Watch This I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams
Devin Oliver is law student at UC Berkeley Law and a ChangeLawyers℠ Scholar.
Watch This Too The Israeli lawyer who spent her whole life defending Palestinians
“I’m an Israeli occupier no matter what I do. I enjoy the ‘fruits’ of the occupation, both bitter and sweet. And despite my moral obligation as an Israeli, I didn’t manage to change the regime and its policies. On what moral grounds should I judge the people who resist my occupation?”
So says Jewish Israeli attorney Lea Tsemel as she explains her life’s work defending Palestinian clients—many of whom most Israelis consider to be terrorists—in the documentary film Advocate.
Directed by Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaïche, both Israeli citizens, the film is one of 15 documentaries shortlisted for an Oscar nomination—quite an achievement for a film that humanizes Palestinians caught up in Israel’s criminal justice system for resisting Israeli occupation, both nonviolently and violently.
The film follows Tsemel’s work on two recent court cases involving Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem who were charged with committing violent acts against Israelis, and is interwoven with archival footage of Tsemel’s past cases as well as interviews with her two children; Palestinian leader and activist Hanan Ashrawi; and her husband, Michel Warschawski. Warschawski, a well-known anti-Zionist activist, himself became one of Tsemel’s clients after being arrested in 1987 for publishing a know-your-rights booklet edited by students with ties to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. When he complained to her about the punishing interrogation tactics, he recalls in the film, she told him he wasn’t worthy of being her husband.
Fearless, tough, and powerfully charismatic, Tsemel is a familiar character—what she herself has described as “a typical Israeli, Sabra, if you want”—but with a crucial twist: The 74-year-old, who is fluent in Arabic as well as Hebrew, deploys her uncompromising fierceness in the service of fighting the system. In 1999, she was part of a team of lawyers that argued—and won—a landmark case before the Israeli Supreme Court barring torture of Palestinians in interrogations. While many of her cases haven’t led to such decisive victories, including the two cases profiled in Advocate, she nonetheless keeps arguing, keeps fighting.
Says Jones, the film’s director, during a recent chat with The Nation: “I was making the film to remind myself what it meant to be critical, principled, what it could look like. And Lea models that probably better than anyone else.”
Read the story on The Nation
More of This Black Women Prosecutors rallied to the defense of Kim Gardner over racist backlash
Nearly a dozen Black women elected prosecutors from across the country are standing with Kim Gardner, the top prosecutor in St. Louis, who has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging city officials and police unions have engaged in a “racially-motivated conspiracy” to oust her from office.
“Circuit Attorney Gardner received a clear mandate from the voters of St. Louis to enact meaningful reforms and upend a broken criminal justice system that criminalizes poverty, disproportionately impacts communities of color and undermines public safety,” they said in a joint statement released on Tuesday. “The Circuit Attorney has delivered on those promises, and that is exactly why she has faced an unprecedented campaign by the city’s corrupt and racist political establishment to destroy her.”
Gardner’s peers said her experience is “emblematic of the types of attacks that we, as Black women prosecutors, have faced around the country.”
The statement was signed by 11 prosecutors, including Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins, Bronx County District Attorney Darcel Clark, Portsmouth, Virginia Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Morales and Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby.
Many of them convened Tuesday at Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis to support Gardner, who took office in 2017 and is the city’s first Black woman elected circuit attorney. She has embraced pro-reform efforts, such as incarcerating fewer people for low-level marijuana offenses and holding officers accountable for violence, racial bias, and other misconduct. Last year, Gardner excluded 22 St. Louis Division of Police officers from presenting cases to her office, after the Plain View Project accused them of making racist Facebook posts. After the officers were exposed, few faced reprimand or termination.
In the lawsuit, filed Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, Gardner alleges that the city and St. Louis Police Officers Association (SLPOA), among others, are violating the Ku Klux Klan Act, a federal law passed shortly after the Civil War, meant to deter white citizens and government officials from conspiring to prevent the expansion of civil rights and equality for Black citizens.
Read Story on The Appeal
More of This Too California DA quits association because they oppose criminal justice reform
A Republican Central California district attorney made a surprising decision last week to quit the California District Attorneys Association — whose president is Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley — while calling the group “out of touch” in its positions opposing statewide criminal justice reforms.
San Joaquin County District Attorney Tori Salazar is the only one of 58 district attorneys in the state to abandon her membership in the association, which advocates for legislation in Sacramento, conducts training for prosecutors, produces legal publications and regularly meets to discuss criminal justice policy.
“As criminal justice reform sweeps through California and the nation, I witnessed the CDAA oppose most reform-based initiatives, which tells me the association is out of touch and unwilling to find new approaches to criminal justice,” Salazar wrote in a Jan. 8 letter to O’Malley, stating she would not renew her membership.
Read the story on SF Chronicle
Less of This The story of an man wrongly convicted of murder, and the racist system that sent him to prison
When Mi Wha Morrison sat on the jury of a murder trial, in February 2011, the testimony that mattered most came from the prosecution’s single eyewitness, Emma Bourgoyne. The jurors listened to Bourgoyne say she was sitting in the passenger seat of a car her husband was driving, on a November day nearly seven years earlier, when the couple stopped at a red light near a highway exit in New Orleans. Bourgoyne noticed three men chatting by a curb outside an Exxon Station, their motorcycles parked nearby. All of a sudden, a fourth man came up behind them, Bourgoyne said. He raised his hand and fired a gun. “The man in the middle fell over,” she told the jury.
In the courtroom, the prosecutor asked Bourgoyne if she saw the shooter, who ran off after the killing. “He’s the gentleman sitting in the white-and-black plaid shirt over at that table,” she said, shaking with emotion and pointing to the defendant, Michael Shannon. Bourgoyne said she picked Shannon’s photo out of a lineup nearly six months after the murder. She was “a hundred percent sure” she had the right man.
But Morrison, who worked as a teacher, was surprised to hear Bourgoyne, who was in her 60s, say she’d seen the shooter for only 15 to 20 seconds — and to hear that she told a prosecutor after the murder that she hadn’t been wearing her glasses. Morrison thought about whether she’d be able to identify a person she’d seen briefly, from inside a car, six months after the fact. She was 34 and had perfect vision. It seemed like a stretch.
On cross-examination, Bourgoyne admitted that she told the police the shooter was about six feet tall and stocky, with a neck like a football player. When Shannon stood up, Morrison saw that he was at least six inches shorter, at 5 foot 6, and slight of build. It mattered to her too that Shannon was black and Bourgoyne was white. (Research shows that it’s harder for witnesses to identify people of a different race.)
Morrison wanted to hear from other eyewitnesses to the killing. Earlier in the trial, the homicide detective who investigated the shooting testified that he’d interviewed the two men standing next to the victim, a 46-year-old named Ralph Cole, and four additional people who were nearby when the shooting took place. But when Bourgoyne finished testifying, the prosecution rested. Shannon’s lawyer called no witnesses. The trial ended after only about five hours.
On her way to deliberate with the other jurors, Morrison thought they would easily agree: There wasn’t enough proof to send Michael Shannon to prison. But in the room, Morrison says, the foreman, who was white, took charge and argued strongly for a guilty verdict. As Morrison remembers it, the conversation veered from the facts of the case to the spike in crime in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The storm hit the city in August 2005, nine months after Cole’s murder, and its only bearing on the trial was the yearslong delay the storm caused. But as the jurors talked about Ralph Cole’s killing — his mother had described him working three jobs and raising a 6-year-old son with his wife — they began bringing up other crime victims they knew, as if they were somehow relevant to the guilt or innocence of Michael Shannon. (Other jurors couldn’t remember specific details or couldn’t be reached.)
When Morrison expressed her doubts about Bourgoyne’s identification of Shannon, an African-American woman on the jury agreed that the evidence was not strong enough, according to Morrison. But a second black woman was “adamant about Shannon’s guilt,” Morrison told me, remembering her saying, “If the prosecutor said he should be off the streets, then we needed to put him away.’’ Morrison continued, ‘‘I felt like they were bringing in these outside frustrations without looking much at the facts of this particular case.”
After about half an hour of deliberation, Morrison recalled, the foreman went around the table. Ten members of the jury agreed to find Shannon guilty of second-degree murder. Morrison and her ally stood their ground. In almost any other state, the jurors would have continued to deliberate. If they truly couldn’t agree, the case would have ended in a mistrial, because only a unanimous jury would have the power to convict. But in Louisiana in 2011, a vote of 10 to 2 (or 11 to 1) was enough.
When the judge praised the two prosecutors for “one of the quickest homicide cases I’ve had,” Morrison felt a surge of anger. Afterward, whenever she drove by the corner where Ralph Cole was killed, she was haunted by the photographs she’d seen of his body lying on the ground. From time to time, she also thought about how thwarted she felt in the jury room.
Read the story on NY Times
Interview of the Week A conversation with Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow
Sometimes a book comes along and, after it is absorbed into the culture, we cannot see ourselves again in quite the same way. Ten years ago, Michelle Alexander, a lawyer and civil-rights advocate, published “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” This was less than two years into Barack Obama’s first term as President, a moment when you heard a lot of euphoric talk about post-racialism and “how far we’ve come.” “The New Jim Crow” was hardly an immediate best-seller, but after a couple of years it took off and seemed to be at the center of discussion about criminal-justice reform and racism in America. The book considers not only the enormity and cruelty of the American prison system but also, as Alexander writes, the way the war on drugs and the justice system have been used as a “system of control” that shatters the lives of millions of Americans—particularly young black and Hispanic men.
When “The New Jim Crow” came out, a decade ago, you said that you wrote it for “the person I was ten years ago.” Take me back to those times and to the work you were doing for the A.C.L.U. What were you finding out?
That would have been twenty years ago from today. It was just as I was beginning my work with the A.C.L.U. I was well aware that there was bias in our criminal-justice system, and that bias pervaded all of our political, social, and economic systems. That’s why I was a civil-rights lawyer: I was hoping to finish the work that had been begun by civil-rights leaders who came before me. I had a very romantic idea of what civil-rights lawyers had done and could do to address the challenges that we face.
My impression back then was that our criminal-justice system was infected with racial bias, much in the same way that all institutions in our society are infected to some degree or another with racial and gender bias. But what I didn’t understand at that time was that a new system of racial and social control had been born again in America, a system eerily reminiscent to those that we had left behind.
In fact, I was heading to work my first day at the A.C.L.U. directing the Racial Justice Project when I happened to notice a sign posted to a telephone pole that said, in bold print, “The Drug War Is the New Jim Crow.” I remember pausing for a moment and scanning the text of the flyer and seeing that a small, apparently radical group was holding a meeting at a church several blocks away. They were organizing to protest racial profiling, the drug war, the three-strikes laws, mandatory minimum sentences, and police brutality. The list went on and on. I remember thinking to myself, Yeah, the criminal-justice system is racist in a lot of ways, but it doesn’t help to make comparisons to Jim Crow. People will just think you’re crazy. And then I hopped on the bus.
So it was really as a result of myself representing victims of racial profiling and police brutality, and investigating patterns of drug-law enforcement in poor communities of color, and attempting to assist people who had been released from prison as they faced one closed door and one barrier after another to mere survival after being released from prison that I had a series of experiences that began what I have come to call my awakening.
What was that awakening like? What were you seeing in your work so that the scales were falling from your eyes?
Well, there were a number of incidents. It was partly beginning to collect data and trace patterns of policing. It was coming to see how the police were behaving in radically different ways in poor communities of color than they were in middle-class, white, or suburban communities. I mean, this wasn’t a shock to me in any way, but the scale of it was astonishing: seeing rows of black men lined up against walls being frisked and handcuffed and arrested for extremely minor crimes, like loitering, or vagrancy, or possession of tiny amounts of marijuana, and then being hauled off to jail and saddled with criminal records that authorized legal discrimination against them for the rest of their lives. I mean, witnessing it and interviewing people one after another had its impact on me.
But there was one incident in particular that really kind of rocked my world. It involved a young African-American man who was about nineteen, who walked into my office one day and forever changed the way I viewed myself as a civil-rights lawyer and the system I was up against. He walked in my office carrying a stack of papers a couple of inches thick. He had taken detailed notes of his encounters with the police over about a nine-month period: every stop, every search, every time he had been frisked or someone he was riding with had been stopped, searched, or frisked. He had names of officers, in some cases badge numbers, names of witnesses—just an extraordinary amount of documentation.
At the time, I was interviewing people for a possible class-action suit against the Oakland Police Department. We had already filed a major class-action suit against the California Highway Patrol, alleging racial profiling in their drug-interdiction program, and we had launched a major campaign against racial profiling in California, and we were looking to sue other police departments, as well. And we had set up a hotline number for people to call if they had been stopped or targeted by the police on the basis of race. Within the first few minutes of us announcing this hotline number on the evening news, we received thousands of calls, and our system crashed temporarily. So I was spending my day interviewing one young black or brown man after another who had called the hotline.
This man’s story was so compelling. I thought, Wow, maybe we have finally found our dream plaintiff. I start asking him more questions. He’s sharing more details and information. And then he said something that made me pause: Did you just say you’re a drug felon?
Read the story on The New Yorker
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