My Unlikely Decade of Transitions: Prosecutor – Writer – Activist – Beyond?

Greetings Fam,

Wow, today is the end of an era.

For me, the last ten years have been a period of major growth. In the last decade:

I met and married my soulmate…

The Cowboy & I at the 2017 Indianapolis 500

I found my voice, stride, confidence and purpose. It took a few setbacks and closed doors to realize what direction I should go; but all of the disappointments came together to lead me to this place.

Speaking on South African television in 2019 on gender based violence

I became President of the National Black Prosecutors Association which exposed me to real criminal justice reform work – from sitting in the houses in our community to sitting in the (Obama) White House. I saw the injustices that got perpetuated not necessarily from ill intent, but from not knowing any better (myself included).

I made the big leap of leaving a comfortable sixteen year position as a prosecutor to becoming Deputy Director of the ACLU of Florida. My viewpoints on life were vastly broadened — from learning about the struggles of the transgender community to deepening my work on criminal justice reform and its intersection with voting rights.

I traveled to the Motherland. This year I had life changing trip to South Africa, where I walked in the path of the late great freedom fighter/leader Nelson Mandela. During that time, not only did I see the roots of what would become an international resistance movement, I was able to advocate for the safety of women on an international scale.

South Africa 2019

I survived heartbreak and heartache of losing my mom; but also learned to jealously guard my mental health.  Life will throw things at you that you believe you can never overcome. There will be days you can’t get out of bed. But day by day, step by step, it gets better. Be patient, and seek help from a professional if you need it.

Losing her also taught me to be fearless. Life is short; “sit and wait your turn” means you may never get a shot. Seize the day, make your own path and opportunity. Because you may look up and realize that you have less time than you planned on, and what then? Sit in regret? Nope, not me!

My mother and I at on my wedding day in 2012. RIP Mama P.

As we begin the dawn of a new decade, let’s take one final trip down memory lane on the Resident Legal Diva.  It’s been such a blessing to be able to write, and share my thoughts with a wider audience. I admit I did not post as much as in previous years — lots going on — but thank you for the love that was received for my writing this year!! Here’s what you read the most from me:

5. Legal Divas of Color: Jewel Lafontant – Mankarious

Every Black History Month, I feature female trailblazers of color in the field of law upon whose example I built upon.  Jewel Lafontant – Mankarious made history as a trailblazer in the field of prosecution.

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

This is a piece that continues to resonate with so many professionals of color. It started with an argument on Twitter (yes, this is definitely something to be left in the last decade) where a fellow attorney tried to explain to me that I should not be offended. At the end of the day, folks need to accept the following: if someone tells you xyz is offensive, don’t double down and keep doing it.  Just..stop.

3. Jay Z Was Right: We Need to Gentrify Our Hood

Jay Z received backlash over a few things in 2019; this one I don’t believe was justified at all.  As we look at economic equality and gentrification, people of color are always on the receiving end of the push out, and never on the benefits.  When gentrification arrives, it’s people of color who have to move further away from their jobs or conveniences we take for granted. Companies expand into newly gentrified neighborhoods, but it does not provide the jobs and economic advancement for the people who originally lived there.  So now what? More incentives should be provided so that people do not have to leave their neighborhoods. And, as people of color get more means, we need to buy up the block so that no one else does. We have to empower our own neighborhoods — as well as protect our history.

2. Kim Foxx Was Not Wrong: The Lonely Road of a Prosecutor of Color

The Jussie Smollett case garnered a great deal of attention on the role of a prosecutor — and how discretion should be used.  I analyzed the case in the context of having done this work. Was everything handled perfectly? No, nothing ever is.  But the backlash was excessive, and rooted in racism.

And the #1 post on RLD for 2019 is:

Legal Divas of Color: Cheryl Mills!

Cheryl Mills is known for her defense of President Bill Clinton during his impeachment hearing. She is the first African American to address the United States Senate in her capacity as Associate Counsel for the President.

Clearly my readers love the posts on history, and I will endeavor to share more in the coming year!

More challenges lie ahead in the next few years, but I am excited to be able to continue serving the greater good and putting my criminal justice expertise to work.

Wishing you an amazing New Year and new decade. Thank you for reading, your comments and your support. May you find prosperity, happiness, and grow in your purpose!!

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