice have no part of the ballgame. It seems prosecutors have become the new Roman gladiators. Why in Japan do they have only one person in custody for every seventeen we have per capita?

There is a downtrodden man, probably around sixty years old, who has been coming into my bookstore since it opened nearly ten years ago. He is the editor, publisher, distributor, artist, photographer, and sole writer for a daily paper. It is one Xeroxed page filled with drawings and typed messages, often with urgent small scribbling running up and down the edges. He thinks he is the Messiah. For nearly twenty years he has been giving copies of his one-page paper out to anyone who will take them. I’ve seen him walk up to fire trucks and hand them to the firefighters. I’ve seen him hand them to police officers and tourists, homeless people and dishwashers.

He faxes his daily paper to the news services, Time Magazine, the New York Times, the president, the mayor, and both houses of Congress. As a young man he spent many years as a paid newsman in the Midwest. He wrote for the wire services and later worked at a small TV station. He indulged in psychedelic drugs and pot a bit and it intensified his compassion for living things, particularly for mice, birds, bugs, and spiders. It was only a matter of time, I suppose, before he ended up in San Francisco and changed his name to Swan.

A local poet told me that he had known Swan when he still led a regular life. He was eccentric, independent minded, and rode around town on a small motorcycle. Swan had a girlfriend and was seen everywhere with her and her daughter. Then one day she left him and Swan fell apart. He could not relate to people anyone. He didn’t seem to want to. He trusted bugs more then humans. He began relating mostly to birds, mice, and bugs, feeding hundreds of birds every day on donated birdseed.

Now he lives in doorways, looking like the last bearded hippy from the 1960s, filthy but always cheerful. He throws his daily paper through the gate at the bookstore if I’m not open. If the store is open, he walks in, asking me for donations or asking if I have any candy while handing me the latest issue of his paper. Often he has a pigeon on his arm or gently protected and tucked into a pocket. He has helped many hurt birds recover and return to the rooftops. His daily newspaper mixes the brilliance of William Blake with the redneck narrow-minded bigotry of Rush Limbaugh. One paragraph is exquisite, beside another that is totally repugnant. His favorite themes are free pot and free rent for everyone. He is a ceaseless champion of living things.

One day, a few years back, I convinced Swan to sit for a tape-recorded interview. In that interview he said if something exists here, then it will exist there, and if you see it over there, it surely will be here too. Outside and inside, “them” and “us” are not as different as they seem. I still think of what he said. I think of the mess I’m in now; how utterly, totally unable and unwilling the “system” has been to understand what occurred between my wife and me. And how unwilling the system is to ever listen to me because the people in it have already made their decision of what occurred.

I wrote to so many people. I phoned so many people. I met with people. I made it as clear as I possibly could to the domestic violence councilor at King Center that I was set up, and she just didn’t and wouldn’t hear it. She wasn’t paid to listen to me. She was paid to conduct her version of “dog training.” I wrote over and over to the police trying to straighten the thing out. They were as receptive as phone poles. I wrote to and spoke with the special domestic violence detectives, whom I would have expected to know better. I spoke with the probation department. And with the office for citizen complaints. I got nowhere. It has caused me to wonder just how much better we in the United States are than those in Pakistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, or all the other places we love to be so critical of. If it happens there…if it happens here…I can’t stop myself from weighing the truth of this.

At the beginning of summer an attorney I knew volunteered to assist me. He spent twenty hours writing up a motion asking the court to allow me to withdraw my plea and bring my case back to trial. He is a busy attorney; he was doing this for me for free. He even asked a second attorney to assist him. Together, in five court appearances, over three months, we got nowhere. The motion was denied. We got caught in the spider web of law. It took a huge amount of effort to move a couple inches. Which brings me back to what Swan said. I suspect this isn’t just happening to me. It is happening in all the courts from Eureka to San Diego. And because the state system mirrors the federal model, it’s happening from Maine to Homer, Alaska. A spider web of law.

Law could, I honestly believe, be ten times more streamlined. But it isn’t. Why? Because the more complex it is, the more profitable it is for those who practice it. This is probably a bitter simple-minded view but one I can’t seem to shake. There also seems to be something more: the hunger of governments to control everything. With more and more law, the system acquires more and more ownership over all the individuals in it. The lines are drawn everywhere. Step on one crack and they take over your life. Or if you’re like me, you don’t need to even step over a line or on a crack. One day they just come and get you. Like the young man who tossed a water bottle onto the wrong car.