“Black lives matter” rallies unite Bay Area public defenders
on December 18, 2014
Public defenders staged courthouse demonstrations across the Bay Area on Thursday to urge reform in the criminal justice system’s treatment of people of color.
Wearing a t-shirt bearing the words “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and amidst chants of “Black lives matter,” San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi called for immediate action from the steps of the city’s Hall of Justice.
“Our job as public defenders is to ensure that there’s justice for all,” Adachi said. “But we know that that doesn’t happen. We know that routinely poor people are prosecuted more severely. People of color are arrested and convicted at higher rates.”
Adachi said that his office’s Racial Justice Committee, which was founded in 2013, has worked to combat the disproportionate arrest, conviction, and incarceration of black and Latino people in the city. It has also pushed for bail and prison reform.
Also at the rally was Cephus “Uncle Bobby” Johnson, the uncle of Oscar Grant, the unarmed 22-year-old who was shot in the back and killed by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle on a train platform in 2009.
“We are in a state of emergency,” Johnson said. “Let us continue to increase the swell that’s happening all across this nation, and let us continue to speak to this injustice that we see on a regular basis.”
“Tatiana would say thank you,” he added, referring to Grant’s young daughter.
The rally ended in 4 ½ minutes of silence, one minute for each hour that Michael Brown’s body lay dead in a Ferguson, MO street.
Across the Bay, Contra Costa County Chief Public Defender Robin Lipetzky echoed similar sentiments in front of the superior court in Martinez.
“We see the immediate effects on the disparate treatment of our clients. We see it in the fact that people of color are underrepresented in our juries and they’re over represented in our jails,” Lipetzky said. “We see it everyday in judicial decisions and in district attorney filing decisions.”
The demonstration came on the heels of a statement from the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s office announcing that it would not file charges against Richmond Police Officer Joe Avila, who was found with 4 lbs. of marijuana, which he’d seized on the job, at his home in Oakley.
Avila, a canine patrol officer, has said that he took the drugs to train his dog, Bosco.
“In the ways our clients are treated versus police officers…. [the case] highlights the disparity that continues to exist,” said Deputy Public Defender Brandon Banks.
“If that’s any other individual where they have that amount of marijuana and they make statements admitting that they have that amount of marijuana, they’re going to be charged with possession,” Banks said. “Particularly if it’s a young black or Latino person.”
Lipetzky said she believes that the district attorney’s decision is based solely on Avila’s status at a police officer.
“Our clients are routinely sent to jail and prison for possession of marijuana in amounts much smaller than this,” Lipetzky said. “It is this kind is preferential treatment for police officers who violate the law that leads many to conclude that the system is not fair.”
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