Friday, April 1, 2016

Gemini Ink Writing Lab - Week #6 - On Trial

Engaging the Active Imagination: Writing as Activism

Writing prompt
  • Justice or Restitution? Write of a time you've been put on trial for your own convictions
The Scene: Frio Street Courthouse Blues

"You must be a lawyer," said the parking attendant. "Oh, no," I said, "I'm here for a parking ticket." "Oh, well, you look like a lawyer," said the parking attendant. An oxford shirt and silk tie, yes, a lawyer's attire. Texas bluesman Son House, mentor to the legendary Delta blues guitar picker Robert Johnson, once sang of the blues as a lowdown aching chill. This chill ran cold through my bones as I entered the magistrate court facility. As soon as we make our way through the plate glass doors we're deprived of all externals - "even your belt, sir" - and forced to regather our personal belongings on the other side of the metal detector. We're also stripped of our inherent compassion, our humanity. Our skin, whether tones of white or brown or red, appears in pale shades beneath the harsh fluorescent lighting from the ceiling. I ask the security guard to point me in the direction of a traffic violation. I ahve no difficulty in following the signage but I ask him because I figure I would ease the tension of a day in the life of someone charged with keeping the peace. I ask him because it seems not the most uplifting task of commanding others to remove their personals day in, day out. I f we feel violated, how must he feel? Though, he's more than glad to guide me about the building. I'd been here once before, but it was hard to tell where I needed to be. Each door looks just like the last, the same lighting, the same old wood.

It was more than ten years ago. I had turned 18 years old that summer and was learning my way around the inner city by car. I was parking on Pereida street in the heyday of the First Friday art walk in the King William Cultural Arts district. Two separate cops stuck me with two separate violations at two separate times: One for parking opposite the flow of traffic, the other for parking less than twenty feet from the intersection. $25 a piece. They didn't cover that in driving school. And so, I showed up for my scheduled court date and paid the fines, guilty as charged. But how insidious it seemed; no posting listed of any possible infractions, no traffic violation rulebook given to you after the infraction, nothing.
Fast forward to the present story and that same violation is now being charged for $35. Infalation, I guessed. I reached out to  friend, who recently graduated with a law degree, to dig deeper into this subterfuge and uncover who was pulling the ruse. He told me he attended a closed door city-county budget meeting in Dallas where the city manager explicitly demanded an answer from the chief of police how he intended to increase revenue for the city and county. Increased crackdown on parking fines and traffic violations, of course. "It's not secret within the administration," my friend said. This only infuriated me further, to see everyday people get nickel-and-dimed, and so I reach out to another friend majoring in criminial justice. I told him I was concerned with the amount of resources being allocated to the police for law enforcement. Public safety is a eupehmism for law enforcement. "Oh, it's not just parking tickets," he said, "it's speeding tickets, pulling over people for not signaling a lane change, for not vacating the passing lane when a squad car is approaching. They're called STEP cops." "STEP cops?" I asked. "Specialized Traffic Enforcement Police," he explained. And there was the rub. They didn't cover that in driving school.

Back to the courtroom blues, I was on a mission to dispute. I had paid my dues years ago. With the facade already in place, I decided I was going to act the part of the lawyer. Instead of a courtroom I got a glorified custodian's closet. Three employees crammed into this tiny space with the "judge" seated in front of a computer behind an elevated lectern. Some setting for a trial.

"Good morning," I said, "I'm here today to dispute a parking violation." I almost boasted this fact as to take command of the room and let them know that without physical evidence I was going to talk my way out of a ticket. "We'll be with you in just a moment," the judge said. I guess you could call him that. His loosely-fitted black judges' robe draped over his shoulders with a faded polo sport shirt showing underneath. His appearance was drab and seemed apathetic. The other two clerks didn't bother to look up, busy, I assumed, with the neverending paperwork of civic cases piled high on their desks. "Can we have a look at your ticket, please, and see your driver's license?" the judge asked. I confirmed my name and address. "And what is it you would like to dispute, Mr. Gonzalez?" the judge asked. Here it was, my big moment I had prepared for the entire morning. Going over the rhetoric in my head on the drive to court of how I had been a student at San Antonio College for years, who couldn't afford a parking pass, (more like, refused to pay for what should be a fundamental student amenity) and parked along the same side streets for years and never received a ticket and how another car was parked closer than I was and didn't receive a ticket and so on. And so, with a deep breath and a confidently lower tone of voice, I began...

"Well, I've been pursuing an Associate's Degree at San Antonio College since the fall semester of 2013. I've since become familiar with the intersections of Lewis and Evergreen adjacent to the Laurel Apartments and a block away from Crockett Park. Like many other students who cannot afford a parking pass, we see it fit that..." I was interrupted by the judge ripping up the paper and tossing it in the wastebin, a few clicks of the mouse, and a jaded look in his eye when he said, "Your ticket has been dismissed, sir. Thank you." I was stunned. No additional paperwork to sign? No evidence necessary to be presented by the purported guilty party? Not even a Bailiff present should the defending explanation of the purported perpetrator get out of line? "Is there anything else I need to complete?" was all that came out of my mouth. "No, sir. Thank you." And as the next defendant filed in right behind me, I filed right out.

I made sure to nod and acknowledge the security guard on my way out. A shirt and necktie, I thought to myself as I pushed open the doors and made my way across the parking lot. I started my car and drove away. Not a dollar paid. Case closed.