This summer, the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others sparked a national uprising. Their names turned into a rallying cry for Black lives and will go down in history ever-entwined with one of the largest and most sustained protest movements in history.
Thanks in large part to these ongoing protests, there is a growing recognition that white supremacy—the dominant and unquestioned culture that privileges white people and disadvantages people of color—is by no means limited to the police: it is hardwired into every aspect of our society and cemented into the vast majority of our institutions.
The legal industry is no exception.
Big Law’s Response
The Law Firm Antiracism Alliance (LFAA) is one example of Big Law’s response to this moment of reckoning.
At their best, the LFAA and the expressions of solidarity from global brands and leading corporations demonstrate meaningful allyship that will work to dismantle white supremacy at the highest levels.
At their worst, these efforts are virtue-signaling run amok: drowning out the authentic voices and lived-experiences of Black people and failing to spur meaningful change.
Without question, the LFAA is a commendable effort. But whether it can achieve its goal of addressing systemic racism has everything to do with its ability to center the voices and leadership of Black people themselves.
The Justice Lab
The ACLU of Louisiana is a Black-led civil rights and civil liberties organization committed to instilling anti-racist principles through every aspect of its work. Earlier this year, before the advent of the LFAA, we launched Justice Lab, a pilot program that sought to pave one of a number of pathways forward for Big Law to get involved in anti-racism work.
At a surface-level, Justice Lab aims to set an example for how to file a wave of legal actions that, at their root, seek to hold police accountable for brutalizing people of color. But at its core, the initiative presents a paradigm shift for engaging numerous stakeholders—Big Law, corporations, nonprofits, communities, and directly-impacted people—in anti-racism work.
We created Justice Lab with the recognition that law firms had immense resources and legal talent to bring to the table. But, led by the community and the concerns they expressed to us, we were mindful of the dangers associated with letting Big Law loose on communities—i.e., without any safeguards in place for those whose lives Big Law was so eager to touch.
It was incumbent on us to clarify for Big Law that they were not being commissioned to “save” anyone; rather, if they chose to do this work, they were doing it with the understanding that they were joining a struggle with people—experts—who, since birth, have been in a fight for their very lives, livelihoods, and dignity.
Like every powerful institution in our society, Big Law is a product of white supremacy—and confronting that fact is the first, essential step toward dismantling white supremacy in key aspects of law, jurisprudence, and the legal profession.
For this reason, every law firm that signs on to Justice Lab receives intensive anti-racism training that focuses heavily on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and movement lawyering.
Justice Lab has also enlisted local partners led by formerly incarcerated people, such as VOTE (Voice of the Experienced), The First 72+, and the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, to help ensure our pro bono law firm volunteers understand the history of anti-Black racism and how to combat it. We are in the process of working with these organizations to partner formerly incarcerated people as consulting experts with our law firm partners.
We’re also clear-eyed about the limits of litigation, as it too operates within unjust systems that, since their inception, have methodically worked to promote white supremacy.
With this understanding in mind, for those victims of racist policing we’re not able to represent through litigation, we are committed to providing other non-litigation resources and support, such as wellness services, writing workshops, and spaces to share their stories. We plan to make our website a place to honor and amplify the experiences of directly-impacted people, engage the community, and inspire involvement in local police reform efforts.
Importantly, we approach this work with humility and the recognition that we won’t always get it right. The name Justice Lab acknowledges that ending racist policing will require learning and listening, dialogue and collaboration. Most of all, it will require centering the voices, leadership, and lived experiences of the people most impacted by the epidemic of police violence.
We welcome the LFAA to this work and offer these as guiding principles: anti-racism, community involvement, and, above all, humility in the face of monumental challenges.
Together, and only with the involvement and leadership of directly-impacted people, we can empower communities of color, root out institutionalized racism from our legal system, and get that much closer to achieving America’s promise of justice and liberty for all.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Alanah Odoms is the executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana and the first Black woman to lead the organization in its 65-year history. A leading civil rights attorney, Odoms is committed to upholding the powerful organizational legacy of staunch defense of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, with the new charge to apply a lens of racial and gender justice to all of the affiliate’s work. The development and implementation of Justice Lab in Louisiana is a powerful demonstration of her vision to bring lawyers, elected leaders, and decision makers into relationship with the directly-impacted people they seek to serve.
Nora Ahmed is the legal director of the ACLU of Louisiana, where she brings a multidisciplinary approach to defending civil rights and liberties. She is a first-generation American and former tenured South Bronx high school teacher, who went on to clerk for the Honorable Jack B. Weinstein and to practice in Big Law for seven years. Ahmed co-founded Justice Lab with Odoms at the ACLU.