July 10, 2017

When Racial Injustice Hits Home: It’s Not Just the Kids Who Are at Risk

Ann Farmer

Last summer, in the wake of several high-profile police killings of black men, including a Minnesota driver stopped for a broken taillight and shot as he reached for his identification, Lisalyn R. Jacobs decided it was time to give her biracial son, then aged seven, a talk.

“I told him it was not a good idea to run from law enforcement,” says Jacobs, a Washington, D.C.–based civil rights lawyer who is black and specializes in sexual and domestic violence cases. She instructed him—should he ever get picked up by police—to give his name and address and say, “My mom is a lawyer. I want to call my mom.”

When her son inquired if law enforcement wanted to hurt him, Jacobs responded, “Not at all. I’m saying that law enforcement, like everybody else, can have a good day or a bad day. Some people are better at their jobs than others. But that is going to be very hard for you to figure out.”

Jacobs isn’t the only woman lawyer sitting her child down for a talk these days. With so much attention focused on incidents of excessive force by police, tangled up with charges of systemic racism toward black people, it’s safe to presume that many children of color are getting heart-to-hearts. And lawyer-moms, with their expertise in jurisprudence, are well poised to explain how the criminal justice system works and what children should do to stay out of harm’s way.

“We are an open family,” says Chaumtoli Huq, a Bangladeshi American civil rights, labor, and employment law attorney who lives in Harlem with her Latino husband and their two children, aged 9 and 13, with whom, for instance, she’s candidly discussed the tragic killing of Trayvon Martin.

Martin, a 17-year-old, unarmed, African American high school student, was fatally shot in Florida in 2012 by George Zimmerman. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch coordinator, targeted Martin as he walked home from a convenience store because he thought the teen looked suspicious.

Huq told her son: “This was a young boy who was just walking. And he didn’t do anything wrong. But just because he was a boy, and the way he looked, what he was wearing, people assumed that he was dangerous.”

Huq consequently encourages her children to interact proactively with people—to make eye contact and say hello first. “Show through your body that you are listening so that people don’t misunderstand you,” she suggests.

Even women lawyers who aren’t mothers are counseling youth on this matter. Andrea Burton is a black criminal defense lawyer in Youngstown, Ohio, who also handles landlord/tenant matters and often serves as a guardian ad litem for juvenile clients. She says, “I have conversations with clients all the time,” advising them to cooperate with police, even if it feels like an injustice. “I tell them, ‘It’s easier to make a complaint later, when you’re alive, than to have your family sue when you’re dead because you were running your mouth.’”

She also gives pointers to a young, burly cousin who routinely gets pulled over in his SUV while driving home late from his bartending job. “I remind him to be cautious and calm and to be very even-tempered.”

Burton similarly heeds her own advice. “I’m just very consciously aware of how people are perceiving me and people around me because I don’t want a situation to escalate,” she says. “We apologize perpetually for being born a minority with the dangerous perceptions that are attached to being a black person.”

Jacobs, as well, may have graduated from prestigious Stanford Law School in Stanford, California, and served as an advisor to President Obama’s administration on criminal and racial justice affairs. But if stopped by police, she’s got her driver’s license out before the officer can make it to her car window and she says both of her hands “are clamped on the window well, and they are not moving.”

After the police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who Cleveland, Ohio, police mistakenly thought was wielding a real gun instead of a toy, and following a spate of other distressing police shootings, Burton, whose grandparents are high-ranking members of Youngstown’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter, wore a Black Lives Matter button to work at the Youngstown Municipal Court.

She also was spurred by treatment by colleagues, who sometimes make racist or sexist jokes in her presence “as though it’s acceptable.”

“Being a woman, let alone a black woman, in my profession is lonely and limiting,” says Burton, who has observed, for instance, another black woman lawyer at her courthouse nearly get tackled when walking up to the judge’s bench because court officers assumed she was the defendant. “And that’s despite wearing a suit and carrying a case file in her hand.”

The third time Burton wore the button, which was about the size of a nickel, was during a pretrial hearing last summer. It was under a suit jacket and not visible unless she bent over. Judge Robert Milich took her into his quarters and asked her to remove it, saying political pins violate the dress code.

“I respectfully declined,” says Burton, who asked if police officers were similarly required to remove their black mourning bands, worn to commemorate an officer killed in the line of duty.

He sentenced her to five days in jail (which she never served because her case was resolved through mediation). In the ensuing days, however, she received both death threats and thank-yous and became disillusioned with her local bar association, composed mainly of older white men who offered no support.

She’s not the only woman lawyer, though, to find herself on the opposite side of her profession. Two years ago, Huq was standing on a Times Square sidewalk when a police officer told her to move along. She explained that she was waiting for her husband and children to emerge from a restaurant where they were using the bathroom, and she asked the officer to give her a minute.

“It was a huge sidewalk, and I was not obstructing the pathway,” says Huq, who edged closer to the building. When he repeated his command and she still didn’t leave, the officer shoved her up against the wall and cuffed her.

Huq has worked as a law professor. She’s served as a director at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund and had just taken a leave of absence as general counsel to New York City’s public advocate to research labor conditions in Bangladesh in the wake of a building collapse that killed more than 1,100 factory workers.

So when the police officer told her that she was resisting arrest, which would exacerbate any charges against her, her legal acumen took over. “I kept repeating, ‘I’m not resisting arrest,’” loudly so others would hear. Nonetheless, the officer yanked her arms up, forcing her to hunch over. He also searched her purse, to which she said, “Without my permission, you can’t search my bag.” His response was, “You’re my prisoner. I can do whatever I want.’”

As she was whisked off to the precinct, Huq yelled to the crowd, “Please tell my family.” She was subsequently charged with obstruction, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest.

While in custody, she was criticized for keeping her maiden name. “In America,” an officer told her, “wives take the last names of their husbands.” As the hours stretched on—and she explained that, as a Muslim, she would soon need to break her Ramadan fast—she says the officer told her that he didn’t care and he’d ask her husband about it.

The thing that angered her the most, however, occurred after her family arrived and an officer began questioning her husband in front of her children, insinuating that she had been uncooperative. “No child should have to see that,” says Huq, who believes it confused her son as to whether she was responsible in some way.

“Why didn’t you just listen?” he asked her afterward. “Why didn’t you just move?”

Huq told him, “Sometimes people have power and a decision over you and use that decision in a negative way.”

The charges were later dismissed. Huq subsequently filed a federal civil rights suit claiming unreasonable and wholly unprovoked force “characteristic of a pattern and practice of the NYPD in aggressive over-policing of people of color and persons lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights.” She was awarded $37,500, a vindication for her and a lesson, feasibly, for her children going forward.

“Because I don’t want them to grow up with fear,” Huq says, “I want them to feel confident in terms of who they are. They have a right to be here. They have a right to walk to school, be with their friends, goof around. They have the right to be silly and goofy without having this threat of being seen as this criminal.”

New Traffic Stop Regulations

Virginia recently passed a law requiring public school driver’s education courses to teach students how to interact with police officers during a traffic stop. North Carolina is considering something similar. Illinois now legally requires police officers to treat drivers with “dignity and respect.”

Ann Farmer

Ann Farmer is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn, New York, who primarily writes about pop culture and legal topics. A former producer for Court TV, she also spent years covering crimes and local breaking news for the New York Times.