In the day, we called it the San Francisco Hall of Injustice. No doubt for many it still is. 850 Bryant. Gritty. Basic. The entrance, the halls themselves look sad. You can almost feel the tension, the lack of compassion, neglect, the hard lives walking these halls. I sat in the cavernous juror’s waiting area across from a young man, an assistant District Attorney named Christopher. Suited up, he looked eager for the experience of being a juror, of seeing what it’s like on the other side.
I was supposed to check in at 8:45AM, but arrived twenty minutes early. Not intentionally. My GPS found me the least trafficked route, and then voila, I found parking. They didn’t start their laborious welcome until 9:30, so I sat a full hour before anything happened. It was vaguely sociologically interesting, but mostly I was bored to death.
How to stay awake? I scanned the environment — the assembled motley collection of humans looking like the kids sent to detention in grade school. I tried not to look and feel like them — inelegantly slumpy, grumpy, and resentful. After all, there was the young assistant DA, all alert and curious about jurors, watching me. I wanted to be a good example of… what? After serving on two juries, and another half dozen times waiting without getting selected, I felt incurious and cynical. Not how I like to think of myself, but there you go.
I was also looking for beauty. There was some. In the diversity of people there. In the nice person calling our names — roll call — apologizing ahead of time for mis-pronouncing names despite her best efforts. I listened to her and appreciated her and wondered if I could do as well myself. The staff seemed to have some sensitivity to our plight. They were decent, even kind. There were a few historic photographs hung on the walls that looked like they might be fascinating to see close up, but as the 200-odd people sat still in their seats, it didn’t seem the appropriate thing to do, to get up and look around the room, as if I were in a museum, rather than a holding tank.
After I got dismissed for “hardship” (I already have airline tickets for travel at Thanksgiving) I was sent to a desk to get a new date to appear. I’d already postponed jury duty last June when I was in Phoenix taking care of my 98 year old (dying) Mom (who is now thriving). I was bummed I would have to come back. My attitude was/is very un-citizenship-like.
I said to the clerk, Doesn’t a person ever age out?
She said, We don’t discriminate on the basis of age, but if a person is over 70 AND has a health issue, then they are freed from jury duty forever.
Forever? I asked, suddenly alert and curious.
She said, Does this criteria fit?
I tried not to look over-joyed, Yeah, I’m 71! and sure, I have a lot of health issues.
You only have to write down one, she said.
Will Diabetes do?
Yes, she replied.
You don’t need any other details?
No. You’re free to go!
Well, that was sudden and unexpected. As I walked away, it felt odd to notice mixed feelings about this. I mean, it was what I wanted, wasn’t it? To be forever free of this annoying responsibility. There is the age thing and the diagnosis. Sure, I have both. Would either really legitimately keep me from sitting on a jury? No. My attitude would though. Having had two jury experiences, I’m not even sure I’d want a jury of my peers if I went to trial. I tried to tell the young assistant DA about how all the prisons are filled with so many Black men. He said, Well, yes, implicit bias. But we try to account for that and to get the best jury we can. I agreed with him; our court system is probably better than most countries. But it still sucks.
We didn’t even get a chance to talk about restorative justice. Or about sending the real criminals to prison — Trump and his fellow gangsters. It was frustrating. I didn’t want to start ranting, while everyone else sat silent, nobody talking to anybody, eyes glazed over or staring at their cell phones. The guy — Christopher — was wearing a business suit. He seemed nice. Quite nice. But I wasn’t sure he wasn’t a Republican. I wanted to keep it friendly.
As I left 850 Bryant, I felt oddly nostalgic. Maybe I should have gotten myself on the jury and skipped Thanksgiving? Unless I get busted for something, I won’t ever have to go back again.
This young woman, Devah Pager, a Harvard sociologist and professor, reports eloquently on a study she did on how American racism affects a Black man’s chance to get employment, and also how it affects their rate of imprisonment.