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Stateside Podcast: Courtroom dance party

For people whose lives are impacted by the criminal justice system, courthouses can be unpleasant and distressing environments that bring up painful memories. Many courthouses have cold, harsh interiors, which can make a bad experience even worse for victims, plaintiffs, and defendants alike. So what would happen if the courthouse was transformed into a space for art, music, and community?

In Washtenaw County, five groups – Youth Arts Alliance, the Interfaith Council for Peace & Justice, Washtenaw My Brother's Keeper, Amplify Project, and Title Track – have partnered with the Washtenaw County Trial Court to create a new exhibit at the Washtenaw County Courthouse. The project, appropriately titled RE:CLAIM, displays a variety of art installations over the course of eight weeks and offers several live performances. According to Washtenaw County Judge Tracy E. Van den Bergh, the exhibit is meant to make the courthouse a more comfortable place for everyone, especially people who have negative past experiences with the justice system.

“I thought about our youth who are involved with the criminal justice system and also Black and Brown people who are generally disenfranchised and, as we know, are not necessarily treated equal in our system,” Van den Bergh said. “I started…thinking, is there a way that we can bring the community into the courthouse through art that would make it a more welcoming place?”

April Baer, Laura Weber-Davis
Michigan Radio
A musician performs in the halls of the Washtenaw County Courthouse at the RE:CLAIM opening reception.

Although courthouses are seldom viewed as pleasant places by the general public, they can be especially painful spaces for people who have experienced unequal treatment at the hands of the court system. For many Black people, courthouses are a symbol of the systemic racism and injustice that has plagued generations of Black Americans for centuries. Jamal Bufford, director of the Washtenaw County chapter of My Brother’s Keeper, said that the RE:CLAIM exhibit was created with those lived experiences in mind.

“Some people, they are very directly impacted by this, this justice or injustice system, and it's just a part of their life,” Bufford said. “Like as a kid growing up to their adulthood, they are always connected to, you know, police involvement, courthouse[s], criminal legal system, it's just a part of their life. So this brings a lot of anxiety, fear, anger, hurt to a lot of people to even mention the court or the court system or a judge.”

April Baer, Laura Weber-Davis
Michigan Radio
Large yellow letters spell out "Black Lives Matter" across the floor of a hallway in the Washtenaw County Courthouse.

Through art and community, RE:CLAIM hopes to offer an alternative experience for people who have a history with the court system by transforming the courthouse into a colorful, positive place. Visitors will be greeted by a tall, paper mache oak tree and walk down a hallway that features the message “Black Lives Matter” in large, yellow letters. At the opening reception for RE:CLAIM, musicians, dancers, and poets gave emotional performances for onlookers. According to Bufford, the atmosphere was markedly different from that of a standard courthouse.

“When [people] usually come into a courtroom, it's not fun, it's not a good experience. So for them to be able to dance and laugh and, you know, hug joyfully in a courtroom like, that's the objective. That's why we're doing this,” Bufford said.

While the exhibit is inspired by systemic flaws within the justice system and the impacts on people who have experiences within a courthouse, RE:CLAIM is meant for everyone to see and reflect upon.

“Hopefully people who have been impacted, you know, negatively by this system, hopefully they get something positive out of it. And the people who have no experience, hopefully they get to see a walk in, you know, other people's shoes for a little bit,” Bufford said.

April Baer, Laura Weber-Davis
Michigan Radio
A diorama sits on display in the Washtenaw County Courthouse. The diorama, created by a foster youth, depicts one young person's vision for what they would want their room to look like if they had not been in the foster system.

The art installations will remain at the Washtenaw County Courthouse until November 10, and there will be two live events hosted on September 22 and September 30. Until then, the courthouse will serve as a space for art and reflection for everyone who walks through its doors. Judge Tracy E. Van den Bergh hopes the project will be a reminder of the impact that the justice system can have on each person who comes through the courthouse.

“I just want that to be in the forefront of the judge's mind, of people's mind, that these are people who come to us for help and have dreams and we have to try to make them happen,” Van den Bergh said. “This is art. These are the feelings of the people who come to our courthouse. They're telling us something.”

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Anna joined Stateside as an assistant producer in August 2021. She is a recent graduate of Michigan State University's School of Journalism and previously worked for The State News as an intern and student government reporter.
Rachel Ishikawa joined Michigan Radio in 2020 as a podcast producer. She produced Kids These Days, a limited-run series that launched in the Summer of 2020.