Bar News - September 21, 2016
Opinion: How Then Shall We Live? Leading by Example in the Face of Racism
By: Charles Keefe
Like most people, distinct memories of my father have played a significant role in my life. One such childhood memory has come to the forefront of my mind on a regular basis since Aug. 9, 2014. On that day, police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
The childhood memory I have of my father is his telling me this, as we drove home from a Red Sox game, after an ugly racial incident in which my father intervened: Respect every person you meet until that person loses your respect. As I grew older, he demonstrated that lesson to me in every conceivable way. My father’s deeds spoke louder than his words. He was a model through action. Most importantly, he showed me to evaluate people by their character, by their thoughts and actions, and to not fall prey to the dangers of all-to-common stereotyping (which is a euphemism for profiling). I was lucky because as we heard in the musical South Pacific, you have to be taught. I was taught the right way.
In the last two years, since the events in Ferguson, our country has fractured. The lines of that fracture seem to be the oft-intersecting lines of race and law enforcement. Since that day we have come to know other names: Tamir Rice and Eric Garner.
We have come to hear the phrases “Hands up, don’t shoot” and “Black Lives Matter.” During the same period of time, we have also witnessed the horrific assassination of five police officers in Dallas, two officers in New York City, and we have seen video of a man shooting an officer while sitting in his cruiser in Philadelphia. We have also been told that “blue lives matter” and all lives matter.
The current racial, religious, and political climate in this country grows tenser. With each news cycle during this presidential election season, we discuss the validity of building a wall and banning an entire religion from entering the country. We hear a new story each day about rising racial tensions, a police officer’s use of force, or of violence against police. Like most of us, I am often left to think about what I can do to stem the tide of hate and division that is washing over our country.
I am a former prosecutor and now a criminal defense attorney. Police officers are some of my closest friends, and I work with them every day. I know from being on both sides of the aisle that being a police officer is one of the hardest jobs in our country. Their decisions, made in split-second, high-tension moments with the clearest of hearts can be wrong. Those decisions can result in the death of a civilian or the police officer. I spend much of my professional life criticizing and challenging police officers, to make clear their mistakes, both their words and actions. They screw up, a lot.
Contrary to the suggestion sometimes offered in various media, I do not see a morass of dark hearts. I see, for the great majority, men and women who try to follow the law, do the right thing, and get home safely. They are sometimes aggressive, sometimes rude, and sometimes react emotionally. They are human, but they also have massive amounts of power and responsibility. My clients, no matter their race or religion, are human, too.
As someone on the front lines of the battlefield in the criminal justice system, I think about the words and actions of my father often now. Like most of you, I worry about the world into which my children will grow. With all of this in mind, I wonder what I can do as a father. Here, I ask: What can we do as lawyers?
We are leaders in the community. We are society’s representation of rational intellect and justice. We are also coaches, volunteers, and active participants on committees and boards. In all of these roles, we are models. We are models in our words and actions. We are models in every role we play in our society, both inside and outside of the law. With every opportunity that presents itself, we have the opportunity to demonstrate rational intellect and justice.
We have an obligation to do this. We can speak up in the face of racism. We can defend the appropriate actions of police and the necessary role they play in our society, but we can also condemn their abuses of power. By allowing any injustice to pass, we allow for greater injustices to follow. We, as leaders in the community, should not allow such things to happen. We shall live as models. We shall live as leaders.
Chuck Keefe is a criminal defense lawyer with the Nashua firm of Wilson, Bush & Keefe. He is also a former assistant attorney general and assistant county attorney.