New on The Root: You Can Be Pro-Black and a Prosecutor

New on The Root: You Can Be Pro-Black and a Prosecutor

Hi RLD Family,

Please see my first piece on theRoot.com.  I tackle the issue if whether or not Senator Kamala Harris’ time as a prosecutor should take her out of the race for president.  I also share my perspective as a former prosecutor of color.

The piece caused quite a stir on Twitter and in the comments section of the Root.

To be clear, I am adopting a wait and see approach — with an open mind and proceeding with caution, as with anyone who wants to sit in the Oval Office.  It seems like some politicians are allowed a “complicated” past while others are faced with a high level scrutiny. I think people are allowed (and should!) evolve and grow around issues of policy. Let’s see what the next year brings!

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Senator Kamala Harris. Photo credit: Chip Somodivella/Getty Images

Since announcing her intention to run for president this past Martin Luther King Day, a firestorm has swirled around Sen. Kamala Harris. Some attack her for her personal life; others attack her based on her record as a prosecutor in California. Kamala served as San Francisco district attorney from 2004 to 2011 and as California attorney general from 2011 to 2017. She joined the United States Senate in 2017, where she still serves today.

Some accuse her of not being “pro-black” because of her work as a prosecutor, stating that a prosecutor upholds a racist system.

Let’s get thing straight—you can be pro-black and a prosecutor.

How do I know this?

Because I was both.

Read the rest on theRoot.com here.

Top 5 Stories of 2018 on RLD!

Top 5 Stories of 2018 on RLD!

Whelp, another year is in the books.  2018 brought some interesting highlights — many of us were full on #WakandaForever in honor of the movie Black Panther; we dissected Danny Glover’s masterful video for the song This is America; and millions of activists found their voices as a result of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, as well as due to the current presidential administration.  We lost Anthony Bourdain and Aretha Franklin. We joyfully welcomed a new Duchess of Sussex in Meghan Markle during a glorious royal wedding.

In my life, 2018 was a year of growth.  I became President of the Gwen S. Cherry Black Women Lawyers Association, found my stride as Deputy Director of the ACLU of Florida,  and was recognized by the American Bar Association for having one of the best Legal twitter accounts and for being one of the eight most inspiring members for 2018.

I didn’t get to write as much as I wanted to — but you, my RLD Family, hung in there with me! For this, I thank you.

Here are the top 5 pieces that you loved:

5. Missing the Little Things on Mother’s Day

Every year, I write as a form of therapy to cope with the untimely passing of my mother from cancer.  It’s a way to honor her, as well as to take my mind off of the pain.  It’s been six years — the grief is better than it was, but I know I will never be the same.  Over time, I’ve come to accept this new normal.  Not everyone is blessed to have had a great relationship with their mother — so I count myself lucky.

4. “You’re So Articulate” Is Not a Compliment to a Woman of Color

This article came out of the #BlackWomenAtWork Twitter hashtag from last year.  Women of color were discussing various microaggressions we face in the workplace, often from folks who seem so “surprised” by our presence, or for defying the stereotypes they have of us.  I shared an experience I had, and a conservative commentator decided to weigh in without completely understanding the context (or frankly, even trying to understand).  So, a tutorial ensued. The fact that it has been so highly read for two years in a row shows that the issue is one that is not going away any time soon.

3. The Flawed Concept of “But You Have Nothing To Be Depressed About!”

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Anthony Bourdain shooting ‘Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown’ on location in Salvador, Brazil on January 9, 2014.

In June of this year, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain passed away as a result of suicide.  It hit me hard — not only because I was a huge fan of his shows, not because we were in France at the same time — but because many people still struggle to understand mental health.  There are so many misconceptions tied to money, material things, and outward appearances — as to who should or can be depressed.  Money gives you access to better care, but it does not insulate you from the crippling effects of depression.  There is no shame in admitting you need help.  There were dark periods in my life where a good therapist helped me get back on track. Getting help is a sign of strength, not weakness.  May he rest in peace.

2. Toxic Tribalism: Why Diverse Judges Are Needed More Than Ever

Former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to 175 years this past January for molesting the athletes in his care over a span of 30 years.  Instead of the focus being on his heinous actions and betrayal of young athletes who were serving our country through sport, the attention shifted to Judge Rosemarie Acquilina for comments she made during sentencing. It was, what has sadly, become a pattern of the “boys need to stick together” mentality, even when one of the boys was dead wrong.  In this piece I analyzed her actions and the context. Little did we know that there was more to come in the form of continued #MeToo revelations, and a contentious Supreme Court confirmation hearing.  These occurrences are a constant reminder of the need for diversity at all levels of the criminal justice system, to ensure that everyone gets a voice — regardless of gender, money, power or privilege.

And the #1 story of 2018 is…

  1. Betrayed By The Bench?

A judge in Miami Dade County, who many of us knew for many years, lost his seat due to his use of racial slurs at work.  Many folks who are not of color wonder how to be an ally.  I laid out a few — but the key is not to remain silent.  Record everything, and don’t let racist instances slide.  The lives of many hang in the balance.

There you have it! Were there other pieces that you liked from this year? Anything you’d like to see me write about next year? Sound off in the comments!

Wishing you and yours a happy, safe and prosperous New Year.  See you on the flip side!

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For People of Color in Jacksonville FL, Walking Can Be a Crime

For People of Color in Jacksonville FL, Walking Can Be a Crime

Hi RLD Family, 

See my first piece for the ACLU Blog!

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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.

 

“My Life as a Black Prosecutor” via Marshall Project/Vice.com

“My Life as a Black Prosecutor” via Marshall Project/Vice.com

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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 more critical 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.

I accepted and never looked back.

Read the rest here.

 

The Lost War on Drugs: What Next?

The Lost War on Drugs: What Next?

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Newsflash: we have lost the war on drugs.

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.

Why?

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.

As always, please share your thoughts!

M.