August 04, 2020 MEMBER OP-ED

2020: A Year of 19's

Wendy Mariner, 2019-20 Section Chair

The year 2020 has been a year of nineteens. It began in January with the COVID-19 pandemic, while in August we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, prohibiting the denial and abridgment of the right to vote on account of sex. In between, George Floyd’s death further energized the Black Lives Matter movement, triggering a racial reckoning across the country and increasingly successful campaigns to make Juneteenth a legal holiday. To me, these 19’s symbolize significant disruptions in the country’s social fabric. And disruptions in the social fabric often open opportunities for change in our legal system.

We have seen so much negative disruption – in health, education, income, jobs, businesses, census taking, postal service, elections, voting, work life, family life, and social life. I see people wearing masks that say “2020 sucks.” We are living with the coronavirus pandemic, a staggering economic crisis that exacerbates income inequality, endemic racism, and authoritarian leaders testing the limits of liberal democracy around the world.

But, we also see positive disruption: more people rejecting the traditional social norms that ignore or excuse systemic racism, police brutality, worker exploitation, disparagement of women, and threats to the rule of law. Consider the wall of moms who stood between demonstrators and federal agents in Portland, Oregon, and the leaf-blower dads blowing tear gas away from people. I see momentum for positive change growing in these disruptions. We can push that momentum in the direction of social justice.

Jean-Marie Dru coined the term “creative disruption” as a marketing tool for business, a way to break with convention and create new approaches to business. But why confine it to that sphere? Creative disruption can also describe breaking with social conventions to spark social change. It can mean challenging laws that permit injustices to persist and creating new approaches to achieve justice for all. It can mean making what the late Congressman John Lewis called “good trouble, necessary trouble.”

How do we make good trouble? We put into practice what we have learned from generations of civil rights leaders. The first lesson is to call out injustice. This is happening all over the country. People from all walks of life are waking up to the unfairness embedded in habitual patterns of behavior. CRSJ has a proud history of pointing out injustices endured by people of color, women, immigrants, religious minorities, LGBTQ+ and Latinx communities, and low income populations. This bar year, CRSJ intensified its efforts. It produced more than 69 programs to identify ways in which our legal system fails to address wrongs. And our work in collaboration with other ABA entities will continue.

The second lesson in making good trouble is to offer a just remedy to injustice. In this election year, we must prevent injustices in our voting and election procedures. We must protect our democratic institutions from erosion. From abroad, the United States looks like a country in disarray, divided on race, caste, religion, and science. This year, CRSJ has responded by offering solutions to many of these problems in resolutions submitted to the ABA House of Delegates, including proposals to make Juneteenth a national legal holiday, reform law enforcement, protect consumers, and ensure that citizens are able to vote.

The third lesson is to heed the words of Marian Wright Edelman, our 2020 Thurgood Marshall Award honoree: “If you don’t like the way the world is, you change it.” In his Independence Day speech on July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass warned, “No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world and trot round in the same path of its fathers without interference.” He was speaking about the institution of slavery, but his words are relevant today. We must step off the old rutted trail and chart a new path – one expansive enough for all to march hand-in-hand together. This is CRSJ’s mission.

As lawyers, we have a special obligation to change what needs to be changed. We can be creative disruptors of unfairness and builders of a more just legal system. We can make good trouble. Together, we can harness the momentum for change to fulfill the ideals of the legal profession.