Law students stand up to make a difference

Answering the call to end racism and police brutality

By Deb Rieselman

Eight minutes and 46 seconds. The timeframe is carved into our psyche. Later, the official time was revised to seven minutes and 46 seconds, but most people stuck with the original May 25 number. It seemed amoral to change it.

“The crime to George Floyd was so egregious,” says University of Cincinnati College of Law Dean Verna Williams, “and it’s in our faces in a way it never was before. Video is the one thing we have today that we didn’t have 15 years ago. That’s making a difference.”

The longing to end both racism and police brutality possibly created the largest movement in U.S. history, the New York Times opined on July 3. That was the issue in which reporters attached official numbers to events they could track. Upwards of 26 million Americans had participated in more than 4,700 demonstrations, an average of 140 per day, in about 2,500 cities in all 50 states.

Furthermore, 60 countries around the world showed ardent support for our protesters by marching on all continents except Antarctica. In South Korea, protesters sang “God Bless America.” In Ghana and Liberia, protesters peacefully marched to the US Embassy. Spain had 12 events for people to choose from, and Italy had 25.

Many law students, alumni, faculty and staff attended demonstrations, marches, protests and vigils. “They were standing up to make a difference,” says Jim Tomaszewski, assistant director of Cincinnati Law’s Center for Professional Development. “It’s really just a fundamental reminder of what lawyers are called to do.”

“I came to law school because of my passion for social justice,” says Caitlin Cliff-Perbix, 3L, who grew up in rural Ohio. “I worked as a paralegal and advocated for tenants’ rights prior to law school. I believed that law school was the best way to hone my advocacy skills.”

She comes from a family of teachers and immigrants from Honduras and El Salvador. “Advocacy and activism have always been important to me,” she says. “Being involved in activist communities helped me get in touch with my culture, and that is important to me.

“I think I am where I should be. I don’t know if I want to be a lawyer, but I know that I’m getting the tools in law school to be a better advocate. Law school is enabling me to know how to best use the skills I have to be of service to the people who need it.”

I came to law school because of my passion for social justice.

Caitlin Cliff-Perbix, 3L

Dee Hambrick, 3L, spent six years in the Air Force before deciding to go to law school. “I did seven deployments, in the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific,” he says. “I signed up for the military thinking that I was going to be fighting for the greater good, but I quickly realized that I was nothing more than a paid mercenary.

“I saw thousands of fatalities and families displaced. I got tired of all of the weapons of mass destruction. Then coming home in the midst of Ferguson made me decide to go to law school.”

[In August 2014, a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed, Black 18-year-old Michael Brown in a predominately black St. Louis suburb known as Ferguson, Mo. The shooting prompted protests that agitated the community for weeks.]

"Black men who were my age were getting killed by police one after another,” Hambrick continues, “and it just got me upset. I decided very early on that once I was done with my military career, I would go to law school.”

Much like Cliff-Perbix, he is unsure if he wants to be a lawyer, but he is sure that he belongs in law school. “I might be a community organizer,” he says. “But I will say that I’m thankful to be in law school because it’s been a very eye-opening experience for me.”

Coming home in the midst of Ferguson made me decide to go to law school.

Dee Hambrick, 3L

Cliff-Perbix has been attending Cincinnati protests, where she coordinates the Legal Observer program for the National Lawyers Guild Cincinnati chapter. “We make sure police are not interfering with anyone’s right to exercise their First Amendment — to assemble and use their voices for change,” she says.

“When police were tear-gassing people on the weekend of May 31, shortly after the murder of George Floyd, we had legal observers documenting police behavior, trying to get badge numbers and names of individuals arrested so we could pass them along to Guild attorneys who are part of the mass defense effort.

“We try to have legal observers at any event that protests injustice in our community,” she adds. “I’ve probably done 75 to 100 hours of legal observing between May 31 and mid-July. Even though it’s not on the news, protests are still happening all over the country now.”

Hambrick expects to see big changes occurring in the future. “We are at the beginning of a revolution,” he says. “I think a lot of people weren’t aware of the issues for a long time. This whole experience with the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor (a 26-year-old Black emergency room technician, gunned down by Louisville police in her own apartment in March) opened up this problem to a whole new audience who might never have cared about black people’s lives before.

“Now we have the perfect storm of the pandemic and unprecedented unemployment on the rise. We also have white people who previously weren’t too concerned with marginalized and poor people. But suddenly, we’re all in the same situation, and we are all paying attention. Now we have a movement going. We just have to keep up the momentum.”

They were standing up to make a difference. It’s really just a fundamental reminder of what lawyers are called to do.

Jim Tomaszewski, Assistant Director, Center for Professional Development

“The whole idea of public interest law begins when we see a situation that is unjust,” notes Jim Tomaszewski, who directs public interest and pro bono programs for law students. “The response I see in these students is very pure and deep within them. When they see an injustice, they know there is only one thing to do — say something about it.

“It’s not something they learn in law school. It’s already there when they come to us, but now they are responding as lawyers. They believe in what is right. It’s very impressive to see, and frankly, it’s inspirational.”

Sometimes such conversations aren’t easy. Cliff-Perbix recalls a conversation with her grandparents. “They were having a hard time talking to their conservative friends. They wanted to know if I had problems talking to my conservative friends. I said, ‘I don’t have conservative friends.’ These issues are rooted in the humanity of people, and it’s not really a negotiable stance.”

Hambrick also had a personal reason for going to law school. After he was out of the military, he learned that an unarmed friend around his own age had been shot in the back and killed by out-of-town police.

“That was right at the cusp of me getting ready to enter law school. It really messed me up at the time. It very easily could have been me. So, I had to go to law school — not just for me, but also for the sake of my daughter, my future grandchildren, everybody after me.

“It’s bigger than me. It’s bigger than all of us.”

 

Featured image at top: istockphoto.com

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