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Vol. 46, No. 1

Cracks in the system: Bars address racial inequity in policing, justice, society

By Robert J. Derocher

As a longtime bar leader accustomed to the challenges of wrangling volunteers, State Bar of Georgia President Dawn Jones was unprepared for the response she received when the bar’s board of governors established a new bar committee in July to explore racial injustice in the wake of George Floyd’s killing.

“I had 56 people who either called, emailed or texted me within a week, who were interested and, frankly, very vocal about serving,” she says.

Adds Atlanta attorney Anita Wallace Thomas, whom Jones tapped to lead the committee, “She had me at ‘Seeking Equal Justice and Addressing Racism & Racial Bias [the committee title].’ So, I was all on board.”

Similar scenes have played out at dozens of bars nationwide in the weeks and months that followed Floyd’s death and the numerous citizen protests and demonstrations that subsequently unfolded. Special committees have been formed, columns have been written, racial awareness seminars have been launched and online forums have been jam-packed as bars and their members respond to the racial reckoning and social upheaval unleashed by the Floyd killing.

Many bar leaders say they are focused on initiatives and programs—many new, some already existing—that take aim at addressing the legal issues surrounding racial inequity, both in their communities and in their local criminal and civil justice systems. And reactions from many bar members, they say, have been swift, forceful and determined, despite complications caused by the COVID-19 pandemic—a phenomenon that many say has actually helped stir interest.

Although many racial inequity initiatives are up and running, concerns still linger about their staying power in the months and years ahead. But many leaders say they sense a different atmosphere that offers hope that bars can play an important and lasting role in tackling systemic racism and inequity.

(Note: For additional information about what some bars are doing to promote racial equity as well as diversity and inclusion, please see the ABA Division for Bar Services Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Resources Page.)

A place for self-reflection

For many bars, calls for action after George Floyd’s killing initially came in to leaders, rather than going out. “A number of our members said, ‘What are we doing? What else can we be doing?’” recalls Ona Alston Dosunmu, CEO and executive director of the California Lawyers Association.

In response, she says, bar leadership quickly developed plans that evolved from creating racial justice committees within sections, to a working group of section leaders, and then to a full-fledged standing Racial Justice Committee with five subcommittees focused on member engagement and education, public engagement and education, advocacy, legislative initiatives, and community resources.

Within a week of establishing the committee, more than 200 members signed up, according to Ellen Miller, CLA associate executive director of initiatives and external relations. The response, she says, is a reflection of how much members—many of them white—wanted not only for the bar to take a stand on racial equity, but also to learn more themselves about spotting and helping to stop racial inequity.

To that end, the bar has made several educational resources available to members online, such as videos, books, articles and bias tests. One of the most popular resources, she says, have been weekly online town hall meetings addressing racial inequity.

“We put something out on a weekly email blast on a Monday, and a day later, we have 200 people signing up for a town hall discussion about what it’s like to practice while being a Black male,” Miller notes. “Members want enlightenment, members want understanding, members want change.”

Bars open up important conversations

Less than a month after Floyd’s killing, the Connecticut Bar Association established a Policing Task Force made up of bar members and community leaders that immediately began examining issues of police accountability, training and implicit bias. The committee expects to draw on contributions from race relations experts, community leaders, criminal law attorneys and law enforcement to develop recommendations for policy and reform in policing statewide, says Cecil Thomas, the bar’s president-elect and chair of its Diversity and Inclusion Committee.

He adds that his committee also has a “renewed focus” on its mission, working with the Connecticut Bar Foundation to establish the Constance Baker Motley Speaker Series on Racial Inequality, honoring the first Black woman appointed as a federal judge. The first two sessions this summer each attracted more than 400 online attendees, according to Thomas.

“There is genuine interest from our membership,” he says, “both on how [racial inequity] impacts communities of color, and also how we can be part of the solution.”

Also responding to requests from bar members and the community, the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association launched REAL: Racial Equity and the Law, a bar/community effort with a four-point plan to “dismantle systemic and negotiated racism, advocate for reform within our criminal justice system, promote and grow white ally-ship and launch the Cleveland Legal Inclusion 2020 Plan,” according to the bar website.

In a city that was rocked by the 2014 killing of an unarmed 12-year-old Black child, Tamir Rice, by Cleveland police, reactions to Floyd’s killing were swift and determined, says bar President Joseph Gross. In addition to launching REAL, the bar became a centralized online conversation place, Gross says, with informational YouTube videos and Hot Talks, which has attracted hundreds of listeners to interactive discussions centered on inequities in the criminal justice system. One recent discussion, Gross says, involved a Cleveland police union representative debating with the Cleveland leader of Black Lives Matter.

“The chat feature was very busy, but it was very peaceful, very real,” Gross says, “and it satisfied that need that many of us had to speak out.”

‘Statements are not enough’

In Minnesota and in Minneapolis, in particular—the literal epicenter of the Floyd killing and subsequent protests—there was little patience in many quarters of the legal community, says Athena Hollins, senior director of diversity & foundations for the Minnesota State Bar Association, Hennepin County Bar Association and Ramsey County Bar Association. The Floyd killing came nearly four years after Philandro Castile, a Black man, was shot to death by a suburban St. Paul, Minn., police officer. The officer was later acquitted of manslaughter, sparking public protests.

“A lot of what we got from people was, ‘Statements are not enough. We want to see real action and tangible results,’” Hollins says. “So, we’ve taken this upon ourselves at the bar associations to try and facilitate that.”

While plans for a racial inequity task force are being developed, she says, the bars were active after Floyd’s killing in alerting members to provide pro bono opportunities in communities affected by the unrest, while continuing to encourage them, as a nonpartisan organization, to effectively work for legislative reforms designed to root out racial inequities. For example, the bars recently offered a CLE program led by a lobbyist, showing members how to lobby as citizens.

“As lawyers, we are zealous advocates. We write. We research. We are trying to encourage our members on that aspect of it, and what they can do to support any sort of movement in that way,” Hollins says. “We’re trying to empower folks with the skills that they already have to advocate for systemic changes.”

Maintaining momentum

Although assembling task forces and committees, finding volunteers and establishing short-term goals have been somewhat easy for bar leaders in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s death, they also understand some of the hardest work lies ahead: keeping that heightened awareness months, even years from now.

“Diversity and inclusion are part of our initiative, and promoting it in the profession is sort of in our DNA,” says the CLA’s Dosunmu. “The killing of George Floyd poured accelerant on our commitment and elevated it to a commitment to tackling systemic injustice and systemic racism. As an organization, we’re committed. It is consistent with our mission, and it’s something I’m personally committed to.”

While Hollins is heartened by some of the large online turnouts for virtual events, she remains concerned about what happens after people tune out from Zoom calls. “The bars' role is to keep this issue front of mind for our members. This is important to bar leadership,” she says. “We want to make sure we’re providing programming related to it, we’re providing resources, and communicating about it on a regular basis that we’re really committed to.”

To Yolanda Jackson, executive director of the Bar Association of San Francisco and the bar’s Justice & Diversity Center, “This time feels different. The national energy and awareness around this is great. There’s an interest in people being part of the solution.”

She believes the bar’s work over the last five years through the Criminal Justice Taskforce formed after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., can provide some pointers for organizations that want to make a long-term impact on racial inequities. The Taskforce, which includes lawyers, community members, law enforcement and the judiciary, has played an important role, Jackson says, in addressing policing issues such as discontinuing improper choke holds and Tasers, and the implementation of body cameras.

“Our expertise is that we can convene a bunch of people to sit down in a room and have a conversation,” she says. “We’re seen as a neutral body that wants to help and change the system.”

Jackson, Dosunmu and others also agree that another key to long-term success lies in growing relationships among state and local bars and the numerous affinity bars that are often well tapped in to minority lawyers and communities.

Having a diversity and inclusion committee that has been in place since 2015 has been helpful for the Connecticut bar, Thomas says, since “we have very strong connections to those organizations.”

In the last few months, the CLA has collaborated with a county bar for a program on white ally-ship, participated in a town hall meeting focusing on racial inequities in Black and Asian Pacific Islanders communities, and spoken with LGBTQ groups.

Adds Dosunmu, “We need a little humility. We need to recognize that many other bars have been working on this for a while. We’re here to learn from them and partner with them and add value.”

For Thomas, it’s also the right time for bars to step up and remain key players in the drive to find solutions to the racial inequity challenges that cut across the entire legal system—and communities as a whole.

“I think the bar associations have a particular obligation to lead on these issues,” he says. “We value equality, ethics and professionalism, and a tremendous part of that is that we advance equality in a meaningful way. We’re uniquely situated as lawyers to do that, and it’s part of our charge.”

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