HLS Students, Ferguson, & Systemic Justice

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From Dig Boston:

Rebecca Chapman, HLS ’15, who went to Ferguson in October, notes that, “despite what we are taught in law school, the law is not neutral; lawyers and law students have a unique perspective on the reality that law does not protect everyone equally. Judges, prosecutors, politicians, policemen – everyone is complicit in perpetuating our unequal, racist, sexist system of laws.” Victoria White, HLS ’15 returned from Ferguson only a few days ago.

“The time I spent in Ferguson reaffirmed for me the idea that there is an integral role for lawyers to play in social movements—not only to work alongside organizers and activists, but also to protect the civil and human rights of those who exercise their right to protest. We must use our legal education to begin addressing systemic injustice, one day at a time.”

From the interview of Rebecca Chapman:

What do you feel law students in particular can and should add to the conversation and actions around Ferguson?

Perhaps uniquely, law students and lawyers understand how the law operates and that, despite what we are sometimes taught in law school, law is not neutral. We learn supposedly neutral rules like the ‘reasonableness’ standard for police use of force as if they are somehow applied in a vacuum. The movement in Ferguson seeks to address systemic forms of oppression that legitimize the idea that it is ‘reasonable’ to fear black men and women in this country, and thus it is ‘reasonable’ to end their lives. This movement is not just about ending police brutality. Rather, it understands that the brutality of the police is merely one symptom of an underlying illness in the law. The law does not protect everyone equally. Judges, prosecutors, politicians, policemen – everyone is complicit in perpetuating an unequal, racist, sexist system.

As students at Harvard Law School, we know that if we remain silent, we are complicit. This is true for all people, but it is especially and tangibly true for law students. Several of us have recently returned from Ferguson and saw first hand the reality of oppression there – and felt what that means for the oppression and structural inequality that infects the entire country. In Ferguson, protestors and organizers frequently invoked the principle that “when injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.” As the future of the law, law students must take this to heart. We believe that there is an integral role for lawyers to play in social movements—not only to work alongside organizers and activists in helping to mobilize, but to protect the civil and human rights of those who exercise their right to protest. We know that, without a system to back it up, a ‘right’ is just a bunch of words; right now, the system that we have, the system that law has built, is not one that backs up everyone’s rights equally.

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