Diversity Week presents ‘Queering Justice’

People with name tags, hand stamps, and plenty of food chattered at the ends of the UW School of Law’s hallways Friday afternoon. They came for one thing: “Queering Justice.”

“For me, it’s really heart-warming to see that we had 100 people register ahead of time,” said Erika Bleyl, a first-year law student. “The turnout was a lot larger than I envisioned.”

Pioneered by Bleyl, “Queering Justice” was an event set for four hours to examine police brutality and the criminalization of LGBTQIA+ bodies.

Via The Daily

“I’m in school wanting to do crime, queer, and justice stuff,” Bleyl said. “But that’s not a conversation that was happening when I came here. I want to have these discussions. I want to do something.”

Bleyl was ultimately able to form “Queering Justice” with the support and funding of UW affiliated groups ­— the School of Law OutLaws, the Q Center, the Graduate & Professional Student Senate, and its Diversity committee — as well as Washington State affiliated groups — QLaw and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Along with it, she created a forum for these conversations. 

Speakers at the event included poet Donte Johnson, also known as “Da Queen,” King County public defender Adrien Leavitt, American Civil Liberties Union of Washington member Jenni Wong, and police misconduct attorney Andrea Ritchie from Streetwise & Safe, a leadership development initiative for LGBTQIA+ youth of color.

Ritchie, co-author of the book “Queer (In)Justice,” asked the room what name, image, solution, or image of a hate crime first popped into their heads when they heard the words “police profiling and brutality.”

“The first name that comes to my mind is Rodney King, every single time,” Ritchie said. “And it’s because of how deeply ingrained the narrative of state violence and police violence is as one that only involves black and brown men; and it definitely involves black and brown men at the center, but not exclusively.”

People often feel it is abnormal for a black woman or a queer person of color to be killed by the police, she said.

“It’s an, ‘Oh, that’s different than the usual story, but let’s get back to the usual story,’” Ritchie said.  

Ritchie presented an example from New York City where condoms are manufactured and distributed free of charge by the city. Often, these condoms are arbitrarily distributed on the street, so at any given time, most people have a handful of condoms in their pocket, according to Ritchie. 

As a result, police in the city are able to arrest people based off of what Ritchie calls “perceived deviant sexuality,” using the number of condoms in a person’s pockets as evidence, or reasonable cause, for prostitution. More often than not, she argued, women, queer, and trans* people of color are the ones given this label by police.

Leavitt, however, took another path through the legal system, informing the audience of an individual’s ability to nullify while on jury duty.

Nullification is when the jury acquits a guilty defendant as a way of objecting to the law, or the application of the law, to a particular defendant. 

However, it takes a unanimous jury decision to nullify; if only one person chooses to nullify it causes a mistrial and the process must begin again, without the jury member who suggested nullification. 

“It’s a very secretive thing that they don’t want people to know about,” Leavitt said. “One person that can nullify and cause a mistrial has a lot of power for just one person.”

Leavitt told the audience these instances provide a jury member with an opportunity to educate the rest of the jury on the reasons for nullification. However, he said, pushing nullification too hard may result in the entire jury being replaced. 

Leavitt called this process “secretive” because attorneys are ethically prohibited to advocate for nullification, courts are allowed to remove a juror if the person is suspected of nullification, and no one is to inform the jury what nullification is or that it is an option.

According to Leavitt, there is historical precedence for when and when not to nullify: if the allegation is morally wrong and violent, don’t nullify; if it is morally wrong but nonviolent, it depends; and if the crime is nonviolent and victimless, nullify.

“We got perspectives from lawyers working in the system, saying it’s ‘harm and reduction,’ not a solution,” said audience member Eden Lord, a UW graduate.

Each of the panelists pointed out ways the justice system is flawed. However, they still actively work to reform the system. Despite their efforts, all agreed that the solutions to these systemic injustices are complicated and that there is no easy answer.

“It was kind of a ‘f— the system’ type of thing, which I didn’t expect to hear because we are an institute,” said Molly Stutzman, a UW student in attendance.

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