November 1st, 2017
We were waiting to get into Room 515 of the Milwaukee County Courthouse. Victor and I were sitting on a wooden bench in the hall outside of the courtroom door. The corridor was long, and hushed voices echoed through it. The walls had the look of marble veneer, and the ceilings were vaulted with large globe lights hanging from them. The benches were like church pews, and probably designed to be uncomfortable. People sat around, looking forlornly at their phones, and waiting. Everybody was waiting…and waiting. That hallway was a preview of purgatory.
At last, the sheriff’s deputy opened the door to the courtroom, and people slowly wandered in. A courtroom is one of those places where nobody wants to be. However, almost everybody there has to be there. I don’t think that the lawyers want to be there any more than the defendants. It’s like everybody who walks into the room is expecting to get a colonoscopy. I was one of the few people who were in the courtroom voluntarily, and even I felt that vibe which screamed, “God, just get this shit done! Let’s get out of here!”
Victor was there for a traffic offense. I was with him because he needed somebody to ride shotgun. Victor is a Latino, and he doesn’t have a drivers license at this juncture in time. I’m not sure why that is, and I really don’t care. Javier from Voces de la Frontera set me up to drive Victor to the courthouse, and to be his white friend during the court appearance. I know that sounds racist as hell, but that’s exactly what I did. I did nothing for Victor other than to be with him. I didn’t translate for him (because I can’t), and he already had a lawyer. I was there to keep him safe, somehow. The whole thing sounds a little crazy, but then we live in crazy times.
The courtroom had that old school, 1930’s vintage, WPA artwork look. Lots of wood paneling, and heavy wooden furniture. There were carved wooden eagles at the top of columns along the walls. It was actually a beautifully appointed government office. The problem is that nothing beautiful happened in that room. It was all haggling between lawyers and the judge’s lackeys. Lots of lives were being adjusted, bent, and twisted. Most of the people in the room, at least the defendants, were people of color. I’m not entirely sure that justice is blind.
Victor was in and out of there quickly. He had to attend some classes, and return to the court at a later date. He would have to pay some heavy fines, but that’s the best he could do by playing the system. Overall, he seemed relieved with the outcome of his appearance. Despite his limited English (un poquito de ingles), and my nearly non-existent Spanish (un poquito de espanol), we still managed to have some good conversations. I’m glad that I was there for him.
I went back to Voces de la Frontera that evening to teach the citizenship class. I worked for a while with Sergio. Sergio is an older Latino, who has been in the U.S. on his green card for a long time. Now he wants to become a citizen. He’s an intelligent man, but he can’t write for shit. During his upcoming citizenship interview, he may be required to write (in English) the answers to some simple civics questions. Sergio knows the answers to the questions. He just can’t spell. I know plenty of native Americans who can’t spell, but they aren’t trying to become citizens. Sergio is. He has to be able to spell, at least some words. It doesn’t seem fair, but this is how the game is played. My job is to make sure he can write well enough to pass the damn test. Sergio is almost there, but not quite yet.
Giselheid walked into Voces. She is an older German lady, in many ways similar to my wife, Karin. Giselheid has lived here for many years as a permanent legal resident, and now she wants to become a citizen. She is from the same general area of Germany as Karin. Freya set me up to work with Giselheid because I am a German speaker. Giselheid and I haven’t actually used German much at all, but it’s there if we need it. Giselheid is definitely an outlier at Voces. Almost everyone else who comes there is Mexican.
We worked on the civics questions for the citizenship interview. There are one hundred standard questions that applicants must be able to answer. Most people preparing for the interview know the book answers. I try to go deeper with the students to ensure that they actually understand the questions and the answers. I am ambitious. I don’t just want these people to become U.S. citizens. I want them to be active citizens. I want people like Giselheid and Sergio to participate in our dysfunctional democracy. I want them to get involved.
I asked Giselheid about the Bill of Rights.
“What is one right found in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution?”
Giselheid answered in her German accent, “Freedom of Speech.”
“Okay, say that I know nothing of America. Explain ‘freedom of speech’ to me.”
Then she said, “Well, you can say whatever you want.”
I told her, “There are certain limits on freedom of speech. I can’t tell people to riot in the streets. I can’t tell them to kill other people. Other than that, I can say almost anything.”
Giselheid frowned and said, “But it is okay to call people names and say mean things about them?”
“Well, yeah. There is a thing called slander. I cannot say something to hurt somebody else that is false and designed to hurt the other person. However, it is difficult to prove slander. Mostly, people get away with saying bad things about other people.”
“And this is okay?”
“This is something that we put up with. We can’t stop people from saying mean things. If we tell the Neo-Nazis to stop speaking against the Jews and the blacks, then somebody will complain about other people speaking against the Nazis. Eventually, nobody will get to say anything.”
“So, we just put up with it?”
“Yes, we do. We’re in America.”
I went on. “Freedom of speech isn’t always free. I have been in many demonstrations and protests over the years. In the spring I was at an anti-war protest in Nevada. I was involved in civil disobedience. I helped to block the entrance to an Air Force Base. The cops told me to move. I didn’t. I got arrested. I went to jail. I expressed my freedom of speech and I paid for it. Sometimes it works like that.”
I went on to another question. “What is one responsibility for only American citizens?”
Giselheid said, “To be on a jury.”
I told her, “I have been on two juries.”
Giseleid looked at me and said, “I don’t think I would like to be on a jury and have that responsibility. I might send somebody to jail for life.”
I replied, “That’s true. It is a big responsibility. My experience has been that people rise to the occasion. People that are selected for a jury understand that they can totally change another person’s life. Members of a jury act like adults, and they try to do it right. They really do.”
“I don’t want to be on a jury.”
“Nobody does. Somehow it works, at least most of the time.”
I thought back to Victor and the courtroom. Even with all the haggling and horse-trading, maybe it all really does work out.