The irony was discomfiting: I was sitting in a Seattle jury waiting room, wearing the same beat-up wool jacket that I’d worn during the WTO protests. As usual, I felt like the most cynical person in the room. As the hours ticked by, I fiddled with the jacket’s busted seams, which I’d Scotch-taped so they wouldn’t hang down (very classy, I know). I dangled my fingers through the holes in the pockets and wondered if the coat still smelled like tear gas. Sure, I could have dressed better, but I had a plan in mind.

The jury waiting room had the glamour of a DMV office. It was stressful and boring at the same time. As a potential juror, you anticipate your name being called while being lulled into submission by the fluorescent lights and drab furnishings. It felt like a cross between a church—with its almost reverent silence—and an airport waiting area.

Once all the juror candidates had been seated, we were shown a video on the wonders of America’s legal court system. Seeing a few minority females represented as authority figures made me a shade less skeptical, but the term “ordinary citizen” still chafed me. I treated the video like most travelers do the requisite airplane safety video before takeoff; I dozed through it.

Jury_1

My name finally came up with a group of people who were called for a court case. We completed a survey and were herded by the bailiff into the marble hallway. Standing in line, I was flooded with ambivalence and felt a sudden flash of hope. Maybe I could make a difference as a juror; this could be a big opportunity for me to be an actual conduit for justice. But what justice? I was not a proponent of the prison-industrial complex and felt that the entire US legal system was irreparably flawed. My way of fighting for justice had been through boycotting corporations, marching in demonstrations, signing petitions and writing letters, and creating socially aware art. I’d never been inside a courthouse to participate in an actual trial before.

Upon entering the courtroom and seeing the judge and attorneys—all older Caucasian men—my heart sank. I felt a dark and embittered resentment swell in me, and with it came stubborn resistance. I flatly refused to participate in this broken, racist system. My revulsion grew as the defense lawyer, with his greasy shoulder-length hair and flashy suit, introduced himself in a practiced, plummy voice. When the judge asked whether anyone had any difficulties in participating as a juror, I indicated that I would like a private consultation. My heart began to race, and my veins felt electrified with adrenaline, like 10,000 bright-red traffic jams in the rain.

After an hour and a half of waiting, all of us “problem children”—the ones who had reasons not to be selected as jurors—were herded into a small room outside the courtroom, and the voir dire process of private interrogation began. I was second to last in a group of about 10.

When it was my turn, I walked into the courtroom wearing my black hoodie, frayed wool jacket, jeans, and scarred Doc Martens. It was an overtly anti-establishment look, but I had the rhetoric and the ideology to match. Choosing a center seat in the first row of the jury box, I turned to face the judge, defense team, defendant, and prosecutor—their median age hovering around 51. I took a breath and told them, “I have deeply held convictions on race, gender, and the state that would preclude me from being an impartial, unprejudiced juror. As a radical POC feminist and an anarchist, I am ideologically opposed to the court and to the state at large, and therefore unfit to be a member of the jury.”

Jury_2

The judge, clearly nonplussed, seemed to dissect my statement with a giant pair of forceps in his mind. Finally, he said, “Now, you have a … constellation of fairly wide-ranging beliefs.” I joked, “Yeah, I’m a mess,” which produced some laughter and hastily exchanged looks from the attorneys.

I had intentionally used the word “POC” (person of color) to test the attorneys. Sure enough, the prosecutor asked me what a POC was. I didn’t hide my dismay when defining the term, frequently used in social justice circles. I said I found it worrisome that this was not a familiar word in the courtroom. The greasy-haired defense lawyer then confessed that he’d just heard the term for the first time the day before, in relation to a burlesque event. I have friends involved in POC burlesque—which can be an empowering tool of liberation—but I still lowered my head into my hands, in mock vexation, and said, “If that was the context of your first encounter with the term, then I’m doubly concerned.”

Seeking to analyze my anarchistic beliefs more, the prosecutor asked me whether I regarded him as “an oppressor.” I said, “Nothing personal—but yes,” and looked at him. He nodded in an unperturbed manner and returned to his notes.

The burlesque-friendly defense lawyer then shook his head in disbelief and declared in an orotund voice that in 300 cases tried, he had never encountered someone who identified themselves as an anarchist. Then he leaned toward me and, in a wink-wink-nudge-nudge tone, said something about identifying with its values. It was almost like he was claiming to be an anarchist himself—which left me all the more distrustful.

Most of the personal interviews had gone on for about 10 minutes, but mine seemed to last more than double that time. I was asked about the fact that I’m a proofreader at a global agency. Did I ever go to meetings? I tried to be as good-natured and respectful as I could, and answered candidly. Yes, I enjoyed meetings about editorial style, but was in a challenging and ironic position, making the work of all clients look perfect (ideally)—even if they were unconscionable multinational corporations.

Finally, sick of being ensnared in an interminable dialogue, I busted out the big guns. I stated in no uncertain terms that because of my hyper-awareness of sociocultural power dynamics, I would always be partial to women, minorities, and minors—even if they had, in fact, committed the crime. At that, the judge looked resigned and reluctantly excused me from the court.

I left the courthouse feeling weirdly defiled and degraded, as if I had been a gerbil getting an anal probe in a dirty cage. Outside, I instinctively dusted myself off, as if to remove any bits of shredded newspaper and droppings. Then I went home and opened a beer, and mowed through a large bag of chips.

Afterward, I related the incident to my sister, a Harvard Law School–educated partner at an international law firm. She was amused and said the lawyers were probably entertained at my responses. But that still didn’t prevent me from feeling a deep ambivalence and sense of misgiving. I couldn’t help wondering if I hadn’t done a grave disservice to someone whom I could have advocated for. Or maybe I’d gotten myself on a watch list.

I realized that I really was a mess, a big tangle of conflicting traits: an anarchist who proofreads work for unprincipled global corporations, an artist who deals with social justice issues but refuses to participate in the American justice system, a cultural hybrid who’s too Korean to be American, too American to be Korean … the list goes on. But one thing was for sure: I firmly believed in advocating for social justice through anger, awareness, and creativity. With a Sharpie marker, I changed my juror badge to read “FUROR.” Then, just for the hell of it, I wore it for the rest of the night.

juror badge

Advertisements