Theresa Watts (3rd Quarter, 2005)

3rd Quarter, 2005
Law School Scholarship Winner
Theresa Watts

“I grew up with angry parents, angry neighbors and generally angry folks all around me. Their anger, and eventually my own, had nothing to do with them being good people. They were all good people. They were angry because they were frustrated, and because they suffered. They were angry because they worked hard, but did not enjoy the same freedom as others.”

A Portion of Theresa’s Winning Essay:

Theresa Watts

I grew up with angry parents, angry neighbors and generally angry folks all around me. Their anger, and eventually my own, had nothing to do with them being good people. They were all good people. They were angry because they were frustrated and because they suffered. They were angry because they worked hard but did not enjoy the same freedom as others. They were angry because they were not afforded the same opportunities as others. They repeatedly had doors closed in their faces. They were deprived the basic, fundamental privileges we as human beings are entitled to by God.

And this was the law.

More than anything, they were angry because they knew they would repeatedly fight for every small victory. Amidst the constant struggle to survive, they soberly realized the same struggle would be inherited by their children. How agonizingly crushing it is to fear the greatest legacy you will leave is that of anger, persistence and determination. I am sure it was their constant prayer that I would not be devastated by similar forces designed to keep me in my place.

My parents’ wisdom came not from formal education–but from life. Their hard life made them stress my education even more. They imparted in me the value of education as freedom, perhaps even liberation, from some of the hostile oppression they experienced. I feel an endearing sense of responsibility and accountability to the family, teachers, coaches and mentors who educated, lectured, disciplined, sculpted and sent me forth into the world as the woman I am today.

I am a woman who claims every opportunity to learn and grow. When opportunities are not readily available, I insistently seek them out. I was not like many students whose quest for academic excellence was borne in tradition. There were no college graduates in my family and few in my community. Based on these circumstances, most would assume there was little chance the pattern would be broken. Fortunately, I did not allow these odds to dictate my life.

I chose to attend Spelman College because its “commitment to women who achieve excellence” matched my own. I supported my college education by working as a craps dealer in Atlantic City during the summers, and supplemented my tuition by working various jobs during the school year itself. It was at Spelman where I learned being of the “real world” was not what I aspired to be. Instead, it was what I desired to change.

It was also there that I realized I did not have to assimilate for the nominal acceptance of a society that neither respected me as a woman, nor trusted me as a black person. I learned my education would never command respect, that I must respect and sanction myself.

My greatest inspiration and enlightenment came from studying under Morehouse College professor, Dr. Robert H. Brisbane, whose lectures on the American Negro social revolution truly astounded my sensibilities. Dr. Brisbane made me realize I, and certainly a large population of the country, had missed an integral part of American history. He communicated to us the importance of questioning things rather than just assuming what had been presented. My mind became rooted in discovering hidden facts. The more I learned, the more inspired I became. Customarily, the more I learned the angrier I became. I found some egregious form of injustice exerted against black people in almost every discipline. From the unfulfilled promises of the Reconstruction Era, to the twenty-five year struggle for a correct interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment, latently recognized in Brown v. Board of Education, I was swiftly enveloped by a new understanding of how our condition in America became so perilous. Black folks were continuously trampled upon, robbed, desecrated and slaughtered, yet amazingly expected by the real world to be meek, tolerant–even forgetful. Our laws commanded this as well. The angrier I became, the more I wanted to learn because I knew being angry was not meaningful enough. I knew I had to do more because what I was learning about past history was eerily reminiscent of my own life’s brief history.

When I was eleven years old my brother was beaten by the police. He was stopped on his way home and made to turn around to be frisked. He asked and gestured with open palms, “Why are you stopping me?” For this, he was beaten unmercifully. My brother was eighteen years old. He was taken from the police station to the hospital where he was finally treated for the bleeding to his head.

My family filed a civil suit against the police department. A young woman who was our neighbor witnessed the arrest and testified on my brother’s behalf. The Police Benevolence Association’s attorneys viciously grilled this brave girl, a teenager herself, for 75 minutes on the witness stand. She was taunted for everything from having poor grades to growing up in public housing. To belittle a racial bias implication, the PBA’s attorneys also brought in a black and Latino officer to testify against my brother.

Under sworn testimony these officers stated that they witnessed my brother resisting arrest. Curiously, neither officer was even present when the arrest took place. My mother was removed from the courtroom; not for saying anything, but for making facial signs of disgust at the officers’ lies. In the end, my brother was not charged with resisting arrest, and the officers were not charged with beating him senseless. My brother had done nothing wrong; he was just another casualty in the vicious cycle of police brutality that exists over the heads of black men throughout the world. He was never the same afterward. Neither was I.

In college, I began to meet men like my brother, men who had been violated by the police for no other cause than being black. I conducted an independent survey around campus and found every black man I spoke to had been frisked before. The statistics alarmed me. I had no conceivable idea before this time that what happened to my family was happening in families across the country.

The habitual mistreatment and denial of justice for minority families is pandemic. Even now, in 2005, I do not know a black man who has not been frisked. Regardless of social, financial or educational background, the indelible reality is that most black men have, and/or will be subjected to this racist mistreatment at some point in their lives. In fact, for many black men the idea of being frisked is as expected as rain–they never know when it will happen, but there is always a strong possibility. Black families carry this oppressive awareness as thoughtfully as looking both ways before crossing the street. You are taught at an early age that the police will kill you for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Wrong, of course is always subjective to the arresting officer. The anger of being publicly humiliated, violated or casually killed stays with you perennially.

So does fear. Fear that your brother, father or nephew might be the next Amadou Diallo. Racial profiling, police brutality and illegal stops of black men often end in murder, maiming or false imprisonment. These men rarely pursue legal recourse for their infringed upon rights and by design help to perpetuate further victimization. Who can blame them? Rogue cops have terrorized black men for decades, first with the support of the law and later with its implied head shrug.

This pogrom of injustice has effectively and efficiently enforced the very thing our laws are supposed to prevent–discrimination. Those of us who are contemporary victims of racial hatred and annihilation are forced to assume a code of conduct premised upon fear, rather than justice. We must constantly prove to the world that we pose no threat.

While serving on jury duty a few years ago, I perceived another tenet of our legal system that made me question the measure of “Innocent until proven guilty.” A man was being charged with breaking and entering. His attorney, in an effort to pick a fair jury asked individuals if they believed the man was guilty just because the police said he committed the crime. The overwhelming response was, “Yes.” The attorney rephrased the question, assuming the panel must have misunderstood his statement. He asked if the police officer’s word was strong enough proof of the man’s guilt. Again, the response was a resounding, “Yes.” Witnessing such blind-vision helped me realize just how vital accurate information is to our system of justice.

The real world, as immensely wonderful as it is, leaves a lot to be desired in the area of justice for all. Despite our many strides, we as Americans are still struggling to achieve equality. We travel within blighted confines that provide limited intellectual stimulation. We are deprived great brotherhood because we remain divided and differentiated. In his text, Erasmus stated, “Reading has sharpened seeing, and seeing has enriched reading and writing.” As a writer and legal commentator I plan to use facts, not conjecture to project to the world the conditions that face its members. There have been many instances in my life where race or class played a deleterious role in the eyes of the law. Fortunately, my quest for justice and desire to spread truth was borne from every incident.

My life has never afforded me traditionally carved paths. For this, I am thankful. I have grown to appreciate and respect various setbacks and circumventing routes as a means to explore all sides before making a decision. I have done this with my life. I have done this with my appreciation of the law. As a law student, I hope to learn the critical issues within the legal field that will help me give voice to the discriminated, disfranchised and angry individuals who are entitled to equal protection of the law. I am not naive enough to believe that being a lawyer, in itself, will subsidize the socially, psychologically and overall crippling effects racism has subjugated upon our society. But I strongly believe the conviction I hold for change, combined with my legal education, will contribute to making the real world more just and more livable.

Copyright 2009, All rights reserved.

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