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In Solidarity: The City Bar Justice Center Supports Black Communities through Pro Bono Work

by Lynn Kelly, Executive Director June 8, 2020

The City Bar Justice Center (CBJC) joins in mourning the recent killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and other victims of violence resulting from longstanding systemic injustices and the toxic river of white supremacy poisoning our country. These tragic incidents highlight the disproportionate social, economic and civic inequalities to which Black people and people of color are subjected.

The City Bar Justice Center was built on a commitment to serve New York City’s marginalized communities by mobilizing the legal community to engage in pro bono. In the midst of both a global pandemic and a global protest for justice, our mission is more vital than ever – to increase access to justice and provide legal support and assistance to those without the means to navigate our justice system. This mission particularly impels us to work to meet the needs of historically underserved Black and Brown communities. Each year, CBJC provides critical legal help to over 25,000 New Yorkers, the majority of whom are low and moderate income people of color. While CBJC aims to combat the effects of centuries of disenfranchisement and discrimination against people of color, our efforts are rarely, almost never, enough. Our clients do not vault into middle class status; at most they are getting a life preserver and in some cases a life raft. They still have to negotiate the systemic discrimination that has held back generations of Black and Brown people in this country. I describe it above as a toxic river especially because of its forms of state enforced control: over-policing, excessive police use of fatal force, juries that acquit police officers who kill without legal justification, legislators who protect the records of violent officers and judges who will not set reasonable bail for criminal defendants or consider remedies other than incarceration for those convicted of often nonviolent crimes.

The pandemic has further exposed the socio-economic disparities that have placed Black and Brown communities at a greater risk for contracting COVID-19 – a reminder that poverty is a powerful form of violence. CBJC has an extensive history of providing emergency relief to disadvantaged communities when disaster strikes. Our team has been working vigorously to address the immediate needs of New Yorkers during the pandemic through the launch of pro bono initiatives providing essential COVID-19 legal assistance and support. Our COVID-19 pro bono programs have enlisted hundreds of volunteer lawyers and already assisted over 1,000 people. In the coming weeks, we will continue to develop programming to support people of color in navigating the detrimental impact COVID-19 has had on their communities with pro bono legal services and resources for their specific needs.

CBJC stands in solidarity with our community including the New York City Bar Association’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion, public defenders representing protestors, civil legal services programs and movement-building NGO’s combatting multi-dimensional violence caused by racism and systemic injustices. We echo the sentiments of newly elected New York City Bar Association President Sheila Boston, the first woman of color to hold that office, in a recent statement addressing Mr. Floyd’s murder and police misconduct, noting that “those of us in the legal profession must rise up and lend our intellect, talent, creativity and problem-solving skills to solve this systemic and chronic injustice in our nation”.

Eradicating the legacy of slavery and the cancer of racism in America requires an ongoing commitment to equity and inclusion for people of color by taking immediate action when instances of injustice arise as well as offering support and assistance that will have a long-lasting impact on future generations. As lawyers, we are trained to provide the technical assistance to draft new and better laws and regulations as the pressure for change swells. The City Bar Justice Center was built for pro bono and is uniquely situated to bring private sector lawyers of good will into this cause for justice. I have no doubt that the legal community will support “day-lighting” this underground and toxic river of white supremacy and will not only stand up for the promise of a more perfect union but will provide the technical drafting and litigation, if necessary, to make it so.

I am hopeful that that together we, the pro bono community, will continue to lend our legal skills and knowledge to make this system work for all, especially for communities of color, who have suffered for far too long.

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