A Day in the Life of A Court Watcher: The Power of Presence

Innocent until proven guilty. Does this well-known statement ring true within Memphis and Shelby County? Are people involved in the criminal legal system treated humanely and respectfully? A program for everyday people to observe happenings in the courtroom, Court Watch uncovers both justice and injustice. It is in place to promote transparency and accountability with elected officials; participate as members of the community; collect narratives; and uncover gender, racial, and other demographic disparities within the court system.

A day in the life of a Court Watcher in Memphis. Ascend 201 Poplar through the court side. Join the public line to enter the building. Some people may be showing up for their court dates, others may be lawyers, others may even be Court Watchers. Don’t forget to take out your phone and keys before going through the metal detector. Descend down the vast, open staircase to the dungeon of courts. Wonder how people with disabilities enter the building. Observe surroundings and see hundreds of Black and Brown bodies sitting, talking, thinking. Wonder why most White folks are dressed in formal attire—oh, they must be the lawyers. Wave hello to your group of Court Watchers with apparent white “Just City Court Watch” buttons. It’s time to go in.

Enter the courtroom. We are told that some judges dislike our presence in the courtroom while some don’t mind us being there. Our placement in the courtroom oftentimes depends on this. “Can you hear what the judge/defendant/lawyers are saying?” Court Watchers ask one another. We try to grasp as much information we can about the cases: appearance of race and gender, charge, can/cannot make bail, any loved ones present, behavior of legal staff, and other notes we may find apparent.  Then we reconvene after watching to talk about important things we noticed or things that caught our eye. This reconvening is one of my favorite parts of Court Watch because we hear other perspectives and see the courtroom through another’s eyes.

As Court Watchers, it is our role to take notes on what we see in the courtroom—the good and the bad. Court Watchers are taught—through training and observing—about the processes of court from arraignment to trial and about the importance of this work. Run by Just City, a nonprofit in Memphis that does work to create a smaller, fairer, more humane criminal justice system, this program is based on similar programs across the United States where people build accountability, foster community participation, and collect narratives within the court system. Not only does this program allow the public to be involved in the everyday happenings of the court, but it also provides a way to learn more about how the system of crime and courts works in the Memphis and Shelby County area. Having up close encounters with defendants, public defenders, prosecutors, private attorneys, judges, public officials, and defendants’ loved ones, this opportunity has yielded an immense amount of growth in learning about the ins and outs of our criminal legal system.

Oftentimes one of the most forgotten about and marginalized groups of society are those involved with the criminal legal system. As community members, we can show that we care and that we have not forgotten about this population by using our power vocally, visually, and presently. Just by being in the courtroom, it shows that the community cares about what happens behind closed doors—whether they be doors of a jail cell or doors of a courtroom. Using our power of presence, we can show that we are listening, we want to end criminalization of poverty, and we want to see transparency and accountability in our criminal legal system.

After every Court Watch shift, we as Court Watchers are able to walk freely out of that dungeon while many folks in there do not have the same luxury. Court Watch raises this awareness and opens the legal system up to those who may not otherwise know the inner workings of the system, instead of leaving it up to the marginalized, arrested, convicted, and legal professionals. Building community around this is crucial to gaining widespread awareness of justice and injustice and creating a more equitable and efficient system. In hopes to alter the criminal legal system on a path to justice and equity, Just City will publish their Court Watch blog and propose strategies to state government and lawmakers. Using our power as Court Watchers and community members, this awareness can lead to questioning of the status quo in hopes to change the future of what the criminal justice system may look like.

Interested in becoming a Just City Court Watcher? Go to courtwatch.justcity.org/.

Lulu Abdun is a volunteer at the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change and a recent graduate of Miami University (Ohio) where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Black World Studies with a minor in Linguistics. Born and raised in Memphis, TN, she returned home post-grad and has been involved in community-based projects—mostly with local nonprofits—and a computer programming course. A lifelong learner, she enjoys traveling; reading; and learning about social justice/reform, human rights, the criminal legal system, and interfaith work.

The Hooks Institute’s blog is intended to create a space for discussions on contemporary and historical civil rights issues. The opinions expressed by Hooks Institute contributors are the opinions of the contributors themselves, and they do not necessarily reflect the position of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change or The University of Memphis.