Untitled [Sheriff’s Department Bus with Homies]

I acquired this work while on a break from jury service at the Los Angeles Superior Courthouse in 1993. An elderly Chicano man put various items for sale on the top of a wall bordering the plaza in front of the court building. Most of the objects – toy cars, metal badges, belt buckles – were not unique or made by the vendor. This bus in a plastic case caught my eye. The man explained that he purchased the cast iron bus at the shop at the Sheriff’s Department. Although this shop does not exist today, it is mind-boggling to imagine a gift shop as part of a Sheriff’s department which has committed such extreme abuses of residents that one former sheriff is serving a federal prison sentence for obstructing an FBI investigation, and the Los Angeles County board of supervisors is currently investigating ways to remove the current sheriff from (elected) office as well.

The man told me that he added the chained “Homies” along with the Homie Hound sitting nearby and encased the scene in a plastic box. Homies are collectable plastic figurines created by California artist David Gonzalez in an effort to create toys that look more like people he knows.

My jury service that year was memorable for a number of reasons in addition to being an occasion for adding this original object to my collection. I served on a trial in which the defendant was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol. The accused, a slight white woman, was a criminal defense attorney herself. This fact alone was enough for 2 or 3 members of the jury to declare her guilty. As they viewed it, anyone who would defend a criminal should be punished. I remember this clearly because it gave me an early insight into the political culture which has contributed to our nation’s current situation.

Celebrity defense attorney Mark Geragos represented the accused. At the time, he was in the news for his defense of Clinton-associate Susan McDougall, a trial taking place simultaneous to ours (as the bailiff inappropriately brought to the attention of the jury). Geragos’s presentation did not impress me, and his client would have been found guilty if the prosecution had not made the mistake of keeping a folklorist on the jury. My skepticism led to doubts whether the facts presented in this case amounted to guilt. The defendant had dined at Chez Jay in Santa Monica — a watering hole I knew well and where my friends and I had never eaten anything other than the free peanuts offered to patrons. My knowledge of the locale raised questions for me about whether the defendant truly had just a single glass of wine with dinner, as she claimed, but I saw no productive purpose in condemning this individual to the criminal justice system. Surely she had friends who would intervene if, indeed, her drinking put herself and others at risk, as alleged in the charges.

A key to the defense in the case was that that the incident took place in the aftermath of the uprisings in response to the acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers who had brutally beat Rodney King. Geragos wanted the jury to believe that the police were on edge and ready to pull over anyone. There were even 3 officers in the patrol car, a fact the defense pointed to repeatedly; only 2 testified and one of them was sympathetic to the defendant. In the end, the defense used the suffering of Black lives to benefit a white professional.

There is a connection between the politics of race playing out in the courtroom and the bus line-up in this piece. The artist has created a visual commentary on the common fate of young men of color who suffer from systemic abuses at the hands of law enforcement. I placed a Homie on top of the case to symbolize the possibility and hope that a young man who dresses differently than his white counterparts can perhaps some day walk the street without fear of being assumed a criminal.

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