Cell phone video is a powerful force for Democracy.
Alton Sterling’s life matters as much as mine does. Philando Castile’s life matters as much as my wife’s does. The racial problems in US law enforcement are not new but they are becoming less deniable by the day.
This human catastrophe stems from problems that are deeper and more serious than the current debate suggests.
- Here is a highly redacted FBI document from October of 2006 entitled “White Supremacist Infiltration of Law Enforcement.”
For further disturbing reading, see:
- Law Students Find History of Police Connections with KKK
- Hate Groups in the Military and Law Enforcement
- The KKK has infiltrated US Law Enforcement for Decades
Racial injustice has played a decisive role in my life and in my legal career. I write to offer a few ideas and a prescription to address some of the most corrosive social ills of our time.
In the late 1960s, as a child I got to take some enrichment classes at Los Angeles Community College. Today it is hard to imagine the political ferment on college campuses 50 years ago. I remember being a 9 year-old kid, walking down a long row of tables at LACC, each one of which represented a political cause. I looked up at a tall black college student with sunglasses and a big afro hairdo.
“Why are you so angry?”
He took off his sunglasses and sat down to look me in the eye.
“We’re angry because the cops hurt us. We are getting drafted to fight in Vietnam. Do you know about little black kids, younger than you, getting arrested just a couple years ago for sitting at lunch counters?”
“I heard of it, yes. There is a lunch counter at the Thrifty Drug Store on Sunset and Fairfax. My dad says its too expensive, but I think black people are allowed to eat there.”
“America is a lot rougher than Hollywood. You should think about it.”
In the spring of 1984, I worked as a Certified Law Clerk for the Los Angeles County District Attorney. I got to appear in court and put on felony preliminary hearings. The first words I ever spoke in court on the record were, “Scott Pearce, for the People.” After reading dozens of identical police reports on different drug cases, I went to my supervisor.
“These cases have problems,” I said. “I don’t think the cops are telling the truth. Shouldn’t we be worried about putting on false testimony?”
“Sworn police officers are our colleagues. We have plenty of conflict with them over which cases to file, believe me, but we are confident of the cases we do file. You’ll see. No go back to court.”
A couple years later, I joined the office of the Los Angeles County Public Defender, proud of the work and looking forward to “working within the system” for justice.
I was horrified by what I saw. Going into the central jail to visit clients, I noticed that I was a 27 year-old white man in an expensive suit. Walking down a long line of cells, dozens of brown arms reached out from behind the bars to shake my hand or touch my sleeve and ask for help or to make a phone call to a relative. “Is this South Africa?” My honest reaction was that about 95% of the people behind bars shouldn’t be there at all and the other 5% shouldn’t ever be allowed to get out.
My transactional experience in Hollywood legal work prepared me well for work as a Deputy Public Defender. I was a natural at plea negotiations. My colleagues and I would try to stack the trial courts with lots of cases that had to be tried that day or dismissed, and then go in and work out superb plea bargains.
It did not take me long to realize that pleading defendants guilty – even for a “superb deal” – wasn’t in their interest. At the same time, the trial courts did not seem preferable. Most of the judges were ex-prosecutors or insurance company lawyers, and the evidentiary decisions tended to go against the defense. Sentencing was brutal, even before “Three Strikes” laws led to the wholesale warehousing of criminal defendants.
I admired the tough public defender trial lawyers. I still do. Even so, I knew I coudn’t survive for long as a witness to the daily injustices, and the occasional good I could do for people didn’t seem enough to compensate. I told people I felt like the train conductor to Auschwitz. “This is systematic injustice. It can’t be cured or improved from within. What is the satisfaction in being a Constitutional patina of “due process” when the substance of the criminal justice system is a race war?”
Straight Outta of Compton came out in 1988, not long after I left the public defender’s office to practice on my own and to get into corporate bar exam review and teaching. N.W.A. earned its spot in the Rock and Roll hall of fame with “Straight out of Compton” and “F— the Police.” I spent a little time in the Compton Courthouse in the 1980s, and if anything the N.W.A. album is sentimental and optimistic. Listening to the first couple of cuts on that album felt exactly the same as the first time I heard the Sex Pistols.
30 years later, 1986 seems like a gentle, bygone era. Incarceration rates have exploded during these years. Inequality and injustice in many other forms are obvious, too. What is to be done? Well, for a start:
- Stop the Drug War
- Revise Mandatory Sentencing Laws
- Reaffirm the 4th, 5th and 6th Amendments
- End the Death Penalty
- Apply the federal minimum wage to prison labor
In the summer of 2002, a couple of videotaped incidents of police violence were global news. One of the incidents happened in Inglewood, California, where I worked as a law professor. I was interviewed on TV2, Denmark’s national television station. Here is the five-minute interview: