Justice is about shifting power, not just winning a case

The journey towards justice does not end with a courtroom victory. Movement lawyers must look beyond the confines of law to comprehend what a shift of power may mean to each client. You can lose the case but win the struggle, if your client has more power at the end of it.

Shifting Power

CPR and its member organisations sought to pack the court every single day with members of their communities, and the judge and the NYPD certainly took notice.  Organizers sought to feature a particular constituency each day that was somehow affected by the NYPD – public housing residents, LGBTQ youth, Muslim, Arab, South Asian communities, mothers affected by police violence, high school students and youth organisers – to sit in the trial, and they frequently held press conferences outside the courtroom during the lunch break; many of these groups were not working specifically on legal questions related to stop and frisk as such, but they could nevertheless use this trial to draw attention to a range of intersectional dimensions of policing in New York and how it affected communities.

“If we really put the law at the disposal of people who are most marginalized, perhaps it is possible to shift power relations.” -Meena Jagannath

More powerfully, however, their presence in the courtroom permitted them to bear witness to an organised story of police malfeasance – a form of accountability itself. For many New Yorkers living in Black and Brown communities, a police officer was a menacing source of danger, with power to ruin your day, or your life, arbitrarily and without accountability. But in the courtroom, communities saw day after day, lawyers proving that officers lied, didn’t understand the law, covered up abuses and overtly engaged in racial profiling without concern. I recall tall, strong officers almost slinking off the stand after a particularly skewering cross examination by Plaintiffs lawyers.

Building agency

“The law is not necessarily on my side or against the work I am doing. The law is just a tool for building possibilities for collective power.” -Alejandra Anchieta

Lawyers always want to win, and I imagine this was as true for my father as it is for me. I’m very strict with the lawyers on our cases: working collaboratively with communities does not mean losing the rigor you need as a lawyer to win the case.  But litigating these kinds of cases in a country like Mexico – weak in human rights and strong on interests of corporations – is complex.  You’re not going to win the case just because you’re an excellent lawyer. And in this context, we must do a power analysis: winning the case is important but building power in the community is even more important. Indeed, if we lose a case, we have the commitment to continue organizing. Learn more about Alejandra Anchieta’s work.

More Than Just Winning A Case

“In every winning there is some losing, and in every losing there is some winning." -Joe Athialy

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