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!!!

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! 

“You’re so articulate” is not a Compliment to a Woman of Color

“You’re so articulate” is not a Compliment to a Woman of Color

As I watched the #BlackWomenAtWork trend on Twitter, I was given life and inspiration. African-American women from all over the country, and arguably women of color all over the world, shared examples of times that they were belittled, insulted, or otherwise demeaned for being who they are. This hashtag was in response to Representative Maxine Waters being insulted by Fox news host Bill O’Reilly as well as Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s degrading treatment of correspondent April Ryan at a White House press briefing. Both are women of color, well accomplished in their fields. 

I shared my experiences on Twitter– which were previously shared on this blog (see here) — under this hashtag,

A conservative female attorney I am acquainted with responded to my thread, saying “well, maybe it was just a compliment; you really are articulate“. Her statement is symptomatic of the deeper problem of when something is brought to the attention of some in the mainstream, often folks feel the need to dismiss it, refusing to look at the deeper issue. In my response, I encouraged her to read through the hashtag, and understand the context in which this was being shared. I noted that one of her followers indicated “Some people have a chip on their shoulder and can’t accept a compliment“.

Here’s the deal. As the saying goes, don’t urinate on me and tell me it’s raining. Human beings are intelligent enough to know when they are being complimented, and when they’re being insulted. You will never see one white attorney compliment another white attorney and say “wow, you are so articulate”. That comment is rooted in a stereotype and surprise. The stereotype is that African-Americans are uneducated, live in the hood, and cannot form complete sentences. Mainstream media and BET have not helped that cause. And certainly the demise of the Cosby show didn’t help in that either. But be that as it may, that is the stereotype. The surprise comes in “oh wow you’ve beat the odds to actually be able to speak in full sentences“. That is not a compliment. A compliment would be “wow I really liked your presentation” or even “you really articulated that point very well“. But to tell a professional woman or man of color that they are articulate is at best a backhanded compliment. Wow, people that look like you never sound that way.  It assumes of course as all stereotypes do, that you were poor, in the hood, and was never going to have a chance to succeed. That is simply not the case. If a similarly situated White person rose from poverty and made it, nobody turns to them and says oh you’re so articulate. They actually assume that the individual came from a privileged background.

The entire context of the hashtag represents the assumptions and stereotypes that are made of women of color in the workforce. Here are a couple I found telling:

These assumptions and stereotypes can be based in racism, but others can be based in implicit bias. It is the unconscious bias that one may have towards a group of people. We all have a biases; it is how we act is a different story. The key is to be aware and if someone says “this is offensive to me” don’t tell them that they have no right to be offended. You learn from the experience, and move forward as a better person. I expect someone to correct me if I did something offensive, endeavoring never to repeat that mistake again. But it is the tone deafness, or simply the lack of care for your fellow person, that makes these hashtags necessary.

At times, I wonder if it serves more of a supportive dialogue  within races rather than a dialogue between races. Only time will tell.

I would also like to take you back to some articles that highlight this issue that I’ve written in the past. Both have to do with judges of color in different parts of the country, and the bias they encountered on the street. Take a look: A Teaching Moment About Racism: The Judge and the Candidate and Racism: In Case You Weren’t Sure — Judge Attacked in Chicago

It is said never to judge a book by its cover. Everyone would be served well to follow that mantra.

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Diva on the Channel 10 — the Sequel

Diva on the Channel 10 — the Sequel


Hi RLD family,

Last Sunday, I had the honor of returning to Channel 10 news Roundtable, “This Week in South Florida”. It was an outstanding time. We got really deep in the debate as to whether or not Governor Scott was wrong to remove State Attorney Aramis Ayala from the Markeith Loyd case for her stance on the death penalty; the fact that no charges were filed in the death of Darren Rainey [the inmate who was boiled to death by prison guards], and lastly, the ongoing debate on healthcare. It definitely got heated at times but it was a healthy debate on the issues. In case you missed it, check out the link here and share your thoughts! The Roundtable begins at 26 minutes. 

ICYMI: The Diva on Channel 10 Roundtable! 

ICYMI: The Diva on Channel 10 Roundtable! 

Hi RLD Family,

I was really excited and honored to be a part of WPLG South Florida Channel 10 Roundtable this past Sunday.  On “This Week in South Florida”, my fellow panelists and I debated the topics of the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, as well as immigration. I had a great time, and will be on again next Sunday.

As the segment ended, we started to talk about the false narrative that immigrants commit more crimes then United States citizens. That is patently untrue; I saw this in the courtroom when I was a prosecutor. A recent study published in the New York Times said what I already knew – – immigrants commit crime at half the rate of natural born citizens. Please see the link to that article here

Check out the fireworks on the show here.

Feel free to share your thoughts!
M. 

#TBT: Grief During the Holidays

#TBT: Grief During the Holidays

holidays

Hi RLD Family,

I know some of you have lost loved ones this year as I have.  It is tough going through the holidays — you are joyful on one hand, because the year has come to an end and you get to spend time with those you love. On the other hand, there is always an empty seat at the table as well as in your heart.  Here is a piece I wrote on surviving the holidays when grieving — I hope this helps you get through it. 

Hugs!

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Tips for Grieving

  • Take it day by day, minute by minute. Don’t think beyond today. It’s easier that way.
  • It’s a rollercoaster. You will feel a ton of emotions – anger one minute, crying the next, laughing for a moment. It’s totally normal although it feels weird. You’re working through all those memories and emotions at the same time, and that’s how it manifests itself. Take it one step at a time, and allow yourself to feel whatever it is you are feeling without judgment.

Read the other tips here.

Diva Talks: Implicit Bias on Delta Airlines

Diva Talks: Implicit Bias on Delta Airlines

Hi! Please see my comments on the incident on Delta Airlines where flight attendants initially refused to allow a doctor to attend to a passenger in distress due to preconceived notions.

See the original story  in the words of Dr. Tamika Cross.

Since the filming of this video, another incident  came to light with on a different Delta flight with an African American female doctor.

Learn more about implicit bias in a podcast featuring Professor David Harris from the University of Pittsburgh

Take the Harvard Implicit Association test (it’s really quick and the outcome will surprise you)

See the Implicit Bias toolkit  for criminal justice practitioners designed by the American Bar Association (ABA).

Please weigh in using the comments section below!

M.

Diversity Discussions: The Role of Prosecutors of Color

Diversity Discussions: The Role of Prosecutors of Color

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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.

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Diva Talks: Perception is Reality

My latest vlog post on the recent police shootings, and the continuing controversy surrounding Colin Kaepernick’s protest of the National Anthem. References to the incidents I discuss in this vlog are below; please leave your comments!

References:

Video of Terence Crutcher shooting in Tulsa, Oklahoma

Protests of officer involved shooting of Keith Lamont Scott leading to state of emergency in Charlotte, North Carolina

Young African American boy Tyre King shot by police in Columbus, Ohio

Huffington Post article with stats on the number of police involved shootings since Colin Kaepernick began protesting (15 African American men in one month).

Father of terrorist flagged him to the FBI.

The coming together of police and Black Lives Matter in Wichita, Kansas