On My Experience in the American Justice System

By Keenan St. Clair

For me, the courts are suffocating. They always are. Not a hand around my throat--no, that’d be too direct. Rather the courts pull my ability to breathe from me slowly, like a room running out of air. It’s present from my first step inside; a gently progressing affliction, indifferent to my plight as it goes about its work. Struggling against it only pushes it along, forcing the knob further down my throat and the unrest deeper into my core. Why do the halls where justice is sworn to be upheld seem to strike more anxiety and uncertainty into me than even the police stations, where corrupt and bigoted arms of the law rest equally amongst those who truly seek to do good? My mind, thinking itself clever, produces several answers while I walk: Perhaps it's the unspoken truth that injustice is regularly sought and carried out in these rooms built to prevent it? Maybe it's the hordes of attorneys who exploit their already poverty-stricken clientele, performing empty legal flourishes for the sake of appearing to go the extra mile while overcharging them for what are ultimately basic services? Could it even be that my father dwells among all this, and chose it as the sphere to earn his livelihood from? Is what I feel fear for his life spent amid these things? Or do I fear this place because of him?

        But for all of its wit none of the explanations my brain devised are satisfactory, and no tangible conclusion to the issue is reached before I enter my courtroom. The walls of the room close in on me, a slow death marching in step with the drumbeat of my heart. But I refuse to let the court see weakness in me. I straighten my back as I walk, steady my breathing, and hold an arctic gaze to any who meet my eyes.  My voice is firm, my rambling thoughts organize themselves into coherent speech, and I refuse to let through even the slightest stutter. But I cannot stop the desire to scream. To run. To escape. For every precaution to maintain my outer cool, my emotions climb further towards a fever pitch of agitation and uncertainty. The courts snatch away comfort and security before moving to freedom, continuing a four hundred year practice of subjugation of the mind prior to subjugation of the body. They are dominance incarnate: capable of turning one year into five at a whim. This is not advertised, of course. Instead, they fasten the public view on its achievements, reminding all that the majority of their acts are fair and just. The courts remain adamant in their refusal to acknowledge many unforgivable decisions, relying on public complacency to avoid accountability for their “mistakes.” “Mistakes” that regularly victimize the men, women and children of this country. All my life I have been made intimately aware of these “mistakes”  their tendency to bury my people under former criminal records or supposed gang activity rather than evidence. Always written up as a “mistake,” always liable to harm those who bear the burden of black skin more than the majority of this country. The blind justice of the courts uses braille to read about my skin and the area I came from. This is critical information for the legal process, since those “mistakes” won't make themselves.

        No matter how many times I sit adjacent to a judge, I never adjust to the way the courts make me feel. Their very hearts radiate unease, hundreds of souls that pass through them daily being filled with disquiet. The building itself passes its gaze upon all who enter, so I stare back. I'm too stubborn not to. I stare at every aspect of the building that turns my stomach. I stare at the judges, and the overworked District Attorneys, and the court officers, and the walls, and the door that they take you through when they’ve decided to arrest you. I stare in quiet defiance of letting the courts hold this sway over me. I stare until they decide they have other matters to attend to, and send me on my way. No amount of concern for outer cool can stop me from running down the escalator and nearly jogging out the door. Giving the court buildings a single extra second isn't an option. There's a rush of sudden release every time I leave, as if the stopper that's been limiting my air intake and dizzying my mind has been removed. But even amongst all this I don't dare let the pleasure allow me to forget just how unlucky others who had to enter the courts were in comparison to me, every day. I could never forget the barely contained sobbing I heard behind me of a mother without her child. The solemn grimace of every face suffering from the court’s draining effects and thieving hands, making their own steps to replace what had been taken. Be it time, energy, family, money, or all of the above; the courts always have their fee to be paid at the door. We’re lucky enough to leave, but never with everything we came with.

        The courts, I’ve realized retrospectively, are my physical reminder that my freedom is fleeting in the land of the free. What little we have gained through generations of struggle is always under threat, less detectable than Eurydice as I leave the lower world of America’s legal system. I dare not look back.


Keenan St.Clair is a 19 year old Brooklyn born student attending Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh, NC. He is studying to pursue a career in Genetic Engineering with a focus on reproductive gene therapy. When not preoccupied with school and familial responsibilities, he enjoys reading as well as cooking when he can afford it.

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