Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Rethinking justice

A few weeks ago I wrote about a "driving while black" incident I suffered through while heading downriver to a meeting for work . Today, I had my day in court. It was interesting.

I expected to see many people who were caught up like me, and I saw quite a few. I also saw many who did not.

I'm not sure I stand corrected, because what I realized was that River Rouge is a giant speed trap. My confidence in that began to grow as I approached the courthouse and had to swerve to avoid a police cruiser pulling over a motorist. The driver had my sympathy.

Inside the courtroom there were about 30 people there and most were black. Most were there for speeding, and most, like me, pleaded to a lesser charge, got no points in return and eventually headed back home or on to their jobs. One case struck me though.

It was that of a teen who apparently had a run-in with police and didn't act respectfully. He was dressed in hip hop gear and didn't look like he came prepared to atone for anything in particular.

But the book was a bit different than the cover. The young brother had been ordered to complete some community service type stuff and keep his nose clean, which the judge praised him for doing. The judge also admonished him to let go of his anger toward authorities and straighten up before he ended up in another confrontation that could end up much worse. The young man had served 18 days, the judge said, as he warned him not to end up in front of his bench again. Then, the judge told him his record would be wiped clean because he realized his mistake and took steps to get his life back on the right track. The young man politely, respectfully thanked the judge and walked meekly out of the courtroom.

Back in the day

I was reminded of the environment myself and other young black men like me in west Michigan faced while in college. There were a number of young brothers who found themselves away from home at Grand Valley for the first time, in a community that didn't necessarily embrace them. Like teens and young adults will do from time to time, many got in minor trouble. But few were cut breaks. Most ended up with some type of permanent scar on their records, and some landed in jail. They weren't given opportunities to establish clean slates. As a result, I eventually lost count of the number of kids who ended up leaving school, and I sat there today wondering what their lives ended up being like.

Then I started rethinking justice. While I still think I was singled out in my stop, I also had some respect for the judge who gave the teen in the hip hop outfit a break. I thought about justice, and fairness. Not sure my stop was fair, but I'll take the justice meted out.

I hope the kid takes advantage of his.

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