Public defense attorney Josh O’Hara rolled up the sleeves of his white button-up shirt and pulled over a black T-shirt reading “Black Lives Matter to Vermont Public Defenders.”
He and over 30 other public defenders gathered Friday in front of the Vermont Superior Court in Burlington and marched in the middle of the street to address their role in the criminal legal system.
At their annual defender training a week earlier, the group had agreed that the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, the efforts by Black Lives Matter and the protests across the country were first in a lot of their minds.
“It happened very organically,” O’Hara said. “Somebody just said that we should get out there and show our support. It was really the first time a group of us have been together and it was just a unified ‘yes.'”
Sarah Reed, a public defender in Chittenden County, said she has made excuses for the police in her practice for too long.
“It’s not happening anymore,” she said. “We need to be reminding ourselves and the courts and the state’s attorneys and the police that our entire justice system is built on a loophole of the 13th Amendment to get around the emancipation of enslaved people.”
An intangible feeling of unfairness
African Americans in Vermont are incarcerated at a disparity that is 10 to 1 that of whites, according to a 2016 study by The Sentencing Project. Vermont public defenders have seen this firsthand as they are the legal counsel offered to clients who cannot afford their own.
“It’s striking to me that over the course of a nearly 20 year career that there has always been something intangible that arises when representing black clients,” said Frank Twarog, whose public defense work lies in federal court.
The main conflict is how to address the intangible feeling of unfairness that he hears from his clients within a system that is meant to be applied to everyone, Twarog said.
Just a few months earlier Twarog received a phone call from one of his clients, asking if he could see him immediately.
“He came into my lobby waiting area in distress,” Twarog said. “Let it be known that he had been followed by law enforcement for the previous 25 to 30 minutes and he thought that by coming to see me at my office, it was sort of safety.”
Twarog thought about how the experience of being watched was not something he had ever experienced.
“It was totally distressing to this person and I had no words, advice or comfort,” he said. “We were allowed to hug each other, before COVID, and that was the most I could do.”
The protest ended at the criminal courthouse on Cherry Street. Attendees laid face down on the floor with their hands behind their back for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time Officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into the neck of George Floyd. Chauvin is facing a second-degree murder charge, and three other police officers who were present are also facing charges.
O’Hara said he spoke to local Black Lives Matter activists about the role of public defense in the movement for racial justice.
“One of the things they reminded us was that, although they can go out into the street and protest just like we can, we can do something that they can’t. And that’s go into court, represent people and make a difference in their lives,” he said.
He reminded the group to use this exercise as a meditation.
“I want you to meditate and think about the times in your practice when you have stood by so that when you get back up, you will have recognized your own shortcoming and will be ready to stand up, truly advocate and give this community what it deserves,” he said.
Vermont-based attorney Sandra Bevans said that she hopes the demonstration will lead to action in the courtroom.
“I hope the exercise and this rally is not just trendy,” she said. “I hope it really charges you, that when you are in the courtroom, that you kick ass and take names with no regard for who it offends, because we are doing it for humanity and we are doing because Black and brown lives matter.”
Contact Alek Fleury at email@example.com or 201-906-8963.
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