Cyntoia Brown, who garnered the support of many celebrities as well as grassroots activists, is now back home. She was serving a life sentence for a murder she committed in self-defense as a teen. Cyntoia was a victim of sex trafficking, but was not treated as such by the criminal legal system. But once the fanfare dies down, where is the support to help her and other folks coming home from prison? This type of re-entry support is critical to help prevent recidivism (returning to jail for new crimes).
See my thoughts on the issue in theRoot.com. I was also interviewed by Buzzfeed – see the video here.
Every February, in honor of Black History Month, I feature a series called “Legal Divas of Color“. These are African-American female attorneys who blazed the trail on which I am honored to follow, as well as acknowledging those who are doing big things today. Feel free to browse past features and share your comments!
This year’s first Legal Diva of Color is Jewel Lafontant- Mankarious.
Ms. Lafontant- Mankarious was born April 22, 1928 in Chicago, IL. It was as if her path was predetermined; her father Francis Stafford was an attorney who practiced before the United States Supreme Court, and was a co-founder of the National Bar Association, which is a voluntary bar association for African-Americans. In 1946, Ms. Lafontant- Mankarious became the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Chicago Law School.
In the early years of her practice, she partnered with her husband in a family law firm, and also worked at the Chicago Legal Aid Society. However her work did not go unnoticed. She made history again when she was appointed as an Assistant US Attorney in the Northern District of Illinois by President Eisenhower in 1955 — the first African American in that office. She held that post until 1958, when she returned to private practice. 1963 brought Ms. Lafontant- Mankarious another historic moment — being the first African American woman to argue a case before the US Supreme Court. The case she argued set the groundwork for Miranda vs. Arizona (the case we get our Miranda rights from). President Nixon tapped her talents to be the first female and the first African American Deputy Solicitor General in 1973, a post she held until 1975. While she returned to private practice, her public service continued under President Bush, serving as Ambassador at large and US coordinator for refugee affairs from 1989-1993. She practiced law until her death from breast cancer in 1997. Hear an interview with her here.
Thank you Jewel Lafontant- Mankarious for being a Legal Diva of Color, blazing the trail for African American prosecutors on both the state and federal level!
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 onlyway 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.
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 notneed 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”.