Why I stand for my convictions in spite of challenges
Seeing how the justice system failed Latasha and undervalued her life has impacted me in a profound and unforgettable way. - Nekima Levy-Pounds
by Nekima Levy-Pounds
I have come face to face with injustice in my own life and in the lives of my people as an African-American woman in this society. My personal experiences, though sometimes painful, have fueled my desire to fight for justice and the recognition in our laws and policies that all lives matter, with a special emphasis on those who are poor, most vulnerable and undervalued by society because of the color of their skin.
When I was 14 years old an event changed the trajectory of my life. I received a scholarship to attend a boarding school on the East Coast for high school. Accepting the scholarship meant that I would leave my family and community of Los Angeles in pursuit of my education. Life in south-central Los Angeles, though never dull, was often rife with challenges and sometimes tragedy. People in our community were commonly stereotyped as criminals and perceived as being inferior.
During the spring of my first year at the new school, I received a phone call from my mom informing me that one of my friends back home had been killed. Latasha Harlins was a 15-year-old African-American girl. She had walked into a store near my home to purchase a bottle of orange juice. She placed the orange juice in her backpack and headed to the counter to pay. As she approached the counter, the store owner accused Latasha of attempting to steal the orange juice. She became upset at the false accusation and got into a scuffle with the owner. Still upset, she threw down the orange juice and the money and turned to walk out of the store. The owner then leaned over the counter and shot Latasha in the back of the head. The entire incident was caught on video. This occurred just two weeks after the infamous videotaped beating of Rodney King by members of the LAPD.
The store owner did not receive any jail time for what she did. Around the same time, a man in Glendale, Calif., kicked a dog and received 30 days in jail. The disparate treatment in sentencing between the cases became emblematic of the notion that the lives of African-Americans are not valued in our society.
Seeing how the justice system failed Latasha and undervalued her life has impacted me in a profound and unforgettable way. I see parallels between Latasha's case and the deaths of unarmed African-Americans at the hands of police and vigilantes that have fueled the recent #BlackLivesMatter movement. The notion that black lives don't matter continues to be reinforced when no one is held accountable for these killings under the law.
My personal experience has motivated me to challenge unjust applications of laws and policies, to combat racial stereotypes, and to be a voice for the voiceless in our society. Is it scary to do so? Yes. Is it necessary to do so? Yes. The opportunities, the education and the privileges that I have received mean that I have an obligation to act in spite of my fears and to stand on the courage of my convictions for what is right. I know that is what Latasha would have wanted.
Nekima Levy-Pounds is a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas School of Law and director of the Community Justice Project. She was recently elected president of the Minneapolis branch of the NAACP.