By Deqah Hussein-Wetzel
There is something incredibly powerful about storytelling—about hearing a person’s raw, lived experiences in real time. Having just read about Tracy McCarter’s experience as a former Columbia School of Nursing student who was incarcerated for her husband’s accidental death during a domestic violence incident where she was the victim (and the successful #StandWithTracy ‘Survived and Punished’ campaign that followed) I was especially moved when she shared that this was her first time back on Columbia’s campus since they placed her on “interim suspension” for “gender-based misconduct”, and prohibited her from entering the premises after the domestic violence incident that resulted in her husbands accidental death. Tracy’s presence on campus was not just a form of institutional resistance, it was a testament to her message that, yes, she is a criminalized survivor (of an abusive, alcoholic husband) but also someone who would not have received the legal support she needed without the collective having her back through the grassroots “I Stand with Tracy” movement that was born out of courwatching, one of many collective defense themes we discussed in the 13/13 seminar.
Digesting the Seminar
By using Jocelyn Simonson’s book, Radical Acts of Justice: How Ordinary People Are Dismantling Mass Incarceration, as a framework for interpreting collective acts of resistance, the seminar’s guests, including Jocelyn, Tracy, and Osyrus Bolly with the Little Rock Freedom Fund all honed in on how shared goals and uniform action can tip the scales of judicial decision making through coöperism. Without the collective contributions of the #StandWithTracy campaign that garnered raw emotional public support, exposed the legal truths about her case, and put political pressure on public officials that led to the case dismissal—Tracy’s story could have ended much differently. She expressed how she felt defeated by the judicial system from the moment she was arrested but that through the support of her collective defense campaign, she found strength in advocating for herself. Today she dedicates herself as an advocate against the criminalization of domestic violence survivors within the U.S. justice system.
In recent media, these forms of participatory action have been conveyed as defiance against those in power, but the true nature of courtwatching breeds a form of civic engagement that thwarts discriminatory injustice and transforms the public’s thoughts regarding legal accountability—something that dramatically tips the scale of power towards those who have been historically oppressed. In Jocelyn Simonson’s The Nation article, “We’re Only Here to Watch”, she suggests that courtwatchers are “a visible collective”. With or without intentionality, their mere presence in the courtroom changes the dynamics of a space where “criminal system actors” (ie: judges, prosecutors, etc.) are not used to being watched. The specific example in Simonson’s article is around the idea of Philadelphia’s 24-hour courtwatching efforts, where magistrates were setting lower cash bails on this one single day of the year because they were being watched by a public audience. From a psychological perspective, when courtrooms are used as a venue for collective observation, the behavior of criminal system actors may be influenced by public pressure; but, over time, may also become numb to the same court watching efforts that were meant to combat the oppressive nature of bail hearings. While I agree with these sentiments, I would also argue that the rationale behind courtwatching is flawed without a substantial financial backing to support the time spent observing actions within the courtroom.
When considering more auspicious forms of collective resistance I do believe that courtwatching is more powerful when it is coupled with other approaches to participatory defense (ie: CourtWatch MA and Massachusetts Bail Fund). This was affirmed when I heard Osyrus Bolly explain how the community bail fund he runs, Little Rock Freedom Fund (LRFF), goes beyond socio-legal solidarity to challenge the legal parameters in which bail is set to ensure families do not go into debt for not being able to pay court fees. When the criminal system actors are allowed to set bail at will they are covertly perpetuating mass incarceration and systemic racism under the guise of public safety. Like courtwatching, the lasting presence of community bail funds represent a paradigm shift in the way oppressed groups can achieve social justice but the longevity of the work is reliant on coöperism. Through collaboration, these methods of grassroots activism don’t just break down the psychological and economic barriers of the justice system, they help create pathways that reinforce the notion that cooperation can lead to radical acts of justice.
When Tracy carefully detailed her domestic abuse experience, she took us back to what she called “the worst moment of my [her] life”. She started by telling us how her white husband who was living separately from her, had a tendency to drunkenly come to her apartment and scare her into letting him in. One night, she decided to try to protect herself. So she grabbed out a bread knife out of fear, which impaled him when he attacked her. Being the well trained nurse she was, she immediately tended to the wound, applying pressure, and calling 911.
In sharing this, Tracy was choking back tears. But, she didn’t need to say much for us to get her point. It was hard for her to think back to those horrific moments, but was adamant that she needed to keep talking about her experience. The purpose of her story, however, was not to garner sympathy as a survivor—even though she very much is one—it was to explain how the radical acts that she (and others) undertook in order to receive justice under her own terms was bolstered through cooperation. The crowd of people wearing bright red hoodies that read ”#StandWithTracy” in the courtroom were not just a statement of mass support for Tracy’s freedom, they helped propel her story in the media, giving it the spotlight it needed to publicly expose the injustices in her case, which ultimately led to her case being dismissed.
Little Rock Freedom Fund
Right before I arrived at the seminar, I passed a 30-something African American man walking down Amsterdam Avenue wearing a “Black and Famous” mugshot hoodie—a powerful public history tool (that also happened to be advertised on social media). Naturally, I gave him a compliment in passing. Needless to say, I was surprised when, less than five minutes later, I saw him again…but this time he was sitting down…right next to Tracy, Professor Harcourt, and Jocelyn. Soon I learned his name, Osyrus Bolly. Osyrus, who is an African American man, proceeded to explain how his racial equity work with LRFF focuses on creating a cooperative ecosystem for social justice change makers.
Rooted in activism, the beauty of LRFF is their ability to underscore the importance of working alongside underrepresented individuals to devise new minority-oriented community organizing strategies that are specifically designed to advance the Black liberation movement. When Osyrus’ proclaimed that “mass incarceration is not therapy”, during the seminar, his message was clear. Without taking direct action to holistically support the release of incarcerated individuals via community bail funds, for example, society-driven, systematic change would not be possible. Because of LRFF’s targeted approaches to challenging the status quo regarding unrealistic costs associated with juvenile detention centers, thousands of low-income parents in Arkansas are free from the burden of excessive fees that if left unpaid would result in their arrest (and subsequent jail sentence). These targeted and collective measures help balance the scales of an inherently unequal judicial system that incentivises mass incarceration for its monetary benefit.
This 13/13 seminar was particularly fascinating to me as a historian, urbanist, and preservationist because it encouraged intellectual discussions around the radicalized, community-based approaches to social justice while weaving in elements of storytelling that gave audiences a raw understanding of how the prison industrial complex impacts the lives of marginalized people on a micro scale while also contextualizing the macro-side of true egalitarianistic reform. In retrospect, before the round-table seminar, I really only understood what participatory and collective defense was in the abstract.
Even though it was Simonson’s work that devised a foundation for discussion on these collective concepts in the seminar, and that Radical Acts of Justice directly drew from her lived experiences as a former public defender, her intentionality in the seminar to take a step back to allow Osyrus and Tracy speak and answer questions first was endearing. This form of solidarity was not a simple nod of respect, it was testament to the fact that their voices were integral to conversations we were having in the classroom about how collective action has impacted their lives and informs their work as social justice activists.
McCarter, Tracy. “As a Black Woman Accused of Killing a White Man, I Was Never Innocent Until Proven Guilty,” Truthout, accessed October 13, 2023, https://truthout.org/articles/as-a-black-woman-accused-of-killing-a-white-man-i-was-never-innocent-until-proven-guilty/
Simonson, Jocelyn. Radical Acts of Justice: How Ordinary People Are Dismantling Mass Incarceration. The New Press, 2023.
Simonson, Jocelyn. “We’re Only Here to Watch,” The Nation, accessed October 15, 2023, https://www.thenation.com/article/society/radical-acts-justice-courtwatching/.
 Tracy McCarter, “As a Black Woman Accused of Killing a White Man, I Was Never Innocent Until Proven Guilty,” Truthout, accessed October 13, 2023, https://truthout.org/articles/as-a-black-woman-accused-of-killing-a-white-man-i-was-never-innocent-until-proven-guilty/.
 Jocelyn Simonson, “We’re Only Here to Watch,” The Nation, accessed October 15, 2023, https://www.thenation.com/article/society/radical-acts-justice-courtwatching/.