Justice isn’t blind in Port Arthur

Published 9:03 am Thursday, August 17, 2017

By: Gene Dammon

Port Arthur is no stranger to inconsistencies in law enforcement.
Think spring, 1956. I was 16, a little cocky, and not favorably disposed to take unsolicited advice from my elders. Cruising around, I was not deliberately speeding nor was I watching my speedometer as closely as I should have. The cop who pulled me over was familiar. I had seen him around town, and thought he looked young and inexperienced.
“Do you know how fast you were going?” He asked.
“No sir,” I replied, “But I bet you’re gonna tell me.”
“You were five miles over the speed limit, which is 30 mph, according to that big sign back there,” he said, pointing at the sign. He continued writing in his book.
“I can’t believe you’re gonna give me a ticket for 35 mph,” I whined. “I could show you some places where people are really breaking the law, in front of God and everybody, and nobody is giving them a ticket, or a “citation,” as you call it.”
He looked at me suspiciously, but quit writing in his book. “Just where is all this illegal activity going on?” He asked.
“If you want to follow me over to Houston Avenue, I’ll show you! That’s where some real illegal activity goes on. There is gambling and prostitution, big time. They even advertise it: Yellow porch light for gambling, red light for prostitution!”
He shook his head in resignation. “That’s different,” he said. He took on an almost apologetic tone. “My chief speaks for the law and signs my paycheck. You’ll understand when you are older.”
Actually, I understood it pretty well already. The whole system was rotten. Thinking back, it would have seemed unreal were it not for a hurricane named Tom James, a category 5 hurricane of a state legislator who blew into town and turned the whole rotten playhouse upside down. And he revealed, on local TV, each piece of dirty linen uncovered by his investigation. Needless to say, all local television sets (black and white) stayed tuned to the coverage of the investigation. A joke at the time defined a three-time-loser as a Port Arthur hooker leaving town in her Edsel, with a flat tire. If you don’t know what an Edsel is, ask your grandpa.
Counting the ticket mentioned above, that cocky teenager managed to accumulate six citations at one time. That makes me sound like a juvenile delinquent. Actually, I was a pretty good kid. I had a job at the Don Drive-In (I was the French fry cook), so I had a few bucks saved up, but I knew it would not be near enough to pay for all those tickets. That left me with few options. I could borrow from friends, join the Foreign Legion, or as a last resort, ask my dad for the money. The problem was, my friends were at least as broke as I was; I was too young and too scrawny for the Foreign Legion; and no way was I going to ask dad for it. So I would just go see what the system demanded.
I went to the city clerk’s office. When she saw the stack of tickets in my hand, she said, “Oh no, sorry, but you’re going to have to see the juvenile officer.” My heart sank. The JUVENILE OFFICER! I pictured a smoky room with gangbangers in leather jackets with tattoos and ducktails! Nothing with the word juvenile in it was good.
I followed the lady’s directions to another building and to the second floor, where I found the door with “juvenile officer” printed in stark, forbidding letters. When I entered, the room was surprising empty, except for a few chairs and a desk behind which sat a pleasant-looking man. He took the stack of tickets from me, and told me to sit while he looked at them. He looked through them one by one until he got to the one for “excessive muffler noise.” He showed it to me, and asked, “What about this one?”
I explained the whole thing to him. I had borrowed my buddy’s jeep to go to lunch, and when I got back, the place where he parked was taken. “I drove around looking for a place to park. This was the jeep we used for duck hunting, when we went to his father’s duck camp – you know, the city commissioner, Mr. Bradley, it is his camp – and the last time we were there, we drug the muffler off.” When I mentioned the city commissioner, he looked at me. He folded the stack of tickets neatly, saying, “I’ll take care of these,” as he put them in a drawer.
I couldn’t believe it! I stood around for a minute, to make sure I understood him. That was it! All that worry and disaster planning – vanished in a heartbeat, at the mention of a city commissioner’s name. I floated out the door and down to the sidewalk – running to my car, my feet didn’t touch the ground.
So the chief of police and sheriff spoke for the law in Port Arthur!
True then, and true now?
There are thousands of people breaking the law every day right here in Port Arthur. To them, the illegal immigrants, the chief and sheriff say no worry, we’re not after you; the mayor echoed the message, and the news paper, often the voice of conscience in a community, congratulated them on the “brave” stance they had taken. Political expedience was implied, but not mentioned. But it begs the question: “Who speaks for the law in Port Arthur?” The Lady of Justice, a symbol of government by law, sits in front of the Supreme Court holding a balance, blindfolded. The blindfold alludes to equal law without regard to persons. In Port Arthur, the blindfold is removed.
Gene Dammon of Port Neches is a contributing writer to the Port Arthur News. Contact him at robertdammon@gmail.com.

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