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Not immune: Racism in the justice system and the legal profession

The killing of George Floyd launched a nationwide reckoning with America’s history of racism. The ensuing movement against racism and racial injustice has already sparked changes that were both long overdue and yet until recently would have been difficult to imagine.

Lawyers Weekly has covered, and will continue to cover, this movement in a variety of ways. But we also felt that it was important for us to ask Black attorneys from across the state to share directly with our readers their own stories, unmediated by our voices. We asked these attorneys to tell us about how race and racism has affected them in their careers, and to share whatever stories they thought would be most important to understanding that.

We’re grateful to each of these attorneys for sharing their perspectives with us, and eager to share more stories from other Black attorneys, and other legal professionals, in coming issues. We hope that these stories will help readers to better understand our society and our profession by viewing them through a different perspective.

David Donovan, Editor in Chief, North Carolina Lawyers Weekly

 

Vince Rozier, Wake County Superior Court Judge

When I graduated from law school, I began working as an Assistant District Attorney in Wake County. That job gave me the opportunity to work with law enforcement officers from various different agencies. As with any profession, some in law enforcement were more professional than others. Some were more respectful, both to me and the people they charged. Some … I’m fine never seeing them again.

As a part of our continuing education, prosecutors from across North Carolina would attend conferences to keep us up to date with changes in the law and how to do our jobs better. This was often like a reunion of sorts because of the opportunity to see old friends from college, law school or our new prosecutors class. In fact, it was at a District Attorneys Conference that I was first introduced to the Dave Chappelle Show!

One day after our sessions were over at a conference in New Bern, I spent time catching up friends. When it was time to leave, I proceeded to walk back to my car. I was walking on the sidewalk. I was not walking in between cars in the parking lot. There were no alarms going off. It was a peaceful and joyful night from my perspective.

Then, I saw a police officer drive by at the end of the street. For me, this was no big deal. I had no concern, for I had done nothing wrong. I actually considered that the officer in the patrol car may have been involved with our conference. That is, until he backed up in the middle of the street, turned on his lights and drove directly to where I was walking.

He exited his vehicle, approached me, and told me that in the past there had been some break-ins in the parking lot. He asked for my identification and inquired why I was there. When I let him know that I was there as an assistant district attorney, basically to learn how to better prosecute people who break into cars, his response was “then you know why I’m doing this.” My thoughts at the time were more along the lines of “yes. I know. You’re doing this because you’re a racist who is just profiling me for walking while black.” Some things are better left not said, though.

He had me sit on the curb while he ran my license through his system. (A process I was familiar with from countless officers in countless trials explaining their actions.) I guess he wanted to see if this self-proclaimed assistant district attorney had any outstanding warrants. But what I remember most aside from his words, was how embarrassing it felt as every car that drove by would look at me like I had committed some crime, like I had done something wrong, like I deserved this.

I recall how demoralized I felt as I experienced a truth I already knew, that attending and graduating from UNC and law school, that serving as prosecutor, that being an overall nice guy with flaws, that nothing gave me immunity from this treatment as long as my pigment was just as God had intended.

I reflected on feeling like nothing—not even the Constitution—was a shield as long as my race was visible. I realized that nothing would allow me to escape from being asked to present my papers just like black slaves who walked away from the plantation 150 years earlier had to do. I remember it hurt.

One other emotion surprised me, though … guilt. No, I did not feel guilty because I had done anything wrong. I had not. I did, however, feel guilty for allowing it to faze me.

Culturally, adopting the mindset of being a strong black man would naturally mean brushing off encounters with the police. It’s understood as being an aspect of American black maleness. It’s a rite of passage of sorts. That meant that I had to brush it off, or I don’t make the cut. I had to suppress it or deal with the guilt of not doing so. That is just what it means for “me” to be an American. It means sucking up wrongs done to you when nothing was done wrong by you because of the way others look upon you. I sucked it up. I remembered it but chose not to reveal it.

In fact, the first time that my wife learned of all of this was after I recently posted it on Facebook. Like with other trauma, someone else then shared with me that he has not told his wife of his ordeal that occurred while he was serving in the Navy.

I’d heard many of my African American male friends describe their similar experiences, but I had been exempted. I had never and still have never heard any of my white male friends tell me of similar life experiences. Maybe they had and just never shared it. But considering that I have some pretty deep relationships with both black and white guys, it seems it would have come out at some point from at least one of them. I never even heard of similar experiences from the ones who I’m pretty sure had a lot of weed in their car or apartment!

Anyway, I was still able to go home and do my job as a prosecutor and later as a judge. In the cases at work, the issue was whether the law was followed or if a crime actually took place. And there have been cases when I have had to rule in favor of what I personally believed to be motivated by profiling and a violation of human dignity because it was done in compliance with the law. Similarly, I have had to rule in favor of people I know were guilty, but the law was not followed. Still, my experience shapes my fuller view of the world. It also makes me more diligent in following the law to make sure that it is applied fairly to all.

I share this just to offer a glimpse of what people mean when they attempt to detail their experiences. Their experiences are real. Each experience is different. But it can take a toll on you, even when it’s not you. You understand that you might be next. You feel this is your version of being an American.

Now, I drive with a license plate that indicates my profession. I feel more obligated to follow traffic laws than free to violate them. I also acknowledge that I feel like there is some insurance or assurance against unreasonable and unjustified interaction.

After my experience, I avoided the city of New Bern because I didn’t want to relive my emotions. I know that an experience with one officer in New Bern did not mean they all were bad. I know Jesus had 12 primary apostles—1 betrayed Him, 1 denied Him, 1 doubted His return. I hope and believe that police departments have better statistics!

It actually took me 12 years before I ever stopped in the city of New Bern again. I would always drive through on the way to family trips to Havelock. The only reason I went back was because of a campaign event at the exact same location. I had the luxury of not going back to where my experience took place for years. But I do wonder…

What do you do when this happens in your neighborhood or on your street or on your block? What do you do when you have to see the same officer over and over again? How do you respond when you are growing up and told that you live on the “wrong” side of town or that your neighborhood is “bad?” I can’t answer those questions for me. But I often saw the results in Juvenile Court with kids who were seeking an identity in their formative years.

I have heard many similar stories like mine most of my adult life. Now, I’m just one more story.

 

Cheyenne N. Chambers, Attorney at Tin, Fulton, Walker & Owen in Charlotte

Clerking While Black

After the waiter took everyone’s beverage orders, one of the visiting judges asked each of my co-clerks: 

What’s your name? 

Where are you from? 

Where did you go to law school? 

Are you enjoying the clerkship with your judge?

One by one, my co-clerks engaged in a lighthearted conversation with the visiting judge. They spoke briefly about their hometowns, academic experiences, and their post-clerkship plans. Several minutes later, the same visiting judge turned to me: 

And what’s your name?

I answered the question, and then immediately started thinking about Cleveland, Ohio. The visiting judge followed-up:

How do you spell your name?

I paused. I heard this question many times before, especially in predominantly white spaces like this one. And in that moment, I recalled a number of occasions when a person was fascinated by their discovery that my Black parents chose not to select an “alternate spelling” for my first name. 

To give the visiting judge the benefit of the doubt, but also protect myself from the lingering effects of another microaggression, I answered: 

My first name is spelled the same way as the capital city of Wyoming.

I reached for my glass of water and took a sip—a habit of mine during professional events, when I need a few seconds to collect my thoughts. 

As I lowered my glass to the table, my mind returned to Cleveland.  Then, the visiting judge asked me: 

So, how do you know your judge? 

I paused again. I received this same question during the law clerk orientation just months prior, where in a room of more than 100 law clerks, I could count on only one hand the number of other Black clerks in attendance.

Somehow, I found a way to insert my hometown, academic experience, and post-clerkship plans into my lengthy response which began:

I did not know my judge before this clerkship…

At this point, the conversation shifted to something more familiar. I mentioned that I was enjoying my clerkship.

The next day at work, my judge, who was unable to attend, asked me about the dinner. Although I had shared several stories (good and not-so-good) from past dinners and networking events, there was just something different about this particular dinner. I was not yet ready to revisit such a paper cut moment—when a federal appellate judge questioned the legitimacy of my clerkship in front of my colleagues.

I told my judge … everything went well.

Chambers is the author of A Peek Behind the Curtain: The Inner-Workings of the Judiciary, and Why Judges Should Address the Lack of Diversity Among Law Clerks (AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION, Appellate Issues, Winter 2020). Before private practice, Chambers served as a law clerk to the Honorable Paul J. Watford of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

 

Randy Griffin, Attorney at Frasier & Griffin in Durham

I’ll summarize, but in the summer of 1998 Damian Tucker and myself would go to Duke University Law Library to study EVERY night. My car broke down so my wife, Myra, my girlfriend at the time, would drop me off at UNC for Barbri bar prep every morning. Damian would then take me after class to lunch, to the YMCA and then to Duke Law Library to study. Myra would come between 11 and midnight to pick me up each night. We started right before Memorial Day and did this every day until the bar. One day Damian and I went into the library and sat down at the first table we could find at the front. We had our books and notebooks out and were studying when two campus officers came in. They looked around the library and then came to our table. The officers asked us for ID and asked if we were students at Duke.  They explained they had had some break-ins and items stolen and that we “looked suspicious”. As we looked amazed with our books for the bar out all over the table, they took each one of our IDs calling us suspects and called to check for warrants. By this time, students had gathered all around the library looking at us because you could hear the radios all over the “quiet library”. John Griffin, date of birth, suspect Damian Tucker. After we came back clear they said ok and left. The librarian, who was black, apologized to us and said they never asked her about us. She told us she could have told them we are in the library every day to study. Needless to say, it was one of the most embarrassing moments in my life!

 

Ashleigh Parker Dunston, Wake County District Court Judge

While an Assistant Attorney General, I was tasked with trying DMV hearings in Superior Court throughout the State. While in a rural county, I was standing up for calendar call when opposing counsel stated that the Attorney General’s Office, “didn’t send anybody.” In a different county, I was asked for my bar card when entering the courthouse to verify that I should have been in the attorney line versus the public line. Any time that I sat in the jury box (which was standard protocol for attorneys), I would receive side glances and questioning stares, so eventually, I just started sitting in the public gallery to avoid these.

 

Sharif Deveaux, assistant public defender, Wake County Public Defender’s Office

I have had countless encounters with police from various jurisdictions across multiple states. Some of them justified, some of them not. My earliest encounters began when I started driving. Since I lived in a low-income neighborhood in Fayetteville, police were as plentiful as criminals. I could not get through a weekend without being pulled over by police when returning home from football games, movies, or parties. Some nights I would get pulled over multiple times one of two things would happen. If I was alone the cop would ask for my license, ask if I had anything, and tell me to be safe. If I was with any other males we would be taken out of the car, patted down, questioned then told to not get into any trouble. It got to the point that I would drive out of my way to get back to my neighborhood to avoid being pulled over, not because I was doing anything wrong but because I was increasingly challenging the cops and my friends would get mad cause we could get locked-up for nothing. There was one incident however that has been the most instructive in understanding the police and how they police people like me.

I was 18 and walking to the neighborhood store. I just walked through the path leading from my house onto one of the side streets in my neighborhood. I saw the police car turn onto the street heading my way. Not really paying them any attention I continued walking towards them. As they approached me, they abruptly slowed down and turned into my path. Both cops jumped out. By this time, I was used to how cops acted so put my hands half-way up while at the same time saying “what the fuck man, what y’all doing.” Officer K. was in the passenger seat and got to me first. He reached towards my chest as if to push me back but I jumped back myself to keep him from touching me. By that time his partner, who was driving, was able to reach me and grabbed my arm. As I was pulling my arm away K. was able to get his hand on my shoulder and pushed it hard enough to spin me around. At this point I knew I was “got” so I continued to ask, “what you doing man, I’m just walking up the block.” K. pushed me up onto a tree while his partner still had my arm. I was facing the tree and K. put his hand on my back between my shoulders and started patting me down. I said something like, “man you all trippin, why you messing with me?” Then K. said something I have never forgotten: “Nothing personal, you’re just a victim of circumstance.” I don’t remember if I asked “what circumstance?” or “huh” or anything, but he expounded by saying: “you’re young and black.” I don’t remember if there was any other conversation while he was patting me down and going into my pockets and grabbing my crotch and having me take my sneakers off. I do remember that once he was finished, he and his partner began walking back to the car and said, “stay out of trouble.”

I put my sneakers back on and continued walking to the store. Once I got there, I told some of the brothers that “K. had just sweated me.” I knew they would understand because they were “victims of circumstance” too. Then I just went about the rest of my day.

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