This past winter, Natasha McKenna of Virginia was killed at the hands of correctional and police officers in a Fairfax County jail. In the spring, Mya Hall, a transgender Black woman, was gunned down by Baltimore police shortly before the killing of Freddie Gray, and the off-duty police officer who shot and killed Rekia Boyd was cleared of all charges. This summer marks the one–year anniversaries of the slaying of Eric Garner and Michael Brown in the streets of New York City and Ferguson, Missouri, respectively.  Moreover, this coming fall Akai Gurley’s family, friends, and community will mourn the anniversary of his killing in the stairwell of his East New York, Brooklyn apartment building.  Unfortunately, these annual cycles of killings and brutality by law enforcement against Black people is nothing new. In recent memory we can easily recall the names of Oscar Grant, Kathryn Johnston, Sean Bell, Aiyanna Stanely-Jones and countless others whose lives have abruptly ended at the hands of the police.   

Almost 49 years to the day of Mike Brown’s killing, Marquette Frye and his mother were assaulted by police in Watts, Los Angeles, setting off a wave of rebellion against police abuse across Black America.  That rebellion, which culminated in the Long Hot Summer of 1967, mirrors the wave of protests, actions and civil disobedience seen all around the country this past year.

The Black Lives Matter Movement of today, and the Black Liberation Movement of yesterday, both arose in direct opposition to law enforcement’s continued use of unjustified and brutal force against Black communities and the all-out assault on black and brown people that has existed in a long unbroken chain from enslavement, to Jim Crow, to racial profiling and mass incarceration. Though the death of individuals have often been the spark to the powder keg, our communities have consistently demanded an end to the structural racism and layered oppression that exists in our school houses, our court houses, our streets, and all aspects of our society.

#Law4BlackLives is committed to the liberation and self-determination of all Black people. In particular, we support the growing Movement for Black Lives that has grown out of the resistance movements of Baltimore and Ferguson.

We know that Legal advocates didn’t start this movement and that we will not direct it.  We also understand that our role requires partnerships with movement activists and organizers—and thus, political lawyering.  It is through these partnerships that our work is and will be motivated and molded.  Partnerships of this sort is not at all unprecedented.  It was in 1968 with this very intent that the National Conference of Black Lawyers set out to protect the rights of those participating in the Black Liberation Movement and refused to sit idly “while the iron fist of the government came down hard” [1] on the bravest of the Black community.

We believe that all members of the community deserve to have their human rights respected, and we hold ourselves accountable to support all parts of the current movement for Black lives, including organic uprisings.  Our work backs the needs of activists and organizers, from getting and keeping them out of jail, to supporting the writing and implementation of policies to fuel systemic change at the local and national levels.  Building economic power and defending Black worker movements, as well as creating healthy workplaces and amplifying the struggles and concerns of women and LGBTQ people, take just as much precedence at this forum as the killings and mass incarceration of Black people in this country.

Legal advocates have a role in this movement. We can use our unique skill sets to articulate the message of the movement in legally significant ways. We must put our expertise at the service of activists in particular and the movement in general.  Furthermore, we must help facilitate a movement that acknowledges anti-black racism as a deeply entrenched social and systemic evil, which impacts Black people, and people of color in general, on a global scale.

In our hands we have a blowtorch.  A tool that, when used adeptly, can help shape, mold, and build the most durable of materials. However, if not careful, that same tool can just as easily be used to destroy.  We must be creative in using the law to the advantage of the movement when we can, and protecting the movement from the law in other circumstances.  We are embarking on a mission to use the law in unintended ways, for we well know that it was never intended to advantage the poor, the exploited, the marginalized, and the Black.

This is why we are here.  To build, provoke, encourage, empower, inspire, laugh, heal and most importantly challenge each other to do our part in this moment – in this movement.  We are proud to be with you today.  We are humbled and appreciative of your presence.  We look forward to the battles to come; both the losses that demand our patience and creativity, and the victories that validate our efforts.

Dare to struggle, dare to win!

Straight ahead,

Law4BlackLives Planning Committee

You can read more about the Law4Black Lives Conference here and meet the members of the Law4Black Lives Planning Committee here.