Bundled against the cold, with a pink pussy hat, pink gloves, and pink scarf, the woman looks over the crowd of 26,000 gathered at the foot of the Iowa State Capitol. She raises the bullhorn to her mouth and calls out to the crowd:
“WHAT DOES DEMOCRACY LOOK LIKE?”
Wow. Not really a chant to storm a building, or tip over a car, or topple a dictatorship. Who chants about democracy? Who incites a crowd about . . . yes . . . togetherness?
And the crowd calls back to the woman with the bullhorn:
“THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!”
My oh my. Loud. Festive. Excited. Determined. Exhilarating.
Back when I was a young prosecutor consumed by kids, soccer practices, and PTO meetings, my assignment to cover weekend court in Polk County was an international flight to another planet. Don’t get me wrong, weekend court itself was simple enough. It was just a way for a judge to make sure an arrest was based on probable cause, to set bond, and to appoint a lawyer if necessary. No, what was exotic were the folks arrested. There were prostitutes selling themselves for a hungry fix, trespassers trying to get off the street and out of the cold by breaking into downtown businesses, thieves desperately cleaning the shelves of baby diapers and canned goods, drunk drivers in from the suburbs smelling of sweat and booze and urine, and the remnants of Saturday night bar fights looking battered and bruised. All paraded in front of the judge who forwarded them on to the next stage of the judicial process, or dispensed justice and left them to their punishment or their freedom. It was quick and it was final. It was another world.
Society was just beginning to demand domestic abuse laws. But it had not happened yet. We saw men in court who were arrested for battering their wives, but only to have the charges dropped when the wife, for all sorts of real reasons (kids, money, fear), testified that she now remembered that she fell against the stove in the kitchen. Of course, the assault took place in the bedroom. We had few tools to stop this cycle. We were frustrated and worried for the victims and we waited for the escalation of violence and maybe even death. Not a pretty picture.
It was an early Sunday morning. The drunks stood before the judge, pled guilty, and were sent back out into the world. The prostitutes, thin and wasted from drugs, were given bond and a new court date.
I stood at the front of the room below the judge’s bench, handing him the charges for each arrested person.
Next appeared a large, burly man.
“Assault,” the preliminary complaint says. The victim? His wife.
“How do you plead?”
He is smug and sure as he stands before the judge and pleads “not guilty.” He knows his wife. These assault charges will never stand. It is easy to guess that this is not the first beating she received at his hands. Nor will it be the last.
The courtroom is on the second floor of the Des Moines Police Department. The public is allowed to sit in the back, but access is controlled by locked doors, and there are plenty of Des Moines police and Polk County deputies throughout the room.
The accused man stands before the court in handcuffs. He smirks at me as I’m working off to the side, then he turns, bored and surly, to the judge.
There is a rustle from the back of the room. Unbeknownst to everyone, the wife is in the courtroom. The black and blue bruises on her face are just beginning to appear. Her shirt is askew and her hair uncombed. She comes out of the chairs in the back, past the two officers, then sprints to the front of the room.
We all watch, frozen in amazement. Not quite believing what we are seeing. A thin woman rushing toward us.
Her husband is facing the judge and doesn’t see her running at him with curled fists and determination. She swings her arm like a baseball bat, cracking him as hard as she can on the side of the head.
Her husband falls.
She remains standing at the front of the room, breathing heavily.
Reluctantly, I charge her with assault. She pleads guilty. The judge orders a small fine. And, at the end of early morning court, she is released. Alone and vulnerable once again.
End of story.
So what’s the point of all this?
The thin woman floats around the edges of my memory on this day about women and women’s rights. Perhaps she is at home, isolated and alone, in fear. Or perhaps she is here with her sisters and her daughters and holding a sign saying — “I’m with her” — supported by 26,000 of her closest friends.
Ah, there they go again . . . .
“THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!”