Liberty and Justice For All – Blog No. 1

It shouldn’t have taken a pandemic, but it did.  I would like to think that even without a pandemic, George Floyd’s death would have been enough for me to finally realize the massive amount of racial injustice in the United States.

The senseless killing of a 46 year old man who was alleged to have purchased cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill should have caused all of us to realize the extent of racial injustice in our country.  There is nothing that can justify a white police officer pinning Mr. Floyd to the ground with his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds for any crime, much less over alleged theft of merchandise valued at $20.  The fact that numerous bystanders implored the officer to remove his knee from Mr. Floyd’s neck and the officer’s failure to  move even after Mr. Floyd lost consciousness is even more repugnant.

Mr. Floyd was killed without the presumption of innocence,  the right to respond to the allegations against him, or due process under the law.  The Constitution grants criminal defendants the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury.  It does not allow summary execution by an arresting officer.

The Sixth Amendment provides:  “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall endure the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.”

Mr. Floyd didn’t get the benefit of the laws of the United States.

I would like to think that I would have noticed the injustice Mr. Floyd suffered without a pandemic but I can’t be sure.  After all, Eric Garner crying “I can’t breathe” eleven times after he was wrestled to the ground by a New York Police Officer because he was suspected of illegally selling cigarettes on July 17, 2014, was not enough.

The shooting of 18 year old Michael Brown six times by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri after he was alleged to have stolen a box of cigars, was not enough.

The shooting of 12 year Tamir Rice, a 12 year old boy in Cleveland Ohio, after police investigated a report that a “probable” juvenile was pointing a gun that was “probably fake” on November 22, 2014, was not enough.

Walter Scott’s being shot in the back five times by a white police officer after being pulled over for having a defective light on his car in North Charleston, South Carolina, on April 4, 2015, was not enough.

Neither was Alton Sterling’s death in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on July 5, 2016.

When Philando Castile was out driving with his girlfriend in St. Paul, Minnesota on July 5, 2016 and was pulled over during a routine check and shot as he was reaching for his license after telling the police he was licensed to carry a weapon and had one in his possession, even that was not enough.

Neither was Stephon Clark’s death on March 18, 2018, after having been shot at least seven times in Sacramento, California by police who were investigating a break-in.

I pride myself as someone who takes to heart Maya Angelou’s quote “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  Yet I never realized how Black people in our country have been feeling, not for years, or even decades, but for hundreds of years. Despite the fact that the United States prides itself on being the greatest democracy in the world, the laws in the United States have not been fairly applied to all–especially not to people of color.

Although I wasn’t familiar with the term “white privilege” before George Floyd’s death, I now realize that I was blind to the fact that so many Black people were denied due process under the law.  I apologize for my ignorance.  I cannot excuse it.  Saying I didn’t know is not enough.  As a lawyer and someone who took an oath to support the Constitution and laws of the United States and of Texas, it is my job to know.

Within days of George Floyd’s death, I formed the Liberty & Justice For All Task Force.  The members of the task force are two practicing lawyers, including me, two former judges who are now engaged in  mediation practices and an experienced coach with American Leadership Forum who is also an organizational development/behavior consultant in Houston. The task force met once a week from its formation until after the election results were announced via Zoom.  Initially, we focused on educating ourselves about the extent of racial injustice in the United States and working to best determine how we could eliminate such injustices.  The problem is so insurmountable that we ultimately decided that our focus would be on making sure that all citizens had an equal right to vote.  In the new year, we will continue to focus on how we can work to eliminate the prevalent injustices that Black people and, to a lesser extent, people of color, experience.  Our work has only just begun.

My colleagues at Dentons, the law firm where I practice, are working hard to right this injustice.  We have begun listening and hearing from our Black colleagues who have experienced this injustice all their lives.  My friend and Houston colleague, Ken Rhodes, recently shared his poem, which beautifully describes the change that needs to happen:

HEART

MAY THE WATERS OF COMPASSION AND EMPATHY FLOW DOWN FROM THE VALLEY OF LOVE INTO THE HEARTS OF MAN, INUNDATING AND IMMERSING HIM WITH ITS DIVINE NATURE, CULTIVATING THE SEED OF UNITY WORLDWIDE. THAT THE TREE OF HATE, BIGOTRY, RACISM, INJUSTICE, INEQUITY BE ERADICATED FROM ITS ROOTS AND CONSUMED IN THE FURNACE OF PEACE.

Texas lawyers, I beseech you to join me in working to change the laws which have suppressed the right of so many of us to vote.  It’s a start.