Maurice “Moe” Mitchell

MauriceMoeMitchellOh my God, you're so beautiful! Could you look at one another and just acknowledge your presence, your beauty, your fierceness? Just look and say, “I see you.” And if you do have love in your heart for that person, say, “I love you.” [Audience: “I see you. I love you.”].

Blackbird was founded by myself, Thenjiwe McHarris, and Mervyn Marcano in this year of protest and resistance to respond rapidly and lovingly to the urgent needs of Black liberation. When Blackbird was called to South Carolina and in Missouri, we both witnessed and heard of extreme violations of people's legal and civil rights. We also saw, in response, the courageousness of a small but dedicated legal community, right? In South Carolina, when we talked to members of street organizations--people who face constant intimidation and surveillance by law enforcement--we saw as they joined with direct action takers, and they shared with us how they too desired freedom and their freedom was linked to their communities' freedom. What we saw on the streets of Baltimore, in Missouri, and in many other communities, was this uncommon, unflinching desire to be free that brings many of us into this room.

However, a legal community that is in full defense of Black lives needs to be engaged before the killings, needs to be engaged before the tragic headlines, needs to be engaged before the hashtags. It needs to be concerned with the full spectrum of violence meted against Black bodies.

Standing with Black lives means the creation of a bench of lawyers dedicated to the particular and unique needs of trans Black women. Standing with Black lives means never being the type of attorney that would allow Kalief Browder to languish in jail for years. Standing with Black lives means eschewing the respectability politics to join young people on the streets wherever they may go, in resistance to curfews, and to embrace all of their tools--if that might be slingshots and rocks, or tweets, or direct action, being on the front line ducking rubber bullets, ammunition, and tear gas canisters with young people. Standing with Black lives means challenging false dichotomies around good protesters and bad protesters, around violent and non-violent crime, around political and apolitical prisoners.

I want to free the U.S. Two Million. I don't want just some of our people to be free; we have to go in and free all of our people.

So, let me bring into context what many of you know and some people on this stage have already lifted up. The millions and millions of us who are in some way involved in the criminal justice system, the [seven] millio[n] of us who are in some form at the behest of correctional supervision, and the more than two million of us who are behind bars, one million being Black bodies. people are being executed on these streets.

Black parents are being sentenced to jail sentences because of their desire for a quality education for their children. In a broken economy, Black people are finding ways in the informal economy to live out valuable and dignified lives, and are being punished because they want to feed their families and live their lives in dignity in an economy that doesn't have quality, just, and dignified labor.

So the law, currently, and primarily, functions as an instrument of the relatively privileged to maintain their privilege, to protect their property, to accumulate wealth, to disappear social problems, and to socially control Black people.

And when the law bends, and when it bends in its application, it's not towards fuzzy concepts of human rights. Unfortunately, it bends towards the often-irrational racial anxieties of a white middle class and the overwhelming momentum of globalized capitalism. So, the law in its application is an extension of racism, white supremacy, and capitalism, right? We need to have a clear analysis of what we're dealing with if we want to fix any problem, and we need to have that clarity. And we need to speak it. We need to say, capitalism--and the way that we deal with each other, the way that it turns ourselves, each other, into consumers, and laborers, and labor hours, and denies our capacity for love--is a problem. And the way that the law supports that is a fundamental problem.

What we witnessed in Ferguson, and Baltimore, and Oakland, in the streets of New York, and other places, was working-class Black people--many of them young, many of them women, many of them queer, many of them trans--channeling an uncommon courage to expose these contradictions in the most dark and uncompromising way, and we all owe all of them a debt of gratitude.

So do we have the freedom of assembly? Do we have the freedom of speech? Do we?

Not when it interrupts white comfort. Not when it interrupts irrational but deeply felt white racial anxiety. The answer consistently is no. Is there a right to a speedy trial? Not when those subject to arrest are objects of political or social control. The answer consistently is no.

So, when human dignity and justice is so tragically and wholly out of reach, the law's tendency to maintain order is actually a barrier to the achievement of justice, right? What is the value of order, what is the value of decorum, what is the value of law, in a caste system, in a state that essentially replicates this racial caste? What is the value of law, if not a replicator and a hardener of that racial caste system? So, a legal community that is in solidarity and stands for Black lives is committed to a movement of Black lives and must do a few things.

Number one: unflinchingly follow Black leadership. I'll say it again. Unflinchingly follow Black leadership.

Number two: put at the center the people who feel the brunt of the violence. Formerly incarcerated people. People who participate in informal economies, sex workers, corner boys, folks who are outside of traditional economies. Transgender women --folks who feel the brunt of state violence--must be at the center of our mission, of our cause, and are ultimately the experts in their own existence and their own experience.

Number three: take risk. Resist counsel that prioritizes order. What is the value, again, of order, when there is no justice?

And in leaning into risk, push your lawyering further. Embrace discomfort. Right? If you don't feel discomfort and fear, then you're not allowing yourself to move into the margins where the fight is. So challenge your lawyering and challenge your practice, and move it closer and closer to the theater of fear and discomfort, because that's where our people are every single day. That's our lived experience.

Match the urgency, intensity, promise, and scale of this movement. So we don't need small law. We need big, audacious, unflinching, powerful, revolutionary law. Right?

And build long term infrastructure for winning. Where are the pipelines for young Black folks to become movement lawyers? Where are the pipelines for young trans sisters, young trans brothers, young trans siblings, to become movement lawyers in order to lawyer to their community?

And the last piece: turn up. This movement is rooted in the turn up. We are all inspired by those young revolutionaries in Ferguson, and in Baltimore, who eschewed the counsel of their elders, of the pastors, of the traditional organizations, eschewed the respectability politics, eschewed all of that, and channeled the courage that we haven't seen in decades. Let that be your guiding star, let that be your North Star. When you're behind your desk, when you're preparing for whatever legal battles you're in, figure out ways that you can channel that. So, in every space that you're in, deny orthodoxy, deny safety, deny white silence and white comfort, unchecked racism and gradualism. Don't allow any of those things to have safe quarter in your presence.

So, in closing, my people:

Center Black leadership. Ashe? [Audience: Ashe].

Prioritize human dignity and justice over order. Ashe? [Audience: Ashe].

Match the urgency, scale, intensity, and promise of this moment. Ashe? [[Audience: Ashe].

Lean into risk, and channel the courage of the young people on the streets. Ashe? [Audience: Ashe].

And turn up.