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Lawyers struggle to keep up with civil rights cases amid America's racial reckoning

"You'd think that with all that's going on in the country, things would be going the other way. But it's the opposite."
Civil rights lawyers Daryl Washington, Daryl Parks and J. Wyndal Gordon say they're seeing more cases than ever before.
Civil rights lawyers Daryl Washington, Daryl Parks and J. Wyndal Gordon say they're seeing more cases than ever before.NBC News

In the months since George Floyd's death in Minneapolis in May and the subsequent national demonstrations against police brutality, lawyer J. Wyndal Gordon's phone has been ringing virtually nonstop. And he's troubled by the calls.

Gordon, dubbed "the Warrior Lawyer" because he takes on cases of the underprivileged, said his Baltimore office has been overloaded with inquiries from people of color seeking his services for civil rights violations.

"You'd think that with all that's going on in the country, things would be going the other way," Gordon said in an interview. "But it's the opposite."

The requests have been so plentiful that Gordon has had to refuse more cases than he could accept, he said.

"Excessive force [by police officers] and discrimination, mostly," he said. "I would say there has been a 30 percent increase in business in the last few months. There are so many calls and cases that you can't take them all.

"You hear about all these wrongs and you're overwhelmed," he added. "That's a sad thing as an attorney. You have to adhere to the privilege of practicing law and not just hoard cases when you know you are not able to handle them in a reasonable amount of time. I end up referring many to other attorneys."

The FBI and other agencies and researchers have not yet compiled data on civil rights violations or crimes over the last three months. But others support Gordon's anecdotal assessment.

"As we have seen in the last several weeks — from Minneapolis and from the police response to the protests — there's a great deal that still has to change in policing," Laurie Robinson, a criminologist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, said in a June 19 report by Nature Research Journal.

Former police officer Seth Stoughton, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, added in the report that Floyd's killing and Ahmaud Arbery's killing in Georgia, along with the case in New York when a white woman called police on a Black man who was bird-watching in Central Park, were telling.

"I have become convinced that we do not have a race problem in policing," Stoughton said in the study. "Rather, we have a race problem in society that is reflected in policing."

The problem has manifested itself in an explosion of cases — many unreported by the media — since Black Lives Matter began leading scores of protests on America's streets against such violence in the spring, some lawyers say.

"It's troubling," said Daryl K. Washington, a civil rights lawyer in Dallas who successfully represented the family of Jordan Edwards, 15, who was unarmed when he was shot in the back of the head by Officer Roy Oliver in Balch Springs, Texas, in 2017. Oliver was found guilty the following year and sentenced to 15 years in prison. It was the first conviction of a Dallas County police officer in 40 years.

"I have really seen an uptick" of cases, Washington said in an interview. He added that the movement to reform police behavior has sparked the increase.

"Whenever people see that there is an opportunity for change, to have the system go the way it's supposed to, they start to show who they really are," he said. "That's what we're seeing right now: a bunch of police officers doing some of the same things we have been protesting about.

"You also have individuals treating African Americans in an unfair manner, calling the police when they know in most cases that's not the thing to do. We all know how that has played out in the past."

Gordon noted that it has played out in many cases recently for those who make nebulous calls to police or refuse to serve Black people at restaurants, as in a case last month in Baltimore, or for those who have been fired after they mocked the manner in which Floyd was killed.

"But I don't think some of these people are concerned about losing their jobs," Washington said. "In a lot of cases, they become heroes. A GoFundMe campaign is established, and these people end up getting hundreds of thousands of dollars. So are they really losing when they lose these jobs? Or are they gaining in money and publicity?

"These hate groups and racist people stick together," he said. "And whenever something happens to one of them, they come together to say, 'Hey, we got your back.'"

Gordon agreed, adding that officers are threatened by the demonstrations rather than moved to quell aggressive tactics.

"They rear their heads when they perceive people are making headway in society, making a lane for themselves on the main boulevard," he said. "You have cops out here that don't want to give it up. They'd rather quit than adhere to Black people's constitutional rights. They see themselves as victims. And I don't know how you can be a victim when you have a badge and a gun and a license to kill unarmed people."

Daryl Parks of Tallahassee, Florida, a lawyer who was on the team that represented the families of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, sees it differently.

Parks said that there has "not necessarily been an uptick" in the number of cases but that there has been an uptick in awareness. "More people are aware and more inclined to act on it," he said.

Vince Warren, the executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, said technology has played a significant role in policing and lawyering. "The big difference between practicing civil rights law now and 10 years ago is video evidence," he said. "I suspect those issues that turn up on social media will turn into cases more readily than [a victim] verbally trying to demonstrate what went on in a case."

Warren's organization is a legal and advocacy entity that works closely with social movements, including the Movement for Black Lives. It was an integral part of New York's banning its discriminatory stop-and-frisk police tactics, which disproportionately targeted people of color.

"The increase in video has absolutely changed civil rights practice," Warren said. "Also, people are more likely to record police encounters and report it publicly. There may not be more incidents, but we are seeing many more incidents than we normally would. So I wouldn't be surprised if there is an increase because of this."

A report by the American Society for Public Administration found that "little systematic research exists to answer questions about which policies should be ended or put in place to reduce these deaths."But lawyers say they know which policy, especially, needs to end: qualified immunity, the doctrine that protects officers in a number of ways, including absolving them from civil suits. It enables officers' overzealous behavior because they believe they will not be held accountable, lawyers say.

"If we can get some changes [with qualified immunity], it will put some fear into people and have them think for a second before they do something," Washington said.

Parks said: "But that's not on the table. We've always had cops feeling untouchable because they have qualified immunity backing them up to almost anything they do. Qualified immunity is not threatened now."

Lawmakers, particularly Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who is writing a police reform bill, and President Donald Trump, say scaling back qualified immunity is a nonstarter. "That meant that the police union had gotten to them in a major way to make sure that wasn't touched," Parks said. "That's the No. 1 issue. ... The cloak of qualified immunity and the cloak of the police union protect them so much."

Washington added another element that matters: Trump. He said the president's language — calling Black Lives Matter "a symbol of hate," for example — "incites" his supporters to be aggressive, creating attitudes or confrontations that could lead to trouble.

"Until we have some significant changes in November," Washington said, "we're going to continue to see what we're seeing."

Gordon said he believes the resilience of the people marching for change will ultimately be the lightning rods for change.

"Black people are undefeated," he said. "When it comes to fighting for our rights, we may lose some battles, but we always win the war, from slavery to Jim Crow to segregation to Brown v. Board of Education to the Civil Rights Act.

"The movement is led by people who are determined to separate the opponent from their will to win. And I think it will be the people over the establishment. People are tired of existing under an oppressive regime. They want freedom, and not just for themselves."