Disclaimer: Views expressed by speakers in this interview are their own and do not represent the views of all WAAL members or the speakers’ employers.
June 17, 2020 – Almost a month into nationwide protests against police brutality of African-Americans – including the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis – racism and institutional inequality, the path to change requires the legal community’s commitment.
The three presidents of the Wisconsin Association of African-American Lawyers (WAAL) – Makda Fessahaye (president), Kristen Hardy (immediate past-president), and William Sulton (president-elect) – discuss police brutality, civil unrest and protest, and what the legal community and organizations should do to demand and effect change.
“This is a pivotal moment but this is not something that has occurred overnight,” said Fessahaye, an administrator for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.
“This is just the boiling point or the bubbling over of all of the things that have been occurring in United States for a number of years.”
Fessahaye says words and statements of support for the Black Lives Matter movement and protesters are not enough.
“We cannot just rely on a statement and support of the black community and support of the protesters,” she said. “We have to follow up with action.”
“I think we're starting to see that the protesters are putting a lot of pressure on public servants, politicians, and different organizations around the U.S. to finally put their words into actions, and I'm hopeful that that will actually be the case.”
William Sulton, a trial attorney at Gingras Thomsen & Wachs in Milwaukee, said lawyers can help by pushing legislation on aspects of policing, such as qualified immunity that makes it much harder to hold police officers personally accountable for their actions.
“It’s important that people understand the history of policing and discrimination,” Sulton said. “Most police-citizen interactions that result in arrest are violent and that violence has been visited upon African-Americans in a way that is not true for white citizens.”
Kristen D. Hardy, Counsel-Global Compliance for Briggs & Stratton in Milwaukee, says this problem will not be solved overnight, and the legal community should focus on small actions.
“Sometimes we get so caught up with the idea of needing to do some immediate heavy lifting and make some imediate great change that we forget about the small actions we can start doing today,” Hardy said.
“Something really easy is take a look at ourselves, really self-evaluate and be honest about why this profession remains one of the least diverse professions,” said Hardy, noting that consistent education on racism and unconscious bias for lawyers is a start.
“Exercising grace as people are learning and understanding, exercising empathy for people from different backgrounds than you, and just really listening – these are really easy small steps that people in the legal profession can start with today,” Hardy said.