Since a lot of how this is done will probably depend on the situation with your local courts, we’ll just tell you how we work (within reason lol – we know we’ve got some looky loos in our follower list).
So you, regular ol’ civilian in another town, can definitely do this if you’ve got time, patience, and a little handful of other regular ol’ civilians who want to pull back the curtain on your local courts. Some of us had done less formal courtwatching before, mostly via attending court for Keith Davis Jr. and for other friends and loved ones who’ve been locked up in and outside of movement-related arrests. Some did their first observations ever when they linked up with us.
You don’t need to go out and find trials to watch but it definitely can’t hurt to get that experience, and we are of course big advocates of showing up for people who are trying to get free.
Some logistical type things we’d recommend doing, all complicated by pandemic court closures:
Reach out to the public defenders in your city.
They will know if anyone is already doing this work, and they will have good advice about how you can be helpful (or not helpful).
Decide what’s manageable for you, and be unflinchingly honest with yourself about it.
You might want to put observers in every court proceeding that ever happens (lord knows we want to), but if you can’t teleport and/or clone yourselves, you can’t do that, we promise.
We started and have stayed very small.
We were most interested in bail reviews because our experience had been that people (including us!) were least informed about how they work, what their impact is on the rest of a case, and how big their overall community impact is. But also, bail reviews lend themselves to regular, organized observation. It’s a regularly scheduled proceeding, many cases at a time. You can easily plot out how to deploy your volunteers way ahead of time.
And here’s where we are most confident giving advice on how to operate:
You need volunteers. Lots of them.
Be clear within your org about your values, aims, risk tolerance, everything.
We try to do radical transparency internally too! Ask each other: whose names can be known to press, courts, etc? Are we trying to work toward abolition or something else? Even “is this tweet good?” And be flexible and open to all kinds of ways your work might go.
What you share publicly from these hearings is something you should think and talk a lot about, especially (again) with public defenders and other defense attorneys.
As a group of people who met while troublemaking in various ways, we fervently believe in radical transparency. But we are sensitive to the fact that the human beings being held in cages are at the mercy of the system we want to expose (in service of its abolition). We try to balance transparency with protecting those people. We seek guidance from the people whose work is protecting them.
Link up with other courtwatchers.
@CourtWatchNYC was the project that originally inspired this one, and they’ve been a great example and a source of advice. We are happy to pay that forward, so please reach out if you’re new at this. We’re pretty new too, but we can brainstorm!
Expect some outside interference.
There are plenty of people and institutions that aren’t going to be thrilled to have a bunch of advocates and activists suddenly making public proceedings actually public. They’re used to disappearing our neighbors under cover of darkness. Courtwatching used to be largely the province of “victim’s advocates,” and they were largely warmly embraced by judges and prosecutors. Abolitionists (and even reformers) are treated as adversaries, which is fine with us. We are. But you’ll run into some resistance.
Try to anticipate that by knowing as much as you can about what rules might apply to your work, the potential consequences if you’re accused of breaking them, and the political landscape (which judges and prosecutors are likeliest to throw a fit). Again: KNOW AND TALK TO LAWYERS.
Here’s how we function most days:
One person tweets in real time (a thing we can do because Baltimore’s bail reviews are by phone right now. We can’t do this in person because you can’t have phones on in Baltimore courtrooms), and usually multiple others take more detailed notes. Bail reviews move really fast. You won’t catch everything, and you’ll have to prioritize, which for us was a process we had to feel our way through.
We have revised the note-taking outline for our volunteers a few times since the first draft. The more people you have observing, the more detail you can catch – have each person listen for different things.
But the best advice we can give is, again, talk to your public defenders. They will have very educated thoughts on what the most meaningful elements are. Your city might have its own unique situations. For instance, a few years ago, some groups in Baltimore courtwatched in support of bail reform efforts and issued reports on the prevalence and problems of cash bail. So you might want to narrow your focus on those things.
We are blessed to exist in a constellation of scrappy little collectives and orgs in our city. The possibilities for collaboration and cooperation are endless. Most of all: if you can make the time and organize the people to do this, do it. We hear from people every day that they’re glad we’re doing this – defense attorneys, people who didn’t realize how bad it was, people who want to help. It’s simple but it’s important!