The court room was certainly packed. It was full to capacity, with a number of people waiting outside the courtroom doors. Our phones were taken as we entered, a strict manifestation of the “no cellphones in court” rule, probably because there were so many of us (and maybe because so many of the people entering were Ferguson famous “live streamers”). When Josh entered the court room, he looked around at everybody and smiled. His legs and arms were shackled, so when a number of people waved to him, he nodded his head to them. Even when the judge had started the proceedings, Josh was still looking around and smiling and nodding at people. He had been locked up for three and a half months already, so I imagine this was his first time seeing folks in awhile.
The judge said he would allow some argument to happen before he decided on a sentence. The prosecutor started, using intense words about how this young man was essentially responsible for the burning down of Ferguson, how he doesn’t care about community, and that he’s heralded as a hero for such things (given the number of people in the court room). Several people audibly scoffed at his words, and I was waiting for the judge to tell me people to quiet down. He never did, and the prosecutor finally shut up after about 10 minutes, but not before suggesting that the judge sentence Josh to 15 years.
When Josh’s lawyer was given his turn to speak, he went and stood with Josh. He talked about Josh’s age (he just turned 20) and how he was swept up in the passion and rage of the moment, a mistake that responsible adults probably wouldn’t make. This argument made some people in the crowd roll their eyes, seeming condescending towards Josh’s involvement, but it seemed to be the most strategic defense. He then brought up the Civil Rights Movement, maybe in an effort to demonstrate that this current movement will hold a similar place in history. He appealed to judge in this way as well, asking him if he wanted to be seen as being against the protesters and what they were fighting for or if he wanted to side with them. Occasionally during his 15 minute argument, people in the courtroom snapped or clapped or hollered a bit. Again, the judge never did anything to stop this. The prosecution and the defense were each given a couple more minutes to talk, and then the judge left the court room to deliberate.
He was gone for about 45 minutes, and I took part in or overheard several conversations there in the court room about how that had all gone and what the judge might say. I mostly heard a lot of, “fuck that dude,” in regards to the prosecutor. At one point, people started singing the “Requiem for Mike Brown” chant that some people used to disrupt a symphony concert over a year ago (the symphony was performing Mozarts Requiem). Instead of singing “justice for Mike Brown,” they put Josh’s name in there.
When the judge re entered the court room, he started off by telling people that he understood that this was an emotional case, but if they thought they couldn’t control their emotions upon hearing his decision, he asked that they please excuse themselves at that time. A couple people did get up and leave at that point. He ended up sentencing Josh to 8 years for arson, 5 years for burglary, and 6 months for something else. As soon as he said 8 years, people got upset. Some people banged their way out of the court room, others started crying. Because of the outbursts, I missed the part where the judge said the sentences would run concurrently. After this was made clear, some people were trying to encourage each other with this information, but it seemed too late at that point. Josh’s mother screamed and fell to the ground where she was immediately surrounded by supporters. This seemed like an effort to keep the bailiffs at bay because the officers in the court room seemed on high alert. As Josh was led out, he looked over his shoulder. People had their fists in the air, yelling to him that they were gonna be there for him, no matter how long he was in there. It was heartbreaking, and most of us in the court room were in tears.
Once Josh left, more officers entered the court room, almost certainly because people were still in there yelling at the bailiffs and the prosecutor. One woman in particular could be heard yelling about how stuff like this had been happening her whole life and that she wasn’t 3/5 of a person. She was saying a lot, and I didn’t catch it all because so many folks were still in there voicing their anger. (I also lost track of the prosecutor during all of this, but I’m sure he got out of there quickly.) I heard a lot of, “How many more black sons are you gonna take?” This was mostly directed at the officers who had come in after Josh had left, while his mother was still crying on the floor. One person looked at those officers and shouted, “You did this! This is because of you too!”
As we were slowly leaving the court room, the bailiff in charge of our phones smiled at me and thanked me when I gave her my number to get my phone back. It was bizarre, as if she couldn’t see or hear all the people in the hallway outside of the court room, yelling and screaming at her and the other officers. I wanted to scream back at her, repeating the phrase I had heard moments before: “You did this! This is because of you too!” I walked away from her to stand with the rest of Josh’s supporters in the hallway. Eventually, more officers came out and started loudly telling people to leave, that this was a court of law, take your emotions elsewhere… And we did. It was a slow trickling out and people took their time leaving the area. Even as I was driving away, I saw some of Josh’s supporters on the steps across the street from the court house with their head in their hands.
Heartbreaking is the only word I have for the whole experience, from seeing Josh’s smile when he first walked in, to driving the 20 minute drive home with tears in my eyes after seeing the justice system do its horrific work.
Keep an eye out for ways to contribute to Josh’s commissary, his address for sending letters, and other ways support him during his time in prison.