U Law School hosts weekend civil rights injustice conference

Amy Hackbarth

Michelle Gross became an activist because her legs were cold.

As a child growing up on the eastern coast of Florida, Gross’ school dress code forced her to wear skirts.

“I lived by the beach, and every day we would wait outside for the bus and freeze our butts off,” Gross said.

Gross convinced other female students to wear pants to protest the dress code. The school soon changed its policy.

“That was the first time I realized I had the potential to change something,” she said.

Gross, along with other community activists and lawyers, worked to change the methods of the criminal justice system last weekend in a law conference at the University Law School.

Approximately 100 lawyers, activists and students attended the day-long conference titled “Resisting the Criminal Injustice System.”

Lawyers, professors and activists gave workshops on issues such as the death penalty, police brutality, immigration and racial profiling.

The conference was the first in recent history to cover many criminal justice issues, Gross said.

“We were feeling that the whole gist of criminal injustice can’t be seen as piecemeal,” she said. “It has to be seen as a whole, on a global scale.”

The conference was the idea of two activism organizations, Communities United Against Police Brutality and the Twin Cities Coalition to Defend Mumia Abu-Jamal.

“We want to make people aware of their rights and tell them that if they know something is wrong, they should fight it,” said the president of the Communities United Against Police Brutality, who would only identify herself as Mother Keaton.

The organizations contacted other groups that might be interested in the project and brought in speakers from around the region.

The organizations then asked the University law student section of the National Lawyers Guild to host the conference at the University, said Beatriz Menanteau, president of the NLG student chapter.

Menanteau and other law students secured an area of the Law School for the conference.

“We wanted to create a link between the student body at the Law School and the community. This conference has alternative opportunities for law students to look into,” Menanteau said.

Organizers attempted to create a balance between lawyer and activist involvement in the conference.

“We didn’t want lawyers lecturing activists and activists putting lawyers in their seats,” Gross said.

At a workshop on immigration issues, speakers included immigration lawyers, a social worker and a community worker for several Hispanic Catholic charities.

“Lawyers and activists really need to work together,” Gross said. “The lawyers have to do the legal work on the cases, but the activists make the public aware of those cases.”

Lawyers and activists alike said the conference took on immediacy after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“Since Sept. 11, this conference has become even more pertinent,” Gross said. “There are draconian measures being taken by the police, and there is a necessity for serious movement to prevent that.”

Attorney Ben Casper, a speaker at the immigration issues workshop, said bills introduced after Sept. 11 in Congress demonstrated backlash against immigrants.

“The pendulum swung faster than any time in history to the other side of the argument,” he said. “Any hopes for amnesty or legalizing immigrants have disintegrated.”

Safia Omar, a social worker for the Somali Community of Minnesota, said her organization has received at least eight calls per week reporting harassment of Muslims.

“People are being harassed because they’re wearing veils or they’re standing at the bus stop. We hear stories of people being beaten up,” Omar said.

Gross said she hoped the conference would strengthen ties between lawyers, activists and students.

“A lot of students should know that they don’t have to reinvent the wheel with these issues,” she said. “They can get involved in what that’s already happening.”

Theresa Bejblik, a senior nutrition major, was drawn to the workshops on police brutality and prison issues.

“This has been really insightful,” she said. “It shows you there are a lot of ideas and actions you can take to make a dent in these problems.”

 

Amy Hackbarth welcomes comments at [email protected]