What's Mob got to do with it?

So, in the public gallery of a courtroom, a woman breast-feeds her baby.

For the baby, as for most human beings, being fed by her mother will be among her earliest experiences of bonding and love. The judge cannot stand the sight of this and the woman leaves the courtroom. A media storm gathers; not that the woman has complained, since she found the incident embarrassing.

The ODT asks some commentators about the matter: the Justice Minister is unequivocally relaxed about breast-feeding in public, saying she has "little patience for anyone who is offended by a woman breast-feeding"; the Human Rights Commission is likewise sympathetic.

Then the president of the New Zealand Law Society is asked for comment by the New Zealand Herald. His name is Jonathan Temm and he comes out with a courtroom fantasy.

He says: "Imagine if the public gallery were full of members of the Mongrel Mob and say, other people from criminal gangs, and you have a woman who breast-feeds.

"It just becomes a catalyst and people can become quite angry about it. Other women can get angry about it. You don't need more tension in the courtroom; you've already got enough."

Mr Temm's imagined scene requires us to graft middle-class anxieties about decorum on to the Mob, which seems unfair. Prejudiced, even. I can't remember a single court report in which a woman in the public gallery was either intimidated or humiliated for breast-feeding by gang members (or for that matter, other women). The only report I've read like that was the one in which the judge did the humiliating.

But OK, suppose a breast-feeding woman potentially faces some sort of antagonism, from someone, in a courtroom. Mr Temm seems to be suggesting the aggressor should be sheltered from the scary scene of vulnerability and tenderness.

Er, isn't protecting the vulnerable from scenes of aggression one of the purposes of criminal law proceedings? Isn't the justice system in general pretending to represent a society that both shelters, and nurtures to strength its vulnerable ones, and that never compromises in doing so?

Isn't a woman publicly breast-feeding, and having her dignity and safety assured in carrying out that act of responsible care, a personification of those values?

Courtrooms are sometimes decorated with a statue of a woman. Her name is Lady Justice, or Justitia, the Roman goddess of justice. She holds a set of scales representing the weighing of arguments, and a sword, representing the power of the court to dish out punishment.

Maybe every court should be adorned instead with a statue of a proud breast-feeding woman. She represents healthy human relationships, responsible care for the vulnerable, and an affirmation of our most basic shared humanity. Her gentleness reminds us to be gentle.

Then every person entering the court, Mob members and cranky judges alike, could not avoid seeing her.



Law society comment

Sorry, but the ODT did not ask the President of the Law Society for a comment. A reporter from the New Zealand Herald rang and asked him what the views of the Law Society were. He said public breast-feeding was a subject on which the community held different views. Mr Temm said the Law Society had no position on this.

He also told the reporter that in his personal experience, public galleries on courtrooms are not always safe environments. Any breast-feeding mother needs to be aware of the environment for the safety of herself and her baby. Events in the courtroom can be a catalyst to arguments in the public gallery. Mr Temm and the Law Society are at a loss to explain how the New Zealand Herald reported this as stating that breast-feeding mothers are catalysts to gang fights.

Editor -  The blog has been amended to more clearly attribute Mr Temm's quote as coming from the New Zealand Herald. As for what he said, we can only assume that was correctly quoted by the Herald reporter, and if so, Mr Temm does seem to be saying breast-feeding in court could be a catalyst to gang anger.