When I walked in, I felt like something was a little odd, but couldn’t quite figure out what. It looked like any other courtroom, a lot of frustrated people who don’t really know what’s going on being treated like crap by a bunch of city bureaucrats who seem to think that their job is to be as cryptic and unhelpful as humanly possible rather than helping people really understand what their options are. But then I figured it out – here I was, in a court whose jurisdiction was West U, one of the whitest neighborhoods in Houston and one in which most of the people are very well off, and I was one of the only white people in the room.
Now, given the demographics of West U, one would expect that most of the traffic violations that take place are perpetrated by well-off white people. Yet all of the people at court (with an occasional exception, such as myself) were people of color. Now, I’m not shocked by the notion that cops tend to pull over people of color more often, statistics have proven that for years, but the magnitude of it was really staggering. In a room of over one hundred people I could only count five white people, even though white people must constitute the vast majority of people that drive in West U.
Well, five white people if we don’t count the judge, the city prosecutors (one of whom had a frightening resemblance to Ann Coulter), and all of the cops. And, of course, all of these white city employees were being incredibly rude and condescending to all of the people who were in the courtroom. The police officers (I saw a total of four and each and every one of them was vastly overweight – proving that cops are incapable of actually doing anything to protect anyone and are nothing more than bureaucrats on wheels – well, racially profiling bureaucrats on wheels, anyway) yelled at anyone who couldn’t figure out how to fill in the forms (which are written in such a way that I, a PhD in the English language, had to read more than once to figure out) and treated everyone with clear disdain. The prosecutors snapped at anyone who didn’t, upon hearing their name, immediately make their way to the front of the room (even though the room was packed and moving was very difficult) and rolled their eyes every time they had to get someone to help them translate for a Spanish speaking citizen (which was often). When people asked questions they went out of their way to be unhelpful, and acted as if they were doing people a huge favor by allowing them to pay their exorbitant fines in installments instead of paying three hundred dollars right then and there, even though it was clear that for most of these people, three hundred dollars was probably a week’s wages.
I don’t consider myself naïve when it comes to racial politics in this country, but I just found it startling how blatant this situation was. Ten white people handing down “justice” on a room full of Mexican-Americans and African-Americans who had clearly been racially profiled in the first place seems like something that would appear in a nineteenth century protest novel, not something still going on today – I though racism had become more subtle and sophisticated than that. Maybe that’s why West U feels the need to have its own police department and court system – the HPD and Houston Courts have enough constituents of color that they have to find clever ways to be racist. Apparently the West U people don’t want to go to all that trouble and would prefer to conduct their racism the old fashioned way.
Of course, eventually my name was called. The judge saw me and immediately smiled. He dropped one of tickets immediately and asked if I had gotten my headlight fixed. I told him I had and he asked if I had done it within ten days of getting the ticket. Since my proof that I had fixed it was an auto-parts store receipt with today’s date on it, I figured I’d better not lie, so I told him I had only gotten it taken care of that day. It turns out I could have lied, because he never even asked for me to provide any evidence that I had had it fixed, but just told me not to worry about it, he’d make an exception and wave both of my tickets, and that I was free to go.
As I was walking out I heard one of the prosecutors yelling (literally yelling) at a Mexican-American woman who didn’t speak very good English because she didn’t understand what paperwork she needed to prove she had insurance. I also saw a young white woman and what I assume was her father sitting in the aisles looking very nervous. Why she was nervous I don’t know – she was clearly going to get off without any punishment whatsoever.
*Here is that story:
A few months ago I was in a minor car accident involving a fire department paramedic vehicle. My car got a little dinged up and, most importantly, one of the headlights no longer worked. In order to file a claim against the city, I have to submit an accident report. In order to get an accident report, I have to go to the police department downtown and make a request for the report in person. However, the police department won’t release reports involving city vehicles as quickly as they do for other vehicles – sometimes it takes months. So, I’ve been driving around with a damaged car and no right front headlight.
I have now been pulled over a total of four times for driving with a headlight out, and have gotten two tickets for it (as well as a ticket for not having proof of insurance with me, which I didn’t have because I had left it in my apartment while scanning a copy of it to send to the city to try to make my claim, which I still can’t make without an accident report).
So basically, the city damaged my car. The city won’t fix my car without a police report. The city won’t give me the police report, because the accident involved the city. Meanwhile, the city writes me tickets for having a damaged car. The city sucks.