Deaths, Guns / Firearms, Minority Issues, Police, Racism, Violence

Can Lawyers Reduce The Racial Divide In This Country?

Michael Brown, age 18 and a high school graduate, was scheduled to begin college classes on Monday.

He won’t be. He was shot, unarmed with his hands in the air, by police near his apartment on Saturday afternoon. The shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, a mostly black working-class St. Louis suburb of 20,000, has ignited outrage and skepticism of the police’s explanation for the shooting.

As Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, told Steve Giegerich of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the shooting took place as her son was walking to his grandmother’s residence.

One witness, Piaget Crenshaw, gave this account to Giegerich:

[S]he was waiting for a ride to work when she saw a police officer attempting to place Brown in the squad car.

She then said she saw the teen, hands in the air, attempt to flee. Several shots hit Brown as he ran, Crenshaw said. She complied with a request that she give photos of the scene to authorities.

Criminal defense attorney Scott Greenfield responded to the police’s explanation that they were still sorting out the exact details:

There may be a good explanation for why Ferguson, Missouri, a mostly black working-class suburb of St. Louis, had a white mayor and police force. There might be a good explanation for why an unarmed, 18-year-old high school graduate, Michael Brown, was shot down in the street. But if so, nobody has said so yet. The only thing for which there is a good explanation is why Brown won’t be starting technical school today. That’s because he’s dead.

Peaceful marches and candlelight vigils triggered a show of force by the mostly white police department, one that brought back memories of the 1960s for me. Watching St. Louis TV news via the Internet on Sunday night, I couldn’t help but feel that there remains a huge racial divide in this country.

As lawyers, we have the power to do something about this racial divide — just as many Americans do. Lawyers, possibly as much as any other group, are well-positioned to make a profound impact.

Going back to the other night, it was wild not seeing any black police officers. You then have a white police chief being interviewed by a white news reporter regarding turning the case over to to the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Department, which felt to me like their buddies next door. If I am feeling this way how, would a black person in Ferguson feel?

Police with dogs, machine guns, and tear gas lined up against peaceful marchers. What was likely to beget violence did bring violence and looting. If that was a march of white people, would there have been such a show of force?

I grew up watching the riots of the 1960s, which pitted black citizens against the white police departments of cities across this country. I watched television footage of black people being hosed down and chased by German Shepherds. I watched Bobby Kennedy tell black people not to riot after the shooting of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as agonizing and infuriating as the event surely was.

It was surreal, but what an impression it left — especially for a kid who grew up in a city of 50,000 with one black family, which moved there when I was eleven.

This impression, at least partially, is what spurred me to become a lawyer. Lawyers, with the power to shape the direction of this society and right wrongs where few others can, could make a difference.

As a country, we may have taken a step forward in the past 50 years, but it’s a very small one. A racial divide exists in this country. Though we’ve made strides to the point that we have a black president in Barack Obama, in the day-to-day and real-world sense, this divide still affects many Americans so very profoundly.

Per the ABA Journal, Biglaw has few black lawyers — and the numbers are declining. Only three percent of lawyers are black, and only 1.9 percent are partners. Blacks make up only four percent of all lawyers in this country.

No one is saying lawyers ought to drop what they are doing and become civil rights activists. But as mostly privileged citizens with a good deal of knowledge about civics and the law, we can at least be cognizant of the ongoing racial divide in this country and look to make a difference when we can.

Maybe it’s speaking up when we may have remained silent. Maybe it’s picking up a newspaper to read about cases like Brown’s. Maybe it’s getting our kids involved in working with disadvantaged people of other races. Maybe it’s working just one more pro bono case that will bring light to racial wrongdoing. Maybe it’s the power of the pen — via a blog, Twitter, or Facebook.

We have the obligation to speak up and act. The Preamble of the ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct says lawyers, as public citizens, should seek improvements in the quality and administration of justice.

No one knows exactly the right course to take — if we did, we would have done so already. But in the very least, we need to do something.

There remains a terrible racial divide in this country. I feel a little hollow today, and thinking I myself should be doing a little more.

Kevin O’Keefe (@kevinokeefe) is the CEO and founder of LexBlog, which empowers lawyers to increase their visibility and accelerate business relationships online. You can With LexBlog’s help, legal professionals use their subject matter expertise to drive powerful business development through blogging and social media. Visit

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