issues, social change

Heartbroken by Ferguson

The open letter from the protestors will always stick with me:

For 108 days, we have continuously been admonished that we should “let the system work,” and wait to see what the results are.

The results are in.

And we still don’t have justice.

This fight for the dignity of our people, for the importance of our lives, for the protection of our children, is one that did not begin Michael’s murder and will not end with this announcement. The ‘system’ you have told us to rely on has kept us on the margins of society. This system has housed us in her worst homes, educated our children in her worst schools, locked up our men at disproportionate rates and shamed our women for receiving the support they need to be our mothers. This system you have admonished us to believe in has consistently, unfailingly, and unabashedly let us down and kicked us out, time and time again.

And this is the heart of the matter – the real truth of what’s happening.

We can talk about the Ferguson decision. There was a lot of injustice in this case; as I understand it, a grand jury should almost always be able to indict in such a case, and the evidence presented certainly meets the probable cause standard. But the prosecutor simply didn’t try, and he may have been biased – I believe – due to his own family background and relationship with the police. We didn’t have an unbiased grand jury hearing here. The fact that we couldn’t even get to a trial where there is clear evidence that Darren Wilson shot a young man — Wilson has admitted to this himself — clearly shows that something was up. Something was wrong.

This case is emblematic of the larger issue of injustice and structural racism in our courts, our deeply flawed justice system which always works for the rich and never for the poor, for the White but never for the Black. We have an issue of racism in the justice system in this country.  This is why the famed Bryan Stevenson supposedly wrote and filed a “Motion to Treat My 14 Year-Old Client As a 75 year Old, White, Privileged Corporate Executive.”  Because our system is not neutral. The law is not neutral and it is not just. The system is actually skewed from beginning to end against Black people and racial minorities, because most of it has been created and perpetuated by White people.

But let us also not forget that this is a matter of structural injustice. Yes, it is about racism and police brutality, the brutal racism that causes a cop to view an unarmed young man as a threat, that makes the police consider a man as an animal who “charged” at him and looked like a “demon.” It’s racism that is making cops view a 6’4″ Black man automatically and inherently as a threat. And then it’s racism built into the very fabric of our laws and court systems that makes him be able to get away with this.

But it’s also about the broader subjugation of African Americans in this country since slavery. It is about the continued legacy of subordination and discrimination and oppression. As the protestors wrote, we are in this position because we have never fully ended the harms of slavery. This ‘system’ is continually making sure that Black people are sent to prison at high numbers, unemployed, in the poorest housing and in the worst schools. Michelle Alexander writes in the New Jim Crow about this legacy and about how the mass incarceration of Black people is just a continuation of the Jim Crow laws, but in another name. And the foundation is racism: which allows the justice system to see Black people and Black men as threats, as dangerous, and as criminals. This is just another system, a system of keeping Black people in the underclass of our society. Ferguson is about Mike Brown, it is about all the people killed unjustly  by police brutality. But it is ultimately (I think, echoing only what the protestors say and not trying to displace their movement!) about structural injustice and racism in our country in every arena that works so hard to subjugate Black people in America, decades after the civil rights movement.

The results are in. And we still don’t have justice.

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public interest law, social change

LIDS Symposium on Post-Conflict Reconstruction

Last Friday, I organized a symposium at Harvard Law School hosted by the Harvard Law & International Development Society (LIDS) and titled “Post-Conflict Reconstruction: Rebuilding from Emergency to Development,” which brought together practitioners, experts, and academics across the country and world to discuss issues of economic growth and development, and supporting the rule of law in countries arising from conflict.

It was a great success, with lots of insights gained and ideas exchanged.  It was my first real time organizing an event of this scale, and I was so excited to see the vibrant outcomes and exchanges from it!  Especially close to my heart was the second panel, focusing on justice and security reform after conflict. Vivek Maru, of Namati, spoke about their work promoting the use of grassroots community outreach workers (modeled after the “community health worker” model), and how this model of “community paralegals” can be especially effective in supporting ordinary people in accessing justice in fragile countries such as Sierra Leone, post-conflict. In such situations where the justice infrastructure is damaged and often difficult to access by much of the population, supporting justice can be done through the use of paralegals who can help mediate disputes, access information about their legal rights, and address injustices both individual (e.g land rights disputes, family law matters) and collective (mining abuses, collective actions). In the absence of a strong formal justice system in post-conflict countries, the grassroots justice model offers a place to start — and to start with the people rather than at the top-down institutional level.

Here are a few pictures below! Click here for the LIDS website and to access more information on the event, photos, and videos.

IMG_0572Keynote speaker, Dr. Donald Kaberuka – President of the African Development Bank – talks about post-conflict reconstruction and promoting economic growth across Africa.

DSC_0848The first panel focused on building institutions and driving economic growth in countries after conflict. 

DSC_0854The panel included practitioners from across institutions such as The Asia Foundation, USAID, and the World Bank. It was a great look into the tricky challenge of how to rebuild institutions in fragile states.

IMG_0648The second panel focused on developing the rule of law, stability, and security in countries after conflict.

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criminal justice, human rights, international justice, public interest law, social change, women's rights

Kimberley Motley: on rule of law in Afghanistan

Here’s quite a fascinating TED talk by Kimberley Motley,who I know has been somewhat of a controversial figure in Afghanistan in the past. She has some interesting thoughts on what it’s like to be a lawyer, representing clients and promoting rule of law in fragile states such as Afghanistan. She represents an interesting array of cases, including gender-based violence and human rights cases in Afghanistan.

Her main thrust in this talk, which I have always agreed with  – is that in many countries, there are already many laws on the books that could protect and promote human rights. Even within Shari’a law, there are ways to interpret key statutes and the Quran in ways that are gender-equitable. There are many laws relating to family and criminal law on the books in Afghanistan and elsewhere that are indeed, good for rights. The problem is that these laws are not being used. When they are implemented effectively by lawyers who are good at advocating for their clients, you can truly foster a culture of ‘rule of law.’

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