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Photo: Racial Justice Panelists

Racial Justice Recap: Ferguson, and the Need for Authentic Discussion About Racism

By Robin Murphy The recent killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamar Rice illustrate the continuing need for lawyers to commit time and energy to eradicate discrimination and violence against people of color and build an inclusive society that enables everyone to succeed. In the first installment of our Racial Justice Series, which we are cosponsoring with the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, we examined the events in Ferguson and explored how to address ongoing racism in the justice system. The panel was moderated by Camille Holmes, Director of Leadership and Racial Equity at the National Legal Aid & Defender Association. Each of the panelists brought has significant experience and expertise in the areas of civil rights and racial justice, and each brought unique perspectives to the discussion. Judge Anna Blackburne-Rigsby (DC Court of Appeals) described the need for all participants in a democracy to be informed and engaged. She recounted how racism is imbedded in our justice system, dating back to the Constitution’s Three-Fifths Clause and the Supreme Court decisions in Dred Scott v. Sandford and Plessy v. Ferguson. Judge Blackburne-Rigsby also shared her recent experience with the DC judiciary, as judges examined their own implicit biases and discovered the need for greater self-examination. Nicole Austin-Hillery (Brennan Center for Justice) likewise explained how many discriminatory policies are rooted in law, pointing to the disproportionate representation of black males in our prisons and the severe collateral consequences of a criminal conviction – such as the loss of the right to vote, to public housing and access to student loans. She added some good news: there is true reform occurring on Capitol Hill, with several bipartisan bills seeking to reform prison and sentencing. Georgetown Law professor Anthony Cook urged participants not only to think about the traditional roles of lawyers, but also to be disruptive. He pointed to the effectiveness of recent demonstrations around the country – including at Georgetown Law – such as die ins, teach ins, and black-lives-matter demonstrations. These and other efforts are essential to what he described as “bias interruption" – stopping bias from harming people of color. Each panelist stressed the need for more authentic and honest conversations about race and racism. The panel ended with an invitation to each attendee to choose an action that could advance that conversation – from understanding our own implicit biases to interrupting that bias to engaging in analysis and multi-layered strategies to address the structural system of racism. You can get more detail about the panel – including tweets, photos, and links to many of the cases, events, and studies discussed – by checking out our Storify of the event. We’ll be scrutinizing the concept of implicit bias at the next installment in our Racial Justices Series. This event – Below the Surface: Exploring Implicit Bias in Ourselves and the Legal System – is a hands-on workshop exploring implicit bias and how it may impact your practice, your workplace, and the legal system. Robin Murphy is a member of our Board of Directors. By day, she is a lawyer at the National Legal Aid & Defender Association.

Photo: Advice And Referral Clinic Volunteer

Service on a Saturday

By Dominique Rouge A group of lawyers sits around an oval table sipping coffee, tired like the early Saturday sky. Just as a silence has settled, a young woman walks in, arms full of clipboards. She fires out case descriptions, asking “who wants it?” Eviction, will settlement, medical malpractice, custody disputes, domestic abuse: a slew of poverty nightmares calls the lawyers to attention. Each stands up, takes a case, and walks downstairs to meet their client. So goes a typical morning at the DC Bar Pro Bono Program’s Advice and Referral Clinic, at which lawyers from all over the profession volunteer four hours of their time to give advice to drop-in clients living in poverty. The Clinic’s East of the River office, hosted by Bread for the City at their Southeast D.C. center, was packed with clients, both new and returning. The lawyers served 40 clients on the morning I visited. Some worked on viable cases with the volunteer lawyers; others waited in line to be told that their problem had no legal dimension. All bore the burden of a substantial, unexpected dilemma in their lives. The lawyers who work at the Advice and Referral Clinic on the first Saturday of each month do substantial, important work. No one lacked the comradery or assistance they needed, however. As clients cycled through the first floor, lawyers ran back up to the second floor to check in with mentors at the oval table. As they sipped more coffee and munched more bagels, attorneys from various fields counseled other attorneys on how to handle a case. As mentors created a sense of ease for lawyers, so too did lawyers for clients. Though the building was rushed and busy, I heard sounds of reassurance, confidence, and even laughter ring throughout. The cases clients brought to the Southeast clinic ran the gamut of subject and severity, yet the lawyers were alert to meet them with both knowledge and compassion.

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