I was recently interviewed by Fusion on my path to becoming a senior African American prosecutor. In examining the criminal justice system as a whole, it is extremely important that all of the actors (judges, police, defense attorneys and prosecutors) reflect the community they serve. The article revealed some disturbing statistics; in addition to the previously reported statistic by the Women’s Donor Network that 95% of elected prosecutors are white men, Fusion found:
In counties in the U.S. where people of color represent between 50% and 60% of the population, only 19% of prosecutors are prosecutors of color.
In counties where people of color represent between 80% and 90% percent of the population, only 53% of the prosecutors are prosecutors of color.
Only in places where 90% of the population are people of color does the prosecutor pool reflect the diversity of the community.
Overall, in the 276 counties in the U.S. where people of color represent the majority of the population, only 42%, or less than half, of the prosecutors in these counties are prosecutors of color.
This is why I am tireless in my efforts to bring more people of color into the career of prosecution.
Melba Pearson, a past president of the National Black Prosecutors Association (NBPA), is a woman of color and an assistant state attorney in Miami. She didn’t fully realize how powerful the role of prosecutor was until she became one — somewhat by chance.
Growing up, Pearson was pressed by her father to study the civil rights movement. He noted that heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr. were able to accomplish their work partly because “they had amazing defense attorneys to get them out of jail,” she said. “That’s something really ingrained in me since I was young.”
My latest vlog post on the recent police shootings, and the continuing controversy surrounding Colin Kaepernick’s protest of the National Anthem. References to the incidents I discuss in this vlog are below; please leave your comments!
I’m starting a #TBT (aka Throwback Thursday) series to share past posts that are relevant today. It was pretty crazy to realize I have shared 175 posts in the last 3 years on The Resident Legal Diva. The recurring themes of race, criminal justice, and living together as Americans are close to my heart.
So in light of my piece on Colin Kaepernick, and the debates we are having as a result of his actions as well as the elections, please take a look at my multi part series from 2014 “Knowledge Trumps Racism“. More importantly, I’ll start you at the end of the series, written on MLK day of 2015, which talks about standing up for what you believe in.
A historic Harlem and American landmark is in danger due to gentrification. African American poet Langston Hughes’ home is in danger of being sold to developers. Several media outlets released the story this week, including Essence, News One and CNN. The effort to save this historic building is being led by local artists Renee Watson and the I, Too Collective. The current owner of the space, while wishing to sell, does not want to see the home fall prey to the gentrification trend that has been occurring in Harlem — turning beautiful old spaces into coffee shops and high priced condos. The artists wish to turn the home into an art and performance space, letting Hughes inspire yet another generation of creatives.They are working on raising $150,000 to rent the space via an internet campaign on Indiegogo.
Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was a pioneering poet, playwright and writer, who was active during the Harlem Renaissance. He was the voice of the average African American at the time, using his pen to record pain and injustice. Hughes’ work was written for the average person, not just for the elite. He promoted young writers and poets, giving many generations a voice as well as an outlet for their creativity. You may learn more about him through a great piece by the Bio Channel.
One poem of his that I find timeless and inspiring is “I Look at the World”
Even though his Harlem residence was given landmark status, the residence is still up for sale.
What is distressing to me is what is happening to Harlem in general.
Harlem to me as a New Yorker was the Apollo Theatre, a great place to get my hair done, to get African fabrics and hair supplies off of 125th. It’s the mecca for African American history in the North, which is where I hail from.
I knew it was bad when I went during Thanksgiving of 2012. My husband and I were meeting friends at an African restaurant in Harlem – and I noticed on my phone that the area was being referred to as “Manhattan Valley”
I said what the H? That area is straight up Harlem, why are folks renaming it?
There is only one reason – re-branding, and making the area more attractive to buyers. In the process, erase the rich history of the Cotton Club, Apollo Theater, and Frederick Douglass Blvd, and make it something completely new.
A recent New York Times article detailed what I was seeing in my last trip to Harlem in 2012 — historic sites were being demolished, and long time residents were being pushed out for the sake of “progress”.
It’s insulting and upsetting.
Progress need not come with the destruction of history.
The same way we save Abraham Lincoln’s home and other treasures of American History, we must save Harlem and what made it critical to our cultural growth as a nation.
We need to save our history, because Black History is intertwined with American history.
I donated to the Indiegogo campaign — if you want to preserve American history, please do so by donating here!
May I have your attention please? May I have your attention please? Will the real Slim Shady please stand up? I repeat will the real Slim Shady please stand up? We’re going to have a problem here
Lyrics from “The Real Slim Shady” by Eminem
Will the real swimshady please stand up?
Although the lights have dimmed and the closing ceremonies have finished, the amazing accomplishments by the athletes in the last week have been overshadowed by a drama of Olympic sized proportions.
Ryan Lochte and three other swimmers, spun a tale of robbery in Rio which turned out to be completely false. However, the reactions of some on social media call into question where we are as a country.
Let’s put this in context. During the week, Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas didn’t raise her hand to her heart during the National Anthem after she received her team gold medal in gymnastics.
No one was harmed. No property was harmed. No lies were told. She apologized for her actions.
Yet her actions were scrutinized to the point of sickness. The “we gave you a chance” narrative became front and center on social media, and she was accused of being “ungrateful”.
Hello, she earned it!! No one “gives” you a place in sports. You have to shed blood, sweat and tears to get a spot. Gabby gave up everything she knew — her town, her family and her time — to qualify for the US Olympic team.
By comparison, Ryan Lochte made the similar sacrifices and won gold. Yet he lied and entered into conduct unbecoming of an athlete. In a drunken episode with his friends, he urinated on the side of a gas station, and trashed a door. He then told the media and Brazilian law enforcement that he was robbed at gunpoint, even going so far as to say the gunman put the firearm to his temple.
If you look at the surveillance video from the night in question, it is clear that he and his companions are intoxicated. They did not even return to the correct taxicab after vandalizing the gas station property. A man comes up to the cab, and it appears that he orders them to get out. They exit, with wallets out, as if to compensate for the damages.
He has since issued an apology, in which he still paints himself as a victim because he was held at gunpoint after committing a crime.
Whelp, that’s kind of what happens when you get arrested or detained.
Lochte urinated on Brazil literally and figuratively. He destroyed property and lied about it, assuming that everyone would believe his tale of being a victim of violence in a beleaguered 3rd world country. Purportedly this story broke because he told his mother a lie, his mother called the media out of fear/concern, and he continued the lie when asked by authorities in Brazil.
As a grown man, he should have known how his mother would have reacted. There are stories that my mother went to her grave not knowing about my escapades, simply because I knew that she would panic or react in a certain way. If Lochte had exercised this discernment, he would not have had this problem.
Even if he decided to lie to his mother, when asked by Brazilian authorities, he could have told them that this was a family misunderstanding, no robbery occurred, and end it there. He did not. To be clear, he was sober at this juncture. This is another moment of poor judgement.
All of these moments of poor judgement add up to a criminal offense (as often happens).
His lapse of judgement is treated by some as a harmless “boys will be boys” prank. Most boys don’t commit crime. And FYI at 32, Lochte is not a boy. His criminal actions threaten to overshadow all of the amazing work that Team USA has done at the Olympics in Rio. Granted, there is an argument to be made that it is not the worst Olympic scandal in history (Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan come to mind), but it is pretty close.
In the United States, falsifying a police report is a misdemeanor in most states, subject to a fine or a short jail sentence of less than a year. It is a crime in Brazil as well, likely subject to similar penalties.
What disturbs me is the vitriol Gabby Douglas endured as a result of her actions, while there is a willingness to look past Lochte’s criminal behavior. There have been some interesting articles on this that I would like to share, by Emma Gray at the Huffington Post, and one by Charise Frazier at NewsOne.
I was approached as then President of the National Black Prosecutors Association to write an article for this collaborative project between the Marshall Project and Vice. It’s important to note, in a world where 95% of elected prosecutors are white, that diversity is a critical issue, especially in the upper echelons of the profession. As we explore criminal justice reform, issues in policing and lifting up communities of color, it is even morecritical that prosecutors reflect the communities they serve.
“The only way to help your people is to be a defense attorney.”
My father was the first to tell me that, but definitely not the last.
He went on to explain that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and all the civil-rights leaders of the 1960s had great lawyers to call whenever they got jailed for protesting. Without these lawyers, my dad explained, African Americans would never have advanced toward equality.
When I was in college and law school, I was also told that as a black woman, the only way to look out for “my people” and defend the Constitution was to become a defense attorney — and more specifically a public defender.
I followed that path, interning with the Legal Aid Society in New York City while I was an undergrad. A couple of the attorneys I met there formed their own shop, and I later interned for them during law school. But during my final year, I got an offer to become a prosecutor in Florida.
Check out my latest piece in Huffington Post “I’m Melba with the Good Hair”!
Hair: a woman’s crown and glory.
As a little girl, I could not wait until I got to the eighth grade. For my eighth-grade graduation, my mother finally straightened my hair. To me, that meant I was a big girl. I can now do all those fun styles, rather than wear my hair in a more conservative braided style.
For six years after that, I struggled with my straightened hair. I roller set it, I did an “S” Curl (cousin to the Jheri curl) and did a variety of styles, none of which made me happy. Finally, in my junior year of college, I found braids. The heavens opened up and angels sang — what liberation! Other than the 14 hours I spent in the salon getting the braids done, I felt so free! Finally, I could wash and go. No curling irons, no blowdryers, no horrible smell of chemicals burning my scalp in an effort to conform.
What’s the difference between a joyride and stealing a car?
The elements are the same: the taking of a car with the intent to temporarily deprive the owner of its use. Unfortunately, what is considered a “joyride” in a white community becomes “grand theft auto” in a community of color.
The outcome can be different depending on the defendant. If you have a white defendant that comes in with a fancy lawyer, who is arguing that it was a childish prank and points at the future the young man has ahead of him while the young man is crying in open court — the case may either be dismissed or result in a diversion program.
Meanwhile, the defendant of color may not have anyone vehemently arguing on his behalf. His family does not have the money for a lawyer or to pay the fee for a diversion program. The overworked public defender cannot delve as deeply into the case. He’s sorry for the stupid act; but maintains a stiff upper lip in front of the judge, because in his culture, men don’t cry — it’s perceived as weak. His outcome ends up being more severe with a criminal conviction. This now means he will have difficulty getting a job, obtainingstudent loans, living in public housing, or even joining the military. His life is over before it gets started.
This is even assuming that the white defendant is even arrested — he may be brought home by the police with a stiff warning, and the car returned to the rightful owner.
Similar scenarios play out across the country due to stereotypes some people have that people of color have no future.
So how do we make the justice system more colorblind?
All first time offenders of non violent crimes should be given a diversion program. All addicts should be placed into a drug court that requires treatment. It should not be a matter of whether or not your lawyer advocates on your behalf for a program. The Task Force on 21st Century Policung, convened but the White House after the events in Ferguson, issued a report that in part urges police departments to return to community policing, where they get out of their cars and get to know the residents. This way, you can bring young Johnny home to his family — or if there are issues at the home, the officer is aware and find another solution for a young person acting out.
It happens regularly in white communities; with a little creativity the same can be done in communities of color.
My friend Courtney Swan wrote a riveting piece on our criminal justice system from a Canadian perspective. She makes some great points backed by statistics that show the disparity brought on by the history of racism in America. She comes to similar conclusions as seen in my recent discussion on the War on Drugs. We are moving forward, but we still have some work to do!
The War on Drugs is Killing Black America
By guest blogger Courtney Swan
Since President Richard Nixon coined the term in a press conference in June 1971, the ‘War on Drugs’ has been a forceful weapon for nationwide, institutionalized discrimination and racism in the United States.
Nixon declaring to the Congress on Drug Abuse Prevention and Control that drug abuse was “public enemy number one” was the start of the country’s longest ongoing war, along with the notoriously detrimental effects of its repercussions.
Just to get it out of the way right now, because I know many of you are wondering what my stance is on it… the War on Drugs is a race issue.
But please understand that this isn’t just my stance. This isn’t my opinion reflective of my own personal biases.
This is a cold, hard fact, and this series is going to extensively break down and analyze the many truths surrounding this.
The War on Drugs is a crisis which over the last 45 years has brutally and unjustly targeted and devastated communities of color all across America.
One of the most frequent responses to the pleas for criminal justice reform to solve the epidemic of mass incarceration of people of color is, “Well, the real issue we need to resolve is black-on-black crime!”
But, here’s the thing… black on black crime is in itself a twisted, and quite frankly racist expression used to represent the completely bogus idea that more black people are in prison because more black people are criminals.
This idea needs to be shut down.
What the idea of ‘black on black crime’ does is enable American citizens to turn a blind eye to this form of institutionalized racism by encouraging us to justify it. It allows us to diminish the value of black life and black freedom with implications that it is undeserved. . . that mass incarceration has nothing to do with systemic racism and everything to do with the shortcomings of black people in America.
So let’s debunk the myths.
Myth #1: Black on Black Crime Is Worse Than White on White Crime
Last Friday, Old Navy used an interracial family in a Twitter ad, and the Internet racist trolls lost their minds. The vile series of tweets were shocking to many, and a reminder that racism is real, alive and well. Many in interracial relationships took to Twitter with the hashtag #LoveWins to show support for the retailer being current in their ads. Jack McCain, son of Senator John McCain shared his photos with his African American wife, with a sweet note that told the racists to “eat it”.
I was no exception. — I shared this:
In our journey together, we have encountered the societal resistance from all races.
We get the white women who can’t possibly see what he sees in me, and will try to approach him. “He couldn’t meet a good blond woman like me, if I talk to him he will leave her” their eyes say.
African American men will give me blatant “side eye” on the street for “leaving my own race”. I’m a bit understanding of this, knowing how in the days of slavery, the slave masters would violate the sanctity of marriage and African American women’s bodies by raping them, leaving African American men powerless to stop it. This continued into the Jim Crowe era, when white men raped with no repercussions. That generational pain runs deep. However, times have changed. Ask Daniel Holtzclaw, the former police officer from Oklahoma serving 263 years for the sexual assaults of multiple African American women.
At an event, a judge told me a story of how on a particular Caribbean island, the women would marry white men so that their babies would be lighter and have better economic opportunities. He looked at me very pointedly as he told the story. I looked him evenly and said “how sad that the women felt they could not marry for love, and the economic conditions are so desperate”. This same judge refused on multiple occasions to acknowledge my husband.
My husband was dealing with customers one day at work. The companion of the customer felt the need to make a crack that “Obama is a thief“. My husband became unglued, knowing that the same would not be said of a white President. He angrily told him “Hey, my wife’s black“. The guy backpedaled, and said some ridiculousness.
But what sticks in my memory is visiting the small town in northern Idaho where my husband lived for a time. We still have a home there. We were at the grocery. There were a few unhappy looks, but I brushed them off. However, apparently the anger was so palpable to my husband that he became very concerned. He revealed to me in a discussion later that night that the town 45 minutes away was known for Ku Klux Klan activity.
I began to think in the dark, what would I do if someone burned a cross on the lawn? We were on five (beautiful) acres. No one could hear you scream. The police take at least 30 minutes if not more to respond.
If a cross burned, would we stay to prove a point? Or get on the next plane home?
Luckily, we never had to make that choice. But we did have the rifle in our wingspan.
Just in case.
How do we deal with it all?
Much of it we ignore. We laugh when we can, but we also have really intense discussions on race. My husband accompanies me whenever possible to see my work on social justice and the criminal justice system. We seek to open each other’s eyes on our points of view. I teach him about life as a person of color; he teaches me about how to further climb the ladder to success.
We were watching Fast & Furious: Tokyo Drift one night. The main character was a young white man in a world of trouble with an Asian gang. Even though he was in a position of weakness, he demanded of one of the Asian crew to teach him how to race cars in their particular style (drifting).
I looked at my husband and said “that’s the ultimate in white privilege. How does he even think to do that?”
He looked at me, smiled, and said “Yep. You should try it sometime”.
The lesson? Be bold, be brave, and step out of the box that people place you in. And don’t self-deselect.
It’s all about love, communication and having a true partnership.
Love is not about the color of one’s skin, but the content of their character.
Yes, we have made a lot of arrests. Yes, drugs were seized and destroyed. But we have not stopped or stemmed the tide of illegal drugs into the United States.
As a prosecutor, I start to think about failed policies, and what to do next.
Instead of a war on poverty, they have a war on drugs so that the police can bother me.
This line was immortalized by the rapper Tupac. It was in his song “Changes” that he discussed the current conditions of his neighborhood in the 1990’s . He was defining the issues that were present in the African-American community. Sadly, in the years since that song, those who reside in lower income areas have not seen any changes.
It has recently come to light in an interview with Nixon aide, that the war on drugs truly was a farce. The idea purportedly was to “equate the hippies with marijuana, and the blacks with heroin” in an attempt to prevent the groundswell of political change that was occurring in the 1970’s.
In reality, the way to fix all that ails our society is really simple. We need to attack the demand, not the supply. The war on drugs was targeting the suppliers. But for every drug dealer and Pablo Escobar that was taken off the street, ten more rose to assume their place.
Because it is lucrative. Because there is a demand for drugs. Until we end the demand, we will never win the war on drugs.
So how do we end the demand? It is a bit more than Nancy Reagan’s “just say no“, –while simplistic, we need to educate the youth. We truly need to invest in addiction remedies. We need to invest in rehabilitation, making it widespread and easily affordable. If you do not have the money to go to Betty Ford, you should still be able to fight your addiction at a licensed rehabilitation center so that you can get your life on the right track. Once we have less addicts, then the drug dealers will have to find something else to do because selling drugs is no longer profitable.
Of course, this plan requires money. It requires the government to invest in such programs or private entities to subsidize these programs for those who are financially unable, or whose insurance does not cover it. But this is the only way we can truly move forward and truly win this “war on drugs”. Incarcerating masses of people is not the answer.
I was reading an interesting article regarding the relationship between the Clintons and the African-American community. Many view the widespread support Secretary Clinton enjoys as blind faith; however, many in the African-American community, frustrated at the violence that they saw in the streets, welcomed the aggressive policing tactics and hoped that this would alleviate the problems. So while President Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill is looked upon as one of the main catalysts of the mass incarceration problem we see today, it was something that was originally sanctioned, even fought for, by the Congressional Black Caucus, the African-American faith based community, and many African-Americans at large. However, the unintended consequence was that an entire generation of young African-American men were lost to the prison system, and even more African-Americans remained mired in addiction and poverty. Check out another interesting article on the relationship between African Americans and the war on drugs here.
So now that we know better, we must do better. If we look at the response to the heroin epidemic in white communities, the focus is on treatment as well as looking at novel ways to enforce the law. The same must be done in all communities, especially communities of color who have suffered for too long.
At the end of the day, if there is a demand, the supply will follow. It’s simple economics; it’s simply business. So it is good business for us to invest in rehabilitation as well as mental health, because in some instances, addictions co-occur with mental illness as a way of self-medicating.
Bottom line: min mans solve nothing, they deter nothing. End the demand, and you kill the supply.
Give a listen to an interview I did on this topic with NPR and the article I wrote for the Miami Herald.