Wills Are For Us Too!

Wills Are For Us Too!

Hey RLD Family! I took a bit of a summer hiatus..but I’m baaaack! It’s time to explore the importance of wills, especially for people of color. This is my first piece published for the blog The 94 Percent.

aretha
Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin. Prince. Bob Marley. Barry White.  Marvin Gaye. Tupac. The list of celebrities of color that have died without a will goes on and on.

As we grieve the latest loss of musical icon, the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, we should also take the opportunity to learn some lessons. Many in our community seem to think that wills are for white people. As a result, they do not seek the protections they need and often die intestate (without a will).

This is dangerous for a lot of reasons.

Please see the rest of the story here.

Legal Divas of Color: 10 Ladies Rise in Alabama

Legal Divas of Color: 10 Ladies Rise in Alabama

Photo Credit: Andre WagnerEvery 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.

Photo Credit: Lynneice Washington campaign

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.

Before We Wrap — A Quick Rewind!

Before We Wrap — A Quick Rewind!

Courtesy of CreateHerStock

Hi RLD Fam,

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!

keep calm surprises

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.

5. I’m Angry and Ready, Now What?

This piece was in response to folks saying to me “Melba, what can I do? How can I fight?” These resources will be evergreen for the next few years.

4. #MeToo Is Not Just Hollywood’s Problem

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.

3. “You’re So Articulate” is not a Compliment to a Woman of Color

#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.

2. 1st African American Head Prosecutor Wrongfully Removed

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.

And — the most popular piece for 2017 is:

My New Normal Post Philando Castile

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.

The Cowboy & I in Stowe, Vermont for Christmas

Happy New Year!!!

Self Care for the Social Justice Warrior (and anyone under stress)

Self Care for the Social Justice Warrior (and anyone under stress)

createherstock-a-summer-day-neosha-gardner
Photo credit: CreateHerStock

A version of my piece appears in Blavity, check it out!

In a time where a day seemingly cannot go by without some sort of political calamity, how can one get through this?

Those who see and feel injustice are having a tough time.

I’ll put it out there – I’m exhausted.  Having seen the good, bad and the ugly in the criminal justice system, I have now elevated my work on social justice issues to a wider scope.  I feel it is incumbent upon me as an African American female attorney to lend my voice, as well as my knowledge, for the betterment of all people everywhere. In doing so, you take on the pain of the struggle.  If you do not internalize it in some way, then you may need to check your pulse to see if you are still alive.

To make sure that you continue to have the ability to fight the good fight, self-care is critical. Some may think “is that some silly reason folks use to blow off work and go to yoga

Maybe for some folks, yes; for social warriors, no.

In order to center yourself, you have to take a break.  Why? Because your effectiveness diminishes as fatigue sets in.  Stress literally kills.

Here are some ideas:

  • Eat right 

Skipping meals, or eating fast food regularly is not a good idea.  I like McDonald’s fries as much as the next person, but as we saw in SuperSize Me,  a regular diet of this is not sustainable.  Additionally, it will wreak havoc on your energy levels and your mood.  The topics we are dealing with regularly are painful as it is – the wrong nutrition will make an already short fuse even shorter.  Make a conscious effort to eat regularly, and eat real food.

  • Exercise

I’m the first person to say I don’t get a runner’s high.   I mostly get the runner’s ouch.  But put me in a spin class with a solid playlist (shout out to Allison, Johanna and Reed at SoulCycle), and for 45 minutes I am in another world.  I leave sweaty, less stressed, and ready to take on the day.  Find what works for you – if you’re in Florida like me, a long walk on the beach is a straight up spiritual experience.  If not, basic calisthenics at home, an internet based workout (there’s tons of videos on YouTube, as well as more specialized options), or hitting your local gym will go a long way in allowing you to de-stress, clear your head, and release some of the anger that accumulates. Don’t let budget be a hindrance – close your door, and dance like mad to 3 of your favorite songs in a row. That short break may be enough to release some toxicity.

  • Find your village

You need to have positive people around you in your personal life. Each of us needs to have that crew who you can laugh with, be totally silly, and just let your locs down.  These are folks who lift you up, infusing you with renewed energy.  If those folks aren’t around you, you may need to take a serious look at your circle and make some changes for your sanity.

  • Detox

Take a day at the very least each week , or the entire weekend if you can, and totally detox.  My friend is a strong proponent of #UnpluggedSundays, where she signs off social media Saturday night, and does not get back on until Monday.  Look, whatever craziness that is coming from the White House will be there tomorrow. Just take a day, and focus on friends and family.  Focus on you. Binge watch Real Housewives – anything that does not require deep thought.

  • Leave the Bottle Alone

It may be tempting to self medicate by having that extra drink, or turning to legal (or illegal) drugs to escape.  At the end of the day, the world’s problems will still be there when you wake up.  And now, you’re awake, mad, and have a hangover.  Enough said. Also, dependency/addiction has a tendency to creep up on you. Recreational use can turn to habitual use in the blink of an eye.  I’m not trying to pull a Nancy Reagan (more of a Grandmaster Flash), but please don’t start down a path that will only cause pain.

nancy reagan
Nancy Reagan in her 1986 “Just Say No” campaign. For historical purposes only….
  • Find what brings you peace (and don’t underestimate the power of the playlist)

Since Charlottesville, I’ve changed my screensaver at work to alpacas.  Why? Because looking them calms me down.  I can minimize my screen, look at the cuteness, and then re-engage.  Music is a huge help too.  Lately I’ve been rocking Damien Marley.  His social commentary, coupled with great reggae beats and a sharp lyrical style keeps me focused when the day is long. Public Enemy, while accurate, makes me angry.  As my friend Ken reminded me today, James Brown is a good bet.  You get inspired, proud, and motivated.

alpacas
How could you stay stressed after seeing these sweet little faces? 
  • In Summary…

Many have heard the James Baldwin quote

To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”

But the next line is even more important:

“…So that the first problem is how to control that rage so that it won’t destroy you.”

Being part of the resistance is tough, but don’t let it destroy you. Make a conscious effort to release your stress — you are needed!

What works for you? Please share in the comments.

Aramis Did It Right: My Latest in the Orlando Sentinel

Aramis Did It Right: My Latest in the Orlando Sentinel

The video of State Attorney Aramis Ayala being stopped by police has gone viral.
This shouldn’t be surprising: Ayala is the first African-American state attorney in Florida, and she is experiencing heightened scrutiny for her stance on the death penalty. Ayala is currently in a legal battle with Florida’s governor who, after she made her stance public, reassigned close to two dozen of her death-penalty-eligible homicide cases to another state attorney.

Read the rest here

Where Are the True Monuments to Independence?

Where Are the True Monuments to Independence?

MLK Jr DC Memorial

As we reflect on the meaning of Independence Day, I can’t help but shake the feeling that true independence is not reflected in the landscape of America. As we think about the struggle to remove Confederate monuments throughout the South, and the backlash  that has been received, we are reminded of the importance of history (whether it is truthful or revised). The mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, gave an impassioned  speech  as to why the Confederate monuments needed to come down.

The historic record is clear: the Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal — through monuments and through other means — to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity. First erected over 166 years after the founding of our city and 19 years after the end of the Civil War, the monuments that we took down were meant to rebrand the history of our city and the ideals of a defeated Confederacy.

It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America, They fought against it. They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots.

These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.

And let’s not even touch the fact that the Confederacy was a bunch of traitors; they separated from the United States over slavery and the economic windfall they received from subjugating human beings. Every time a Confederate flag flies, it is not a sign of rebellion; it’s the sign of a traitor.

Sure the South came back. But the Confederacy is like a spouse who cheated. The couple may work out their differences, but it doesn’t erase the betrayal. 

What made me start to think about this topic was a thread on Twitter by an activist of color named Samuel Sinyangwe. He had gone to Barbados for the first time and saw a monument named Bussa (aka the Emancipation Statue). It’s a beautiful, impressive and important statue celebrating a slave who led the largest rebellion against slavery  in Barbados back in 1816. It is prominently featured in the center of the city. He is considered a national hero. Samuel mentioned he had never seen anything like that before, and certainly not in the United States. As a result of this comment, folks from around the Caribbean (including Cuba) shared their country’s monuments to the brave slaves who fought for independence. See the photos here

Bussa
Bussa, aka the Emancipation Statue in Barbados.

So if Confederate history is so important that the fight to keep their monuments stretches all the way to the halls of Congress, why aren’t there monuments to the great slaves who fought for their independence, their freedom, and their humanity? What about a beautiful bust of Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner or Sojourner Truth? Or how about this — for every Confederate statue, build a monument to a hero of the Civil War (both soldier and slave)?

We do have a statute of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington, D.C. While that is all well and good, that pales in comparison to the many who gave their lives very early in the struggle, paving the way for Dr. King to also give his life for independence and equality. 

What does this fight tell our children? What does this debate tell people of color?

I leave you with this thought on Independence Day. Independence Day to me represents opportunity. It represents the chance to keep fighting, to keep pushing for equality. But I also use it as a day of reflection — looking at how far we’ve come, but how far we yet have to go.

Symbolism is everything.  

emancipation park in JA
Emancipation Park in Jamaica
New In HuffPo: My New Normal Post Philando Castile

New In HuffPo: My New Normal Post Philando Castile

police car

Yesterday, I was pulled over.

The reason given was that my license plate cover was too dark. I never thought it was, nor had I been warned for this previously.

In the past, I had my prosecutor’s badge to protect me — not anymore.

I’m the number two in the state for the most powerful civil liberties organization – the ACLU.

And I felt fear.

 

I placed my hands over the steering wheel, in full view of the officer. When he asked for my registration, I made sure to move slowly, with my hands continuously in full view.

 

He commented on my sports car, and my President Obama pin hanging from my rear view mirror. He also commented on my novelty license plate. My plate can be construed in several ways — commonly it is thought to support Black Lives Matter. In truth, the plate is a combination of mine and my husband’s initials. I don’t correct people, because I support intelligent policing. I always liked the double entendre.

 

Read the rest in the Huffington Post here.

My Hair is Not a Threat

My Hair is Not a Threat


Last week, when I was coming back from the ACLU staff conference in Phoenix, I had another disturbing encounter with TSA regarding my hair. For those of you that have seen my social media posts or know me, you know that I am on the road constantly. I’m steady racking up those frequent flyer miles. So it was a little surprising to me when I was randomly selected for a search. I went through the machine, joking with the TSA agent as to why I never get randomly selected to get $20 million. He responded “I’d even take $10,000”. We chuckled and I continued through the machine. A different agent told me I needed to wait for a female scanner to pat me down. I waited patiently. 

And waited. And waited. Luckily, I was very early for my flight (which is not always like me). 

The female agent came, and as usual, I raised my arms for her to pat me down. I then lifted up my hair so that she could see there was nothing underneath my hair. And she said “oh, that’s what set it off… your beautiful long hair. You’re free to go.”

Back in 2011, TSA was under fire for racially profiling women of color.  I have gone through security many times;  anytime I was pulled out of the line it was to do an inspection of my hair.

My hair is not a threat. I’m waiting to hear one story of a woman of color who smuggled a weapon in her hair. 

All that comes to mind is the clip from the original blaxploitation movie from 1974 Foxy Brown, where the amazing Pam Grier in the lead role concealed a gun in her Afro to avenge her man’s killer. 


But that is never happened in real life or at airport as far as I have been able to tell.

 I know that we have made so many high tech advances; how come agents can’t scan  and see that there’s no metal or weapon in my hair? I just find it more than a little annoying that my hair is perceived as a threat. Don’t get me wrong, I am all about safety and security. But there also needs to be a reasonable basis for a search, not just having different hair to perceived norms. If there has been no precedent for it, then what’s the issue?

At this juncture, I am not going to file a complaint. I’m more annoyed than aggrieved. But I will start documenting this issue to see if there is a pattern (area of the country, time of day, etc). So my fellow ladies with locs, we’re going to be have to be vigilant on this issue. Because profiling is never ok. 

Please check out information from the ACLU about your rights at the airport. 

Has anyone else experienced or witnessed this? Please share! 

HuffPo: 1st African American Head Prosecutor in Florida Wrongfully Removed

HuffPo: 1st African American Head Prosecutor in Florida Wrongfully Removed

aramis-ayala-1

 

Yesterday, Florida Governor Rick Scott overstepped his boundaries by removing Florida 9th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Aramis Ayala from handling the Markeith Loyd murder case for her refusal to seek the death penalty. The defendant has been charged with the Orlando murders of his pregnant ex-girlfriend Sade Dixon, and Orlando Police Lieutenant Debra Clayton.

State Attorney Ayala explained her decision, stating that she was no longer seeking the death penalty in any of her cases, because “Florida’s death penalty has been the cause of considerable legal chaos, uncertainty and turmoil.” She further said capital punishment often leads to years of appeals and other court hearings, and that it costs more than a life sentence. Florida law gives every state attorney the discretion on whether or not to seek the death penalty.

Ms. Ayala holds the distinction of being the first African American state attorney in the state of Florida. Elected in November 2016, she assumed office at the beginning of this year. In her short time in office, she now also holds the distinction of being the only prosecutor removed in this fashion by this governor.

 

Read more here

Diversity Discussions: The Role of Prosecutors of Color

Diversity Discussions: The Role of Prosecutors of Color

20140217-103800.jpg

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.”

Read more here.