A Pen and a Prayer: The need for more lawyers and clergy in civil rights

by Joshua Brownlee

Seven people have been added to the list: Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and five Dallas Police Officers (Brent Thompson, Michael Krol, Mike Smith, Patrick Zamarripa, and Lorne Aherns). There were already too many names on the list. Who were they? What did they look like? How did they die? We won’t ever know because the list is too long and horrible for a mortal to remember. Authoritarian institutions of discrimination mixed with hatred and fear have once again brought our cultural sins out in the open. Unfortunately, cable news and social media encourage us to dig in to our own binary racial identity, and disregard what is best in our nation and our species. If we take a step back, something is missing.

Large numbers of people across the spectrum of our community are frustrated and fed up with the status quo. In our own way, we try. We struggle to figure out how to insert ourselves and change this country for the better. We blog, we twitter, we Facebook, and we march. These are all good things. Black Lives Matter has helped keep people’s attention but it’s not enough. Increasing presence and awareness is important, but who’s leading the coalition of justice to reform the Atlanta area? What are the objectives in this locality? We lack organization.

If you look back at the people who were in the civil rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s you saw pastors in the front and lawyers in the background. Today it’s obvious the two professions are lacking from the modern day movement. Don’t get me wrong, pastors still preach love from the pulpit every Sunday and lawyers still fight the good fight in courtrooms across Georgia, but we don’t do it together. We don’t do it in large numbers. Pastors and lawyers are absolutely essential to building an effective movement.

Pastors need to be in the streets not just the pulpit

Racism is everywhere. It is human instinct to react with anger towards injustice. It’s so tempting to lash out at the invisible forces that hide in the shadows of our local institutions. But rage and violence only feed our sins. We give in to hating “the others” and find unbridgeable gaps of despair. Good pastors bring us back from self-destruction and disbelief in our fellow human beings. Listen to Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sermon on Loving Your Enemies (click here to listen). You can’t help but feel rejuvenated, regardless of your faith.

No matter what he does, you see God’s image there. There is an element of goodness that he can never sluff off. Discover the element of good in your enemy. And as you seek to hate him, find the center of goodness and place your attention there and you will take a new attitude. – Delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama, on 17 November 1957.

As human beings, we are seduced by quick emotions. We need to know there is a solid moral path to victory. A good pastor reminds individuals what is good in all of us. We need that reminder today, it needs to be front and center.

Not as glamorous but equally important is the clergy’s unique organizational skills. Pastors have historically been the great organizers of our communities. Even a church with only 100 parishioners is a powerful thing. 100 souls given the right message can move like a regiment of love against systems of intolerance. Hateful media can try and label protesters thugs and criminals as they did in King’s time, but a good pastor brings a level of legitimacy to a gathering that is difficult to undermine. Simple things like phone lists, transportation, messaging, and public relations are all familiar logistics for a church. Church communities know how to move people for a specific objective. A church community may love their elders and outspoken activists, but it’s their pastor they follow. Religious leaders are the ones that must stand in front, they are the ones who know what to say when the rest of us are at a loss for words.

Lawyers help activists know what to do before they face the storm

In the 1950’s, groups of lawyers traveled all over the American South instructing churches and civil rights groups on how to bring relevant issues into court. Being confronted by large numbers of police (even if they are there to protect you) is intimidating. Lines of armed officers can lure rational people to break away from reason. Activists in the 50’s and 60’s didn’t avoid arrest or conflict. They tactically engaged bad policy. Effective activists draw out the instruments of intolerance by knowing the law and surgically attacking a broken system one fallacy at a time. Many people believe in complete confrontation with police. The idea being, if citizens fight back with equal aggression, authorities will be deterred from unfair enforcement. This method is dangerous and only feeds false narratives. Things are dangerous enough as it is, we don’t need more victims. Activists need to know what evidence needs to be documented, what to say, and more importantly what NOT to say. I have lost track of how many times I have been watching a police video and an over excited person loses their composure and emotionally reacts without thinking. The end result, an officer’s unconstitutional conduct is now deemed to be justified. Videos can be a great tool in a case, but activists have to know the limitations of audio and video recordings. For example, here are some helpful tips:

  • Activists need to remember to control their tone, speed of speech, and volume. There is zero evidentiary value in hysterical screaming mixed with occasional cursing at a police officer. Compelling evidence is a calm voice saying “I’m not resisting”, “I just want to leave”, “please stop, you’re hurting me”.
  • No matter what, be polite. Manners make the man, and they can make a case against overly aggressive officers. Being polite and reasonable is not weak. Observing social courtesy can highlight an officer’s disrespectful methods. Being polite also draws out good officers to come to your aid. We need good police to help fix the current problems.
  • Don’t bring weapons, or anything that looks like a weapon, if you are going to be protesting. Protesting can be dangerous, if you are not willing to peacefully take a punch to the face then don’t go. Reacting to force with force will only escalate things and justify the opposition’s negative views. Look at the recent Dallas shooting. Black Lives Matter had the momentum, two black men had been shot under suspicious circumstances. Everyone was talking about it. Then in one moment, the entire movement is in damage control because a few angry gun men started killing police. Police are legitimately angry and now will be even more entrenched in authoritarian tactics.
  • Try not to hit a police officer. Again, the idea is to record their brutality, not yours. Focus on documenting an incident, not reacting to it.
  • Have a buddy system. In the Marines we worked in 4 to 5 member fire teams. Close knit units are more effective than one individual. Each member of a team should have a cell phone that can record. The team should designate who documents the events on social media and who engages the location (singing, carrying signs, locking arms etc.)
  • Know what to say. This applies whether you are in a group or just driving in your car. If an officer asks for your id, let them see it. If an officer asks to search you, then respectfully decline. Ask the officer “am I being detained, and if so why?” If it is a traffic stop, don’t try and talk your way out of it. If an officer starts asking you questions just say “I don’t want to talk to you sir/ma’am, I want a lawyer”. The right to remain silent and right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure requires your participation. To protect your rights, make sure you know when they are in play.
  • Each state has different rules about using audio and video equipment to record other people. Know your state’s laws. If you have questions, call a civil rights lawyer. In Georgia, you can record an officer in public as long as you are not interfering in an investigation or hampering the officer’s ability to carry out his or her official duties. If an officer tells you to stop recording them, say “I am not interfering”. This also means don’t actually interfere with whatever they are doing. There are limitations on where you can record, make sure you know what those limitations are.
  • If you are demonstrating in large groups, you may need to get a permit. Flash mobs have a certain allure, but serve a limited purpose. A dozen protesters suddenly appearing on I-285 is not an effective way to get the message out. You will probably be arrested much to the satisfaction of every driver in Atlanta. Laws that keep people from walking on public highways have nothing to do with justice reform or police misconduct.
  • If you feel you have been wrongfully treated by law enforcement, file a formal complaint with the department and ask for an investigation.

These points are just some examples of why lawyers need to actively participate in large numbers. The last thing anyone wants, is to be googling lawyers at one in the morning, ready to hire the first voice that picks up the phone. Lawyers need to be more involved from the beginning.

No doubt there are pastors and lawyers who participate and support the current protests. But more is required from us in the current struggle.

This is what God needs today: Men and women who will ask, “What will happen to humanity if I don’t help? What will happen to the civil rights movement if I don’t participate? What will happen to my city if I don’t vote? What will happen to the sick if I don’t visit them?” This is how God judges people in the final analysis. – Martin Luther King, Jr. April 9th, 1967 Sermon on Three Dimensions of a Complete Life



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