Attorney Burris talks of race and injustice at SSU
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By Mira Brody  September 6, 2013 12:00 am

On the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, attorney John Burris’ voice echoed within the walls of Pearson Hall at Sonoma State University as he delivered a lecture about the role of race in the current criminal justice system. A series put on by the Department of American Multicultural Studies at SSU, this piece, aptly titled “The Intersection of Race and Criminal Justice,” focused on some noteworthy racially charged trials of the past, some in which he took part.

“When he started speaking, everything just stopped.” Burris recalls being at a local barbershop, just a boy at the time, getting a haircut when MLK’s voice sliced through the air on the radio waves. “We stopped and we listened, and were all sort of taken aback by the images he was capturing.”

He took those words as a vision for his future, and since then Burris has been involved in cases such as the Oakland Riders (2003) regarding police misconduct, the O.J. Simpson trial (1995), the Rodney King trial (1991), was an attorney for Oscar Grant in the 2009 BART shooting and wrote the book “Blue vs. Black: let’s end the conflict between cops and minorities.” According to Burris, there are two predominant driving forces he has noticed in the trials he’s experienced: culture and community.

“Why is it that someone who goes to a police department to do good work can end up sacrificing their beliefs to match the culture of that department? To maintain a reputation?” he says regarding the Rodney King trail in which a black man was continually beaten by Los Angeles police officers. The officers were acquitted, touching off full-scale riots in south central Los Angeles and minor skirmishes in other metropolises.

During the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995, there was a clear racial divide in the community, one that accumulated during litigations, then erupted in full-force after the release of the verdict.

“It was an undercurrent that was just bubbling over,” Burris explains. “This happened all over the country. This explained to me that race really was an undercurrent that lies just below the surface in many of our lives.”

An undercurrent that has been churning heavily since as far back as Dred Scott, a slave in the 1700s who attempted to sue for his freedom, and Emmett Till, the 14-year-old who was beaten to death in Money, Miss. in 1941 for flirting with a white woman. Whether it is by the hand of a police officer or civilian of a different race than the victim, cases like these are always watched carefully by the public through the prism of race.

“Both sides were expecting the criminal justice system to validate that the young man had been killed because of his race,” Burris says, acknowledging the Oscar Grant trial once more. “That did not happen.”

Sadly, the issue becomes less about the facts of the trial and more about which “side” the judicial system will validate.

The attorney’s lecture ended on an ambiguous yet hopeful note, one that circles back to the vision MLK had for our country the day he made that speech 50 years ago. Burris’ advice to the students in Pearson Hall that early afternoon? Continue to “look to the future,” just as he did as a child in that barber shop with Dr. King’s voice in his ears.

“I recall the lessons of Fredrick Douglass before he died,” says Burris, citing yet another civil rights advocator. “Agitate, agitate, and agitate. If you want change to occur, you have to agitate in order to find an answer to your question.”

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