That One Time I Went to Court and Realized Everything Was Fucked
Here’s a little story about poverty, white privilege, and our fucked-up justice system.
When I was running a web development company in Norfolk, Virginia, I fell behind on office rent and was sued by my landlord for a few thousand dollars. This was routine for the landlord but pretty catastrophic for me; I was locked out of my office, thus eliminating any chance I had of making the money to pay the rent. My computers were out of reach, my office plants died.
I was given a court date. I wasn’t sure what I would accomplish by showing up — I did indeed owe the rent — but it seemed like the thing to do, so I put on a suit and went to court. Slight backstory: I had been the Virginia state Lincoln Douglas debate champion my junior and senior years of high school, with shiny trophies and everything! That plus some youthful naivete, and I was not intimidated by the idea of a courtroom at all. I assumed I would be given fair time to speak, like a debate. Perhaps I even thought my prize-winning debating skills would win me some kind of reprieve.
DON’T LAUGH, LAWYERS. STOP LAUGHING.
I arrived at the courthouse, where everyone was being ushered through a metal detector. Everyone except me, that is. I was waved through a side entrance with no metal detector. “Why am I not going through the metal detector?” I asked. “Lawyers don’t have to,” said the guard.
I was twenty-three years old. I did not look particularly like a lawyer; I was just white, and could pass as not-poor. Look, I wasn’t exactly woke at the age of 23, but I did insist on going through the metal detectors along with everyone else.
I arrived outside the proper courtroom and was eventually approached by a woman with a clipboard. She found me on a list, said, “Oh, you need to go talk to so-and-so,” and led me down the hall to a man sitting in a solitary folding chair.
“Hello?” I said. “I’m Jennifer Dziura.”
He introduced himself as the landlord’s lawyer.
I was horrified. “Why did that lady send me over here to talk to you?!”
He shrugged. “Most people come work something out.”
I was still under the impression we were about to enter some kind of fair contest. Again, stop laughing.
I refused to talk to this man, and waited elsewhere. Also waiting was a distraught man who had brought his wife and several children. They were wearing mismatched, shabby old tees and sweatpants — I specifically remember the incredibly large image of Bugs Bunny on the wife’s oversized pink t-shirt. One of the children peed in the hall. The wife dealt with it.
The man approached me, also thinking I was a lawyer. I told him I wasn’t, but he wanted to talk anyway. He spoke limited English, but communicated — painfully slowly — that he and his family had come to the country recently, that he worked in fast food, that his apartment was full of toxic mold, that he had brought in an inspector to verify this, that his wife was pregnant and he had to move his family, and that he was being sued for back rent on an uninhabitable apartment.
Again, I told him I wasn’t a lawyer, but I thought maybe I could help him with a few phrases in English. I had to get him to repeat every sentence three or four times before I could make out his meaning, and I doubted a judge would make the effort. I must have spoken with the man for forty minutes before I got out of him what I would call The Point: that he wanted to bring the inspector to court to testify about the mold, so he would like this court date to be postponed. Bingo! That is a very reasonable request! But you can’t wait until forty minutes into your story to say that. I could help him with this. I was so excited to do a good deed! Again, don’t laugh.
I came up with a concise little speech to explain the situation. And I had the man memorize it and repeat it back to me several times. I was very proud of myself.
And then the man’s name was called. Someone ushered him away from me. Somewhere in this proceeding, I realized that the judge and the landlord’s attorney were laughing and joking with each other. Of course they were, I realized. I felt so foolish. They worked together every day, dicking over people like this guy. There was no impartial debate. No one was even going to pretend to hear both sides.
The man was ushered out less than five minutes after he had been ushered in. He was in fact ushered directly from the courtroom to the “cashier,” where apparently they try to bully you into paying on the spot. He would not get to bring the inspector to court at some later date.
They didn’t even get to my case that day. I went home, and didn’t bother to attend the new date. Unsurprisingly, the judge ruled that I owed the back rent I already knew I owed.
Soon after, I was newly single and tried online dating. I already knew I was living in the wrong area; it had never been a long-term plan for me. I had intended to plant an office in Norfolk and then move on to plant a second one in LA or other, greener pastures. It didn’t work out. My online dating matches were so poor that I reluctantly agreed to a date with a basic-bro-sounding lawyer named Chuck, who at least wrote to me in complete sentences.
And I told Chuck this story, which was like a fresh wound to my understanding of how civil court worked, of how education — the kind that lawyers and judges receive — ought to make people educated. You know what I mean.
And Chuck laughed. It wasn’t even a patronizing laugh at how adorably naive young women can be. Just a cruel laugh at the immigrant father with the moldy apartment that was poisoning his young children and pregnant wife. What an idiot.
Chuck was the last straw that made me move to New York. Fuck you, Chuck.
If I could have done the whole affair over, I would have walked in with the man, and said I was his friend, or his translator. People totally bring other people to court with them. Especially translators. That’s a thing, right? But at 23, it didn’t occur to me to do that. I was strangely fearless as a young entrepreneur, but I still don’t think I had the sense of entitlement to just put my body in any space I thought it belonged. It never occurred to me to barge my way into a courtroom.
I thought of this story yesterday when I read this Think Progress piece, Poor People Don’t Stand a Chance in Court. The article notes that in criminal court, the poor are at least entitled to representation. Not so in civil court, despite the high stakes for someone whose home or livelihood are on the line.
This isn’t an advice post, although the Think Progress article does have some suggestions about how courts can level the playing field for people representing themselves. You could advocate for some of those things, especially if you’re a lawyer yourself.
But this is a post about how I “got this way,” why I am full of and will continue to spread “negative energy” if that negative energy means highlighting evil shit and spurring action, and why GetBullish is not all hearts and rainbows.
I want everyone who reads Bullish to start businesses and negotiate for raises and not take any shit, but largely because I want better people in power, everywhere.
This article by Jennifer Dziura first appeared on GetBullish, an organization that provides career and general badassery resources from a feminist perspective and offers a web shop and an annual conference, taking place September 18–21, 2016 in Palm Springs, CA.