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Fiona Apple’s Court Watch Advocacy Rules
While other celebrities write checks, attend galas, then contort and contradict themselves, Apple is out here doing the actual work.
Singer-songwriter Fiona Apple has been one of the coolest people on planet Earth ever since she appeared on the popular music scene some 25-odd years ago. And let’s be honest, she was almost certainly one of the coolest people on planet Earth well before that. I won’t count the reasons why, but suffice it to say: the woman is blindingly talented, possesses massive reservoirs of mental and emotional depth, and has relatively few fucks to give.
In the last few years, though, Apple has somehow managed to become even cooler—exceedingly cooler!—in a new role as an outspoken court watcher.
For those unfamiliar, court watching—literally, the ability to observe what is happening in court proceedings—is a right guaranteed (with limited exceptions) to U.S. citizens and to the press. It’s actually enshrined in ye old Constitution and everything. The practice is designed to ensure that such proceedings, particularly bail and bond reviews and other pretrial hearings, are fair, and to increase public confidence in the judicial system.
For decades—and increasingly in the last few years—volunteer court watchers have observed, documented, and exposed faults and abuses at the hands of judges, prosecutors, and the system at large. You can imagine what those injustices might entail, but we’re talking about everything from a basic lack of compassion to a failure to provide an interpreter for defendants who don’t speak English to limiting a defendant’s access to vital medical care. So you know, just your standard, run-of-the-mill devastating and evil bureaucratic shit.
In the pre-pandemic era, court watching was done in person, but that changed in many places across the country as safety protocols forced courts to begin broadcasting trials virtually. It was a transition that actually made it easier for families and friends to support their loved ones, while also making it easier for organized court watchers to do their job. Insert "Heartbreaking: The Worst Person You Know Just Made A Great Point” (or in this case did a great thing) joke here.
Apple is one of those watchers. She became a trained volunteer with Court Watch PG, which is based in Prince George’s County, Maryland (Apple lives in New York), and had already been doing it for a few years when she first posted about it on Instagram. (Apple herself doesn’t have social media and posts through other people, which you’ll see as we go.) In 2021, she was nominated for three Grammys for her album Fetch the Bolt Cutters, winning two of them. But she publicly skipped the ceremony and instead posted a video asking people to sign a petition to keep Prince George's County courtrooms online and accessible as the powers that be threatened otherwise. She said “fuck the Grammys” yet again in 2022—boy does that resonate this year and every year!—and asked people to make phone calls to help get legislation moved to protect transparency in Prince George’s County courts.
Then, in October 2022, Apple posted a video responding to Prince George’s County's decision to discontinue online video access to trials. The move was seemingly retaliation for a lawsuit alleging at least nine cases of unlawful pretrial detainment and civil rights violations—a suit that was made possible in part because of affidavits made by court watchers. In the message, which Apple recorded at the behest of the local community and court watchers, she described the situation at length, calls the people in Prince George’s County court system “stupid asshole babies” (iconic!), and explained the potentially devastating effects of pretrial detainment.
If you get held pretrial, it’s not just an inconvenience. You’re traumatized. And it’s not just you. You have kids who depend on you? They’re fucked. If you can’t find anyone else to care for them, they’re fucked. If you have an older parent or relative that depends on you to help them, they’re fucked. If you had a job, you lost your job. Guess what happens then? You can’t afford your rent, you lose your place, and then you become unhoused and then next time you have a court date, you don’t get the notice and then they tell you, “Oh, your failure to appear means that you’re a flight risk,” and they keep you in jail again. Every time you touch the system it sticks to you.
The Maryland Judiciary then said those video feeds were never meant for court watchers in the first place. Courtwatch PG maintains that the courts were always aware of the organization’s presence.
Just last month, Apple (via attorney Scott Hechinger) posted an update with a written testimony that was read in Maryland's legislature as part of the effort to pass SB043 and HB133, two bills that seek to ensure that the state’s courts stay transparent and accessible online. Activists will keep working whether or not the legislation passes. But the success or failure of these bills matters everywhere, both in Prince George's County and in cities and communities far beyond its borders. The defenders of virtual access, including Apple, are fighting as many activists do—for the micro and the macro all at once.
In one of her videos, Apple says that court watching “will change you,” and adds, ”If you do it, you listen and you learn to care about people that you would never have met before. That you would never have even known about before. And my god, we need more of that in this world. We need to care about the people that we don’t know.”
If it’s not abundantly clear already, court watching and court watchers are doing absolute king shit. They help keep courts honest and fair, prevent abuses of the justice system which disproportionately affect poor people and people of color, and empower those who need it most. They’re integral to a community justice effort that holds the powerful accountable and lets the system know that someone is watching, while also cultivating a sense of community. Like mutual aid and other grassroots organizing, it’s doing the work that the system can not and will not.
Apple is just one of many people doing the work and who have been doing the work for a long time; it should be said that Courtwatch PG was founded by formerly incarcerated Black women. Her actions aren’t superlative compared with the countless other activists across the country, but they are for a famous person who has spent a long time in the public eye, and who has undoubtedly been shaped by that experience. Her activist efforts aren’t limited to court watching, but it’s her work with Court Watch PG that is the most impressive and, I’d imagine, most consequential. In a world of celebrities who at best write checks and leverage their advocacy for good PR while barely engaging in any meaningful way, Apple’s work feels like something notable—like the kind of real activism public figures rarely ever do anymore. She’s not talking out of both sides of her mouth. She’s doing the work, just like she always has. She’d also probably hate this praise if she ever read it, which is just another reason she’s so freaking cool.
I can still remember being a kid and hearing Fiona Apple’s When the Pawn… album on our family stereo. I remember sensing a kind of ecstatic power in her fragility, feeling drawn to it, and wondering what that said about me, and then also what it said about my mom, who was clearly drawn to it too. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking recently about those early moments when a woman's vulnerability and rage imprinted on me. It’s taken me decades to piece together how they helped build my sense of the world. I remember her saying, “This world is bullshit” (the music world) at the VMAs and the bullshit that came after. And I remember later learning about all the bullshit that had come before for her, too. The more I learned, the more I cherished her presence, which has literally never been true with any public figure before in the history of the world.
I’ve followed Fiona in the ensuing years, and in the last few in particular—as my own rage and tenderness have hit a parallel and unending upward trajectory—I have found her to be an utterly essential and singular voice in my ears. On the Fetch the Bolt Cutters’ track “Under the Table” she seethes and then shouts, “Kick me under the table all you want, I won’t shut up. I won’t shut up.” I hope she never does. Because while artistic fury is one of the pillars of being an alluring, magnetic musician, the kind of fury that results in actual work and care and activism is much more hardcore, a lot more important, and frankly, a hell of a lot cooler.