"Freedom is not merely the opportunity to do as one pleases; neither is it merely the opportunity to choose between set alternatives. Freedom is, first of all, the chance to formulate the available choices, to argue over them -- and then, the opportunity to choose." ~ C. Wright Mills
My Day in Court
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I walked out of my apartment in a good mood on a Saturday morning in March, to find a parking ticket on my car. I was parked in front of a dumpster. When I moved into this apartment complex years ago, I noticed that other tenants frequently parked in front of the dumpster, so I did, too. I knew full well that I could get ticketed, booted, or even towed, but I took my chances on certain nights, when I knew that I would be leaving early the next morning before a dump truck might arrive.
But for the last year or two, there has been a sign on the dumpster that clearly states, in big red municipal letters, 'NO PARKING TUES . AND FRI. 8 AM TO 4 PM .' For all of us, this was very beneficial, as it provided two extra parking spaces in a parking lot that has always been too small for the two buildings it serves. I never had any compunction about parking there after our benevolent government put up this sign. A No Parking sign like this gives you a free pass, does it not?
So why did I find a parking ticket on my car Saturday morning when I had parked there late Friday night? That, dear reader, is the mystery that can't be solved. To this day, I don't know why the cop gave me a ticket, and I know that I will never know. All I know is that it ruined my Saturday.
It was only 54 bucks, and it wouldn't put any points on my license. The government takes a great deal more than that per year, and even as I become self-employed, they will continue to do so. Therefore, 54 dollars is no big deal.
Except that it is. Paying this stupid fine would be an admission of defeat. More importantly, it would be an admission of guilt when there was none, to an unaccountable body of judges and cops who couldn't read their own damned signs. It therefore, in a way, would become a voluntary tax, and I will pay no voluntary taxes. There was a principle worth fighting for here. As an anarchist, I knew that I would have to fight.
Since this was a local matter, some part of me hoped that I might be able to walk up to the illiterate cop who wrote me the ticket and talk to him. I was referred to some officer who is the traffic warden/deputy/stooge/whatever instead. He seemed like a nice enough guy: handsome, sympathetic, very together, calm and diplomatic when dealing with the public. He informed me that unfortunately I would have to come in to the court and provide them with pictures of the dumpster. He also gave me some blather about how rules are rules and I have to go through the process regardless and that it should be relatively easy and that there have been other complaints, blah blah blah. He also said to call the court and see about arranging a time to come in on Monday when traffic court is in session, and inform them that I could get there at about 4:30. 54 bucks.
I called the court to arrange a time to come in the next week after I got out of work. The woman-girl I spoke to over the phone, with the bored but snotty attitude of a government worker, informed me that I can't pick and choose when my court date is. I would have to plead not guilty and come in weeks from now at the time they specified. I hung up on her, which I'm sure improved her snottiness, and prepared myself to pay. Mind you, 54 bucks to me is nothing. If I had still been in college, 54 bucks would have been a nightmare. After I calmed down a bit over the next few days, and thought once again of my anarchist principles and the issue of paying voluntary taxes, I called back and pleaded not guilty.
(Think about that for a minute. 'Plead.' I have to plead with these people, these Individuals with Collective mentality, who make signs, ignore the signs they've made, and give people who obey signs parking tickets. 'Please, my lord, I am not guilty. I'm pleading with you!')
After a few days the court order came in the mail. I would have to leave work two hours early, and several weeks later. Normally, I would be more than happy to leave my job earlier in the day, but knowing that my time would then belong to the hired guns of the state, I was not looking forward to it, a bit like jury duty. Furthermore, I had to buy film and get the film processed, 15 bucks, in order to show these idiots their own sign. I knew as I did this that I would be losing that 15 dollars for good. I drew some small satisfaction from the fact that A) it was less than 54 dollars, and B) they wouldn't get a penny of it.
My court date finally came last Monday. I begrudgingly left work early to make it to court on time, subjected myself to their insidious and pointless metal detector, and walked straight into a long, long line of people. I may have been on time, but the court would obviously not be.
It was a miserable line, winding around several corners of this hideous building painted in drab light salmon and a sickly light blue. Of course, there weren't enough chairs for all of us. I alternately stood and sat next to all sorts of people, none of whom I had ever seen before. There was the fat sci-fi fan with his fat friend and fatter girlfriend, making witticisms that had no wit. There was the stereotypical northeastern Italian woman behind me, petite with short-cropped dark hair, skin like paper and darkened from years of smoking, with her husband who had probably learned over the years to just keep his mouth shut. She was quietly appalled at the way some cop was 'parading' an orange-suited prisoner, the only black guy there, into the building in leg shackles 'like an animal.' I was even more quietly appalled. Perhaps her silent husband was as well. In front of me was another middle-aged woman who all of a sudden realized she had gotten into the long line without first speaking to the tacky middle-aged woman in charge of the queue, so she asked me to save her place. Being a committed anarchist, I did. In front of her, for a brief time, were two other blonder women (what is it with middle-aged women and crime these days?), one of whom left the line to get more information. I couldn't hear all of their conversation when she returned, but she seemed to be giving her companion several choices. After thinking about how long the line was, and the fact that it wasn't moving, her companion decided to pay the fine and go home. I was tempted, but voluntary taxes being what they are . . . .
Then there was the young Latino father. Either that, or he was the favorite uncle, since two very cute and very rambunctious little kids were constantly hitting him on the leg, then grabbing it while sliding down to the floor. Yet another middle-aged woman showed up, berated him for not meeting her in her office (must be his lawyer), then proceeded to take him somewhere where they could talk. I wonder if someone is threatening to split this little family up? Their conversation sounded serious.
A second Latino, this one a mother, was given a delivery of her children by another Latino woman, who I figured was part of the interminably large extended family so typical of our largest immigrant group. Voluntarily taking care of los niños, no doubt, while their mother is taken out of her daily routine by the state. Anarchist principles in action. People who understand the importance of working together, of chipping in.
Which is more than I can say for the only cop I had the opportunity to speak to in person all those weeks ago. For, you see, after spending an hour standing in this ridiculous line, I walked into a room about as big as a broom closet to come face-to-face not with a judge, but with the very same cop. As indignant as I was, I simply handed the dunce my ticket, my 15 bucks worth of pictures, and he said everything he had said to me weeks ago, about how ridiculous this all was, how it's pretty obvious from the sign, how stupid it is ('No, sir. You're stupid!') that I have to come in to do this, blah blah blah. He asked if I had the pictures on a CD. I did, something that I had initially regretted as it contributed to the price of proving my innocence to the unaccountable blue collar elite. I thought that perhaps since he had asked for a CD, that this might mean I would be getting a reimbursement. No such luck. I then realized that dealing with the law is like dealing with nature: luck may be the only thing that keeps you alive, or from going broke.
And so it ended. Standing in a line with housewives, young parents, immigrants, students, Star Trek geeks, old people and businessmen; a cross-section of modern America; all of them calling others on their cell phones to say they'd be late; all accused of 'crimes' and 'offenses' by a government that is supposedly 'of' and 'by' them. I stood there simply to tell a man I had spoken to weeks ago what I had already told him weeks ago, on his schedule, not mine, for 15 dollars of my money and two hours of my time.
It reminded me of being questioned by another cop in a neighboring country town, when I pulled over in a graveled area that was hollowed out from the side of a hill. The reason for questioning me? I was parked in front of a halfway house further up the hill, reserved for convicted criminals who had just been let out of prison. According to him, other people had been parking there to help these lesser criminals escape. Why, then, did the municipality deliberately flatten out an area to pull over here, with no signs and no warning? No answer. Like the traffic cop, this guy has his schedule, his rules, and is completely unaccountable to me.
I wonder what life would be like for that young Latino mom if her sister/cousin/aunt all of a sudden had her own schedule, her own rules, and no accountability when it came to babysitting? I suppose the government would use that as further excuse. 'See? These Latinos have no respect for the rule of law, no respect for our American tradition of justice. If we can't keep them out, by God we need to Americanize them! 54 dollars, please.'