A little over a year ago, as part of my final semester in college, I took a class on media law; the only grades in the class were two finals and to attend two trials at two different courts and write up my visit. The syllabus specifically forbade leaving midway through, so, mistake-conscious as I am, I really wanted to make sure I didn’t do that accidentally. I sat through one pretty much without incident, but the next trial that met the specifications (no, I did not save my syllabus from a year ago to confirm those specs, sorry) wasn’t until later in the afternoon in a different courtroom.
The second session/case/trial/whatever was the arraignment of a guy who was charged with ramming another guy on the highway over a business partnership gone afoul. He was arraigned, as the term “arraignment” suggests (the system works!), but I wasn’t sure if it was cool for me to leave yet (this was largely derived, I suspect, from my main exposure to the court system being in the form of fictional portrayals, wherein you only know everything’s done because whichever recognizable character actor plays the judge in this episode bangs his gavel.) Now, part of my Asperger’s syndrome- or maybe it’s part of my efforts to check my Asperger’s syndrome- makes me terrified of asking a stranger for help with anything. If they get mad, my logic goes, it’s not worth it. Nothing is worth that. But as previously established, I was having a bit of trouble following the progression of any trial that didn’t feature Sam Waterston, so hesitantly, I got up from the gallery and headed for the general area of the witness stand to ask a bailiff if I had what I needed (I was not going to use those words).
WELL. A youngish marshal saw me coming and, Jonathan Crane-like, materialized my worst fears, striding over to me and heat-packingly barking at me that I wasn’t allowed to be back here. If you’ve ever seen me have the breakdowns/anxiety attacks/whatever they in fact are when I feel like I’ve fucked up, you'll be familiar with what came next. I hunched over and was unable to make eye contact, and an apologetic stream of consciousness issued forth from me- you know the one I mean. “I’msorryI’msorryI’msorryI’msosorryI’msofuckingstupidIhatemyselfIshouldjustkillmyselfI’msosorryI’msorry.” That one. This is not a great way to convince law enforcement personnel that you are not a threat. (If you want a cultural illustration, it was in fact remarkably similar to Hugh Dancy’s depiction of an anxiety attack on NBC’S “Hannibal.)
At this point, another marshal, noticing my distress (and, thankfully, recognizing it as such as opposed to, say homicidal, deadly-force-necessitating rage) walked me back to the gallery, talked me through the attack and told me that, yes, the arraignment was over. He also walked me through the facts of the case, which I already knew, but I didn’t tell him that because I couldn’t really blame him for thinking I wasn’t too perceptive.
I thought back to that incident recently when I saw the eventually-viral news story about Tremaine McMillian, a black teen in Miami who was forcibly tackled and choke-held by Miami-Dade police- while holding a six-week-old puppy, no less- on the basis of “dehumanizing stares.” Before that, there was the much higher-profile shooting of Trayvon Martin, and in 2010, the police shooting of Steven Eugene Washington, an unarmed black man on the autism spectrum who was shot reaching for his belt (it would not surprise me at all if this was Washington’s “stim,” a tic people on the spectrum often rely on in high stress situations such as rocking back and forth or clenching and unclenching their fist.) I remembered how strange- and frightening- my behavior in the courtroom may have come off to anyone present who was unfamiliar with Asperger’s or anxiety (and even if they were familiar with either on a conceptual level, it’s very hard to be familiar with an individual case without knowing them personally). And that was hardly the kind of thing that happened in a vacuum; offensive anti-Irish political cartoon and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly has been in the news lately for his ardent defense of the NYPD’s “stop and frisk” policy,” under which more black men have been stopped than actually live in the city. In April, New York State Senator Eric Adams testified that Kelly had told a roomful of legislators that the policy deliberately targeted minorities in an effort to “instill fear in them that any time they leave their homes they could be targeted by police." (Adams’ words, not Kelly’s.)
And yet, I’d gotten out okay even though I acted like a potentially unstable person in a federal courthouse. Got an A on the assignment, too. Now, how much of my being judged to not be a threat had to do with my calming down, and how much of it had to do with the fact that I was a dorky-looking white kid in syllabus-mandated “professional dress?” (It’s apparently still “professional dress” if you don’t wear a tie nowadays, which is proof that we are Slouching Towards Gomorrah.) Shit, maybe not even because of the professional-dress aspect- in another PR fuckup, in 2011 NYPD officers detained city councilman Jumaane Williams and an aide at a West Indian Day parade for using a closed sidewalk. If I wasn’t white, how likely would I be to get away with something that, to a casual observer, was way more frightening than using a sidewalk?
Shit, it didn’t even have to be a matter of racial privilege; if you followed the news back in February, you’ll remember the case of Robert Saylor, a man with Down’s syndrome who was asphyxiated in police custody because he wouldn’t leave a movie theater. Even within the confines of my disability, I have privilege; when it leads to troubling behavior, I have the luxury of being able to explain myself. Not everyone with a disability- or everyone on the autism spectrum- has that luxury.
Privilege can be a tricky thing to check because it’s the way things always are for you; we’re hard-wired not to see any reason to examine complete normality. I just happened to be lucky, if you want to think of it that way, in that the one aspect of my life in which I have it rougher acted as a sort of Viewmaster for all the ways in which I don’t. It was definitely a helpful experience; I just hope next time it takes longer than a year to reach completion.