Law Student Perspectives: On Grief, Organizing, and Joy in Support of Black Lives

Group_of_Black_Lives_Matter_protesters_shouting_paroles_(50115383087)Survey data suggests that the recent protests in support of Black lives constitute the largest movement in U.S. history. The Blog interviewed five law students about what it is like to be a law student right now. Below, you’ll see lightly edited quotes from these students describing their experiences and discussing how they are showing up to support the movement.  

Jordan Brewington is a rising 3L at Yale Law School who writes and dreams about reparations.

I think a lot of people at our law school talk about how the work is exhausting and spiritually draining, but not enough people talk about how the work is life-giving, deeply cathartic, spiritual. I don’t think that hit for me as profoundly as in this moment.

I remember hearing about Breonna and trying to stop it from percolating into my spiritual shield. I didn’t want to stop the happiness that I’d been experiencing, I didn’t want to remember my chains. When I finally let it in, I remember staring out my bathroom window, so depressed I could hardly keep my head up. I started hearing ambient people noise and jazz music and (a bit delusional) I convinced myself there was a second line in New Haven. I walked outside in basically pajamas to see what was going on and by the time I hit the Shops at Yale, I saw hundreds of people stopping traffic, chanting, moving. I just felt compelled to start walking with them, and that day we shut down the 95.

I don’t think anything else could have pulled me out of the place I was in, letting my oppressor spiritually override my joy. Knowing that I was amongst a collective, people who had felt compelled to come together and put their bodies on the line to stop everything and demand accountability—that gave me more life than what these deaths, this country, and even our law school have tried to extract from me. It affirmed my purpose and work in reparations. It reminded me how the work is difficult, but beautiful, irresistible, because it starts with us. Movement comes from us; reparations emerge from us; healing begins within us.

Martese Johnson is a rising 3L student at the University of Michigan whose personal experience with police violence sparked a passion for civil rights litigation.

I found the protests both exhilarating and terrifying. you see people come together and really showing that we have a community that is not going to stand for the ostracizing or debasement of Black bodies in any way, and that’s beautiful. At the same time there are moments when you see anger in its purest form it’s coming from Black citizens and non-Black citizens alike. George Floyd seems to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. You get this sort of excitement and togetherness at the protests, but also it’s a little bit scary. One moment I was simply walking down the street and there were some officers coming from behind to flank the protestors. There was a woman that yelled watch out, and they told her to relax. They were angry that she warned us. That moment sort of reflects the lack of care that officers take in their interactions with citizens. And as citizens we’re supposed to say nothing and relax and conduct business as usual which is the debasement of Black bodies.

But what I learned from my own experience as the target of police brutality in 2015 is that law—specifically Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act—provides Black people and other oppressed people of color a unique and powerful tool for fighting back.

I would have never imagined being a lawyer before March 18, 2015, the day of the incident. I was very much inspired to go to law school by the attorneys that worked on my case. The days and months and years that followed, a handful of lawyers demystified what it was like to be an attorney. Where I came from I wouldn’t have access to that knowledge otherwise. It’s doubly empowering to understand the law because now I can teach people who look like me. I can help them to use it to their advantage the same way people form more privileged backgrounds do it. Black people,  poor people should have significantly more access to that knowledge—especially people disparately harmed by those acts.

Joanie Steffen is a rising 2L at Harvard Law School who works on prison abolition.

I think that many fellow law students have been inspired by the George Floyd protests and want to find ways to apply their newfound legal skills to support the movement. I see our role as removing as many barriers as possible between people’s interest in engaging in the protests and their ability to. I really try to be an educational resource, we’re having a lot of people reaching out who have never been to a protest or to a protest with police brutality like what we’re seeing. Know-your-rights training was important for that—to minimize fear of the unknown. I’m one of the co-presidents of Harvard’s National Lawyers Guild and our chapter has been doing all the staffing for the Massachusetts National Lawyers Guild chapter’s legal hotline. We got a huge amount of interest—law students tend to be risk averse in the first place and because of COVID, people are looking to help in particular ways.

I was exposed to the criminal justice system first hand being a J20 defendant. I was also exposed to anarchist organizing as I worked with co-defendants on our collective defense strategy. That was such a radicalizing experience to see how horrible the criminal justice process is but also the positive ways people can organize without formal structures and without hierarchical relationships. In organizing at Harvard, I’m always finding ways to bring elements of that experience into student organizing and finding common ground. I knew when I started law school that my beliefs would probably be far removed from classroom content. I’ve seen my role at Harvard as exposing people to those ideas and bringing that element into people’s consciousness.  I think the current movement shows the value of holding space for radical views in the legal field since protests have taken police abolition from the fringe into the mainstream discussion.

Zeke Wald is a rising 3L a Berkeley working in economic justice.

Rather than putting on the “legal observer” hat, I’ve just wanted to be out there at the protests, lending my voice to my community and the people that matter to me as another member of the Oakland and Berkeley community. I also wanted to take a bit of a back seat and trying to educate myself from these other people who are leading the movement and leading the change and wanting to learn from organizers and folks who have been on the ground doing this.

But as a law student, I do feel like there is an additional layer of responsibility on members of the legal community because of how much law has played into all of the social problems we are protesting. Lawyers have been involved in creating the social conditions that lead to disproportionate encounters with police by Black and brown communities—they’ve crafted the legal rules that allow those officers to feel comfortable to use lethal force. It’s important to me that members of the legal profession are not only listening and learning, being a part of these movements that are trying to change this system.

Andrew Ntim is a rising 2L at Yale Law school working to transform the criminal legal system.

I came into law school unsure if I could really be part of movements if that was my place, even though I come from these communities and have these personal experiences. I had my own personal barriers where I had trouble showing up… I was taught to value what I could produce academically. But what participating in movements in New Haven has taught—especially in the past couple of weeks—is that I can really show up for my communities and for these movements and can be valuable. I didn’t know if it would be possible when I arrived at law school.

I think I’ve just been so used to the idea of code switching my entire life and performing race and performing trauma to make it possible to exist in these elite spaces. That’s something I’ve had ever since I was in high school. What I’ve really had to learn since I graduated from Stanford is the process of unlearning the colonization that occurred throughout that time and getting in touch with who I truly am and how I relate to my identity and to the movements that have come before me.

Participating in these protests has been a joyful process because it’s allowed me to get in touch with those aspects of myself that I’ve hidden or performed in certain ways in legal and nonlegal spaces. That sort of collective feeling of joy and coming together in solidarity has been my experience during the past few weeks, but it’s terrible some of the protests have resulted in further police brutality and teargassing of protestors.