Law students take action through marches, protests and petitions

Law students are among the thousands who have been marching, protesting and calling for change. They’re standing up for police reform and for removing symbols of racism.

Since the death of George Floyd on Memorial Day, the nation has been embroiled in racial unrest unlike any time since the 1960s.

“I think that flashpoints like Mr. Floyd’s death make it clear to our society that we cannot continue with our current path,” said DeLorean Forbes, a student at The University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law in Tucson. “When police see themselves as being soldiers in a war on crime, it makes them more likely to see the people they’re supposed to be serving as enemies. Police aren’t at war with America’s poor, and certainly not with communities of color. Our policies need to reflect that.”

Forbes, who is president of the Black Law Students Association at his school, is not the only one taking action. Law students across the nation have marched, protested, started petitions and asked for the removal of statues and building names that they say represent systemic racism.

“I think, as lawyers and law students, it is crucial that we understand racism within the legal systems we work in,” said Rachel Wydra, a student at University of Minnesota Law School in Minneapolis.

Wydra waged a campaign against racism in her hometown of Downers Grove, Ill. She organized a grassroots campaign for greater transparency in local policing policies. She collected more than 300 signatures and wrote a letter demanding communication and change.

“The town is already working on increasing transparency, and I think there is great potential to develop a strong relationship between the police and the community,” Wydra said. “It is great to see these efforts happening in a small suburb. I hope that similar pushes for change will happen all across the country at the local, state and federal levels.”

A law student also led a petition drive in New York. Jen Hopkins, a third-year at St. John’s University School of Law, started a petition to repeal a New York state law that has kept disciplinary records on police officers confidential. More than 2,100 signatures were collected from students and faculty supporters from all 15 New York law schools. Hopkins also sent an email blast to all state Assembly and Senate members, asking them to sign. In early June, the state Legislature passed a bill to repeal the law, although with stipulations. 

“There is anger and passion right now, so I wanted to think of something that had an impact immediately,” she told the New York Law Journal. She moved quickly and got it done in a week.

Other students have been focused on removing symbols of what they say is systemic racism.

At University of New Hampshire in Concord, students asked the school to remove Franklin Pierce’s name from the law school, a move that the faculty recently voted in support of. The school had restored Pierce’s name only last year.

“With the movement that we’re currently in, it felt like an opportune time to take the name off there,” wrote Adrián Coss, a third-year student at University of New Hampshire. “It’s wrong to begin with. This is racially insensitive. He has no place on a law school; it goes directly counter to the school’s mission statement and its supposed dedication to public interest.”

The nation’s 14th president, Pierce was opposed to slavery, but he supported states and territories’ rights to make their own decisions on the matter. He signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise, which had banned slavery in the north. Adoption of the act led to intense fighting between anti-slavery and pro-slavery groups in the Kansas Territory.

Students from Howard University School of Law, the oldest historically Black law school in the U.S., took their protest to the White House. In an interview with NPR, they said showing up makes a difference.

“There’s a power in using your body and actually physically being here," said Tope Aladetimi, a student at the Washington, D.C., school. “Oftentimes, our voices aren’t heard, and this is the only way we’re able to get our message across.”

“We’ve seen our parents, our ancestors fight,” said Domonique Dille, another Howard University law student. “They’ve all fought, and we’re still fighting in 2020. And we’re going to keep this going until the election and even past then.”

Hannah Hughes, a recent graduate of University of Minnesota Law School in Minneapolis, has urged law students to get involved and not make excuses for not taking action.

“The time to be a lawyer leader is now,” she said early this summer.  “I’ve honestly been struggling with balancing bar exam preparation, participating in protests, getting informed and volunteering, but this can’t wait. Police brutality and the oppression of Black people in our communities has gone on far too long, and we can’t sit back and wait for things to fix themselves. Our community needs us, and we need to act.”

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