The System is Not Broken

I respect the decisions of the jurors in the Rittenhouse trial. The jury reached a verdict, but the process was flawed: the Judge was not impartial, which led in part to this outcome. He telegraphed from the onset, by way of his rulings, his racist statements about Asians, his inappropriate physical closeness to the defendant, and his conspicuous belief the defendant was innocent, We saw so many examples of actions by Judge Schroeder that communicated to the jury his support for the defendant, including having him in such a close proximity. This is highly unusual, and in 16 years as a prosecutor, I have NEVER seen this happen — it has certainly never happens with Black and Brown defendants. It raises issues of race, equality, and of judicial impartiality.

These not so subtle messages impact justice and verdicts. Judge Schroeder left any premise of impartiality at the courtroom door. 

That said, I see much deeper implications for the rule of law, race, equity, and justice in our country. Every day, defense attorneys nationwide fight to get their clients of color the same level of respect and dignity this defendant received in his trial. Prosecutors fight for  victims of color to be heard and respected. Kyle Rittenhouse blatantly benefitted from white privilege while many others in the system that are Black and Brown must overcome so much more just to be treated with a modicum of the decency they deserve, in a country that believes in the concept of “innocent until proven guilty.”

To me this case is just another example of systemic racism in our country. And it is a case that connects so many concerns —the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McCain, and the subsequent uprisings in the aftermath last summer. The procedural concerns impact, and further destroy,  the trust of some Americans in our criminal justice system. We are reminded of other cases in history including the violence the Freedom Riders, and others, faced during the first Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s where perpetrators of violence were not held accountable. 

This case also raises issues surrounding who can, and cannot, exercise their First and Second Amendment rights. It infringes on the true use and meaning of “self defense,” and renews concerns regarding the application of ‘Stand Your Ground” as well as vigilantism. Perception is reality — and if people do not perceive the system to be fair, less people will report crimes, testify in trials, or respect the rule of law.

Judges are an elected to office. Schroeder is the longest-serving circuit judge in Wisconsin. He was first appointed in 1983 and has continuously won election since, often running unopposed. Free and fair elections are the backbone of democracy, and that includes having a choice of who sits on the bench.

I’ll conclude this message with a challenge: get involved in democracy in your community. Vote all the way down the ballot, without skipping judicial races and other less discussed races. Join or start a CourtWatch program to learn about your local judges. Help build a bench: get to know stakeholders in your community and recruit and encourage them to run for office. Get involved. Mobilize. Most importantly, whatever you do – do not sit quietly on the sidelines. Do not accept the status quo. Stay vigilant, never complacent..

 If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” — Archbishop Desmond Tutu

We stand in solidarity with those who are hurting today. I hope you will join me in the fight for our democracy, and to push forward equality for all in the legal system in this country.
 

Though we strobed
That we came in peace
He was already at war.
We have battled hard to be.
Nothing —
Nothing —
Can keep you safe.
Silence least of all.
Look alive, everyone.
May such a prayer,
A people,
A peace,
A promise,
Be outs.
Be right
& radiant
& real.
— Amanda Gorman

In solidarity & sadness,

M.

The Trouble With Being Young, Missing & Black

This story originally appeared in the Miami Times on October 12. Check out my thoughts!

Everyone has heard the tragic story of Gabby Petito. It captivated headlines and news reports for weeks on end, chronicling the search, the desperate pleas from her family and the eventual discovery of her remains. Televisions and every portable device blasted her picture. As one can imagine, this led to an outpouring of tips that led law enforcement to where Gabby was eventually found.

During that same time, two other young people went missing and two other families were searching for their loved ones. Miya Marcano (Florida) and Jelani “JJ” Day (Illinois) were both young people of color. They were both students. They had their futures ahead of them, were bright and loved by their families. Yet their stories did not get the same traction or attention.

Why does this happen? First, it has to do with the respect for Black lives in this country. Unfortunately, biases remain when it comes to law enforcement as well as those who are decision-makers in newsrooms.

When it comes to the media, these cases really underscore the importance of having people of color in positions of power in newsrooms, editorial boards and anywhere news is being made. Many times, a story will hit someone to the core, because they identify with the people involved. Unfortunately, if newsrooms are predominately white, the stories that will resonate would be ones that remind them of their cousin, sister, brother or another loved one – people who will likely look like them. By default, Black stories get left out of the mix. If there are more reporters of color, then stories that resonate with people of color will also rise to the forefront, along with cultural sensitivity in the storytelling.

The other issue is law enforcement. This is not to say that police deliberately look at someone and say “This is a person of color, therefore we are not going to look for them.” However, due to biases based in stereotypes, there can be a belief that the person was a runaway even though they had no prior history of doing so. They could feel that since the missing person was battling addiction, or engaged in sex work or other risky lifestyles, they are not worthy of the same amount of attention and resources as someone who is a soccer mom. And that issue of not relating in the same way to a missing person of a different race, while not necessarily intentional, comes into play as an unconscious bias. This is why diversity in law enforcement is incredibly important as well.

For instance, it has come to light that in the initial stages of Miya Marcano being reported as missing, a responding deputy laughed and stated “this is not a high-priority case.” His statement shows not only a lack of sensitivity, but reveals the deeper issues that delayed Miya being found sooner. In the case of Jelani Day, the FBI only recently got involved after a month of him being missing. The family is upset that this is being approached as a suicide rather than as potential foul play. While more has yet to be revealed around his cause of death, his family is adamant that Jelani was in good spirits and showed no signs of distress.

Lastly, there is the issue of shifting blame to the victim. While there is an outpouring of sensitivity around Gabby staying in an abusive relationship, and people trying to figure out when the signs were missed or if earlier intervention could have saved her life, reporting around Miya has much to do with her rejecting the advances of a local man. The local man, who did maintenance for her apartment building, committed suicide and remains a person of interest in her death.

The fact that the focus is on her saying “no” rather than him stalking her, refusing to respect her wishes, breaking into her home and eventually (allegedly) killing her, is problematic. Shifting the focus away from his actions is giving a potential killer a pass, and also furthering the narrative that women do not get the right to say no. Their bodies, who they engage with, and how and when, is not within their control. This is not the lesson we want our young people to learn. We must also teach our kids that no means no. If someone tells you no, accept it for what it is and move on. Don’t be afraid to say no to anyone. No should never cost you your life.

Moving forward, it is incredibly important for all of us to support diverse news sources, as well as support organizations like NABJ & NAHJ to ensure that writers of color can thrive, and rise to the ranks in order to be in decision making positions. We need to follow, support and share the stories that are written by diverse authors, again, so that with the increase in their readership, their ability to be heard in rooms where decisions are made also increase.

Diversity in law enforcement continues to be a major issue that touches so many aspects of criminal justice. We need to continue that fight and support those who are looking to change the profession by eliminating bias.

Lastly, we must empower our young people to say no, accept no, and protect each other as much as possible.

Tips for Summer Travel with Elderly Family

Photo by Dimitri Dim on Pexels.com

Summer is underway as well as revenge travel season. Now that some COVID19 restrictions are being lifted due to increased vaccinations, you may be planning to take that long awaited trip that may have been delayed. Here are some tips for traveling with elder family members or folks with disabilities.

Pack your patience. No matter how you try, things don’t go according to plan. Everything will take much longer than you think — from getting to and from the airport, getting around or receiving services. Your loved one may get frustrated as well. So take deep breaths and allow yourself plenty of time.

Be realistic. You may remember your loved one as younger and more vibrant. Mobility changes over time, which can be hard for both you and your loved one. They want to be able to do more but can’t; you may possibly have expected them to do more than they can. For instance, if you normally have short visits with your loved one, and they are fine walking around the house, that is a far cry from having to walk long distances at the airport dragging a rolling suitcase. Also, with the pandemic, folks have physically been less active — even us as younger people! So bring your patience, plan, and think through the best way to get from points A to B.

Direct flights can be better. If at all possible, try to get a direct flight to your destination. It allows your loved one to get settled once, and you don’t have to worry about a delay causing a logistical nightmare with missed connections. We’ve seen how some airlines have cancelled flights at the last minute. A direct flight can prevent that dreaded sprint in between terminals with someone who is not as mobile. There are the carts that drive through the airport, but multiple stops for other passengers may also slow down the process.

Get a wheelchair at booking. Every airline allows you to book wheelchair assistance when you purchase your flight. But I have to share a cautionary tale. On a recent trip with my elderly dad for a funeral, my husband and I booked a wheelchair through American Airlines. We arrived at Miami International Airport two hours before the flight, and went to the designated area run by Envoy who handles the wheelchairs there. The lady at the desk informed us that we would have to sit and wait for 45 minutes. This is even before going through TSA and the long trek to the departure gate. When I expressed my shock, she pointed to an older lady who was sitting with her head in her hands looking defeated “well, her flight boards in 5 minutes” with a shrug. Not wanting to take the chance, we ended up walking very slowly with my dad to the gate, which was very physically draining for him. We were blessed that although he had limited mobility, he could walk — but what about those for whom that is completely out of the question? The absolute reverse was true when we left Jamaica (a place that some disparage as a “3rd world country”). The level of care and attention we received was outstanding. So with this experience, I would suggest calling the airport to see what the wait times are for wheelchairs. Consider purchasing a lower cost wheelchair for travel if you are able, so that you can get your loved one to the destination with limited aggravation.

Pack very light or check luggage. Between dealing with wheelchairs, seating and other logistics, dragging a bag behind you is another drama that may end up being a lot. Use curbside check in if possible, or wear a backpack so that your hands remain free for whatever is needed.

Wear comfy shoes. This is not the time to be cute when you have to sprint ahead and head off random travel disasters. Trust me.

Empty your loved one’s pockets. The side eye you get for holding up the TSA line is never fun. Don’t be that group if at all possible. Even after asking your loved one “are your pockets empty?”, search all of their pockets. Inevitably, you will find change, a phone, eyeglasses or something. It took about three trips before I realized I must handle that aspect.

While there are logistical considerations, the benefit of travelling for family gatherings, vacations or just to spend time together far outweighs the irritations that can be involved. Plan ahead, use these tips, and have a great summer! If you have other tips, please share in the comments!

This story originally appeared in Medium – check it out and send some claps if you are a member!

Does The Florida Supreme Court Hate Diversity?

Last month, without any prompting from a pending case or matter, the Florida Supreme Court sua sponte ruled that the Florida Bar can no longer issue continuing legal education credits to any entity that requires diversity in selecting speakers.

At a time when our country is at a crossroads on racial issues—enduring the long painful trial of Derek Chauvin for the brutal murder of George Floyd, a summer of unrest due to his and the deaths of Breonna Taylor as well as Ahmaud Arbery, a huge rise in AAPI hate attacks, anti-Semitic attacks increasing by 40% in our state, and Charlottesville not far in our rearview mirror —it is incredibly irresponsible and concerning to take this approach.

If a CLE addressed Asian hate, and the sponsoring entity required at least one Asian speaker, the session would not see credit. Is the Florida Supreme Court saying that only white men can opine on anti-Asian hate? Or racism? Further marginalizing voices who can share lived experiences that can educate others makes our profession weaker. It goes back to days gone by when only white voices mattered or were heard in any discussion.

It’s 2021. Gone were the days that you do not find diverse attorneys—women, various races and ethnicities, LGBT+—locked out of various areas of practice. Seeing experts that are different than you broadens your horizons, and helps attack implicit bias. The Supreme Court, ironically, highlighted the importance of diversity and eradicating implicit bias—yet attacked the very means to be able to accomplish diversity by using a misguided application of the Regents of University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265, 307 (1978). Their basis—that requiring diverse speakers equates to an unconstitutional quota—blatantly ignores the fact that while people may have good intentions, guidelines are needed to ensure diversity. By saying “at least one speaker should be a member of a group based upon race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability and multiculturalism” does not act to the detriment of any other group.

Sadly, several of the Supreme Court justices were appointed by this governor, who has made it clear he is hostile to communities of color. From his comments disrespecting the jury’s verdict in the Chauvin case, to signing an unnecessary and regressive anti-protest bill that attacks free speech, to stripping access to the ballot box, and unevenly distributing the vaccine to the point that 100% of wealthy white people are vaccinated in this state as opposed to only 31% of Black residents, his intentions have been clear as day. Lastly, he recently signed a bill demanding all university professors to fill out regular surveys to determine their political beliefs, and empowers students to secretly record their professors for daring to opine differently than the conservative status quo.

The judiciary is supposed to be independent, not following lock step with the governor’s war against social media and any opinion that is not conservative. The goal of having a diverse panel is to ensure diversity of ideas—conservative, progressive and independent. It is to raise awareness around a particular topic, which makes us better lawyers and people.

This ruling will have wide consequences. Several organizations are discussing no longer hosting events in Florida, which will cause attorneys to have to travel longer and further to get quality content while depriving our economy. Locally, as bar associations grapple with engaging and retaining members, if they are barred from presenting quality programs with diverse speakers, it will only further harm their finances and relevance.

Requiring diversity is the furthest thing from discrimination. This is still in the comment period—if you believe that having a variety of speakers uplifts our profession, please contact the Supreme Court and tell them to rescind this misguided rule. If it does stay intact, I hope that organizations will continue to practice bringing diverse speakers. It is unfortunate that those with oaths and responsibilities continue to make Florida the laughingstock of the country. Those of us who truly care about diversity—with more than words, but with actual deeds—will continue to push forward.

This piece originally ran in the Daily Business Review. You may see the order from the Florida Supreme Court here.

Tips For When Mother’s Day Hurts…

Happy Mother’s Day to all who celebrate!!

For some folks (myself included), today can be tough. If you lost your mother, mother figure, spouse/partner or as a mom – lost your child, today can be very painful. I lost my mom to cancer nine years ago. The grief has a way of creeping up on you, especially as the barrage of commercials, ads and emails pop up everywhere in the days leading up to today. Here are a few tips to help you get through.

  • It’s Okay. How you are feeling is valid. You don’t need to “toughen up”, and you do not need to pretend.
  • Unplug. Today is a really good day to stay off social media. Scrolling past happy smiling faces of families having brunch may be a lot to handle emotionally and remind you of your loss. Set the phone to do not disturb, leave it in an inaccessible place for a while, and take a break.
  • Find a Positive Distraction. Try binging the show that you’ve been meaning to watch on the streaming service of your choice. Watch some old DVD’s. I suggest opting out of network television because many stations do Mother’s Day themed programming. Get outside for a while. Journal. Work on that project you’ve been procrastinating for so long. Do something positive to keep yourself distracted.
  • Don’t Self Medicate. I’m not judging anyone for this one. However, using drugs or alcohol can make the pain you are feeling worse – and you may do something you will really regret. Also, practically speaking, tomorrow is Monday. Starting the week with a hangover – even on Zoom – is not fun.
  • It’ll Be Over Soon. It’s 24 hours, part of which you’ll be sleeping. You’ve made it this far. Just a few more hours!

Grief is an ongoing process that does not resolve itself overnight. It’s a rollercoaster, with good days and bad days. See a therapist if it gets too hard to cope. Check with your insurance provider if you have one. If not, there are so many apps and therapists that provide virtual sessions. One list is here.

Kudos to companies like Etsy and The Lip Bar (TLB) who sent emails allowing customers to opt out of Mother’s Day email advertisements. Having that option was definitely kind and sensitive.

I hope this is helpful. Sending you all a big virtual hug!