Two years ago, I received a phone call from my dad which was unlike any other call I had ever received from him. My dad called me to express his disappointment that, earlier in the day, a Richmond County grand jury decided not to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who placed a chokehold on Eric Garner — a chokehold that contributed to Mr. Garner’s death on July 17, 2014. My father’s feelings about the ordeal was not the disturbing part of the phone call, but what followed was.
My dad said, “Kim, do whatever the police tell you to. I’m serious. If they tell you to get down on the ground, just do it. Don’t ask any questions.” As I listened to my dad, I envisioned myself face down on the ground with a police officer standing above me. Tears rolled down my face, and I became angry. I was angry because I knew my white friends’ parents were not having the same conversation with them. I was angry because my dad felt that it was necessary to give me this warning – me, his baby, whose never been in trouble in her life. Above all though, I was angry because in 2014 — 52 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, 53 years after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, 62 years after Brown v. Board of Education, and 151 years after the abolition of slavery, my dad was completely justified in giving me that warning. I stewed in my anger for a few days, but not necessarily anger because of what happened to Mr. Garner, but anger over what my dad told me and the reason why he told me what he did. It did not matter that I had worked hard to earn a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, or even a juris doctorate. It did not matter that I currently work in a profession where I regularly mingle with judges, politicians, and other game changers at social events. All of that that was irrelevant, as were my good deeds. My dad warned me and my brother for one simple reason — the color of our skin, and that reason alone is enough to anger anyone.
But, after the passage of time, my dad’s warning faded, and I went on with my life. That changed, however, in July of 2016.
On July 5, 2016, Alton Sterling was killed, seemingly without cause at the hands of police officers right in our own backyard in Baton Rouge, Louisiana — a place I consider a second home. And subsequent to Mr. Sterling’s shooting death, five Dallas police officers and three Baton Rouge police officers were murdered in an apparent retaliation. Now things were getting a little too close to home for me. I was suddenly hit with a feeling of “things are definitely going to go downhill from here.” These deaths would certainly heighten the sensitivities of everyone, including myself. I began to feel like, though I live in America — the land of the free and equal opportunity, a place where people risk their lives to escape to — my life would become a prison, consisting of only home, work, and church. I had had enough and wanted to avoid navigating through the racial tension that, though already existed without the events that have garnered national attention over the past few years, would certainly be intensified. I envisioned a world where both police officers and blacks were hypersensitive — and rightfully so — and whites simply confused about where they fall in the #blacklivesmatter v. #alllivesmatter debate. Now, two years later, I did not need my dad’s warning of 2014. This time, I warned myself. I was going to retreat to my safe place, my prison.
Then, I quickly realized I was being irrational. I could not live life in my prison. My prison is not what my ancestors died for. It is not what my parents sacrificed for. My prison is not what Ruby Bridges stood for when she walked through the doors of William Frantz Elementary School 56 years ago right here in our city, nor is it what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his life for. I realized that now was not a time to retreat. One cannot effect change that way. Rather, this is a time for all of us, as lawyers, to play our parts. Like many who may read this, I do not have any experience in civil rights litigation, but that does not mean we cannot join the fight to end social injustice. Every effort toward that end is an important one. We can work with legislatures, representatives, and local law enforcement agencies to end unjustified police brutality, or at the least, to put effective systems in place that will punish individuals who cross those lines. Indeed, no one is above the law, nor is anyone immune to police brutality, though some of us may be more susceptible to it. The racial tension that currently dominates our country, state, and city needs to be diffused, and we can all work toward that goal. If each of us plays our parts, I am hopeful that in 20 years, I will not have to give my children the same warning my dad gave me.
Written by: Kimberly Silas, Chair of the Minorities in the Profession Committee