Lawyers Will March on MLK’s Birthday
Joshua Norkin, New York Law Journal
January 9, 2015
As public defenders, we are witnesses to all forms of injustice. When you are arrested in New York, we are usually the first friendly face you will see. Our clients lose their jobs, their driving privileges, face deportation and may be forced from their homes for simply being accused of crimes they may or may not have committed. We are the lawyers tasked with helping members of the community start to put back together the pieces of their lives after they have been falsely accused, and the ones tasked with making sure citizens receive the proper legal advice when they have made a mistake.
Murder is murder, and there never is an excuse or justification under any circumstances. The deaths of New York City Police Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos are unquestionably a tragedy.
In our view, their deaths should not stop a productive conversation about police tactics in New York City from continuing. What remains so heartbreaking about the deaths of Akai Gurley and Eric Garner is that these are not isolated incidents. As public defenders we know that these deaths were a by-product of the police misconduct that many of our clients deal with every day. We recognize it because it is an extension of the same police transgressions that bring us clients, overwhelmingly from communities of color, with bloody noses and broken bones for being accused of trespassing in their own buildings, jumping a subway turnstile or riding a bike on the sidewalk.
Much of the legal community has turned a blind eye to the injustice. That is why on Jan. 15, 2015, at 3:30 p.m. at the Staten Island Ferry terminal, we will be joined by lawyers from across the state and members of the community to march in peaceful and nonviolent protest past the Staten Island courthouse, the district attorney’s office and the 120th precinct to call for changes to a broken legal system. As public defenders, and lawyers tasked with upholding fairness and the rule of law, we believe we are uniquely suited to call attention to the issues that plague the criminal justice system.
As lawyers we must take responsibility for a system that broke on our watch. Police misconduct is a serious problem, and we must find a better way to hold those responsible accountable for their actions. As we mourn the death of Eric Garner, and celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we will call for the immediate unsealing of the grand jury minutes of Officer Daniel Pantaleo’s case.
In the same vein, we also believe that secret grand jury proceedings should cease, and the unconstitutional and disparate policing of communities of color must end. We march because Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once told us that, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” As public defenders we can stay silent no longer, we hope the rest of the legal community will join us.
The author, a member of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys,
UAW Local 2325, is an appellate attorney with the Legal Aid Society
in Manhattan. ALAA represents more than 1,000 attorneys working
with Legal Aid in all five boroughs, the Federal Defenders of the
Eastern and Southern Districts, the Legal Aid Society of Nassau County,
and the Legal Aid Society of Orange County.