This is the chapter written by Professor Mari Matsuda
Media Advisory for Monday July 11, 2016
Louisiana Police Violently Violate Constitutional Rights of Civilians Gathering Peacefully to Protest the Murder of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge
“WE WANTED TO BE SURE THAT PEOPLE WERE ABLE TO ENGAGE IN FIRST AMENDMENT ACTIVITY AND WERE INSTEAD MET BY AGGRESSIVE LAW ENFORCEMENT”
On Sunday thousands of protestors gathered in Baton Rouge to peacefully protest the killing of Alton Sterling by the Baton Rouge Parish Police Department. The large protests followed days of building local mobilization.
Between Friday and Sunday, more than 150 non-violent protesters were arrested, and dozens documented incidents of civil and constitutional violations including excessive use of force and unlawful infringement on First Amendment rights. “Over the past few days, law enforcement in Baton Rouge have escalated every interaction with the public civilian population, creating a more dangerous environment for everyone,” says May Nguyen, Secretary of the National Lawyers Guild Louisiana Chapter.
On Saturday afternoon, following a permitted peaceful protest, protesters were met by more than 100 law enforcement officers including Baton Rouge sheriffs deputies, Louisiana State Police, and Baton Rouge Police in full riot gear and military assault rifles. Law enforcement formed deep lines that cornered hundreds of protesters onto the sidewalks of two residential streets, and a resident’s small front lawn, with permission but with no place to exit. Anyone who moved was aggressively tackled to the ground and arrested. Law enforcement also targeted snatch-and-grab arrests of individuals who posed no threat to public safety, charged at the demonstrators chasing them with assault rifles, and entered a resident’s home who had begun sheltering demonstrators.
Professionally-trained negotiators attempted to intervene with law enforcement at the confrontation, but they refused to cooperate and deescalate the situation. Mandisa Moore-O’Neal, a local attorney and Vice President of the Louisiana National Lawyers Guild, said “myself and members of the NLG tried many times to intervene and ask law enforcement to de-escalate. Many of them were holding assault rifles with fingers on their triggers and those guns were pointed at the protesters. I had a clear view of both sides of the street; I did not see one thing was thrown by the protesters. I did not see any rocks or asphalt being thrown by protesters.”
Over the last few days, in addition to escalating the confrontation against peaceful protestors the police arrested at least two National Lawyers Guild legal observers and 3 members of the press including WWNO reporter Ryan Kailath. “We are also seeing that protesters are being charged with crimes unrelated to any activity documented at the protests. A legal observer standing and documenting the protest was charged with obstruction of a highway and resisting an officer. Protesters who were dragged and tackled into the street are being charged with blocking traffic,” said Sima Atri, a civil rights attorney supporting local organizers in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. “Protesters are also being mistreated in jail after their arrest. We have documented reports of protesters engaging in peaceful vigil and song being maced, medication being withheld, 40 to 50 protesters being caged in small cells, and sheriffs making aggressive, violent, and discriminatory comments.”
Protesters continue to be held at East Baton Rouge Prison. None are being released without bond.
The National Lawyers Guild has been supporting individuals engaging in protest through legal observing, posting of bond, and additional criminal defense legal support. NLG is also operating a 24/7 Legal Hotline at225-341-2287.
Movement lawyer, organizer, advocate. That is how Ahmad Abuznaid describes himself. Whether he is helping organize a historic 31 day sit-in in the Governor of Florida’s Office, presenting before the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva, working as Legal and Policy Director for Dream Defenders, or leading a delegation of Black Lives Matter activists to Palestine, Abuznaid, who has been a lawyer for five years, is all about justice.
Ahmad Abuznaid was born in East Jerusalem, Palestine. His father was a professor at Hebron University and later a diplomat who dedicated his life to the Palestinian cause. As a one year old his family moved to the US. His father had US citizenship, Ahmad and his mother received citizenship later. He returned to Palestine as a 7 year old to live there for five more years. ““As a seven-year-old boy being strip searched next to your mother… that obviously has a lasting effect,” he remembers. “Living in the occupied territories for a few years, I experienced harassment, strip searches, checkpoints and curfews that would extend for weeks. Like millions of Palestinians across the world, I am denied my legal right to return to my homeland by the settler colonial state of Israel. The Apartheid system they have enacted makes it possible for a Jewish child born today in Alaska to have greater rights in historic Palestine than me and my entire family, simply because we do not subscribe to Judaism.”
Returning to Florida he “started hanging out with all the Black and Latino kids. Because of my experience in Palestine, the blinders had been taken off of my eyes. I began to recognize the existence of US systems of injustice which disproportionately affected black, brown, and poor people. It was very easy for me to see parallels in different oppressions. Maybe because of what these systems have done to us, I felt a similar spirit of resistance.”
In college Abuznaid started organizing. In 2006, while he was attending Florida State University, 14 year old Martin Lee Anderson was murdered in a state-run boot camp youth detention facility in Panama City Florida. Though law enforcement said Anderson died of sickle cell anemia, surveillance tapes came to light showing he collapsed during mandatory exercise and five officers kneed the dying youth and hit him trying to force him to continue to run.
Abuznaid, who was student body vice president at Florida State University in Tallahassee, joined FSU Senate President Gabriel Pendas, Florida A&M University student body vice president Umi Selah (formerly known as Philip Agnew) and many other student leaders including some from Tallahassee Community College to organize a two day sit-in taking over the office of Florida Governor Jeb Bush. They called themselves the Student Coalition for Justice. “We took over the state capitol and organized a year of campaigns to get justice for Martin Lee, his family, and for accountability of those involved.” Under considerable pressure, Florida shut down the juvenile boot camps. “This group gave me the feeling of organizing and winning by affecting people’s lives. It was addicting.”
After college, he worked as the Florida field director for the United States Student Association. Fortunately, Abuznaid, Selah and Pendas stayed friends after they graduated.
Abuznaid went to law school at Florida Coastal in Jacksonville. “I knew I wanted to be a lawyer way back in Palestine as a young child. I imagined that being armed with knowledge of the law and its institutions would mean that I could fight back against the colonization of my homeland and the abuse of my family, my people. When I returned to the US I kept that mindset and so for high school I enrolled into a Pre-Law magnet program for high school. I kept focused on that goal until completion in 2011 when I graduated from Law School and passed the Florida Bar.”
One of the highlights of law school was his work in the immigration clinic where he help Iraqi refugees and others seeking to be accepted into the US. Another was the opportunity he received to serve 300 hours of pro bono work in an internship with the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands. While some law school faculty members were really helpful and were invested in his future, he could tell he was going down a different path from many of his classmates. While he saw the legal system as inherently flawed, it was clear to him that others in his class really wanted to uphold the system as is.
Trayvon Martin and Dream Defenders
In 2012, less than a year after Abuznaid graduated from law school, 17 year old Trayvon Martin was shot in Sanford Florida.
“After the murder of Trayvon Martin, my colleagues and I who had organized together way back in Tallahassee around Martin Lee Anderson decided to join back together to create something lasting. We realized that we were short sighted and reactionary back in those days and we wanted to make sure we didn’t make those same mistakes again. So we decided to create what is now called the Dream Defenders.”
The three friends, Abuznaid, Selah and Pendas, created a Facebook invitation for a conference call to plan organized action on behalf of Martin. The call drew 150 participants. One of the people on the call suggested the name Dream Defenders and it stuck.
Forty leaders immediately organized a 40 mile three day protest march from Daytona Beach to Sanford. Many of those people stayed on to found Dream Defenders. When Martin’s killer was acquitted, they organized a 31 day sit in of Florida Governor Rick Scott’s office. Abuznaid wrote in Law at the Margins, “We are demanding justice not only in the name of Trayvon Martin, but also in the name of every young person who has been and/or will be profiled, marginalized, and criminalized under the current system. We will work to educate, organize, and mobilize this generation. They are ready. We will never forget his name, nor the anger we have felt since he was taken from us. Be the power.” Dream Defenders then turned their energy to the legislature to fight stand your ground gun laws and to fight to stop the school to prison pipeline.
Abuznaid has served as the Legal and Policy Director for Dream Defenders since he helping co-found it. At the beginning it was all volunteer work. He supported himself with short term contract jobs until Dream Defenders had enough money to hire him full-time. “I have learned so much since we founded this organization that it is hard to put into words, I feel like a gained a life’s worth of insight and wisdom within these short 4 plus years. I get satisfaction from touching people’s hearts with our work and winning.
“Personally, I have evolved as a lawyer and organizer just the way Dream Defenders has continued to evolve as an organization. I specialize in counteracting violence against communities of color in Florida as well as making connections internationally with human rights defenders in Palestine. This is an effort to revive the internationalism we have seen historically from the radical left in the US.”
Abuznaid has returned to Palestine many times. In 2015 he co-organized a trip to Palestine for black journalists, artists, organizers from Ferguson Missouri, Black Lives Matter, Hands Up United, Justice League NYC, and Black Youth Project 100 in order to connect and build relationships between people on the ground leading fights for liberation. “In the spirit of Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael and many others, we thought the connections between the African American leadership of the movement in the US and those on the ground in Palestine needed to be reestablished and fortified.” He also organized another trip to Palestine in 2016 which connected Black Lives Matter activists, Puente Arizona, PICO National Network and others with grassroots organizations and Palestinian civil rights activists in Ramallah, Jerusalem and Haifa to explore their parallel fights.
With Dream Defenders his legal work has included advocacy before the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the United States Commission on Civil Rights, and the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Conference.
“Mass incarceration and state violence are particular cases of interest to me. They hold back so many of our people, often eliminating them from the possibilities of advancement. These are old issues that we face all over the world at different levels and so the fight against these systems is also a rallying cry for us all.”
He has a clear vision of how social change comes about. “Justice comes when the people at the grassroots level are able to create enough momentum, attention and energy to shift the culture. The problems with our system are often that it is top down from the government to us. We have to reverse that dynamic, only then do we see real justice, “by the people and for the people”
To sustain himself, he mediates in the morning and enjoys reading. He admits to a sneaky sense of humor and tries to walk to the beach whenever he has the chance. When asked for books he recommends, he suggests The Autobiography of Malcom X and Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Friere.
For students looking for advice, Abuznaid suggests, “Lay out a plan for yourself. Try to identify what work you would really like to do, the type that gets you going in the morning. Attend the meetings, gatherings, conferences and meet the people you want to learn from. Also, get involved in your local community, build relationships, learn and grow. The greatest impact always happens on the local level.”
Dream Defenders is an organization with transformational vision. It describes itself and its vision “as an uprising of communities in struggle, shifting culture through transformational organizing. We believe that our liberation necessitates the destruction of the political and economic systems of Capitalism and Imperialism as well as Patriarchy. We believe in People over profits. We believe that nonviolent resistance is “the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom” and are fundamentally committed to nonviolence as our means of struggle against a violent oppressor. We want an immediate end to the police state and murder of Black people, other people of color, and other oppressed peoples in the United States, the immediate release of the 2.5 million prisoners of the United States’ War on the Poor, and trials by juries of our peers. We want an immediate end to all wars of aggression (domestic & abroad). We want a democracy that is fair and protects the right to vote for all. We want free, fully-funded public education for all that teaches us our true history and our role in present day society. We want community control of land, bread, housing, education, justice, peace and technology. We want more. We deserve more. We will organize, train, act and win.”
Abuznaid and Dream Defenders demonstrate what a movement and a movement lawyer can do for social justice.
By Bill Quigley. Bill teaches law at Loyola University New Orleans. He is part of the legal team in this case.
Voice of the Ex-Offender (VOTE) and 8 individuals filed a class action voting rights challenge for 70,000 people in Louisiana saying they are illegally prohibited from voting. The VOTE suit charges that the Louisiana legislature wrongfully and unconstitutionally passed a law disallowing people convicted of felonies from voting if they are on probation or parole.
VOTE’s suit points out that the Louisiana Constitution only prohibits people who are “under an order of imprisonment” from voting and that this was intended only to prohibit people actually in prison or escapees from voting. The VOTE suit further notes that the Louisiana state constitutional convention voted down an attempt to restrict voting for people on probation.
The class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of the 70,000 people in Louisiana who are probation or parole. The US Department of Justice reports over 41,000 people in Louisiana are on probation and over 27,000 are on parole.
It was filed in Baton Rouge and names the State of Louisiana, the Governor and the Secretary of State as defendants.
VOTE is an organization that began in 1987 as the Angola Special Civics Project, a group at the Louisiana Penitentiary run by prisoners who had become paralegals. VOTE, now run by Norris Henderson, was officially created in 2003 when it focused on voter registration for pre-trial detainees and people convicted of misdemeanors. Henderson is a nationally recognized expert in human rights for prisoners and ex-offenders.
VOTE has registered thousands of people to vote. It educates the public about the collateral consequences of convictions that inhibit successful reentry. Vote has partnered with Tulane Medical School to provide medical care for people leaving prison and has partnered with other organizations to win several recent victories including Ban the Box and a new public housing policy.
Eight individuals also joined VOTE in filing the suit in Baton Rouge. All work and pay taxes but are not allowed to register or vote. The individuals who filed the suit include the following.
Kenneth Johnston, 67, served in Vietnam and attended University of New Orleans before becoming addicted to heroin in part to address the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder he acquired in Vietnam. He spent 22 years in prison after a felony conviction and has been out for 23 years. Because he is on parole for life he will never be allowed to vote.
Bruce Reilly, 42, Deputy Director of VOTE, is a graduate of Tulane University law school who has won numerous awards for his work. He spent 13 years in prison in Rhode Island and has been out for 11 years. Although he can vote in Rhode Island when he moved to Louisiana, he lost the right to vote until 2035 when his parole ends.
Dwight Anderson, 40, who attended Southern University, works for CeaseFire New Orleans counselling high risk young people and others in order to reduce shootings and violence in the city. After spending five months in jail for felony drug convictions he was sentenced to probation for ten years and is not allowed to vote until 2017.
Randy Tucker, 57, has run his own business since 2006. He serves as a Deacon at Israel Baptist Church. As a result of a felony conviction he spent 25 years in prison till his release in 2003. Because he is on probation until 2065, he will likely never be allowed to vote.
Bill Vo, 31, is a student in Information Technology at the University of New Orleans. Because he spent six months in federal prison for felony drug possession and is on probation until 2017, he is not allowed to vote.
Checo Yancy is the president of the Louisiana chapter of Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE). He is an active member of the Grace and Compassion Church in Baton Rouge, a member of the Kairos Angola Advisory Board and an active volunteer with Promise Keepers – Men of Integrity. He served 20 years in Angola for a felony conviction and has been out on parole for 12 years and will remain on parole until 2029.
Ashanti Witherspoon, 66, is a pastor and has earned a Doctorate in Theology. He is involved with the Baton Rouge Violence Elimination Program (BRAVE) and speaks before schools, universities, churches, government and community organizations. He was convicted of a felony in the early 1970s, was imprisoned for 25 years until he was released on parole in 1999.
The case is expected to be heard in the next several months.
19TH JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT FOR THE PARISH OF EAST BATON ROUGE
STATE OF LOUISIANA
VOICE OF THE EX-OFFENDER, KENNETH JOHNSON, BRUCE REILLY, DWIGHT ANDERSON, RANDY TUCKER, BILL VO, HUY TRAN, CHECO YANCY, ASHANTI WITHERSPOON, AND OTHERS SIMILARLY SITUATED
STATE OF LOUISIANA; JOHN BEL EDWARDS, GOVERNOR OF LOUISIANA; AND TOM SCHEDLER, SECRETARY OF STATE OF LOUISIANA
DATE FILED:_____________________ __________________________________
CLASS ACTION PETITION FOR DECLARATORY AND INJUNCTIVE RELIEF
- INTRODUCTORY STATEMENT
This is a class action brought on behalf of nearly 70,000 citizens of Louisiana whose voting rights are unconstitutionally denied. These citizens are being wrongfully excluded from registering to vote and voting because they are on probation or parole resulting from a conviction for a felony. The 1974 Louisiana Constitution, Article 1, Section 10, protected the right of all people over 18 to register and to vote, “except that this right may be suspended while a person is under an order of imprisonment for conviction of a felony.” In 1974, Louisiana’s most respected constitutional scholar and expert on the new 1974 Constitution, LSU Law Professor Lee Hargrave, stated that this denial of the right to vote applied only to people actually in prison or who had escaped. Minutes of the convention which drafted the constitution show a proposal to deny the right to vote to people serving probation for a felony was specifically rejected. However, two years later the Louisiana legislature, through Act 697 of 1976, overhauled the Louisiana Election Code and, in violation of the Louisiana Constitution, unconstitutionally expanded the Louisiana denial of the right to vote to not only those persons who were imprisoned for felony convictions but also to anyone who was on probation or parole after a felony conviction. This disenfranchisement was codified in Louisiana Revised Statutes Title 18, Section 2, subsection 8, which in concert with Title 18, Section 102 A (1), excludes anyone on probation or parole for a felony conviction from registering to vote or voting. This action seeks declaratory and injunctive relief to strike down the unconstitutional statute which results in the wrongful and unconstitutional disenfranchisement and denial of voting rights of 70,000 people in this state and to restore the constitutional right to vote to these citizens.
- THE PARTIES
Plaintiffs in this matter are:
Voice of the Ex-Offender (hereinafter VOTE) is a Louisiana non-profit corporation of and for formerly incarcerated persons, convicted people, and their families, which focuses on voter registration, electoral participation and social change. VOTE is a plaintiff with both first party and associational standing on behalf of its members. VOTE began in 1987 as the Angola Special Civics Project, a group at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola run by a prisoners who had become paralegals. When they discovered that detainees who are not on probation, parole or serving time on a felony conviction could vote, they began to lobby their legislators and encourage their family and friends to vote. In 2003, several members were released, and took their efforts further, creating VOTE, an organization originally focused on voter registration for pre-trial detainees and those convicted of misdemeanors in the state of Louisiana. Since 2003, VOTE has expanded its work to educating formerly incarcerated people about their rights and registering them to vote. VOTE has successfully registered thousands of voters, educated the public about the collateral consequences that inhibit successful reentry, created a model reentry program (The First 72+), partnered with Tulane Medical School to provide medical care for people leaving prison (FIT Clinic), and won several policy victories, such as parole reform, Ban the Box, and a new public housing policy. In 2004, VOTE hosted the only conference on felony disenfranchisement in the history of the state. VOTE members and staff encourage civic engagement by people directly impacted by the criminal justice system. VOTE’s staff is 60% formerly incarcerated, with one member still on probation and a named plaintiff within this litigation. Among the board members: two are formerly incarcerated, and two others have immediate family members who were incarcerated. VOTE’s mission is frustrated by the prevalence of members, and potential members, who are denied the right to vote in Louisiana. Multiple active VOTE members are denied the right to vote due to probation or parole status, along with thousands of other potential members who fit the target demographic of the association.
All individual plaintiffs in this matter are residents of and domiciled in Louisiana.
Kenneth Johnston is a 67-year-old African American man who resides in New Orleans and who served his country in the army for three years, including eighteen months in Vietnam. He attended the University of New Orleans from 1967-1968. He transitioned from a full-time student to part-time student to earn money for his family as a server at several prominent restaurants in New Orleans. Two months after he became a part-time student he was drafted at the age of eighteen and two months. Like many Vietnam veterans he returned from Vietnam with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and a heroin addiction. There were little to no services available to Vietnam veterans and the culture of the country was not receptive to their return home. Following a robbery and gunfight with a fellow Vietnam veteran, also addicted to heroin and suffering from PTSD, he was convicted of felony murder in 1972. Mr. Johnston spent twenty-two years in prison and has been home for twenty-three years. He is currently serving parole for life. While he was incarcerated he founded Veterans Incarcerated. After his release, he started his own paralegal services because there were no other options available for employment. He works for several attorneys in New Orleans and uses his skills as a paralegal to benefit others working on behalf of inmates who need assistance with appeals. He is successful in his career and pays taxes. He is raising two sons, ages fourteen and nineteen, on his own. He also has a daughter and son who live out of state. All of his children are successful. Despite his service to his country, his successful transition back to the community, his contribution to the federal and state governments by paying his taxes, he will never have the opportunity to vote and participate in the democratic process before he dies.
Bruce Reilly is a forty-two-year-old Caucasian man who is the Deputy Director of Voice of the Ex Offender. He works with, and on behalf of, formerly incarcerated people regarding civic engagement and multiple policy initiatives that impact re-entry, including, but not limited to: housing, health care, education and employment. He also works to change sentencing practices. Bruce educates practitioners around the country regarding challenges faced by convicted people and policy proposals that either reduce the challenges or help people overcome them. He educates federal, state and local leadership, regardless of affiliation or status. Bruce was convicted of crimes committed in 1992 in Rhode Island and was disenfranchised under the laws of Rhode Island at the time. In 2005 he entered the community on parole and still did not have the right to vote. In 2006, the Rhode Island constitution was amended by popular ballot, and Bruce’s voting rights were restored. In 2010 he completed parole and began a twenty-five-year probation term based on his original sentence. In 2011 Bruce moved to New Orleans to attend law school at Tulane University, creating a new domicile and transferring his probation. Being subject to the laws of Louisiana, Bruce lost his right to vote. He successfully earned his juris doctorate in law in 2014. Bruce publishes articles on a regular basis and has received numerous awards because of his work. He is also the proud father of a seven-year-old daughter. Despite Bruce’s professional success, his service to the community, national recognition for his work, education and that he pays state and federal taxes, he cannot vote in Louisiana until 2035. His disenfranchisement is simply a result of moving from Rhode Island to Louisiana to pursue a law degree.
Dwight Anderson is a 40-year-old African American man who lives in New Orleans. His job is to do outreach for CeaseFire New Orleans, which aims to reduce shootings and killing in New Orleans. He has been working for CeaseFire for three years. He gives back to the community through his work and volunteers on his own to resolve conflicts, assist high-risk youth to change thinking and behaviors, and mobilizes the community to promote new behaviors around conflict resolution. He works with young people to get them the tools they need to take the initiative to become successful, get jobs, and appreciate the full support of a person who has been through what they experience on a daily basis. Mr. Anderson sees himself in the youth he encounters on a daily basis. He grew up in New Orleans and has lost forty friends and family members due to violence over the years. He was an excellent student, graduating in the top ten of his class. He received a partial scholarship to attend Southern University. After a short period at Southern he was torn between continuing his education and going to work to raise his two sons. Though he worked tirelessly at jobs to send his sons to the best schools and provide them with everything they needed, he eventually became involved in dealing drugs. He spent five months in jail for felony drug convictions and was sentenced to probation for ten years. Mr. Anderson is now a solid and exemplary member of our community, helping to reduce the culture of violence in New Orleans. He pays state and federal taxes. Despite all of this, he remains on probation and will not be able to vote until 2017.
Randy Tucker is a 57 year old African American man who has worked as a paralegal with his own business, Tucker Legal Services, since 2006. As a result of a felony conviction he spent twenty-five years in prison until he was released by the Parole Board in 2003. He is on parole until 2065. Upon his release from prison, he struggled to find a job or housing. He was ultimately hired by a lawyer, and the lawyer’s mother rented him an apartment for very little money until he could stand on his own. His work was exemplary and as a result he received referrals from other attorneys. When Mr. Tucker was released by the parole board in 2003 he was ordered to remain on probation until 2065. Although he is on parole, he does not need to meet with a parole officer. He serves as a Deacon at Israel Baptist Church and assists the church’s operational functions, coordinates youth programs, works with the Executive Board and uses his skills as a paralegal to ensure the church is compliant with its 501(c)(3) status. He is a devoted father to his daughter, son, and two step-children. He has three grandchildren. He works incredibly hard, is an exemplary member of our community, takes care of his family, serves his church and pays state and federal taxes. Despite his successful transition back into the community, because he is on probation until 2065, he will likely never have the right to vote during his life time.
Bill Vo is a thirty-one-year old Vietnamese American who works in construction and on alternative pharmaceutical pain relief in New Orleans. His partner in this endeavor is a pharmacist. He is a talented music producer and volunteers for VAYLA, a non-profit organization that is a multi-racial community-based organization in New Orleans that empowers youth and families through supportive services and organizing for cultural enrichment and positive social change. Mr. Vo sets up events, marketing, fund raising and mentors young people. He was convicted of felony possession with intent to distribute and is on inactive probation for another two years. Despite the fact that Mr. Vo is gainfully employed, serves his community and pays federal and state taxes he will not be able to vote until 2018.
Huy Tran is a thirty-one year old Vietnamese American man who lives in New Orleans and is a student at the University of New Orleans. He is dedicated to his studies in Information Technology to better himself and contribute to his community upon graduation. He spent six months in federal prison for a felony conviction of possession of crack cocaine and conspiracy to distribute drugs. Following his term, he spent time in a halfway house for six months and is now on probation. Mr. Tran began his education while he was incarcerated obtaining a GED and went to college through correspondence classes. Upon graduation he wants to start his own software company. Despite his successful transition back into the community, paying state and federal taxes, his dedication to his studies, future endeavors and his desire to give back to the community he will not be able to vote until October 2017.
Checo Yancy is an African American man who lives in Baton Rouge. He currently serves as the state president of Louisiana Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE), a national organization whose mission is to help reduce crime through criminal justice reform. For the last six years he has worked as a mentor assisting inmates with the re-integration of persons back into society after incarceration with the Capital Area Reentry Coalition (CAPARC). Mr. Yancy served twenty years at Angola for a felony conviction and has been out on parole for twelve years. He will be on parole until 2029. While in prison his conduct record was so exemplary he received no disciplinary reports at all. He was a Hospice volunteer, was active in religious activities, took numerous academic courses and graduated from Northwest Missouri Community College in computer technology. Upon his release he worked as an administrative assistant for Personal Care Services before he retired. He is now an active member of the Grace and Compassion Church in Baton Rouge, a member of the Kairos Angola Advisory Board and an active volunteer with Promise Keepers – Men of Integrity. He pays both state and federal taxes. Despite Mr. Yancy’s successful transition back into the community, his good work and civic participation and his desire to give back to the community he is not able to vote in Louisiana.
Ashanti Witherspoon is a 66 year old African American man who lives in Baker, Louisiana. He is a pastor and has earned a Doctorate in Theology. He is involved with the Baton Rouge Violence Elimination Program (BRAVE) and speaks before schools, universities, churches, government and community organizations. He was convicted of a felony in the early 1970s, was imprisoned for 25 years until he was released on parole in 1999. He remains on parole. While in prison he participated in numerous educational activities. He was so accomplished and trusted that, while still in prison, he was allowed to travel across the state to speak in schools, community centers and conferences to promote alternatives to crime. In 2014, he was among a group of formerly incarcerated people who met with President Obama’s staff concerning long term incarceration, police community relations and voting rights for formerly incarcerated people. He has appeared in five documentaries. Despite Pastor Witherspoon’s successful transition back into the community, paying state and federal taxes, his good work and civic participation, he is not able to vote in Louisiana.
- Plaintiffs Class Action Allegations
Plaintiffs bring this challenge as a class action for themselves and for all others similarly situated who seek to vote in Louisiana, pursuant to Article 591 of the Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure.
This class is defined as those people who have been convicted of felonies, who are not in prison, and who are prohibited from registering to vote and voting because they are on probation or parole as a result of their conviction.
The class is so numerous that joinder of all members is impracticable. The latest numbers from the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that approximately 69,300 people in Louisiana are on probation or parole in Louisiana, with 41,761 on probation and 27,615 on parole.
The members of this class are all wrongfully disenfranchised by the same unconstitutional laws and share common questions of law and fact as well as common claims and defenses which are appropriate for proceeding as a class action.
The plaintiffs are excellent representatives of the class having participated in efforts to improve the opportunities for the class for years. Attorneys for the class have been counsel in numerous class actions in state and federal courts both in voting rights cases such as this one as well as other cases involving constitutional rights.
Defendants in this matter are:
The State of Louisiana;
The Governor of Louisiana, John Bel Edwards. The Governor is the Chief Executive officer of the State and is charged with following the constitution and laws of Louisiana and the United States under Article 4, Section 5 of the Louisiana Constitution.
The Secretary of State of Louisiana, Tom Schedler. The Louisiana Secretary of State is the chief elections officer for the State of Louisiana under Article 4, Section 7 of the Louisiana Constitution.
- THE 1974 LOUISIANA CONSTITUTION
The first Article of the 1974 Louisiana Constitution enacted a Declaration of Rights. Section 10 addressed the right to vote. Section 10 (A) states: “Every citizen of the state, upon reaching eighteen years of age, shall have the right to register and vote, except that this right may be suspended while a person is interdicted and judicially declared mentally incompetent or is under an order of imprisonment for conviction of a felony.”
The Coordinator of legal research for the Constitutional Convention of 1973 that produced the declaration of rights, Professor Lee Hargrave of LSU Law School, wrote a powerfully influential law review article on this section of the Constitution, titled “The Declaration of Rights of the Louisiana Constitution of 1974, 35 Louisiana Law Review 1 (1974). Professor Hargrave’s article has been cited as an authority seven times by the Louisiana Supreme Court and another seven times by Louisiana Courts of Appeal.
Professor Hargrave pointed out that Article 1, Section 10’s suspension of the right to vote for those convicted of a felony only applies while they are “under an order of imprisonment.” Hargrave explains what this means on pages 34-35:
“The word choice, “under an order of imprisonment,” may seem unusual; “imprisoned” would be simpler and more direct. The reason for the choice was to overcome an objection that an escapee would not be “imprisoned” and thus not within the exception. That choice of words does not prevent a person on probation or parole from voting since such a person is not under an order of imprisonment. The language contrasts with Section 20’s deliberate use of “termination of state and federal supervision following conviction for any offense,” where it was intended that completion of probation or parole requirements be met before full rights of citizenship are restored. Though the general expression used in Section 20, “full rights of citizenship,” normally encompasses voting rights, the more specific provision in this article providing for return of the right to vote when one is no longer under an order of imprisonment will prevail. In fact, under this section, the right to vote is never taken away. It is simply suspended while certain conditions are met. When those conditions no longer exist, the suspension automatically ends. There is no need for any kind of pardon or other formality before an offender regains his right to register and vote. The same applies to incompetents; once one is no longer under interdiction or no longer under a judicial declaration of mental incompetence, the right to vote returns with no formality required.”
As Professor Hargrave wrote, “That choice of words does not prevent a person on probation or parole from voting since such a person is not under an order of imprisonment.” At 34.
Further, notes from the constitutional convention indicate that on May 19, 1973, a proposed amendment which would have added the words “or is serving a probation sentence” after the word imprisonment was rejected.
Thus, people in Louisiana not in prison for conviction of a felony or not escapees from prison are guaranteed the right to register and vote under the 1974 Louisiana Constitution.
- ACT 697 OF THE 1976 LOUISIANA LEGISLATURE
Despite the Louisiana constitutional right to vote guaranteed by Article 1, Section 10, the 1976 Louisiana Legislature enacted Act 697 which overhauled the election code of Louisiana in a way that denied the right to register and vote to all those who were convicted of a felony and who were not in prison but were on probation or parole.
Act 697 of 1976 enacted Tile 18, the Louisiana Election Code and in Section 2, Definitions, subsection 2, changed the definition of who could register and vote to: “Under an order of imprisonment” means a sentence of confinement, whether or not suspended, with or without supervision, and whether or not the subject of the order has been paroled.” Page 1784 of Acts of Louisiana 1976.
This Act of the Legislature is an unconstitutional violations of plaintiffs’ right to vote guaranteed by the 1974 Louisiana Constitution Article 1, Section 10, and resulted in illegal disenfranchisement of thousands of Louisiana citizens.
- REVISED STATUTES
Act 697 of 1976 was codified as Louisiana Revised Statutes, Title 18, Section 2, subsection 8, which, in concert with Title 18, Section 102 A (1), excluded anyone on probation or parole for a felony conviction from registering to vote or voting.
These statutes are unconstitutional violations of plaintiffs’ right to vote guaranteed by the 1974 Louisiana Constitution Article 1, Section 10, and resulted in illegal disenfranchisement of thousands of Louisiana citizens.
- IMPACT ON PLAINTIFFS
As a result of Act 697 of 1976 and Louisiana Revised Statutes, Title 18, Section 2, subsection 8, in concert with Title 18, Section 102 A (1), plaintiffs’ right to vote under Article 1, Section 10 of the 1974 Louisiana Constitution have been and are being violated.
Plaintiffs, and the rest of the class they represent, are being illegally prohibited from registering to vote and voting due to the illegal actions of defendants enforcing unconstitutional laws.
- UNCONSTITUTIONALITY OF LAWS ON THEIR FACE AND AS APPLIED
“The right of qualified citizens of Louisiana to vote and to have their votes counted, inherent in our republican form of government and the democratic process, is a fundamental and constitutionally protected right,” according to the Louisiana Supreme Court in Adkins v Huckaby, 755 So.2d 206, 210 (La. 2000).
Laws which attempt to restrict fundamental rights like the right to vote must be strictly construed in favor of supporting the right to vote.
The laws at issue in this matter are unconstitutional on their face and as applied.
- RELIEF REQUESTED
WHEREFORE, Plaintiffs pray that after due proceedings are had in this case, that there be judgment in their favor and against the defendants as follows:
One. Declaring Act 697 of the 1976 Louisiana Legislature unconstitutional in so far as it impermissibly restricts and or impinges on the right to vote by illegally expanding the definition of who is denied the right to vote in Louisiana in violation of the Louisiana Constitution of 1974, Article 1, Section 10;
Two. Declare LSA RS 18: 2 (8), in concert with LSA RS 18:102 A (1), unconstitutional in so far as it impermissibly expands the definition of who is denied the right to vote in Louisiana in violation of the rights of plaintiffs under the Louisiana Constitution of 1974, Article 1, Section 10;
Three: Certify this matter as a class action;
Four. Issue a preliminary injunction, restraining, enjoining and prohibiting Defendants, their officers, agents, employees and counsel, and those persons in active concert with them from denying anyone on probation or parole after conviction of a felony from registering to vote and voting in Louisiana;
Five. In due course, issue a permanent injunction in the form of the preliminary injunction prayed for herein;
Six. Award plaintiffs reasonable attorney fees and all costs of these proceedings;
Seven. Award plaintiffs all other general and equitable relief that may be appropriate under the circumstances.
July 1, 2016
Counsel for Plaintiffs:
William P. Quigley #7769
Loyola University New Orleans College of Law
7214 St. Charles Avenue
New Orleans, LA 70118
RONALD L. WILSON (#13575)
701 Poydras, Suite 4100
New Orleans, Louisiana 70139
PH: (504) 525-4361
FAX: (504) 525-4380
Ilona Maria Prieto, Bar. No 29279
Voice of the Ex-Offender
2022 St. Bernard Ave.
New Orleans, LA 70116
PH: (321) 444-5940
Anna Lellelid, La Bar No. 35204
Po Box 19388
New Orleans, LA 70179
(504) 224-9670 (c)
Rob McDuff (pro hac vice application pending)
767 North Congress Street
Jackson, MS 39202
Verification of Petition
State of Louisiana Parish of Orleans
Before me personally came and appeared the undersigned who swore the facts in this petition are true and correct to the best of his knowledge.
Date: _________________ Affiant: ___________________________________
Sworn to and subscribed before me this _____ day of June, 2016.
State of Louisiana
Through the Attorney General of Louisiana
1885 North Third Street
Baton Rouge, LA 70802
Governor John Bel Edwards
Attention Matthew Block, Executive Counsel
Baton Rouge, LA 70804
Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler
8585 Archives Ave.,
Baton Rouge, LA 70809
Saudi Arabian Human Rights Lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair Continues to Fight for Social Justice from Prison
By Bill Quigley
“Even from prison, you can still light a candle”
Waleed Abu al-Khair began to practice law in Saudi Arabia in 2007. He quickly earned an international reputation as one of the most respected human rights lawyers in one of the world’s most repressive countries. Within a year he joined in a high profile critique of the ruling monarchy. He repeatedly and openly advocated for democracy. He controversially defended the human rights of women, dissidents, and prisoners targeted by the authorities. Before long, the government called his stands for human rights terrorism. They harassed him, surveilled him, shut down his social media and finally put him in prison, where he has remained since 2014. Even from prison, though, he refuses to back down and continues to publicly press for freedom and human rights. This is his story.
First, a bit about Saudi Arabia, which has been a close ally of the US since the 1940s. Saudi Arabia is tightly ruled by a hereditary monarchy and is a scary place to be a free human being, much less a human rights lawyer. Freedom House rates Saudi Arabia as one of the worst in the world in civil liberties and political rights. Torture is common, according to Amnesty International. The country ranks third globally, right behind North Korea, in denying freedom of the press, frequently arresting not only protestors but also those who report on protests. Human Rights Watch notes government authorities continue to arbitrarily arrest, try and convict peaceful dissidents. Recent “antiterrorism” laws allow the government to jail anyone who demands reform or engages in dissent.
Waleed Abu al-Khair was born in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in 1979. His family includes a number of judges and Imams. As a young man he memorized the Quran and graduated from King Abdulaziz University in 2003. He began to practice law in 2007. He set up his office with a well-known Saudi human rights lawyer, Essam Basrawi. Basrawi was one of ten people, known as the Jeddah reformists, who was arrested for trying to set up a human rights association.
Immediately upon starting his legal career, Abu al-Khair joined other activists and released a petition titled Parameters of the Constitutional Monarchy calling for the Saudi Royal Family to change the country’s rule from absolute monarchy to a democracy based on free elections. Within weeks, the government revoked his scholarship to study abroad.
Waleed Abu al-Khair founded the globally well-respected Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia (MHRSA) in 2008. Also in 2008, Abu al-Khair organized the country’s first 48 hour hunger strike for prisoners of conscience in Saudi Arabia which led to sit-ins and demonstrations. According to the BBC, activists report there are as many as 30,000 political prisoners in Saudi Arabia while the government says there are only 10,000.
In 2009, he became a defense lawyer for several of the “Jeddah reformists” who were arrested along with Basrawi after trying to establish a human rights organization. The same year he received his Masters of Jurisprudence from Yarmouk University in Jordan.
Abu al-Khair volunteered to represent Samar Badawi in 2010 after she had been jailed for “disobedience” of her father by, among other actions, fleeing to a woman’s shelter to avoid 15 years of his abuse. According to Human Rights Watch Saudi Arabia denies women the right to obtain a passport, marry, travel, or access higher education without the approval of a male guardian like father, husband, brother or son. Abu al-Khair established a vigorous online campaign to support her during the trial. Now an acclaimed human rights activist in her own right, Samar Badawi married Abu al-Khair soon after she was released.
Abu al-Khair later took on the case of Raif Badawi, the brother of Samar Badawi and a prominent Saudi blogger, who was charged with insulting religious authorities and was ultimately sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1000 lashes.
While he was becoming well known for his advocacy, his own government harassed him and the US, though supportive behind the scene, refused to publicly try to protect him.
In 2012 he was awarded the Olof Palme Prize for “his strong, self-sacrificing and sustained struggle to promote respect for human and civil rights for both men and women in Saudi Arabia.” The government did not allow him to attend the ceremony. Around the same time, he and his wife, Samar Badawi, began hosting weekly gatherings in their home where small groups of young dissidents could discuss important issues which are not allowed to be debated publicly.
Waleed Abu al-Khair acknowledged how difficult it was to be a social justice lawyer in an article he wrote around this time. “There are many rich people here because of our oil – and this oil is all we have. But a lot of people do suffer and live a hard life. And they know if they raise their voices, the consequences will be very serious. It’s not that people don’t want change; it’s that they don’t have the ability to bring it about….I have been told many times by United States officials that good relations with Saudi Arabia are vital for them. So they cannot back any political activism – the best they can do is show support for some kinds of social change. Backing people who want to change the system is out of the question. We know that we will get no support from outside in trying to change our country….It is not easy to be an activist in Saudi Arabia. I have been taken into custody for investigation many times; I have been beaten; my wife is banned from leaving Saudi Arabia; and my Twitter, my Facebook account and my website are blocked. I have no doubt they want to put me in prison and one day this will happen – the authorities are just waiting for a good opportunity.”
Finally, after only 7 years of practice, the government jailed Waleed Abu al-Khair was jailed for his human rights advocacy. He has been in jail ever since. Human Rights Watch reported he was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison on July 6, 2014 on vague charges stemming from his peaceful human rights advocacy by a special Saudi terrorism court including “Inflaming public opinion and disparaging and insulting judicial authority,” “founding an unlicensed organization,” “distorting the kingdom’s reputation,” and other charges based on his peaceful human rights advocacy.
In jail Abu al-Khair became a father and has been repeatedly been moved around to different prisons, some 600 miles away from his family. In September 2015, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention called for the release of Abu al-Khair and 8 others from Saudi prisons. Keeping him in jail, the UN stated “forms a part of both continued and recent persecution and crackdown on human rights activists in Saudi Arabia.”
While imprisoned, Waleed Abu al-Khair was awarded the prestigious 2015 Ludovic-Trarieux Human Rights Award, first given to Nelson Mandela.
Samar Badawi reflected on what it meant to have her husband Abu al-Khair in prison. “To my fellow Saudi Arabians I say that my husband has been imprisoned so that you could live free. He stood up to the tyrants to claim your rights; he faced up to his oppressors telling them he would not tolerate their repression. Remember that history does not forget, it will exalt those who have fought for freedom and cast aside the memory of those who succumbed to a life of humiliation and servitude.” She also addressed their child, Joud, who was born shortly after he was imprisoned. “My last words are to my baby daughter, Joud. Do not feel sad because you were born while your father was behind bars. Be proud instead and hold your head high, for the whole world envies you for the father you have – even if his homeland has turned against him. The future awaits you to continue your father’s struggle so that you make him even more proud than he is now. You will grow up to be a role model yourself, soon to become known as Joud the free, Joud the defiant, Joud the resilient: Joud Waleed Abu al-Khair.”
Though the US and the UN make noises about the widespread human rights violations by Saudi Arabia, in the end the country’s oil and regional power silence most critics.
As he prepared to enter prison, Abu al-Khair wrote: “In Saudi Arabia, we live a special challenge – the challenge to be free and to own yourself, your inner being, as well as to be a human rights defender in the face of a political power that employs all of its resources and capacity to dominate the judiciary so as to send you to jail and silence your voice…. As long as the oil keeps flowing, the world will turn a blind eye if Saudi Arabia continues to crack down on freedom and human rights…. Because freedom is cultivated, its seeds are those who have sacrificed a lot and have made the sky the limit to their sacrifice. They created a sense of inner peace for themselves that only they can understand. That is why I shall be flying high with them, even from behind bars. In prison I will never need a window that opens out to the sky. I do not need a door to explain to the world why I am there in prison. What I truly need lies within your conscience and every free conscience. There will always be free souls in this world who will not be silenced by oil!…The exception here involves a type of very spiritual people who suffer a lot in the eyes of others but are jubilant and overtly happy deep within. They feel like this simply because they cling onto great hopes – they are resilient in the face of all hardship. They are supported by human rights activists from all over the world and feel overwhelmed by their kindness and solidarity. One of them once said, in front of a courtroom, after being threatened to be sent to prison by the presiding judge: “Even from prison, you can still light a candle.”
Waleed Abu al-Khair has been nominated by several international human rights organizations for the first ever American Bar Association International Human Rights Award.
Please consider signing the Amnesty International online petition demanding his freedom. You can be sure he is working to free all political prisoners.
By Bill Quigley. Bill teaches law at Loyola University New Orleans and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Azadeh Shahshahani is a practicing human rights lawyer who has worked for over a decade in the US South. She was the first woman of color to lead the National Lawyers Guild and has been deeply involved in the movements for immigrants’ rights including shutting down the Stewart Detention Center and repealing the discriminatory educational bans affecting undocumented students in Georgia, dignity for Muslim-Americans, a just US foreign policy, and Free Palestine.
Azadeh Shahshahani was born in Tehran, Iran, four days after the 1979 Iranian revolution. The Iranian people overthrew the unelected, US-supported, Shah of Iran who had ruled the country since a 1953 CIA coup which eliminated the democratically elected President of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh.
Her parents named her Azadeh, which means free-spirited in Persian, signifying the hopes they had for the revolution. Her family included many doctors. Her father as well as several aunts, uncles and cousins were all in the medical profession.
She grew up with war. The Iran Iraq war started when she was one and it did not end until she was nine years old. Readers may recall the US supported Saddam Hussein in that war giving Iraq billions of economic aid, plus weapons and intelligence to fight Iran.
“I remember that my family had created this space underneath the stairs with a blanket hanging where the four of us (my parents, sister, and I) would go, sit, and hold hands when there were sirens to warn us that Saddam’s missiles were coming.
“There were shortages and constant fear. Many fled the southern parts of Iran to seek safety in Tehran and became refugees in their own country. Young men went to fight on behalf of Iran and were killed or returned maimed. Things got especially bad during the last year of the war where he was hitting Tehran constantly (after he was done inflicting severe damage on the southern part of Iran).
“The war had a significant impact on our collective psyche. I could feel it even as a young child.”
When she was 15, her family immigrated to the US for greater educational opportunities for her and her sister, settling in Memphis, in the middle of her sophomore year of high school.
“Though I had a privileged immigration experience because I was able to come with my parents and with documents, I still felt deeply traumatized and uprooted.” Because of the role the US played in overthrowing the democratically elected government in Iran and supporting Iraq in the war against Iran, “I developed a keen interest in US foreign policy and the destructive role the US government has played recently and historically in many countries. My background and upbringing made me into a semi-revolutionary, but it was college and law school that finally sealed my fate!
Human rights led her to law school, even though she originally planned to be a doctor and had been selected for a spot in the University of Michigan Medical School. As an undergraduate she majored in Middle Eastern Studies and history. “I became involved with various social justice and human rights organizations and realized that my true passion was fighting for human rights. I thankfully had the support of a mentor at the time, Professor Kathryn Babayan of the Near Eastern Studies Department, who encouraged me to follow my heart. Much to my parents’ chagrin and disbelief, I postponed medical school for a year and applied to Michigan law school.”
A 2004 graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, Shahshahani also has a Masters in Modern Middle Eastern and North African Studies from Michigan. During law school, she remembers “one day, I was roaming in the basement of the law school where the student organizations had office space and I came upon a poster about the National Lawyers Guild. It described the organization’s work in support of social justice movements, how it had come under attack during the McCarthy era and how it had survived. I found that extremely inspiring. Our NLG chapter also organized a few of us to go to the Yale RebLaw conference that year. NLG had such a large presence at the conference that I thought that the conference was organized by the NLG! That experience got me hooked to the NLG.”
At Michigan she met her future husband, who earned his PhD in Electrical Engineering from Michigan. They have now been married almost 15 years.
After graduation from law school, they moved to Raleigh North Carolina where her husband was hired to teach at North Carolina State.
“I had no connections to North Carolina whatsoever. Honestly, for a while, it was very rough. I was in a state of loss and desperation. I did some volunteer work for some organizations. But I also noticed that there was a large Muslim and Middle Eastern community living in the state. Given that this was 2004, at the height of the post-9/11 repression, I was expecting to find an organization or program to provide legal support to the community. But there was not any. So I thought maybe I could help start something. I approached the ACLU of North Carolina with the idea of a program to provide the community with the legal support tools they needed. We got funding for the project which enabled me to do a series of “Know Your Rights” presentations at various mosques and community centers around the state. I also helped put together a network of attorneys to help represent community members when they were approached by the FBI or faced discrimination.
Three years later, they moved to Georgia when her husband got a teaching job with Georgia Tech. There he gained national renown when he led a team which invented a device which allowed paraplegic people to live more independently steering a wheelchair or operating a computer.
Shahshahani was asked to serve as the Interim Legal Director for the ACLU of Georgia. “But my heart was still with the work I was doing before. These were also times of terror for immigrant communities in Georgia. ICE launched a number of police collaboration programs and detention centers such as the Stewart Detention Center. The Georgia legislature also notoriously put forth and passed several anti-immigrant bills including an Arizona copycat bill. The ACLU of Georgia allowed me to start a project focused on working with Muslim and immigrant communities. I served as director of the Georgia National Security and Immigrant Rights for 7 years. I took on litigation, human rights documentation, coalition and movement building, advocacy at the legislature, training of attorneys, and public education.” With the ACLU she helped publish a 2012 report on private prisons for immigrants in Georgia, and a 2014 report on hyper-enforcement against immigrants in Georgia.
She recounts one of her human rights victories as one on behalf of Mrs. Valentine who was prevented access to a courthouse in Douglasville, Georgia in 2008 because she was wearing a headscarf. Not only was Shahshahani able to help secure a settlement for Mrs. Valentine from Douglasville, but she was also able to implement a statewide policy change through accompanying Mrs. Valentine and her husband to the then Georgia Supreme Court Commission on Fairness and Equal Access to the Courts, a body composed of current and former judges. “The judges were horrified by the treatment that Mrs. Valentine had suffered at the hands of one of their colleagues.” A new Georgia policy allows people of faith to wear the religious headgear of their choosing at the courthouse.
During her time in Georgia, Shahshahani restarted the Georgia chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. Founded in 1937, the NLG is the nation’s oldest organization of progressive lawyers and legal workers fighting for social change. Soon she was elected the Southern Representative to their national board and was active in the United People of Color Caucus (TUPOCC) of the NLG. “TUPOCC has played a large role in making the NLG become an anti-oppressive organization.”
In 2011, Shahshahani was elected President of the National Lawyers Guild “The NLG has served as my political home. NLG members have been some of my strongest mentors, role models, and friends. There is no other organization like the NLG serving as a base for legal activists. It provides a space to do political legal work and be connected to other movement lawyers, legal workers, law students, and jailhouse lawyers.”
With the NLG, Shahshahani participated in international human rights delegations to Haiti, Honduras, Palestine, post-revolutionary Tunisia and Egypt, and Venezuela. She also served as a member of jury for human rights tribunals on Mexico and the Philippines.
In January 2016, Shahshahani started a new job as Legal and Advocacy Director with Project South. Project South is a Southern-based leadership development organization dedicated to movement building. In her new position, she provides legal support to social justice movements with a focus on immigrants’ rights and defending Muslim and Middle Eastern communities against state repression.
She has been recognized with the 2012 Advocacy Award from the American Immigration Lawyers Association among others. Her writings have appeared in Al Jazeera America, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Huffington Post, The Guardian, MSNBC, and Truthout.
“As an immigrant and a Muslim, I am intimately familiar with the human rights issues I am working on. I know justice comes about through grassroots mobilization and movement building. My work as a social justice lawyer and activist is to help support the movement. Winning even small victories for the movement gives me great satisfaction. I get frustrated when we have to fight battles just to maintain the status quo because of current political dynamics.
“I am inspired by freedom fighters throughout history, particularly Palestinians fighting for their human dignity in the most oppressive of circumstances. On my office wall I have pictures of Mohammad Mossadegh, the democratically-elected prime minister of Iran who was toppled in a 1953 CIA-engineered coup because he dared to nationalize Iranian oil and Forough Farrokzad, a pioneering Iranian woman poet who died tragically young but who has left her mark on Iranian literature and the feminist movement.
“In order to sustain myself, I exercise for 1.5 hours every day. Every other day, I run outside. Breathing fresh air and seeing the nature is energizing. I know my limits and try to take at least one day every weekend where I stay home and rejuvenate. I try to eat healthy home-cooked meals and I usually go out with friends once a week and we enjoy a meal together. I love food and spend considerable time cooking and reading about new restaurants and cafes.
“I recommend people read Something Fierce: Memoires of a Revolutionary Daughter. This is a fascinating story about the life of a Chilean young woman who lives with her family underground in various Latin American countries during repressive times in the 1970s and 1980s. She then evolves into a revolutionary herself. It is a captivating story about perseverance and stamina in unbelievably frightening and suffocating times.
“When social justice law students ask me for career advice, I tell them to stick with it. It can be very challenging at the beginning especially and at various points throughout your career financially, emotionally, politically. To get your foot in the door, I would also advise trying to devise a fellowship with an organization you have worked with during law school. Become involved with a social justice organization that provides you with mentorship and a sustaining network; for me, that has been the NLG. The NLG provides great support for progressive folks trying to make it through legal spaces without getting demoralized. Please join and come check us out in NYC, August 3-7!!!”
When critics ask her why she challenges the injustices of the US, she responds, “I live in this country and as such, am most effective at fighting the injustices inflicted by the US government on people here and around the world. This government in particular needs to be held accountable in light of its massive military power, disastrous neoliberal agenda, and history of repression of movements domestically and internationally. I also find inspiration in in this poem by the great Persian poet Sa’adi (which is inscribed on the entrance of the UN):
Human beings are members of a whole,
In creation of one essence and soul.
If one member is afflicted with pain,
Other members uneasy will remain.
If you have no sympathy for human pain,
The name of human you cannot retain!”