Alton Sterling was selling CDs when the police killed him. Eric Garner was selling loose cigarettes. I do not know if they had other options to make a living, and I do not know what else I could have expected them to do. What I see is that they were penalized for trying to break out of the cycle of poverty, and they were penalized for remaining in it.
I’ve been working at a small non-profit in the middle of South Los Angeles since 2008, exclusively representing people with criminal records, mostly black and brown folks. In 2010, I started litigating cases against employers, background check companies, and government agencies for violating what few rights people with criminal records have. This is the vantage point from which I’ve been observing the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Over the years, I began to see patterns in my clients’ criminal records. Records of sex work are usually surrounded by drug-related offenses. Records of commercial burglary often couple with domestic violence. Sometimes, these records start with a conviction for welfare fraud—signaling that the 1996 welfare reform precipated their entry into the informal economy.
When you spend a few years representing hundreds of people with criminal records as I have, it’s not difficult to see that structural problems in our society are major driving forces behind individual “criminal” acts.
When you spend a few years representing hundreds of people with criminal records as I have, it’s not difficult to see that structural problems in our society are major driving forces behind individual “criminal” acts. Sometimes, one record is enough to illustrate this point. A man, after losing his job in the Great Recession, became homeless and dared to collect cans from a public park to make ends meet. He explained to me, “I didn’t want to ask anyone for any handouts.” A conviction for theft of public property.
Recently, I received a letter from the opposing counsel in a case where the company did not provide a timely notice of pending revocation of job offer based on a background check report. He maintains that the class action is frivolous. Why? Because it is a “victimless ... case where your primary putative class is composed of recently convicted felons who lied about their conviction record in an effort to get a job.” The opposing counsel and I are looking at the same facts. The conclusion he draws is markedly different from mine, however.
Our named plaintiff was convicted of fighting in public back in 1998 when he was only 19 years old. Since then, he applied for and was granted expungement from the court. His lie? Not telling the company about his expunged conviction more than a decade later—as allowed by the law. He immediately contacted the background check company and corrected the misreporting. By the time a clean report made its way to the employer, however, the job was no longer available. He sued. On behalf of others like him. At a considerable risk to his future employment opportunities elsewhere. For that, he is labeled “recently convicted felon” and accused of lying.
This is the world my clients live in. A minor record is enough to brand them for life. The past is always “recent” enough to justify present-day injustice. As for their legal rights, it’s no big deal for someone in a position of power to violate them, because they are never worthy of being considered “victims.” Their attempt to take advantage of the few existing laws that protect them, makes them even more suspect in the eyes of those in power.
It isn’t only the “few bad apples” in law enforcement that hold this twisted view. In case of the police, the bias leads to excessive force and, too often, death. When the employer holds it, it leads to denial of employment and despair. When the court finds such actors legally not liable, it puts an official seal of approval on this twisted reality. Each instance of injustice reveals the ugly undercurrent of structural racism. Police brutality against people of color is but its most striking manifestation.
Many of us keep forgetting—though Black Lives Matter keeps pointing out—that the problem is much deeper, wider, and older. Most people also don’t know that peaceful efforts by people of color to remedy it are just as deep, wide, and old. Take, for example, All of Us or None. Since 2003, this dedicated group of formerly incarcerated and convicted people championed a policy initiative called Ban the Box in an effort to have employers provide them with a fair opportunity and to no longer be dismissed as “recently convicted felons” when all they are trying to do is “to get a job.”
Fifty years ago Dr. King explained, "Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and the worth of all human personality." I suspect that Micah Johnson did not believe this. But this is what sustains those who fight this fight. Today’s civil rights leaders, such as Michelle Alexander, echo this hope when calling for “an ethic of genuine care, compassion, and concern for every human being—of every class, race, and nationality—within our nation's borders (including poor whites, who are often pitted against poor people of color).”
When I read the dismissive letter from the opposing counsel the other day, I did not feel hope. Anger is all I felt. I wanted to scream at his face, “They want to work. What do you want my clients to do instead?” When confronted with the disrespect of the misguided, it is difficult to believe in hope.
Respect our dignity. This was the demand of the civil rights movement in the 60’s and 70’s. This has been the demand of All of Us or None. This is now the demand of the Black Lives Matter movement. Black lives matter. Whether out on the streets or in court, they matter.
Joshua E. Kim
A New Way of Life Reentry Project