Theater of Justice: Courtrooms Are Violent Stages Where ‘Justice’ Is Rarely Found
Last week, I sketched an evidentiary hearing for a woman named Cecily McMillan.
Two years ago, I’d seen Cecily convulse in handcuffs as the police shut down an Occupy Wall Street protest. Cecily was an organizer. A plain-clothes cop had grabbed her breast from behind, hard enough to leave a bruise shaped like his handprint. Instinctively, she elbowed him. Most women would do the same if a man grabbed them from behind.
The cops beat Cecily till they broke her ribs. As she had a seizure on the pavement, the crowd screamed for the police to call 911. The police just watched.
Two years later, Cecily is charged with assaulting an officer. She faces seven years in prison.
In that fake-wood courtroom in lower Manhattan, the judge told Cecily’s lawyer the fact that her arresting officer had beaten up other people was not relevant to her case. His records would be sealed. Afterward, addressing her supporters, Cecily tried to hide the tremor in her voice.
Courtrooms are a violent theater. The violence happens off-scene: in Rikers Island where a homeless man recently baked to death; in the shackles and beatings and the years far from everything you love. But the courtroom itself is the performative space, the stage where the best story triumphs, and where all parties, except (usually) the defendant, are just playing parts.