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To Fellow Young Black Lawyers Seeking Justice

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By Clarence Okoh, 2020 Fellow sponsored by the Equal Justice Works Text-to-Give campaign

Photo of Clarence Okoh

To Fellow Young Black Lawyers Seeking Justice,

I remember once when I was riding with my grandfather to go pick up some groceries in our small hometown in east Alabama. We pulled up to a stop sign and it was taking him longer than usual to start moving. He stared at the window and motioned toward an unassuming abandoned gray building. He calmly looked at me and said that was once the headquarters of the local Ku Klux Klan. I wasn’t shocked by what he said as much as I was by how he said it. It was in such a matter of fact manner that I was stunned. There was no anger, fear or sadness; just a dispassionate, almost peaceful observation of racial terror. It would not be the last time I heard that tone of voice. It was the same tone that my grandmother used to describe memories from her “colored” high school. It was the same tone my mother used to tell the story of seeing armed white vigilantes burn a cross in front of her home. That tone was an inflection in the voices of people who had long come to peace with the inevitability of racism, the ubiquity of anti-Black state violence and the precarity of Black life.

When I was asked to share my thoughts on the brutal killings of Black people including Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd; I paused because I heard their tone in my voice. These murders have not made me angry, bitter, or resentful—although each of those feelings are justified and valid. Instead, I found in my voice a defiant sense of peace. Because I think I discovered what my elders have long understood—that you will always find peace when you place a greater faith in Black people than the circumstances that surround us. Every development of white supremacy since the end of the transatlantic slave trade has been a failed attempt to keep pace with the ability of Black people to achieve liberation despite our circumstances. Today, we continue to march in the streets despite the endless massacre of Black lives by the police because we know our strength is greater than theirs. The Movement for Black Lives defiantly persists because we understand at our core that we will win. Our key struggle is defining the path to victory.

I believe that as young Black attorneys we have a role in defining that path. In this historic moment, we cannot neglect our responsibility to move our people closer to liberation. But before we begin that work, I believe that the Movement for Black Lives has imparted at least three critical lessons on how we defend Black lives and build Black futures.

First, the Movement for Black Lives has taught us that anti-Black racism is adaptive, forward-looking and innovative. Contrary to popular narratives, we are not combatting the “residual effects” of historic racism, but instead we are confronting systems of racism that have evolved and adapted to new circumstances. The Movement for Black Lives is actively teaching us that reforms will not be enough to end the racist innovations of American policing. The pace of these racist innovations has continuously thwarted reformist efforts because reform is a backward-looking approach to solve forward-looking challenges. For example, in response to police-involved shootings during the Obama years, many mainstream voices urged police reforms including: community policing, implicit bias training, body-cameras, data collection and reforming the standard for the use of force. One major city embraced nearly every one of these recommendations—Minneapolis, Minnesota. Reform failed to save George Floyd’s life. “Reform” is a reactionary approach to social change that fails to offer new, liberatory visions—even as Black lives are being destroyed. As legal advocates we should reject solutions that fail to protect Black lives. This moment demands that we offer new approaches that are more ambitious and adaptive than the systems of racial oppressions that we are trying to defeat. Our failure to do so will be measured by the number of Black lives that become hashtags.

Second, the Movement has taught us that our work should be anchored in actively loving Black people as much as defeating anti-Black racism. We know that Black lives are so much larger than the oppression that surrounds us. However, does our advocacy actually reflect that? Our role as lawyers calls on us to engage with Black communities in moments of crisis. It’s naive to think that this repeated exposure to Black trauma does not shape our understanding of Black people. We cannot lose sight of the fact that our work is to fight for actual people and communities. Integrating the celebration of Black life, Black love, and Black joy are integral to building sustainable movements that build Black futures. By privileging the humanity of Black people in our work, we can transform the law in such a way that it sees Black people the way that we see each other.

Third, the Movement for Black Lives has taught us the liberating power of Black radical imagination. In cities around the country, ideas once regarded as impossible are now public policy. School districts have abandoned contracts with law enforcement. Cities are divesting funding from law enforcement and investing in neglected social services. Minneapolis is even planning to disband its entire police department. We are only in this moment because of the revolutionary labor of Black women and Black LGBT folks. This Movement has been designed and led by them. By privileging their vision, we have created the most audacious agenda to transform the lives of Black people in generations. As legal workers we have to defend their lives and create space for their leadership because their vision is our only path towards freedom for all Black people.

We find ourselves living through an incredibly perilous moment for Black people. From pandemic, to policing and poverty, our community confronts an endless array of threats. Despite the severity of the circumstances we confront, I am convinced by the wisdom of my elders—that Black people are so much greater that the oppressions we face. I choose to place my faith in Black people. I know that we will find our path to freedom. Until that day, may we find healing in our mourning and hope in our struggle.

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