Remarks from Dean Tony Varona at June 2nd Miami Law Teach-In on "Racist Police Brutality and the Role of Law, Lawyers, and Law Enforcement in the Problem and its Solutions"
I welcome all of our many speakers and all of our many attendees who, on very short notice, arranged to attend this teach-in. I thank Ronnie Graham, our new BLSA president, who worked with me over the weekend and yesterday on planning this important event. I thank Jordan Rhodes, our SBA president, for her frank and candid reflections – reflections that I take very much to heart and that I know are appreciated by my faculty colleagues. Thank you, Jordan, for your courage and for your voice. We must and we will do better. I also thank Congresswoman Shalala, Representative Thompson, and UM Board of Trustees Chair Hilarie Bass, for their thoughtful participation. I thank every staff colleague who has worked hard to ensure this teach-in’s success, and helping put it all together in barely 48 hours.
As students of law, as teachers and scholars of law, as lawyers, and as leaders in the law, we have a moral obligation to stand up and raise our voices when law is enforced in ways that undermine justice. We must stand up and speak out against racist police brutality and other forms of racism. We must better understand it, we must condemn it, and we must eliminate it. We must say: Not in our name and not our watch.
And we must do and say these things, in the words of Brown v. Board of Education, “with all deliberate speed.” Why? Because the lives of our Black brothers and sisters are precious and fleeting. And because the everyday experience of Black people in this country, in this state, and in this city continues to be less than that of whites.
The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Reason, Atatiana Jordan, Dominique Clayton, Botham Jean, Stephon Clark, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Jamar Clark, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, Michael Brown, John Crawford, Eric Garner, and others, remind us that in many cases law continues to be enforced and applied differently depending upon the color of our skin.
It pains me that I have had colleagues, students, friends, and loved ones, whose Blackness has made them vulnerable not just to disparate but degrading treatment. Whose very presence has been challenged by police when they were simply standing on a sidewalk, or riding their bicycle, or driving their cars to and from work or school. Our Black brothers and sisters also are subjected repeatedly to the horror of witnessing through the media the lives of other Black people extinguished by the misuse of police force as an instrument of hate and prejudice.
Our work as law students, law teachers, and lawyers is to use the law as a tool to make our lives and the world better, more peaceful, more orderly, more just, dare I even say happier. But if law is being enforced in ways that continue to oppress and traumatize Black people, and even to threaten their very existence, then we must do all we can, swiftly, to correct and prevent that harm.
What most concerns me in thinking about these issues over the past week is how the virus of racist police brutality is, unlike the COVID-19 coronavirus, not novel. It has afflicted us for centuries and still plagues us in 2020. Almost 20 years ago, when I was the general counsel and legal director at the Human Rights Campaign, then-attorney general Janet Reno invited me to a gathering of civil rights lawyers, leaders, and activists to examine the problem of and find solutions for racist police brutality. And at that long gathering, two decades ago, we pondered the same questions we ponder today. Questions like: Why is the problem of racist and brutal policing still widespread and unsolved? Why do these incidents keep recurring? Why have previous reforms not worked?
Dr. King reminded us that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” This teach-in and the resources and follow-up events that will flow from it, aim to help, in however small way, to quicken and sharpen that curve.
In closing, I share that there may have been cause for hope in the last few days. Peaceful and nonviolent protestors, from a diversity of racial and ethnic backgrounds, and including many young people, have spoken truth to power and advanced the American tradition of public protest as a catalyst for change.
We also have seen striking examples of a potential way forward in the images of law enforcement officers, including a prominent sheriff in Michigan, addressing protestors by stating support for their antiracist cause and in several cases marching alongside the protestors.
Law enforcement officers, important public servants and first responders – many of whom are passionate about racial equality and many of whom are racial and ethnic minorities themselves – have come out to say that police brutality and racism are inconsistent with law and order and public safety. And we applaud and appreciate them for that. They are right.
Again, I thank you all for taking part in this teach-in, and I am eager to hear from our panelists. Thank you. Ronnie, I believe, will now introduce the panelists.
Additional Responses and Resources from the Miami Law Community
Explore: Social Justice Media Recommendations - The HOPE Public Interest Resource Center and the Public Interest Leadership Board have assembled a list of media recommendations touching on important social justice topics.