The racial inequities in the judicial system are clear to defense attorneys, even in Santa Barbara County, where black people make up only 3 percent of the population. A “parade” of black prisoners regularly go through the Superior Court, said Bill Makler, and maybe one in a hundred of the jurors who pass judgment might also be African American. And then a prosecutor might seek to exclude that black juror, he added.
Makler, a private defense attorney, made his comments to a crowd of about 100 people gathered for the county Public Defender’s Office call for solidarity with Black Lives Matter. “I am angry and I am sad,” said Tracy Macuga, who heads the office, of the continuing mistreatment of “black and brown brothers and sisters” in California and the nation. “Enough is enough,” she called to the crowd. “Enough injustice, enough disparity.” As rally-goers raised signs showing the names of other people who’d been victims of injustice, everyone knelt on the grass and flagstones for the eight minutes and 46 seconds that George Floyd suffered before his death on May 25 under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.
After making his point about the disproportionate number of African Americans who are jailed, Makler listed the disparate treatment they receive from the time a black person is picked up to bail hearings and trial. Addison Steele, a public defender, amplified the point, saying profiling by probation and officers resulted in more traffic stops for black and brown people. “They don’t ask white people if they’re on probation when they’re stopped,” he said, a clear discriminatory choice.
At the rally, held at the noon lunch-hour on Monday at the county courthouse, Mindi Boulet, also with the Public Defender’s Office, stated that their union’s bargaining unit was solidly in line with the movement’s demands, as were public defenders up and down California, in stark contrast to reports that police unions were blocking requests for civilian review boards. A review board would examine complaints of police brutality and excessive use of force, a demand that Santa Barbara Mayor Cathy Murillo told the crowd she was willing to have her council take up. Later in the day, Robert Landheer, a longtime defense attorney in town, commented that if such a review board were given subpoena powers, they’d be able to learn from an officer’s personnel records if an incident was an unusual occurrence or one in a string of them.
Testifying to the need for oversight was LaTonya Herrod-Fuhring. “I am a 57-year-old black woman,” she said at the open mic, and she told a story of being stopped for driving 40 mph in a 35 mph zone. The officer cited her for cell phone use instead, she said, and the judge fined her $575. “Do you want to pay now or in payments over six months?” the judge asked her when she went to court over the minor infraction. “I can’t change my hair or skin color,” Herrod-Fuhring said, “but each of you here can change something. Vote,” she said to cheers from the crowd.
The police department already takes a third of the city’s budget, said John Douglas, a retired public defender. Is the city’s new police station really worth $200 million, he asked, adding, “Say no to that,” as the protestors clapped their approval.
An investigator with the Public Defender, Lillian Street, confessed to the gathering that she was so tired from two weeks of rallies but nonetheless encouraged: “Every time I come to one of these gatherings,” she said, “I get a little more energy. I feel a little more hope, because it feels real hopeless sometimes. What can we do to make it right?” she asked. “Switch it up,” she advised; when someone wants to talk about the next atrocity, talk about what solutions are coming into focus.
“Martin Luther King’s words were so powerful,” Street said. “He got the world thinking about a new dream. That’s what we’ve got to do.”
Editor’s Note: This story was emended on June 10 to clarify attorney Makler’s statement that prosecutors might block black jurors.
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