by Orissa Arend
Court Watch volunteers are amazing. They are strategic activists, savvy and passionate. Let me introduce you to Kim Ford who has been active with Court Watch for about a year.
She says of her fellow volunteers: “We all rub off on each other. We have different talents and we want to be on the front line. We all come from different perspectives. Some are concerned for victims; some are concerned for the treatment of defendants; some are concerned about crime in our neighborhoods. But we all are dedicated to monitoring with objectivity.”
Ford got involved after Jerome Morgan asked a different coalition—Justice and Beyond—to show up in court to support him. Morgan had been wrongfully convicted, served a long prison term, and now the prosecutor was attempting to re-try him. The level of disrespect Ford felt that the judge showed toward defendants in that court (almost all of whom were Black) made Ford greatly concerned for future court proceedings.
According to Ford, the judge told one criminal defendant in front of him, “It is people like you I can’t stand to see on the streets of my city.” These comments are what made Ford become a court watcher. Ford learned during her Court watch training that scientific studies have shown that if a defendant is treated with respect, he or she is less likely to re-offend. Ford wondered if she would see that defendant again on a new case due to the disrespect he was met with in court.
The one White guy she saw while in criminal court was there for pulling a gun on an off-duty policeman. He attended his hearing wearing street clothes, was treated with dignity, and got off easy with “weekend” probation.
“If he had been Black and pulled a gun on a police officer he would most likely have been dead,” Ford says, lamenting.
Ford grew up in the St. Bernard Public Housing Development. She observed plenty of people who had been arrested. “They get treated horribly in court,” she says, “like it’s assumed they are already guilty. As a child I was told that once you went up the court steps, you had no rights, whether you were a victim, witness or the one arrested. That was it. Your fate was out of your hands. It was jaw-dropping for me to find out during my Court Watch training all of the rights you did have in court!”
“But you cannot know if your rights are being violated if you don’t know what they are,” Ford says. “There is a protocol that is supposed to be followed but often it is not.”
Some people have complained to Ford that Court Watch should be more punitive about the obvious wrongs in the system. But she says, “I understand that every grassroots organization can’t be all things to all people. The mission of Court Watch NOLA is to promote reform in Orleans Parish courts through civic engagement and courtroom observation. They are not a punitive organization. Government must make changes and community must realize how critical is their right to vote public officials into office that are committed to fairness and transparency in the commission of their duty. We have the ultimate control over who we select to serve.”
Ford is on the executive committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as their communications chairperson. She is a Peacekeeper and a regular member of Justice and Beyond, among other areas of community service and advocacy. She says Court Watch has taught her to observe and to question and to use those skills to effect real change in her surroundings.
Here are some other Court Watch updates:
• The young artist mentioned in my introductory column who was accused of accosting a police officer because she rescued a baby from the arms of a woman being harassed by police had her tenth court summons on Jan. 12. The case was continued again; but she has a new lawyer, whom I’ve known and admired since Katrina. She is being well represented. You can follow the case on www.Facebook.com/JusticeForRodneka.
• In December, U.S. Judge Sarah Vance said the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court’s use of fines and fees to fund the court is an unconstitutional conflict of interest. Court Watchers will be looking for any sign that the ruling is affecting court proceedings.
To become a volunteer Court Watcher, call Trezell Ragas at 504 715-0519 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.