Recently I went to court on a routine traffic offense. Last year, I pleaded “Not Guilty” to this offense and requested a trial. There is/was no way in hell I was going to roll over for some cop sitting near a corner on a street where the Stop Sign was and remains completely obscured by an oak tree. Well, after the City of Atlanta finally transferred my ticket to Fulton County Courts—for those of you who don’t know, most of our city is located in Fulton County, Georgia—I arrived on time and anticipated having a long stay. Well, something different happened. The Solicitor General of Fulton County, Keith E. Gammage walked in the courtroom.
Gammage told all of us that we were the first group to participate in a brand new program. This was its first day. He noted that many of our tickets could possibly be dismissed, and that the Solicitor General’s Office wanted to prosecute real criminals rather than tie up its time with cases involving minor offenses like “failing to yield.” Then the next thing he said floored me. All offenses for everyone’s minor traffic violations would be reduced to a fine of $75 dollars rather than the $250 to $450 plus dollars that most of us expected to pay if found guilty. My fine, had I been required to pay it, would have been $265. Gammage stood there and answered everyone’s questions about what plea they should enter to what did they have to do if they couldn’t pay that $75 on their day in court. Everyone with this $75 fine would have a full 30 days to pay it.
While seated in court and waiting for my name to be called, I made small talk with a Spelman College alum who was also a teacher. I told her about my dissertation research; and when I discovered that she was a Kindergarten teacher, the conversation shifted to my late Mama (also a kindergarten teacher) and we laughed about some of the crazy things that five-year-olds can do and say. I mentioned to her that I voted for Keith E. Gammage for Solicitor General after attending a conference devoted to the late Sandra Bland, who tragically died in jail for failing to put her blinker on. Bland was ordered out of her car by a cop that resented her asking him why she had to put her cigarette out. My brilliant performance artist-writer-educator-poet-actor-activist-sister/daughter Talitha Anyabwelé organized a “Sandy’s Day” program in her honor. A young Black woman on Anyabwelé’s panel of speakers named Anana Harris Parris brought up Keith E. Gammage’s name as someone who wanted to help straighten out our criminal justice system. This same young woman, who worked for a law firm, recalled in vivid and horrid detail how she had been stopped by police one night right in front of her parents’ home when she was a college student. Ms. Anana Harris Parris was physically searched and had her breasts groped by a male police officer right in front of her home. So when Anana Harris Parris brought up the name Keith E. Gammage as a young Black man trying to do the right thing, I remembered his name…So
as I sat in court, Mr. Gammage looked in my direction, walked over to me and said, “Didn’t I meet you before?” I honestly don’t know why or how he remembered me. I told him we did meet over a year ago at a coffee shop in our neighborhood when he was out campaigning to become the new Solicitor General of Fulton County. We exchanged pleasantries and he handed me his business card. He resumed wallking around the courtroom. I turned back to talk with my Spelman sister and told her that I thought he was an impressive young Black brother trying to do the right thing. She confessed that she was worried about being in court all day. I totally understood her point of view. When you plead “not guilty” or don’t just pay the fine, the City of Atlanta and Fulton County drags the process out. Just as she was beginning to worry about having to go out to put money in the parking meter, Keith E. Gammage pulled her aside to speak with her. When she came back to where I was seated she said that he found out she was a school teacher and since her offense was so minor it was dismissed. “After all,” he said, “Your money is best spent on the things you need to teach our kids.” Everyone in that courtroom had only $75 to pay (well below the $250 to $450+ original fines) within 30 days or no fine to pay at all; and for a change being an educator was treated with the respect that it deserves. Remember the name of Keith E. Gammage because this court date/my court date was one of the very few times it was pleasant.
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