Public defenders from the Bay to Brooklyn take to the streets to hold police accountable

by Tamara Aparton

San Francisco – More than 200 public defenders and allies held a “hands up, don’t shoot” protest Dec. 18 on the steps of San Francisco’s criminal courthouse to show support for racial justice and stand in solidarity with protesters in New York, Ferguson and around the country.

Chris Hite speaks at the #HandsUp rally on the steps of San Francisco’s criminal courthouse, backed by Cephus Johnson, Oscar Grant’s Uncle Bobby, Public Defender Jeff Adachi and over 200 deputy public defenders. Hite, also a deputy PD, co-chairs the Racial Justice Committee.
Chris Hite speaks at the #HandsUp rally on the steps of San Francisco’s criminal courthouse, backed by Cephus Johnson, Oscar Grant’s Uncle Bobby, Public Defender Jeff Adachi and over 200 deputy public defenders. Hite, also a deputy PD, co-chairs the Racial Justice Committee.

While San Francisco public defenders rallied outside 850 Bryant St., public defenders in Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara and Solano counties staged similar actions at their county courthouses.

Speakers included Cephus Johnson, uncle of Oscar Grant and founder of the Oscar Grant Foundation; Chris Hite, co-chair of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Racial Justice Committee, which organized the rally; and Yolanda Jackson, executive director of the Bar Association of San Francisco and the executive director of the Justice and Diversity Center.

“There are few organizations in the United States that have closer ties to the Black and Brown members of our society than the public defender offices through the nation,” said Deputy Public Defender Chris Hite. “We felt it was essential to cast a light upon the racial injustices of the Black and Brown in our communities and to celebrate the notion that Black and Brown lives matter.”

The San Francisco Public Defender’s Racial Justice Committee formed in 2013 to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system and to advocate for reform in police detentions and arrests, prosecutorial charging and sentencing. The committee has partnered with the University of Pennsylvania Law School’s Quattrone Center to study the impact of race on the criminal justice system in San Francisco.

San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi called for accountability on behalf of victims of racial profiling and police brutality.

“As public defenders, it our responsibility to ensure that there is justice for all in the courts,” Adachi said. “We are here to say that our criminal justice system has no credibility when it fails to hold police officers accountable for the killing of Black and Brown people.”

The San Francisco Public Defender’s Racial Justice Committee is currently working on a plan for police department reform in light of the recent spate of unarmed Black men around the country.

Tamara Barak Aparton, communications and policy assistant in the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, can be reached at Tamara.Aparton@sfgov.org.

Brooklyn public defenders march, stage ‘die-in’

At least 200 public defenders walked off their jobs in Brooklyn on Dec. 17, staging a march and “die-in” to highlight the pervasiveness of racial inequality in the criminal justice system, the London Guardian reported.

Over 200 public defenders stage a “die-in” in front of the Brooklyn Detention Center. They lay on the concrete for seven minutes, the length of time a bystander’s video shows Eric Garner lay on the ground not breathing. For the final minute, the group fell silent. – Photo: Lauren Gambino
Over 200 public defenders stage a “die-in” in front of the Brooklyn Detention Center. They lay on the concrete for seven minutes, the length of time a bystander’s video shows Eric Garner lay on the ground not breathing. For the final minute, the group fell silent. – Photo: Lauren Gambino

“Several public defenders said they were marching for their clients, who they say the justice system has failed, repeatedly.

“‘We know that people of color are doing jail time for offenses like hopping turnstiles while officers who kill unarmed men do not even see the inside of central bookings,’ said Nora Carroll, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society in a statement.

“For attorney Roslyn Morrison, the fight is also personal.

“Morrison, who is Black, said her 7-year-old son came home from school the other day and told her if he could have a superpower, it would be to turn his skin white when he’s around police officers so that he and his friends wouldn’t be harassed.

Her 7-year-old son came home from school the other day and told her if he could have a superpower, it would be to turn his skin white when he’s around police officers so that he and his friends wouldn’t be harassed.

“‘My heart stopped,’ Morrison said. ‘I’ve had conversations about how I prepare him (to deal with police encounters). But it really broke my heart to hear my son say that.’

“She said she is hopeful that the protests, marches and die-ins will start a nationwide conversation about race relations and police brutality.

“‘I think the first step is knowledge and awareness, and the fact that people are out in this continued activity shows that this is just the beginning,’ she said. ‘I think there’s an awareness that there hasn’t been before.’”