Last week I began my internship with the Southwest Detroit Community Justice Center. The Center offers people accused of misdemeanors a reduction in price from $500 to $100 if twenty hours of community service are completed. It’s a program that turns people’s lives around, and witnessing it happen is a privilege in and of itself for me.
When I arrived at the 36th District Courthouse last Wednesday at 8:30, I hadn’t expected to see what I saw. As part of my job, I serve as an Arabic translator and interpreter when need be. My boss took me to the side and said there was a Yemeni couple in need of my assistance. Initially, I groaned. I was used whenever I went out of Dearborn as that Arab-Muslim woman who was fluent. I wanted to witness U.S. law firsthand, not translate it. In translating, I recognized U.S. laws as a system that continually keeps people of color in the dark.
As stated on his ticket, the husband was accused of OTE — as in offered to engage with a prostitute. Once I read that, it made me want to get out of that room even quicker. How could I sit here with a man that objectifies women like me?
I said my salaam and began asking the preliminary questions. I quickly learned that it is common for cops to go undercover as prostitutes and lure men into heading back to a hotel with them, only for the men to meet their fate cuffed in the backseat of a police car. What was even more unnerving for me to find out was that the same cops target men of color who normally don’t know a lick of english, much like the Yemeni man I was dealing with now. They get off on knowing that for plenty of Latino and Arab men, their general responses are a nodding head and “yes, okay” since that’s what they are taught — to never question.
The Yemeni man, who I’ll call Abdul, told me that he was getting into his car after a 12-hour shift at the gas station when a prostitute came up to him and started talking to him. He didn’t even know what she was asking him because, again, he didn’t know english. He responded with every question and gesture with “no speak english” but the police officer was relentless. He started to get scared and walked towards her, giving her his phone to call for help. He was greeted with cuffs and sirens blaring.
It was disheartening to hear his story. But it was more disheartening to realize that there was no way this man was going to get out with a clean record. According to Michigan law, a person accused of OTE must pay upwards $500, spend 45 days in jail, register as a sex offender, and take a STD test. That doesn’t include the price many of these people have to pay for lawyers to represent them. Nor does it include the fact that some of these people are undocumented and may face deportation.
I left the courthouse that day heavyhearted. Not only for Abdul, but for the countless other men of color who have to endure the American justice system, which has failed them time and time again. Abdul fled the war in Yemen two years ago in search of a better life for him and his family, yet instead he was hit with a record that will hurt his chances in so many ways.
And while I was originally agitated, it made me all the more motivated to use my Arabic-speaking skills to educate and empower those around me.