Accused of a crime, a Rwandan refugee has her day in court
A faulty subway fare card lands her in handcuffs and court. But all is forgiven when a white reporter shows up.
For the Monitor's yearlong multimedia project following Congolese third-grader Bill Clinton Hadam and his charter school community in Atlanta, correspondent Mary Wiltenburg blogs several times a week about the discoveries and missteps his refugee family makes adjusting to American life. Like the roaches in their apartment that swarm as Bill tries to do homework. Or his 8-year-old brother Igey's decision to Americanize his name. This week, Ms. Wiltenburg joined Bill's mother, Dawami, in court. This article is adapted from her blog report.
Tuesday afternoon, Rwandan Dawami Lenguyanga stood before an annoyed Judge Catherine Malicki of the Municipal Court of Atlanta for her arraignment on a charge of disorderly conduct. As Dawami’s friend Felix Mulamba translated, and her co-worker Felicia Jackson tried to testify on Dawami’s behalf, the judge frowned over her glasses.
“I don’t have time [for this],” she snapped.
Dawami’s latest encounter with the American legal system (earlier, an arrest warrant had been issued after she misunderstood a traffic court summons, costing her $340) began late one night last month when she tried to catch the subway home from work. She and Felicia, a Liberian refugee who came to Atlanta three years ago and has been doing housekeeping at Georgia State University two months longer than Dawami, bought fare cards and swiped them at the entrance of MARTA, the local transit system. A man stood on the platform, watching them.
Felicia’s card worked fine, but when Dawami scanned hers, the women say, the card-reader couldn’t register it. They were running to catch the train, which connected to the 10:45 p.m. bus home; if they missed it, Bill and Igey would be alone while they waited for the next one, at 12:15 a.m. So when Dawami’s card failed to read, she piled through the gate behind Felicia and the women ran for their train.
The man, they say, followed them, shouting: “Put your hands behind your back!” Dawami – a native Swahili speaker who came to Atlanta two years ago – didn’t understand the command. Felicia, a no-nonsense mother of five, intervened, explaining that Dawami didn’t know much English. The man, a MARTA policeman, handcuffed Dawami and took her into a back room. Felicia says she waited nearly two hours for her friend’s release, frantically showing the ticket saleswomen Dawami’s receipt and fare card. She says that one ran the card through her machine, and confirmed that, as the receipt showed, it had $5 on it.
The MARTA officer, unnamed on the ticket, wrote this report: “Enter[ed] into the paid area without paying the required $1.75 fare by following a paying patron through the faregate” – and ordered Dawami to appear in court on a “disorderly conduct” charge.
There she was on Tuesday afternoon, missing work her first month on the job and baffled by prosecutor William Wansker’s explanation of possible pleas: guilty, not guilty, and no contest. As he detailed the differences, Felix and Felicia conferred in French. Twice, Mr. Wansker asked them not to talk during his instructions. Then he took questions.
Hearing Dawami’s charge on what he called a “DC-Section 5 fraudulent scheme,” and realizing that she spoke little English, he recommended her for a “pretrial release” program through which she could return to court and get the charge dismissed by performing community service.
Felix, a naturalized US citizen from Congo, advised her to plead guilty and pay the fine, so she wouldn’t miss more work. Felicia argued that Dawami didn’t deserve to have a crime on her record – but said she couldn’t afford to take off work again to come back and testify at a trial.
Dawami was torn between her belief in her innocence and her fear of losing a job it had taken a year to get. She needs to keep it if she hopes to be eligible to bring her daughter, Neema, to the US from Tanzania, where the family spent 10 years as refugees.
“I need to finish today,” Dawami said. “if I come back, I lose work.” She settled on a no-contest plea: She’d pay a fine, and the charge would remain on her record, but she wouldn’t miss work again.
When Dawami’s name was called – Ms. Lenawhanga?” the judge tried – she, Felix, and Felicia approached a microphone.
“Judge there’s a language issue here,” the prosecutor warned. Judge Malicki asked how Dawami pled. No contest, said Felix.
According to court procedure, that should’ve been it. But Felicia had missed that instruction. Animated and indignant, she launched into her account of the incident.
The judge cut in, asking who the three were, which of them were charged, and whether they were related. She got quickly frustrated.
“Who’s Dawami?” she asked. “Are y’all here to interpret? What language does she speak? Does she want a lawyer, sir?”
Felix conferred with Dawami. No, he replied, Dawami did not want a lawyer. The judge overruled them: “We’re gonna put her down for not guilty, and I’m gonna recommend her for a public defender, and she will need to come back.”
Felix started to protest that they couldn’t miss work to return to court, when the prosecutor hailed me. He’d seen me sitting with them before the trial, and called me up to join them. “Can you help?”
“Who are you?” asked the judge incredulously. I said I was a reporter following Dawami’s family for the year.
At that, the prosecutor hustled the four of us into a side room and asked us to explain what had happened, while the judge moved on to other traffic infractions.
Felicia, her fringed turban flapping, launched passionately into the story in her accented English. Felix advocated paying a fine and getting it over with. Dawami looked silently from one to the other to the bearded prosecutor.
“This is too murky for me,” said Wansker. Felicia tried to show him the fare card and receipt. He gestured for her to keep them.
“Good enough,” he said hurriedly. He was needed in the courtroom where 10 more defendants waited in line. “You know what? Dismissed. Dismissed.” He wiped his hands together, to be sure the Africans understood.
They thanked him.
“These people don’t have a clue,” he commiserated to me as we reentered the courtroom.
Outside, the group hugged, and Felicia tore the ticket to shreds. “I’m so mad at that policeman,” she said, “I say: ‘Let me testify, even [if] I’m late to work.”
As I drove the women to work to finish their shift, they and Felix talked about American racism and anti-immigrant bias. About the white MARTA cop who could’ve just explained to the newly arrived African what to do in case of a demagnetized fare card – but chose instead to handcuff her. About the court officials who treated them with impatience until my white face, fluent English, and press credentials stood beside them.
It’s true: They don’t fully understand the arraignment process.
There’s a lot about America they still don’t know. But they have a clue.