When Events Make Us Feel Helpless, We Must Remember We Are Anything But…
A post came across the Gideon’s Promise listserve from one of our trainers expressing outrage, and renewed commitment to fighting for justice, in the wake of the killing of Philando Castile in St. Paul, MN. A day after the killing of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, LA…it is all just too much. My dear friend confessed: “I'm reaching out to my Gideon's community to see what we can do as a unit. I don't know what I can do alone other than face injustice in the courtroom one client at a time….”
We are all feeling really angry, and overwhelmed, right now. I woke up to the Philando Castile video. I went into my son’s room (although he only has one black parent, he is black enough to be presumed dangerous and shot to death in the streets of America), laid down next to him, held him, and cried…knowing this sweet, sweet little boy has no idea of how dangerous the world he is growing into is for him.
I then gathered myself and felt the need to answer one line in my dear friend’s post: “I'm reaching out to my Gideon's community to see what we can do as a unit. I don't know what I can do alone other than face injustice in the courtroom one client at a time….”
I typed a response back to the Gideon’s Promise community. I shared that I felt the need to respond to this one line because what we have been trying to teach through Gideon’s Promise is that an army of public defenders who work to inject humanity into the system at every turn IS a critical part of the answer. It is the part that has been ignored; yet the most critical piece of the solution.
You see, when we appreciate the power of the public defender we realize that none of us is ever simply facing injustice “one client at a time.” Because every time we speak, advocate, and fight – whether during a bond hearing, a trial, during plea negotiations, speaking at community forums, or writing a blog post or essay – we are contributing to a much bigger effort to change the narrative about who our clients are and how they deserve to be treated. We are challenging a mindset that sees black men as dangerous; poor people as less valuable. The work that we do in dozens of courthouses across the county every single day is intricately connected to what is happening in the streets to the Alton Sterlings and Philando Castile’s of the world.
The injustice plays out differently in every circumstance. At times it ends with a police officer killing a black person. More often it results in an arrest and another poor person thrown into a system that is designed to process them into cages and ensure that they never reintegrate into their communities. But whatever the injustice that results, the driver is the same…we have allowed ourselves as a nation to believe – TRULY F’ING BELIEVE – that some lives just don’t matter.
We can prosecute the worst of the police officers, invest in body cameras, change the sentencing laws, or punish prosecutors who hide Brady…but until we begin to change the way we see poor people, and people of color, we will not have equal justice. Until those responsible for administering justice truly believe that all lives matter, we will continue to cry over stories of incredible injustice.
Public defenders are the one group who have the ability to challenge the narrative that says some lives don’t matter every day. We teach our lawyers that it is not enough to know the law and hone your skills; we must care about our clients, learn who they are as people, and use our superior talents and heart to humanize them at every turn. Whenever one of us does this we are contributing to the solution. When we do it collectively we are a powerful engine for change.
So, in response to the question “what can we do as a unit?” I think we are doing it; public defenders who understand and embrace their power to challenge the status quo are doing it. We are committed to re-injecting humanity into the system and changing the way the world views our clients and the communities we serve. The offices we partner with are forcing their respective communities to change how they understand justice for the poor. The leaders of these offices are building powerful organizations to shape the way their counties, cities, and towns understand justice.
I often talk to public defenders who wonder if being a public defender is enough….they want to be part of systemic reform. I say these public defenders ARE part of systemic reform. But to be part of systemic reform they must resist the pressure to stop caring, to accept the status quo. Then, they are poised to become desperately needed agents for change.
Only when we see marginalized communities as truly human and worthy of protection, will we solve this problem. No one does this more every day than public defenders.
It is easy to feel helpless to change anything in the face of these awful videos. But we are far from helpless. We are lawyers…we have the tools and the access to a system that impacts lives like no other. Most of our former law school classmates abdicated their responsibility to use this power for good. We have not. We use it every day. We are powerful. We do more than any lawyers anywhere ever will!
As I laid with my son this morning and thought about the dangers that await him, I also thought about how thankful I am for this community. It is truly the only thing I have that gives me faith that mt 8-year-old son will be okay…that WE will be ok.
So, I don’t ask what we can do as a unit. I say thank goodness for ALL we are doing as a unit; and ask what others who have sat on the sideline for too long can do to join us in this fight!
In solidarity, my public defender family