Just a few years ago, nearly a decade to be more precise, I took the Oath of Attorneys as prescribed by the Indiana Rules for Admission to the Bar and the Discipline of Attorneys. The final phrase of this oath resonates today as protests against police brutality have illuminated the inequities within America’s legal system.
“I will never reject, from any consideration personal to myself, the cause of the defenseless, the oppressed or those who cannot afford adequate legal assistance; so help me God.”
Around our country, lives have been taken, particularly the lives of black men and women, boys and girls, at the hands of those who also took an oath, very similar to the oath I swore in 2011. According to Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department General Order 1.1, “All sworn officers must meet with the Chief of Police, or designee, prior to assuming sworn status, to receive the oath of office. The oath of office is as follows: I do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Indiana, and I will faithfully discharge my duties as an officer of the Consolidated City of Indianapolis, under this appointment, according to law, and city ordinances, to the best of my ability, so help me God.”
The nexus between lawyers and law enforcement officers is unique, confounding and complicated. As a former deputy prosecuting attorney, I was an advocate for justice, which on a very surface level created a sort of forced marriage between myself and police officers. This was not a match made in heaven, nor in purgatory. Yet, I needed that time to more intimately understand the minds of police officers, the machination of the local justice system and how the poor, black or brown fared significantly worse than our lighter-skinned brothers/sisters.
Today, I write concerning those who never saw a courtroom, could not discuss an issue with an attorney or even file a grievance within a citizen’s complaint office. You have heard these names. Bland, Castile, Garner, Rice, Taylor, Reed and, most recently, Floyd (this short recitation represents less than 1% of the lives lost to law enforcement officers). You’ve seen the tributes and likely heard the discussions in the midst of protests. The slogans resonate while being forever brandished in the psyche of many. “Hands up. Don’t Shoot.” “I Can’t Breathe.” “Black Lives Matter.” No matter the phrase, the notion remains constant: simply being black in America, in many cases, justifies the killing of another human being.
These incidents of violence — call it murder, manslaughter, justified homicide or any other descriptor — are irrelevant. The salient point that has to be made is that these are not far-off events that do not invade our peaceful existence in the Circle City or the Hoosier state. We have experienced the hurt and pain, but the vitriolic reaction seen elsewhere has not manifested itself. We cannot sit back and wait for another killing to take place before we address a system that is failing too many in countless ways.
I call on my fellow barristers, who took the same oath as I, to begin living that oath. “I will never reject, from any consideration personal to myself, the cause of the defenseless, the oppressed or those who cannot afford adequate legal assistance; so help me God.”
Legal assistance does not begin during an initial hearing. The cause of the defenseless is not only initiated when an unarmed fleeing suspect is shot in the back. As members of the legal community, we have a sworn responsibility to create a legal framework that is just, fair and equitable. We must create policies that prevent civilians from experiencing what some may call legal lynchings. We must advocate for laws that hold sworn officers accountable for their actions. We are the leaders in our communities, which requires our collective efforts to address the systems that exacerbate unfairness and the untimely loss of lives.
I am no longer the 17-year-old, wide-eyed optimist who first moved to Indiana to begin my post-secondary education. I remain optimistic because of my faith in God, as well as the countless experiences, mostly in the city of Indianapolis and state of Indiana, that increased my love for my people. This challenge to fight for “A More Just Indiana” goes out to all those licensed to practice law in this state to look deep within, listen to your younger self reciting the final 29 words of the Oath of Attorneys and harken back to the commitment to justice we all made. This is the opening salvo of a mission critical to the long-term sustainability of our beloved community. I will see you soon, be it at the Statehouse, local county building or anywhere else injustice breathes.
These are my personal views, though I believe they align with my employer, Indianapolis Public Schools, where I serve as general counsel/chief of external affairs.
— Ahmed Young,