“Mere access to the courthouse doors does not by itself assure a proper functioning of the adversary process.” Unfortunately, I find myself needing to reflect on this profound quote by Thurgood Marshall more and more frequently.
During a traffic stop last June, a white Pittsburgh police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager as he ran with his back to the officer. A few weeks ago, the officer was acquitted of an open count of homicide which included murder or manslaughter.
Once again, the system has failed to hold a police officer accountable for slaughtering an unarmed black man. We cannot allow this to continue. We cannot become complacent as we watch our people drop like flies at the hands of the very force that is paid by our tax dollars to protect and serve. We cannot stop fighting for justice.
This weekend, I had the privilege of attending the American Bar Association Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice’s Spring Meeting in Baltimore. We had the honor to hear from many distinguished elected officials and thought leaders including Congressman Elijah E. Cummings (D - MD), Marilyn Mosby (State's Attorney for Baltimore City), Abdallah Lateef, Bobby Scott (D-VA), Caryn York, and many others. Each of these esteemed speakers had a distinct message that reinforced my passion to fight for those who need us most. State’s Attorney Mosby had a powerful call to action for the lawyers in the room – “What can we collectively do about it?” As I pondered this charge, three simple actions came to mind that all of us can take in the fight for justice.
1. Utilize the Power of Social Media
A key component to effectuating meaningful change is communicating calls for reform to the widest audience possible. Social media is a free, easily accessible platform that reaches persons all around the globe. After a police killing, we typically hear about the incident for a few days and around key milestones in any resulting legal proceeding. Shortly thereafter, the story fades away from news cycle. Utilizing social media can provide the means for continuous dialogue once mainstream media stops covering an issue.
2. Contact Your Local Government
As Thomas Jefferson once said, “The government closest to the people serves the people best.” In our current political climate, this cannot be underscored enough. There are a wealth of opportunities for citizens to engage with their local government. You can testify at a public hearing, write a letter to your representative, or attend a town hall.
Many of the laws and policies that are developed by our legislatures come directly from issues raised by the community. We therefore must invest time and energy to contact our local lawmakers so they are aware that we will not allow these outrageous actions by our police departments to go unnoticed.
Above all, make your voice heard by voting. There is nothing more important than voting in the fight for justice. If you do not vote, you silence your voice.
3. Volunteer in Your Community
Knowledge is power. When you know your rights, know how to influence your local government, and ultimately know your self-worth, you have the courage to demand change. The unfortunate reality is that too many people are not in a position to absorb necessary resources or develop personal relationships with positive role models. If we each dedicated just a small amount of time to volunteer in our community on a regular basis, it would make a world of a difference. There are countless ways to do so — check out your local youth groups, senior centers, or nonprofit organizations. Our communities need us.
According to a 2015 study, racial minorities made up about 37.4 percent of the general population in the United States, but they made up 62.7 percent of unarmed people killed by police. What can we do about it? We can require accountability and transparency by taking the actions described above so the senseless cycle of police killings does not repeat itself over and over again. We need to call for independent prosecutors, implicit bias and cultural awareness training for police departments, and improved police-community relations. Collectively, we must serve as the influencing voice in the fight for justice.
Melanie Bates is an attorney based in Washington, D.C. She has a passion for criminal justice reform and believes that poverty, lack of education, and other social issues should not feed the pipeline to prison. Through consistent advocacy, she desires to alleviate the factors that force many people to become a part of the criminal justice system. The views expressed here are her own.