Reflecting on Legal Education From the Back of an Outreach Van

There are many days within the walls of the law school when I’ve found myself lost and questioning whether getting a legal education was the right decision. Sometimes the distraction comes in the form of classes, meetings, debt, and applications. Other times, the confusion results from the realization that it is often the legal structure and lawyers themselves who serve to marginalize communities I care about and entrench cycles of poverty and criminality.

But then some experience of deep injustice or meaningful interaction reminds me exactly about what this fight is all about and all the passions that led me here in the first place.

Tonight I had one of those experiences speaking to a girl no older than fifteen from the homeless outreach
van I was volunteering with. This term, I am doing an independent clinical placement at Rosie’s Place, a homeless shelter in Boston. Every night, Rosie’s Place sends out an outreach van into the poorest areas of Boston to hand out food, clothing, and toiletries to those living on the streets. The women running the van also speak with individuals and let them know about services offered by the shelter.

Tonight, I was on the van to let people know about the legal center at Rosie’s Place. I ended up spending most of the night handing out food and just listening to people’s stories. The men and women who came up to the van were incredibly polite and thankful for the little we were giving. Once or twice I wondered what events could have led up to a life in this condition, but I also realized that it was not always so complex, for homelessness results for many from simply a vengeful landlord, an underwater mortgage, a poor nightlife choice, or a disability.

While sitting on my bus-ride back to campus, I thought hard about what access to lawyers could do for these communities and struggled. For most, the justice system has served as a violent and punishing structure maintaining their marginalized societal status with seemingly endless force. Criminal records are difficult to clean and once you live on the street some charges (like trespassing and ‘aggressive begging’) are almost inevitable. Nevertheless knowledge about available legal remedies and tools, like sealing one’s criminal record in order to gain access to public benefits, affordable housing, and employment, could initiate the process out of a life of poverty and violence. I also realized again that often the most significant benefit of all these programs were the small opportunity to treat these individuals with dignity and kindness, especially when the rest of the day society actively worked to ignore them. This may all seem inadequate, and I myself strongly believe that as individuals and as a society we need to commit to restructuring our institutions in fair and equitable ways. But when that fifteen year old girl returned to the van just to hang out and thank us for being the best thing that had happened to her that day, I realized again just how important these simple acts could be as well.

I write this partly as a self-reflection piece, but hopefully also to inspire others to think about what brought them to Harvard Law. For those of us who want to fight for social justice and social change, working through the tools currently available in the legal system can often seem inadequate and frustrating. But, by bringing creativity and passion to our profession, we can think about how to use the laws that currently exist to promote justice, and look to reform the legal and institutional structures serving to marginalize communities we care about when traditional legal mechanisms fail.

Burst the Harvard Bubble: Find Your Own City Life

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Photo by KC Bailey.

On Thursday morning I headed to Haymarket station to meet dozens of City Life members to protest no-fault evictions by tax-payer owned financial institutions. Part of an on-going campaign to help people stay in their homes and promote affordable housing, City Life has been organizing weekly protests in front of Boston’s housing court. The protest successfully educated hundreds of individuals walking through the busy downtown district, as well as the lawyers and court staff walking into the courthouse. Potentially more importantly, it empowered clients preparing to present eviction defenses on their own against represented landlords and banks.

I stood to the side handing out information as City Life members shared their stories, spreading public awareness around the reality of no-fault evictions. One woman spoke about how she has just received an eviction notice after paying her rent on time every month. She fought tears as she shared her fears about living on the street, especially with her two young children. With year-long waitlists for affordable housing in the city, getting evicted from your home can make one homeless overnight.

However, another man had a powerful contrasting story. He explained how he had almost been evicted after his landlord faced foreclosure and investors were looking to buy up the property. However, after sharing his story, community members mobilized by City Life came to his aid, protesting outside his home. No investor bought his home at auction and years later he still lives there. His story is just one example of City Life’s powerful community organizing model.

I learned about City Life from a friend in the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. I’d come back from a summer internship where I’d spent part of my summer working on a Native American rights case currently being heard by the Federal District Court. It was interesting and important work but I felt incredibly disconnected from both the individuals I was representing and the social justice issues involved in the case. I therefore came back committed to finding ways to integrate my legal engagements with local community movements attempting to transform unjust social and economic structures through many different avenues, only one of which might be litigation.

My current work around economic justice requires a better understanding of the communities I am a part of and the recognition that lawyers, working through traditional legal structures, will play only a limited role in social change. And so I attended my first City Life meeting.

For me, experiencing community organizing efforts as a law student and in my new community has been an incredibly powerful, empowering, and humbling experience. There is a lot of important work going on around our communities, by lawyers and non-lawyers, and many movements are looking for allies from powerful institutions.

So, get out of the law school, and Harvard Square, and find your own City Life.

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Photo by KC Bailey.

What I Never Learned in Crim: The Realities of Mass Incarceration

Over 2.3 million Americans are now incarcerated, with an additional 5 million individuals on parole, making the United States the most incarcerated country in the world. The U.S. now spends $200 billion on the correctional system each year, with some states, like California, devoting more resources to locking-up criminals than educating their children.

This increase in incarceration comes at the heels of a steady decline in violence. According to government statistics, Americans are safer today than at any time in the last forty years. However, these statistics do not account for the incredible violence occurring in American prisons and jails – the Justice Department reported 216,000 victims of sexual assault in US prisons in 2008 and author Christopher Glazek states that “prisoners are the victims of an ideological system that dehumanizes an entire class of human being and permits nearly infinite violence against it.” Mandatory minimums, three-strikes policies and prison-sentences for the use and distribution of drugs mean that millions of Americans are being incarcerated, many for a long time, for non-violent crimes.

Unfortunately, those convicted of crimes do not only pay for their actions in prison or jail; upon reentry, they are faced with a host of collateral punishments and legal discrimination. Although significantly increasing the costs of a guilty plea or verdict, often in ways unjustifiably disproportional to the individual’s actions, these collateral punishments have been consistently deemed constitutional.

For example an individual found guilty of a felony, even one so minor as first-time possession of marijuana, may face time in prison, and then find themselves ineligible for federally-funded health and welfare benefits, food stamps, public housing, federal educational assistance, and certain employment and professional licenses. If they are citizens, they may lose the right to vote; if not, they become immediately deportable. These consequences create a permanent underclass, typically pushing individuals back into lives of crime.

Neither are the effects of mass-incarceration neutrally divided throughout society. As presented by Marc Mauer, Director of the Sentencing Project, “most prisoners are from poor or working class communities, and two-thirds are racial and ethnic minorities…one-sixth [have] a history of mental illness, and more than half the women inmates a history of sexual or physical abuse.”

Similarly, Michelle Alexander highlights that one in three young African American men are currently under the control of the criminal justice system largely for convictions related to drug crimes – a stark disparity when compared to young White Americans, considering that African Americans do not use or sell illegal drugs at higher rates than non-minority populations.

My 1L criminal law class did not discuss any of these issues.

We focused on the intricacies of criminal legal doctrines, as if the law were just and fairly applied, and as if the human consequences of a guilty verdict were of no importance. We discussed the requirements for proving murder and theft, but failed to come to terms with the incredibly violent reality of mass-incarceration and the racialized and classist effects of a system solely concerned with punishment to the detriment of prevention, proportionality, or humanity.

Where we spoke about problematic aspects in the law, we failed to discuss possible reforms, contributing to the publicly held opinion that criminal justice reform is largely impossible.

Fortunately, the focus of our classes is in our power. This year when your criminal law professor brushes off comments about the possibility of restorative justice or the racialized nature of prosecutions, probe further and force your class to debate the realities of America’s criminal justice system.

What’s Wrong with the Current Path of Development in Myanmar

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One day while boarding a crowded public bus from work, my friend reached out and paid for my fare. I protested, but she responded that her government has told her to be kind to visiting foreigners. This conversation mirrors other conversations I have had with Burmese during my time here. Almost unanimously, Burmese have had only positive things to say about the new international presence in the country, largely based on the belief that foreigners “will bring us development”.

I am not as encouraged.

It is not the international interest in Myanmar that is problematic, or surprising. After all, Myanmar is touted as one of Asia’s last untapped markets. The Southeast Asian country is located strategically between China and India, and is rich in natural resources including oil, copper, and jade. Myanmar has a large, young, and “underemployed” population, ripe for rapid industrialization and the promotion of deregulated “Special Economic Zones”. The political situation in the country also makes this a favourable time for economic development. Last June, Myanmar’s President Thein Sein prioritized high economic growth in his reform strategy, citing the successes of Myanmar’s East Asian neighbours.

What is more worrying is the influence of corporate interests in Myanmar’s still nascent process of reform. Corporate influence is neither a new problem in Myanmar, nor is it a problem unique to this country. Such economic interests are now playing a large role shaping the direction of reforms, as the Myanmar government is mindful that development will require far-reaching institutional reforms to create an environment conducive to foreign trade and investment. Investors and foreign governments are prioritizing these types of reforms, providing aid and support for “capacity-building” and “rule of law” projects to target the current reality of rampant corruption and weak legal institutions. If promoted with the population’s interests in mind, these programs have the potential to bring benefits for the whole population, however, recent practices in the country point to a style of development that may promote instability and inequality instead.

The most salient examples include the recent government crackdowns on protests against economic development projects. For example, on July 7th, a court handed activist Aung Soe a 10-year sentence for leading a peaceful protest against the Chinese-backed copper mine in Letpadaung. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident.

When farmers refused compensation from the Wanbao Company for their land and continued to plow their fields, police and firefighters arrived on scene, injuring ten people and arresting three. In fact, the Karen Human Rights Group has noted that Myanmar’s security forces “have a track record of targeting individuals who openly criticize [government-backed industrialization] with interrogations, threats, and other acts of harassment”.

Corporate influence is also apparent in the government’s approach to reforming the national land laws. Last year, the government passed two controversial land laws without consulting the population, including politically unrepresented rural farmers. Under the Farmland law and the Vacant, Fallow, and Virgin Lands Management law, the state remains the ultimate owner of land. Individuals and companies may register
for land use certificates in order to secure certain land rights.

These land laws neither recognize customary land ownership, the practice of the majority of rural farming communities, nor the rights of displaced populations mostly from ethnic minority areas. Only 15% of farmers currently hold such land certificates, due to the costs and necessary documentation for land registration. Without the certificates, farmers have no ownership rights over the land, and much of this land is formally recognized as “unused,” facilitating land confiscation on the part of both the government and corporations.
In fact, land confiscation for agribusiness and large-scale industrial projects—escalating due to the convergence of military, business, and government interests—is now one of the most significant threats to people’s livelihoods. The increase in land theft appears also to be motivated by state agencies and domestic corporations’ efforts to position themselves favorably to welcome foreign investment.

Land issues are also increasingly controversial political issues, with a risk of renewing ethnic tensions in the country, as the communities most affected by land conflict are resource-rich areas populated by Myanmar’s ethnic minority communities. Many of these groups have been fighting intermittently for autonomy since Myanmar gained independence in 1948. Indications that the central government will not prioritize rural ethnic minority interests may destabilize the current fragile peace.

The Myanmar government is listening intently to international advice and recommendations and some of the most influential actors on the ground now are foreign companies, governments, and international organizations. Therefore, the international community has a prime opportunity to play a positive role in the country. Local human rights and political groups have coalesced around the importance of renewed land law reform, explaining that the key to restoring agricultural strength in the country, and thereby improving living conditions and decreasing food insecurity, is to ensure that farmers have control over their lands and what they grow. Furthermore, as ethnic minority groups engage in ceasefire negotiations with the government, the international community should encourage the development of a policy to address the land situation of those displaced by conflict. Finally, it is also essential that large-scale developments include processes of informed community consultations and fair compensation when communities agree to give up their lands.

Many Burmese are welcoming foreigners with open arms and with hopes of gaining insight on how to reform their country. It is more important than ever that foreigners take this responsibility seriously, learn from prior mistakes, and support development efforts that are truly beneficial for the country as a whole. Land law reforms and respect for local land use are a good place to start.