Local public defenders rallied with members of the Black community and supporters Monday afternoon in Nubian Square and marched to the the Suffolk County House of Correction at South Bay in a peaceful demonstration that was roughly 300 strong.
The rally was organized by local lawyers in solidarity with defense attorneys in dozens of other cities who are calling for reforms of the criminal court system to make it fairer for people of color. The call comes amid widespread international protests over the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., and other Black people killed by police.
Earlier Monday, thousands gathered at a church in Houston, where Floyd grew up, for a public memorial ahead of his planned funeral Tuesday.
Shayla Mombeleur, one of four public defenders who organized the rally, said the national issue of mass incarceration disproportionately affects people of color.
“We want to demand change because we want to see our Black and brown brothers and sisters not fall victim to the criminal justice system,” Mombeleur said.
Another lead organizer, public defender Christian Williams, said he doesn’t even use the phrase “criminal justice system.”
“That’s a euphemism,” Williams said. “They put the word ‘justice’ in because it’s a criminal injustice system.”
The problem with what Williams prefers to call the “criminal legal system” isn’t that it’s broken, he said. “That system was built to do just what it’s doing. . . . It needs to be replaced with something else.”
In the crowd was Darrell Jones, 53, who spent 32 years in prison on a murder conviction that was later overturned on appeal, resulting in Jones’s acquittal at retrial. He said he faced many structural obstacles in the legal system: “Everything that could go wrong went wrong for me.”
Jones spent those decades building prison education programs, running a magazine, inviting Black leaders to speak to inmates, and helping assemble a musical collaboration called “What Is Beautiful Never Dies,” which pays tribute to young Black people lost to violence.
He also missed the funerals of the grandmother who raised him, his only brother, and his son.
“While I was away, I lost a lot of family, so coming home, [I had] basically just my sister,” he said. “I couldn’t even go to my own son’s funeral. So I could never go say goodbye. Those are the things that stay with me.”
Lisa Kavanaugh, who heads the Innocence Program at the statewide Committee for Public Council Services, and helped get Jones freed, said Black Americans have a different experience of law enforcement than white Americans. It starts with the level of policing in their communities, she said, and extends to prosecutions, convictions, sentencing, and parole.
“Race is at the center of so much of the injustice that we see,” said Kavanaugh, 45. “It affects how Black and brown clients are treated by police, it affects the level of policing, it affects access to all kinds of resources.”
Kavanaugh attended the rally with her husband, defense attorney Chauncey Wood, who serves on the board of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and their 16-year-old daughter, Carter Wood, a rising junior at Concord Academy.
The teen held a sign that read, “I will never understand. But I stand.”
“I, as a white person, am never going to be able to truly understand how hard it is to be a Black person in America, and I will never face that kind of discrimination,” she explained, “but . . . I have the ability to make change by listening and uplifting my Black peers.”
The show of solidarity comes after Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins last month questioned the dedication of some public defenders, saying during a radio appearance that she was frustrated with the Committee for Public Counsel Services’ “overwhelmingly privileged staff that isn’t calling back poor, black, and brown people because they’re saying, ‘We’re overworked and we’re busy.’”
Rollins later walked back that comment, saying she was talking only about a particular case.