So I admit it. I am a fanatic of the show Scandal. Over the course of seven seasons, the show filled a hole in my soul that I did not know I had.
As a woman of color, it has been difficult to see myself in those who are portrayed on television. I grew up in the era of the Cosby Show; Mrs. Claire Huxtable, as nice as she was, didn’t cut it. I wanted to see women who looked like me grappling with real life issues. I didn’t want to see “perfection” – I wanted to see reality.
Then came Scandal. Scandal provided a double whammy in a good way – it gave me two strong women of color. One in Shonda Rhimes, who wrote/produced the show; the other was the strong female lead Olivia Pope (played by Kerry Washington).
I had the privilege of being on the Channel 10 South Florida Roundtable this past Sunday. We took on some tough issues surrounding the recent bill passed by the Florida legislature in response to the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Florida. While some aspects are good (increased funding for mental health), many have concerns as to how this will eventually affect students of color.
Check out the footage here and share your thoughts!!
Every Black History Month, I have done a series on this blog on the topic of “Legal Divas of Color”. The intent is to highlight African-American women who are doing great things in the legal field. Many serve as an inspiration to me to keep fighting the good fight and pushing the boundaries as far as they can go. It is also a reminder that the term “diva” is not a pejorative term; a diva is a woman who is strong, self-assured, and commands her worth.
When one thinks of the state of Alabama, sadly what comes to mind is the long history of racism and segregation. One thinks of the work of Dr. Martin Luther King; the actions of brutal police officers; and the last state in the country to overturn miscegenation laws as required by the Supreme Court.
However, Election Day 2016 showed that times are slowly changing in this southern state. 10 female attorneys of color rose to the highest positions that one can hold in the legal field in Jefferson County. The newly elected District Attorney is Lynneice Washington; and nine women of color were elected judges in Jefferson County. The nine new judges are Javan Patton, Debra Bennett Winston, Shera Craig Grant, Nakita “Niki” Perryman Blocton, Tamara Harris Johnson, Elisabeth French, Agnes Chappell, Brendette Brown Green and Annetta Verin.
District Attorney Lynneice Washington ran on a progressive platform of reforming/reducing the use of the death penalty, creating alternatives to incarceration for low level offenders, and creating a citizens-police advisory board. In doing so, she defeated the incumbent who had been appointed to the position after the retirement of his successor.
These wins are even more significant when you look at the fact that the current administration carried Alabama, and defeated Hillary Clinton resoundingly.
In this day and age, there seems to be a resurgence of the “tough on crime” rhetoric coming from the Justice Department and the White House. These policies have proven to be ineffective, leading to mass incarceration and no rehabilitation to be found in the criminal justice system. Now, there is a rise of a more progressive approach to criminal justice, which has shown to be effective in reducing recidivism and integrating people back into their communities. This is why it is more important than ever to elect progressive district attorneys and judges so that the whole defendant is being considered, as well as what is right for the victim, and the community at large. Local politics have become more critical in criminal justice than national policy. Groups such as the ACLU, and activists such as Shaun King are mounting voter education campaigns on this critical issue.
The wave of power seen in Jefferson County, Alabama is absolutely historic. I look upon these wins as hope for the future!
Congratulations ladies for being Legal Divas of Color.
Please see the bios of the nine judges here as well as a great piece detailing the District Attorney Lynneice Washington’s plans for the future of her county.
It was the night of our wedding rehearsal. The DJ was spinning great tunes, and friends/family from around the globe had joined us to celebrate our wedding the next day.
The news broke: Whitney Houston had been found dead in her hotel room.
My photographer had to step out of the room to collect himself. I was completely stunned. The DJ, herself in shock, agreed to play a tribute to Whitney during our wedding the next day. She did so — and we toasted her memory during our wedding dinner to the song “Exhale“. It was the perfect selection:
Sometimes you’ll laugh
Sometimes you’ll cry
Life never tells us
The when’s or why’s
When you’ve got friends to wish you well
You’ll find a point when
You will exhale
You may have noticed I write a fair amount of tributes to artists that pass away such as Prince and George Michael. This is because (cliche as it may seem), music is truly the soundtrack of my life. I often have a song lyric for any given situation. As with most people, music will rocket me back to a place, a time, or a person.
With Whitney, she takes me back…
…To summer camp as a teen in Toronto, where our project was to do a group lip sync performance to “I Wanna Dance With Somebody“.
…To watching the 1988 Olympics and remembering how her voice in “One Moment in Time” would give me simultaneous chills and pride.
…To the New York City club scene in the ’90’s with the remix of “It’s Not Right, But It’s OK“. That song is still a timeless anthem that will bring down the house at a club, party, drag show, or just about anywhere else to this day.
And of course, to my wedding day.
How she met her end was tragic; in my opinion, no artist to this day could match her vocal range. Her legal troubles, drug use and troubled marriage highlighted the dark side of fame.
But in the end, she left the world, and me in particular, with a great soundtrack to life’s memories.
Sleep in Power, Rest In Peace Whitney Houston. We’ll always love you.
Judge Rosemarie Aquilina drew headlines this week with her sentencing of former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar. All week long, we were riveted by the powerful victim impact statements made by young gymnasts as to the abuse they suffered at the hands of someone they trusted. Testimony was given by Olympians, faces we recognized (such as Simone Biles and Aly Raisman) and some we didn’t. Irregardless, the pain was the same.
Each woman had the same story. They were young (starting at early teens), and they received a sexual violation rather than treatment by this doctor.
As she sentenced the disgraced doctor to 175 years in prison, Judge Aquilina made note of several aspects — the desire of the defendant to silence the women by asking the judge to stop the stream of victim impact statements; the large number of women who had come forward with similar tales of abuse; and Nassar’s unrepentant attitude. She read portions of a letter he sent, in which he laid blame upon the victims, the investigators, the prosecutor and the media.
Judge Aquilina made the statements to the effect of “I wouldn’t send my dog to you for treatment” and “I’ve just signed your death warrant”.
There are some that claim her comments went over the line, and that she has taken this “too personally”.
One male judge stated that Nassar’s sentencing was “the most violative” sentencing proceeding he can recall.
Let’s look at the role of the judge. At sentencing, a judge may consider a wide variety of factors, such as how dangerous the defendant is, likelihood to re-offend, the facts of the underlying case, impact on the community, and remorse of the defendant.
The facts that came to light include that this doctor abused over 150 women during a time span of close to 30 years, with similar facts. It is clear that he is likely to re-offend. The impact of this case is obvious — it has rocked the Olympic world, and shocked the public. The president of the University of Michigan, where the doctor was employed, resigned in the wake of this case.
As for remorse — this defendant had none. He exhibited signs of a classic abuser and manipulator, attempting to explain his actions away. See excerpts from the letter he sent Judge Aquilina below.
The judge stating that “she signed his death warrant” is a fact. He will not live to see the end of his sentence. Stating that “she would not send her dogs to him” for treatment? This, to me, was a direct response to his assertion that his actions were not molestation, but were some form of treatment.
In reading the derogatory comments from some men regarding this case, it appears that toxic tribalism and toxic masculinity continues to thrive. These abuses happen, and continue to happen, as a result of some men believing that they are entitled to take liberties with whatever woman they choose. It is the very essence of the #MeToo movement — from Anita Hill, to the women allegedly victimized by Bill Cosby, to the female employees at the Ford Motor Company. The actual facts and abuse may change, but the pathology is the same. It is rooted in power, entitlement, and a misguided belief that women do not deserve the same respect as men.
We must continue to vote for diversity in the judiciary. In doing so, you have judges who are keenly aware of the impact of their decisions, as well as the impact of a defendant on a particular underrepresented community. This is not to say a male judge would not have reacted in the same way in this case; but this judge was able to acutely see the pain that these young women were showing in their statements.
It is time to put aside the theory of “us men have to stick together“, and shift to a “respect all equally” motto. In doing so, victims who were violated in the worst way possible will be supported.
As we celebrate the birth of civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, let’s reflect on his words, and how they remain evergreen until justice is attained for all.
In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends
Dr. Martin Luther King lamented the silence of his friends in his letters from the Birmingham jail. He lamented those who would support him behind closed doors, but in the public forum where it really counts, he and other peoples of color stood alone.
Dr. King also was not only about racial equality, but economic equality. Many alliances were starting to be formed during that time between various races around the issue of economic empowerment; Unfortunately, the power structure at the time was designed to oppress, and in many ways, continues to do so. The common fallacy is that poverty only affects one certain segment. The reality is, if you are struggling you are struggling no matter what the race. Poor whites in Mississippi are no different than poor African-Americans in Alabama; poor whites in Milwaukee are no different than poor African Americans in New York. We must be wary of the divide and conquer tactic which has worked so well in many corners and we are seeing more of it today.
Many times during Dr. King’s walk, he was told wait. Wait. Give the system a chance to work. We agree with your protests, but you shouldn’t do it in this manner. Sound familiar? Think of today with the actions of Colin Kaepernick and sports players who choose to peacefully protest injustice by kneeling during the National anthem. We agree with your cause, but you shouldn’t do it while we watch football. Others are not that kind in their sentiments.
Here was Dr. King’s answer was to being told to wait, as he sat in the Birmingham jail for peacefully protesting:
But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos, “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodyness” — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.
He then goes on to say “Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
So what does it mean to be a true ally? What can I do?
First, listen. Listen to the concerns of marginalized people. Set aside your own feelings of defensiveness or comfort that may come from tough discussions.
Secondly, show up. If it’s a protest, march. If it’s phone banking to call your local legislator about issues of concern, do it. If it’s sending an email to your legislator, do it. Download an app like 5 calls to help you make calls to action.
Thirdly, align yourself with others who have the same concerns. Join the local chapter of the ACLU or other organization fighting these battles. Donate to the causes that mean the most to you — whether it is reproductive rights, the rights of the LGBTQ community, immigrants’ rights, or civil rights in general.
Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.
Listen. Show up. Align. And give a full throated repudiation to those who speak racism. By doing this, you will keep Dr. King’s dream alive.
I think the theme for 2017 was WTH??? Definitely life as we knew it changed dramatically. It was a mixed bag — we saw a rise in hatred, but we also saw a rise in people fighting back. People raised their voices as a collective to say “this is not what America stands for”.
Now that the year is coming to an end, I actually had a moment to breathe, and acknowledge that my posts have not been as consistent as I would like. No excuses – just reality!
My new job at the ACLU of Florida has been amazing. With it, I received a very steep learning curve, of which I am still on the front side. However, I am learning from the best team in the country, so hopefully I’ll make more strides next year! The transition from prosecutor to full time social justice warrior has been interesting. I miss the courtroom and being able to work with victims of crime. But a whole new world has opened up to me. I get to speak regularly on issues that I care deeply about, with no fear of repercussions. I can keep it “100”, which is so refreshing. I’ve been writing for work as well — check out my death penalty piece in the Tampa Bay Times, as well as my work in support of State Attorney Aramis Ayala’s discretion in death penalty cases.
In the process of this new journey, I have not been able to share as much as I would like to on the blog.
There is also an emotional piece. When I was a prosecutor, discussing social justice issues was not my main job. I infused it when I could, but it was not a daily act. Now that it is my job, and in the current toxic environment, it’s become harder, and sometimes exhausting.
It’s no longer about educating folks on the system.
It’s now having basic discussions like Nazis are evil, pedophilia is a crime, and we need to believe victims.
It’s not about debating the finer points of policing. I’m now having to discuss my basic humanity as a person of color.
It’s left me like WTH? How did we get here?
But we were always here. It was artfully hidden by pretense, political correctness and the false sense of complacency after the election of President Obama.
So what now?
I keep fighting, keep resisting. I pledge to you to continue to bring you quality content when I can. But, the new year awaits — one of my goals is to focus more on writing — not just for RLD, Huffington Post and Blavity, but for newspapers as well. In order for me to grow as a writer, I need to be more intentional about how I work. Stay tuned!
Before we close the year that was, let’s take a look at the top 5 pieces on the Resident Legal Diva for 2017! Be sure to click the link in the title to see the original post.
I shared my personal experience with sexual harassment, which was super tough to do. I realized that I’m a wee bit more of a private person than I first thought; but it was critical (in my opinion) that more voices be heard. It originally appeared in Blavity, and received a ton of feedback wherever it was shared. As Gabrielle Union stated, and as we learned from the revelations coming from the floor of the Ford factory, sexual harassment is not a rich white woman Hollywood problem. It is a disease of power and entitlement — which can take many forms.
#BlackWomenAtWork was trending on Twitter, and many of us shared experiences of how some folks can be dismissive or downright insulting of our abilities, I shared how “you’re so articulate” is not a compliment — it’s backhanded at best and based in the stereotypes of where or how a woman that looks like me should be in life.
2017 saw the first African American elected prosecutor in Florida take office. She took the stance that she will not seek the death penalty in any murder case in her jurisdiction. Governor Rick Scott promptly took away her death penalty eligible cases, and the legislature later cut funding for her office. I believe that his was a gross overreach of his power — it should be the voters who decide what direction their community and their public servants go in. Prosecutors are given wide discretion for a reason; re-election (or not) is the way to send a message as to what is acceptable.
I shared my disturbing encounter with a law enforcement officer in the Huffington Post as well as the RLD. It was my personal reminder that following the rules to the best of your ability does not guarantee your safety as a person of color; this is NOT the way it should be.
Thank you to each and every one you who have supported, commented, read, shared, and suggested post ideas. As I enter my 5th year of the RLD, I look forward to making it stronger while continuing to educate folks on life and the law! If you have a question or a topic you want me to write about, tell me in the comments or contact me.
Walking is a lot of things. It’s great exercise. It’s a cost-free mode of transportation. But for Black people in Jacksonville, Florida, evidence suggests that it’s leading to discriminatory encounters with police.
Black pedestrians in Jacksonville are ticketed a stunning three times as often for pedestrian violations, like jaywalking, as white pedestrians, according to ProPublica and The Florida Times-Union. In a recently published exposé, the outlets examined 2,200 tickets issued in Jacksonville between 2012 and 2016. They found that although representing only 29 percent of the city’s population, Black people received a whopping 55 percent of all pedestrian tickets. Disproportionate enforcement also occurred for lesser known offenses. For instance, 68 percent of people who received tickets for “failing to cross the road at a right angle or the shortest route” were Black.
In Jacksonville, crossing the street on a yellow light or walking on the street where there is no sidewalk can result in getting a ticket with a $65 price tag. If you are poor or working but struggling to make ends meet, this is an especially hard pill to swallow. Failure to pay may impact your credit score or possibly result in suspension of your driver’s license.
The disparate citation rates in Jacksonville raise serious concerns about racial profiling. The ProPublica/Times-Union story even includes pictures of police officers doing the exact same thing that Black pedestrians have been ticketed for.
The issue of disparate enforcement in the state of Florida is far from new.
The ACLU analyzed the rate of stops and tickets for seatbelt violations for 2014. Statewide, Black motorists were stopped and ticketed almost twice as much as white motorists based on data from 147 different law enforcement agencies. In some places, data showed Black motorists were as much as a staggering four times as likely to be ticketed.
In Tampa, Black children as young as 3 years old were targeted for stops while riding a bicycle and ticketed for things like “bike riding with no hands.” From 2003 to 2015, more than 10,000 bike tickets were issued — 79 percent of them to Black residents. Black people, however, compose only 26 percent of the Tampa population. In 2016, the Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services issued a scathing report indicating that the tickets burdened Black cyclists in Tampa and did nothing to reduce crime or improve safety.
Does law enforcement have a compelling reason why they continue to overpolice communities of color? No, they do not.
The reason given by Jacksonville law enforcement for their pedestrian ticket enforcement practices is that it reduces pedestrian fatalities. But city officials in Jacksonville have not backed up that reasoning with evidence showing, for example, that the rate of pedestrian fatalities was actually lowered over time as a result of whatever practices are leading to such high rates of ticketing Black people for pedestrian offenses. Law enforcement has likewise not presented data showing that such interactions have reduced crime by, for example, leading to the apprehension of crime suspects or seizure of weapons and contraband.
Overpolicing of communities of color leads to one thing: the overpolicing of communities of color. That’s unacceptable and illegal. It’s time for Florida law enforcement agencies to make changes to the way citizens of color are treated. Only by embracing reform can police in Florida protect and serve everyone equally.
I thought long and hard before publishing this piece. Writing, sometimes, is the easiest part. But to share something personal, that is a source of pain and/or shame, makes hitting the “publish” button that much harder. But I hope that it serves to enlighten someone. Here it goes….
It was the 1990s. I was in my 20s, and part of a training class for a new job. There was a mix of us from all over — different backgrounds and races. The instructor was an older white man. One day, a group of us trainees decided to get together for drinks. We all went home and changed into casual clothes. Since it’s Florida and always hot, I threw on some shorts and cute mules (remember, it was the ’90s). I arrived at the bar and greeted everyone. I was surprised to see the instructor there, but carried on. He began making weird comments to me, and inquired of the male friend I was with (who I’d known for a long time through school) if we were sleeping together.
Sufficed to say we were all uncomfortable.
The next day in class, the instructor called on me and, in front of everyone, asked, “Isn’t it true you like to wear daisy dukes on your days off?”
I was mortified. The entire class gasped in horror.
I’m struggling with my emotions this morning. Late Sunday night, I discovered that a friend, George Cholakis, suddenly passed away while at a Miami Dolphins football game. I’m completely saddened and stunned. Not more than 2 weeks before, we laid another friend to rest, J.C. Dugue. He passed away from a massive heart attack just before Hurricane Irma hit.
These gentlemen were attorneys that were a few years ahead of me in my legal career. J.C., who was a defense attorney, knew me pretty much my entire career as a prosecutor. His sense of humor always added levity to tense moments as we stood across from each other on opposite sides of the courtroom. Just looking at him sometimes would have me in stitches. He was just that way.
George was helpful to me as a young prosecutor, as I was floundering (as we all did) to stay afloat with the heavy caseload. He’d often have words of encouragement, or the right answer when the judge was grilling me. He was senior to me, having tried intense homicide cases. He was kind, always pleasant, down to earth, and a fun guy. A few years ago, a really tragic incident occurred that pretty much cost him everything. George took responsibility, and started from scratch to rebuild. He began his own legal practice, and brought the same personality that he always had to his new line of work. I had such respect for George in doing so. Sometimes when folks fall down, they never get back up. He did, which showed the strength of his character.
What bewilders me is that they were not old. I know, the definition of “old” tends to shift as one ages upward, but I’m talking maybe 10 years older than me. I get it — when you hit your 70’s and 80’s, you expect to lose friends. Not in your 40’s.
Earlier this year, we lost two more members of our legal community to suicide. We all were devastated, and started work among our voluntary bar organizations to address depression. We lost J.C. and George to natural causes. Now, it’s time for us to talk about self care of not just the mind, but the body as well.
It takes wild horses for me to drag the men in my life to the doctor. I joke that for my husband and my dad, if an arm fell off, they’d pick it up and keep going, still refusing to go to the doctor. We have to be more forceful about getting the ones we love to the doctor, and heeding whatever warnings are given.
And, we ourselves need to take responsibility for our own health. Taking on too much, unmanaged stress, and ignoring what our bodies tell us is the formula for a fatal disaster.
We have to take care of each other. The pain of those left behind is immeasurable.