RebLaw keynote speakers stress the importance of intersectionality in combating injustices

On April 29, 1992, four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted of all charges in the beating of Rodney King. A couple of days later and nearly 3,000 miles away, the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA) organized a march at the U.S. Justice Department in Washington D.C. as its inaugural act demanding justice for King.

“When the media came up to us and asked ‘Why are 500 Asian American workers marching on the U.S. Justice Department?’ we replied, ‘We are marching for justice for Rodney King and to end police brutality in the black community,’” said Kent Wong, founding president of APALA. “That wasn’t the answer the media expected but I share this story with you today because we realized back then, as we realize now, that Asian American workers will never attain justice and equality in this society until workers of all colors attain justice and equality.”

Wong told his story of the march to over 800 law students from around the country at the Yale Law School’s 22nd annual Rebellious Lawyering (RebLaw) Conference on Feb. 19. The two-day conference is the largest student-run public interest conference in the country and this year featured 25 panels and workshops in addition to two keynote addresses.

Lori Mach J.D. ’95 and Stephen Gunn J.D.  ’95 established the conference in 1994 to “provide a different forum in which activists can engage and regroup.” Deriving its name from Gerald López’s book “Rebellious Lawyering,” the conference brings together practitioners, law students, and community activists from around the country to discuss innovative, progressive approaches to law and social change, according to the conference’s website.

In a letter to participants, the organizers urged attendees to think about the “ongoing crisis of justice in America,” citing the Flint water crisis, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the global refugee crisis as examples.

“We meet this crisis with determination that these injustices will not go unchallenged. We hope that this year’s conference inspires, informs, and enables you to take on these challenges and many more,” the organizers wrote.

In his keynote address, Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center, reflected on his experiences of organizing and fighting for justice. Before he became president of APALA, he helped launch a campaign to unionize undocumented janitors in Los Angeles in the spring of 1990. Despite the reservations from some of the organizers, Wong said they were able to secure wage increases and benefits for the janitors.

“These campaigns reflect the hope of organizing in this country, the fight for justice and dignity on the job, and they speak to the necessity of building a new labor movement for a new labor class. The challenge moving forward is to link the fight for economic justice, the fight for racial justice, and the fight for immigrant justice [together] and to embrace the hopes and aspirations of the vast majority of people in this country,” Wong explained.

When asked how students could work to build unity and solidarity between Asian Americans and the Black Lives Matter movement, Wong replied “one by one” and stressed the opportunity activists have to create a “multiracial and multigenerational” movement that ties the two communities together, adding that the Asian American community “exists” because of the Civil Rights Movement.

In her own keynote address, Jaribu Hill, founder and executive director of the Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights, agreed with the vision of creating diverse movements and reminded students of their responsibilities as lawyers.

“Don’t take [being a lawyer] lightly; don’t squander your considerable privilege; don’t waste your bar card on frivolity and cowardice. Stand up and be who you are destined to be, who you are privileged to be, when so many of our people could’ve been great and could’ve been lawyers,” she said, referring to circumstances that have traditionally denied low-income communities from the same opportunities.

Jaribu Hill (Photo by Román Castellanos-Monfil)

She also urged students not to be silent or afraid of taking a stand against injustices, no matter how small. She asked, for example: If a student can’t speak up at home when a family member uses an offensive word or phrase, how could they expect to speak up in the courtroom? Instead of leaving the fight against injustice in the courtroom, Hill said, students should think about how they can advocate in all parts of their lives.

But most importantly, according to Hill, students can’t forget about their past and their communities back home, explaining that nothing can replace face-to-face contact.

“Now we have iPads and computers; we have all of this stuff we need, but the human touch, the ability to touch and rub elbows with our people, is lost sometimes on you. Don’t think that a series of emails, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account is the same as touching your people and organizing your people,” she said.

“I take issue with people who say that lawyers should only arrive at the scene and do as they’re told. If that’s all you’re going to do, go to a firm and make yourself some serious money … but that’s not why you went through hell [to get your degree].”

Hill ended her keynote with a quote by Ghandi: “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and at times they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think about it — always.” After her keynote, Hill led the audience in a rendition of “(Something Inside) So Strong.”