Vincent Warren

Vince WarrenHow do we know that Black lives really do matter? One of the ways I think about that is to look very far into the future, not to the campaign cycle, not to the fiscal year, not to the three-year strategic plan with measurable outcomes, but really far into the future. I am thinking not about our kids, not about their kids, or even their kids, but the generation after that. When that generation looks back on this moment, the question will be, “What do Black people thank us for?” It is a tough question to which I do not know the answer. However, what I do see, looking back from us so many generations away, are smiling faces. I see Black people that are at ease, I see Black people that are full of wonder, I see Black people that are unencumbered, I see Black people that are unafraid, and I see Black people that are full of joy.

But we have a problem; one that was best summed up by James Baldwin in “The Fire Next Time,” where he writes:

This past, the Negro's past, of rope, fire, torture, castration, infanticide, rape; death and humiliation; fear by day and night, fear as deep as the marrow of the bone; doubt that he was worthy of life, since everyone around him denied it; sorrow for his women, for his kinfolk, for his children, who needed his protection, and whom he could not protect; rage, hatred, and murder, hatred for white men so deep that it often turned against him and his own, and made all love, all trust, all joy impossible.

When I look into the future; I think our call is to create joy. As lawyers, as people in the legal profession working with movements, it is an enormous task to think about how to create joy from a legal document. Perhaps you cannot. But I want to throw out a question to you all. I want you to think about our Constitution, which was ratified in 1789. Let us not think about it as a foundational document, but let us think about it as it really is--a [Microsoft] Word redlined document. For those who have worked on editing documents, you know how this works. You work on a document, you make changes to the documents, and you make comments to the documents. Yet, this is what has happened to our Constitution. Our Constitution was redlined so that it excluded Black folks, women, Native Americans, and anyone who was not the landed white gentry. That is the basic document that we are working with in our field.

If you think about that analogy, what then did we do? We deleted the section that said “three-fifths” for a Black man; we added the section that said “yes, woman have rights too,” and then the Supreme Court, the legal infrastructure, clicked “save as final.” There is, however, also a comments section and the comments section is also something that the legal professional has sought to occupy. As a result, we will have comments in our documents that say, for example, that the Fourth Amendment should be read to include the following words before the actual amendments unless a police officer feels otherwise: “You have the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.” There are other parts in the comments section that we put in as well. Therefore, when we ask Black people in Black communities what the most important thing to them is, they will tell us the same things time and time again: education, housing, healthcare, being able to protect and provide for families, and not a single one of them is a right in our Constitution. So what are we spending our time doing? We are spending time in the comments section, trying to get our courts to accept changes. I do not think that is the path to joy. I do not see the path to showing that Black lives matter in the process we are currently engaged in.

Catherine Albisa, one of the board members for the Center for Constitutional Rights, told me not too long ago that there are only two things worth doing in life. One is creating joy, and the other is eliminating pain. What we are doing here today, what we are trying to assemble, is a strategy to do both things simultaneously. I do not have to tell you that it is not easy because if it were easy someone in this room would have done it already. Yet it is obvious, and as Brother [Rev. Osagyefo] Sekou said to us just yesterday, we live in a time when stating the obvious is a revolutionary act, and we have been stating the obvious for two days in this conference.

When thinking about what that revolutionary act looks like moving forward, we need to think radically about our profession, about the role of our profession with respect to movements, groups, with respect to communities, but most importantly, we have to ask ourselves, “Can we get to where we need to be by doing the things we are doing now?” The answer is “No.” But that is actually why we are here today; that is why we are at this conference, because Law for Black Lives is about creating radical innovation in the way we think about our work as lawyers, which will then get us out of the “comments” section, into actually envisioning a legal document that includes fundamental, basic rights, and recognizes the humanity of Black people.

We are planting the seed. When you think about those generations moving forward and ask them what are they thankful for, they may say that it was that our generation came together to plant the seed. Then again, they may not, and for that reason this work also requires humility. When you go to a beautiful forest, for example, you are walking about, and you are enjoying the trees. You do not know the names of the people who planted them and made it possible, but they matter to you, so that even though you do not know their names, you thank them for it. Perhaps, then, with humility, with innovation, with solidarity, with comradery, we will be able to plant a seed so that years and years down the road, Black people will say, “We know that many years ago, there was a discussion about changing the way our society works, and our communities were involved, and our lawyers were involved. For that, we are eternally thankful.”