Tag: justice

Betrayed By the Bench?

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Photo credit: ONEWORD VIA GETTY IMAGES

This morning, it was reported that Judge Stephen Millan used racial slurs as a judge.

It’s a tough pill for me to swallow.

He is someone I knew well — I practiced against him when he was a defense attorney, and before him when he became a judge. I never had an inkling of any racial animus in the way he referred to his clients or those before him.

But, there you have it — an “unnamed attorney” reported the comments two years later.

You read that right — two full years.

If you are a defense attorney, charged with protecting the interests of your clients (who, due to many systemic reasons are overwhelming black and brown), why do you sit on that information for two years?

How does one let a judge who is purportedly racist sit on the bench for two years — presiding over cases, and the fate of other black and brown people when you allegedly know the person is racist?

To give some context, judges in Miami-Dade County easily hear hundreds of cases a week. So for 104 weeks, someone who purportedly held racist views was able to affect the lives of many defendants.

It was said that the attorney feared “repercussions” — what about the repercussions to the affected persons whose life and liberty hung in the balance?

This, to me, says one of two things: either 1) the attorney did not view the conduct as that egregious; or 2) there is an ulterior motive.

This is yet another reason why diversity in the legal field is so critical.  When there are more defense attorneys, prosecutors and judges of color, we will have less instances like these.

It’s not a cure, but it’s a start.

If you are not a person of color, and want to be an ally in the struggle for racial equality, here are a few tips.

  1. Don’t condone racial slurs.  If it’s said around you, give a full-throated repudiation those statements.  Folks continue to speak that way if they think it’s ok and can get away with it.
  2. Provide evidence to help the struggle.  Take a page out of Deborah Baker-Egozi’s book, where she bravely filmed an officer using excessive force on a man of color, and offered the man legal representation.
  3. Use your voice and privilege to help the struggle. Shine a light on these issues, and raise awareness in circles that people of color do not have access to.
  4. Be aware of your own biases, and work on them.  Take the Harvard implicit association test, which helps show where your biases lie.  Once you know, work on it.  Pause before you make decisions — are you making a decision based on assumptions, stereotypes or pure hard facts?
  5. Engage with people who do not look like you. Let’s be clear — having a “black friend at work” doesn’t cut it.  You need to go to events, places of worship, and do things on your downtime that are outside of your comfort zone.  It has to be a choice for one to say s/he is fully engaged.

In this instance, I blame the judge for his comments, and the attorney for staying silent for so long.

Both are different sides of the same coin.

 

Sitting idly by as injustices occur is not the definition of being an ally.

It’s being part of the problem.

 

#TBT: Lessons from Dr.King

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.

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Please see my thoughts here.

As always, I welcome your feedback and thoughts!

M.

Diversity Discussions….

20140519-151326-54806927.jpgBack in November, I had the honor and the privilege of speaking as President of the National Black Prosecutors Association on a roundtable at Harvard Law. Fellow participants included head prosecutors from around the country, and forward thinkers in the criminal justice world, led by the Vera Institute.  We discussed issues of racial disparity in sentencing, ways to ensure that everyone gets the same treatment for the same types of crimes/criminal history, and other ways to make our system better.  See my interview here on diversity and unconscious bias in the criminal justice system.

Knowledge Trumps Racism Part III: Why Violence is NOT the Answer!

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Over the weekend, two police officers from the New York  Police Department, Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, were gunned down in their police cars at close range and lost their lives. The lone gunman had posted pictures on social media before and after the murder, and had made statements that this was in retribution for the recent police involved deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown.

The backlash has been instant and fierce. Social media has been on fire, as well as mainstream media. The “us versus them” mentality has gone into full effect. I have seen statements from both sides that have been completely horrific. I have seen statements from police officers which basically amount to “it’s all out war on African-Americans” (and not put so politically correctly); I have also seen statement from African-Americans basically saying that those police officers deserve to die, or that somehow, their lives are less valuable as a result of the actions of the police officers that were involved in the recent high profile deaths of African-Americans.

Here is the danger in this thinking. We have now gotten to a point where we are in a standoff in our thought process. And from that standpoint, there can be no winners. There is no middle ground. The only way we can have progress is to find a middle ground.

At the end of the day, what do we really want? All of us, as a nation?

We want police working with the community; we want an end to senseless deaths in all forms; we want peace in our streets.

We want life to go back to normal where everyone can go to work and go about our business without looking over our shoulders, whether you are a police officer or a civilian.

By getting so entrenched in our positions and making statements that are so offensive to either side, we can never reach a point of compromise.

Because here’s the reality — unless we are willing to quit our jobs and do the job ourselves, we need the police to keep us safe.  And if we cast the police out, the police department ceases to exist.  So, we need each other, and MUST find a way to work together.

Let’s address violence as a solution.

Looking back in American history, violence has not been the route to success. During the civil rights movement, there was a debate as to whether  or not African-Americans should follow the early, more militant path of Malcolm X , noted for his quote of “by any means necessary”, or follow the nonviolent path of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  The path of Malcolm X seemed to be more energetic, and the quickest way to get results. Dr. Martin Luther King’s path was painful. There were more deaths and was a slower path to success.

However history told the final story. And in the end, it was Dr. Martin Luther King’s way that proved most effective. Malcolm X eventually converted to Dr. King’s way of thinking. I recently watched a special on PBS entitled “Many Rivers to Cross“. It was a very poignant series which covered the many decades of African-Americans in the United States. It discussed the history of the civil rights movement.

It also talked about Bloody Sunday.

When Dr. Martin Luther King led the march in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965, he and the other marchers were confronted by police officers who brutally attacked them while they were protesting peacefully. The media documented this atrocity. As a result, the civil rights movement received many more supporters of all races, including leaders from the Jewish faith, from the Catholic faith (there were nuns in full habits marching with the civil rights movement!) and the movement towards voting rights gained more momentum. Alabama was exposed as a hotbed of intolerance. This incident was one of the catalysts of the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The moments before...Selma, Alabama, March 7, 1965
The moments before…Selma, Alabama, March 7, 1965

Selma is an example of how the nonviolent path is so effective.  If the marchers had been violent, they would not have gotten the support from such a wide base, and the resulting laws would not have been enacted.

After the video of the death of Eric Garner was released, if you look at the protests that resulted, you would’ve noticed that there was a wide range of protesters from all races in the crowd. Many people were very disturbed by the tactics used in the video. No matter what your stand on the grand jury findings, this was an opportunity to discuss policing in the 21st century, and to explore whether or not current methods were working or needed to be changed.  The act of this lone crazy gunman threatens the positive dialogue that was being started.

So where from here?

This is the perfect time to show decency. Let the New York Police Department grieve, and support them in this time of sorrow. No family deserves this. This was a horrible act and no one should sanction it. And if your argument is “they wouldn’t do that for us“, I say, hold yourself to a higher standard! If you do, then you inherently challenge others to either do the same, or expose them for who they are. You’d be surprised at the results. I find once you elevate, people elevate with you.

We cannot hold an entire police force accountable for the acts of a few. The majority of police officers that I have met in my career are good decent folks who want to do their job and get home to their families.  The same applies to African Americans — the majority are law abiding citizens who want a good life for themselves and their families, and want to see justice in the world. Neither side should be painted with the same negative brush.

Change is a tough thing. We want it, but it comes at a cost. Change does not need to come at the cost of human life. We are a civilized country, and we hold ourselves out as such to the international community. Death can cause us to realize change is needed; but if we start to condone violent acts against each other, then we are no better then the foreign countries that we criticize. We need to distance ourselves from those who promote violence, and we need to stand tall and claim our human dignity. There is a time to grieve, and there’s a time to act. Declining to protest for several days until the funerals are over will not harm the movement. It would actually gain the respect of many people and would bring a conciliatory tone to the issues at hand. It would also highlight our strength and decency as a people.

I will end with a quote I will be using a lot in the coming days from Dr. Martin Luther King: “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools”.20140202-120430.jpg

Knowledge Trumps Racism, Part II

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New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio came under fire for regarding comments he made regarding what he has told his son about how to interact with law enforcement.

Mayor De Blasio, who is married to an African American woman and has a biracial son, stated in a recent interview:

“It’s different for a white child. That’s just the reality in this country,” de Blasio went on. “And with Dante, very early on with my son, we said, look, if a police officer stops you, do everything he tells you to do, don’t move suddenly, don’t reach for your cell phone, because we knew, sadly, there’s a greater chance it might be misinterpreted if it was a young man of color.”

The head of the New York City Police Union was infuriated, and stated that the Mayor “threw cops under the bus” and was not helping race relations.

Here’s the deal.

Mayor De Blasio a white man, and a parent, is speaking his truth.

He’s speaking of the discussion that thousands of African American parents have with their sons across the country on a daily basis.

He’s a responsible parent, making sure his child knows how to act appropriately in a police encounter. Be polite, don’t make any sudden movements, don’t do anything to escalate the situation.

He’s also being practical! As angry as Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch may be, does he really want people making sudden movements in police encounters, creating situations where officers will have to draw their weapons?

I should hope not!

Mayor De Blasio’s statement is actually helping race relations…because when African Americans make similar statements, it can be viewed as an overreaction. “Their kids must be doing something bad.” “They’re just paranoid”

But the Mayor says it…this draws attention to the fact that this is a real issue.

So before dismissing his comments, listen.

Knowledge trumps racism.

Understand what the other side is saying. Mayor De Blasio is speaking his truth. So speak yours and let’s have a productive dialogue on how to move policing forward as opposed to “us” vs “them”.

Not all kids of color are bad; not all police officers are bad.  If we start from that premise, we may actually get somewhere!

See my list of my practical tips on interacting with law enforcement here.

Feel free to weigh in!

M.