The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing

Saturday night I watched in horror as my beloved city of Reno was barraged with rioting, looting, burning, tagging, vandalizing, tear gas, rubber bullets, and rocks. In real time on social media, I witnessed the messages of shock, outrage, and extreme vehemence of this destruction by my fellow Renoites.  And I wondered, “Where was this virulent indignation when George Floyd (or so many others) died?” I was as guilty as my other white privileged friends.  I had intentionally let disturbing events from thousands of miles away be just a distant, hazy, impersonal piece of news, sterile and benign in my life. I had silently let evil triumph. NO MORE!

Here are my Thoughts:

  • What happened to George Floyd was murder. Not manslaughter.  Not something protected by qualified immunity! Murder. Plain and simple.
  • The violent and destructive actions of rioters and looters is also wrong! It’s criminal. It violates any rights bestowed in the 1st amendment.
  • Our feelings of grief, condemnation, and horror over the vandalism and destruction of property should NOT be MORE intense than what we feel towards murder. The purposeful loss of a living soul should create a much more visceral reaction within us than any purposeful loss of inanimate property. 
  • Just because one violent act hits our little Reno community directly, but a violent murder thousands of miles away doesn’t affect us directly, shouldn’t make one worse or more unjust than the other. 

My thoughts when I hear statements like these:

  • “Violence is not the answer.” Have we forgotten that our country’s origin was founded on peaceful protests turned violent against an oppressive government system resulting in unfairly distributed rights? How then can we help quell the violence?
    • We can step up and do our part to end the inequality and racism in our country.
    • We can vote for leaders who will lead and protect our most vulnerable.
    • We can teach our children tolerance and compassion by our words and actions. 
    • We can serve within our own communities.
    • We can seek to problem solve and compromise instead of seeking blame.  
    • We can listen to ALL and give a voice to ALL. 
  • “A few bad apples don’t represent ALL police officers.” As Martin Luther King, Jr boldly reminded us, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” Eighteen previous excessive force complaints were filed against Officer Derek Chauvin. EIGHTEEN!  In a just system, he wouldn’t have been an employed law enforcement officer.  He wouldn’t have been given the means and opportunity to murder George Floyd in the first place.
  • “There is a better way.” Where were we when peaceful protests and difficult conversations were attempted? We laugh, minimize, criticize, or outright ignore peaceful attempts to protest racism in this country.  How far have we come in almost 30 years since Rodney King?  Are we progressing or falling pitifully backwards in our quest for equal treatment of all? And yet again, we are allowing fringe extremist rioters to hijack the purest voice of protest.  Not only have unfair rights been distributed to many in this country, but now these marginalized groups are being robbed from delivering their message of social change because of violent anarchists.  Where does it end? 

Despite this past week filled with atrocities, there is much to be encouraged by.

  • Courageous Conversation Friday evening, May 29th, a heartening Courageous Conversation took place online. UNR Psychology professor, Dr. DuPree, facilitated a discussion with our interm Reno Police Chief, Tom Robinson, and a local diversity expert, Tiffany Young, and our Washoe County Sherriff, Darin Balaam. This conversation was a great starting point for our community where empathy, understanding, and compassion was shared.  It was pointed out that we have an independent internal affairs department in City Hall for us to submit any abuse of power by local law enforcement. Regrettably, this conversation was not picked up by local news stations or given much publicity except by our City Council member, Devon Reese. More publicized conversations like this would do much to heal our community and build back trust.
  • Peaceful Protest The following day, Saturday, May 30th, our local Black Lives Matter organization marched in peaceful protest to show solidarity for and raise awareness of George Floyd and other similar plights. Once this protest was finished, the crowd was asked by its organizers to disperse and return to their homes.
  • A Heroic Voice of Reason Unfortunately, a fringe group broke off from the protest and went to the police station. As I watched the live feed, I was stunned to hear the anti-police chants, shocked the taunting towards officers to come fight, horrified as the Police Badge sign was ripped off the wall and stomped on, saddened by the graffiti being splayed across the sidewalk and walls, and disgusted by the flag being burned. And then it happened. A lone young woman could be heard over the crowd, calling everyone to stop the vandalism. She pulled people back to the original message of solidarity they were trying to convey. THAT YOUNG WOMAN IS A HERO!  Even though events of violent vandalism continued later, for this moment the mob was quelled by one lone voice of reason.
  • Appropriate Law Enforcement Response
    • Empathy and De-escalation. As their building was under assault, law enforcement did not strike out. They stood ready should things turn violent, but did not escalate an already volatile situation. Interm Police Chief Tom Robinson gave a statement wherein he showed an understanding of the anger and frustration that the group felt. He agreed that we need openness, communication and change. He displayed empathy for the fallen and frustrated. He explained that while some of the actions were illegal, “tonight is not the night to deal with that.” His words were an attempt to defuse and de-escalate.
    • Balancing Act to Protect and Serve. Shortly afterward, Reno City Hall was attacked and set on fire. Police had to respond at this point, as did Reno Fire Department, and later our Reno National Guard. At this point, law enforcement had to do the difficult balancing act between their objectives of protecting and serving once the defacing turned to destruction. I was encouraged by the press release of Sheriff Darin Balaam who acknowledged the balancing act. He clearly stated that his first priority is the health and safety of the county. He followed that up with a call to action and an urging for communication.
  • A New Day of Hope I have been further encouraged by the community response this morning. It is my continuing hope that this “moment” of darkness will bring more openness, communication, and collaboration. There are many resources to help educate and guide allies in this cause for justice and equality for all.  Here are two examples:
  • Our Moral Compass Many religious leaders have taught love, forgiveness, compassion, and tolerance.  No matter our stance on religion, compassionate spiritual teachings from sacred texts are universal to all humankind and point us in a moral direction. We as a nation can only heal when we honor and embrace our diversity while unifying our common humanity.
    • Buddhism
      • “Radiate boundless love towards the entire world — above, below, and across — unhindered, without ill will, without enmity.” (The Buddha, from the Metta Sutta)
      • “Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.” (The Buddha, from the Dhammapada)
    • Christianity
      • “Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” (Matthew 7:12)
      • “Charity suffereth long, and is kind.” (1 Corinthians 13:4)
    • Hinduism
      • “When a person responds to the joys and sorrows of others as if they were his own, he has attained the highest state of spiritual union.” (Bhagavad Gita 6.32)
      • “The person who is always involved in good deeds experiences incessant divine happiness.” (The Rig Veda)
    • Judaism
      • “Be the first to hold out the hand of peace.”  (Talmud, Sota)
      • “Who acts from love is greater than who acts from fear.” (Talmud, Sota)
    • Muslim
      • “The reward of goodness is nothing but goodness.” (Al Quran 55:61)
      • “And good and evil are not alike. Repel evil with that which is best. And lo, he between whom and thyself was enmity will become as though he were a warm friend.  But none is granted it save those who are steadfast; and none is granted it save those who possess a large share of good.” (Al Quran 41:35-36)
    • Taoism
      • “Simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.” (Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching)
      • “Love is a decision – not an emotion!” (Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching)

To Prosecute is Human, To Defend Divine

“How can you defend someone who is guilty?”

In law school, this was a question that I deeply pondered. Even though I was passionate about pursuing criminal law, I wondered if I could ever feel ethically confident defending a client who clearly had broken the law. As a young, naïve law student, I didn’t think I could ever be a defense attorney. I could not imagine defending those I knew were guilty. So, I became a Deputy District Attorney for Washoe County instead, and loved being on that side of justice for eight years.

In law school, we learned in our sterile classroom environments that “this noble profession is about finding justice through the adversarial process.” In practice, it is not always like that. The stereotypical reputation that lawyers have from television, movies, countless jokes, or even personal anecdotes is not favorable. Our profession is often seen as full of hucksters who look for loopholes, or worse yet corrupt to their core. As I worked as a prosecutor, I found this stereotype to be far from the truth. There will always be a few who are not honest with the facts or are looking to manipulate the system to avoid consequences, but I’ve found these to be the exceptions. Most attorneys I have worked with, in and out of court, simply seek the best deal for their clients while also trying to get them the assistance they need to overcome things like addiction or other struggles.

My time with the Washoe County District Attorney’s office helped me fully recognize the important need for each individual’s rights to be protected throughout the legal process, whether or not they were guilty. I watched as the members of the defense bar defended the rights of their clients without necessarily defending their actions. As I watched this from the eyes of a prosecutor, I gained a respect for the work that defense attorneys did and the methods most used.

A big turning point in solidifying my personal philosophy in defending guilty individuals, was an article entitled “Dialogue Between a Prosecutor and Defense Attorney” in the Clark Memorandum, a magazine put out by the J. Rueben Clark law school at Brigham Young University. This article highlighted a one-hour discussion between United States Attorney, District of Utah Paul M. Warner and Ronald J. Yengich, a prominent defense attorney in Utah. The words of Mr. Warner resonated with me, explaining all the many reasons he loved being a prosecutor, many of the same reasons I loved being a prosecutor. But even more important were these powerful words of Mr. Yengich:

I have a statement in my office: ‘To prosecute is human, to defend is divine.’ I believe in my heart of hearts that I will be accused before the great white throne and Christ will be my advocate, and he will certainly be defending a guilty client. I know that about myself. I am a defense attorney because I know all of the errors I have committed in my life and the luck that I have to be standing in front of you honorable people after a life that has been full of mistakes and errors that could have put me in trouble.” The imagery of these words have vividly stuck with me all these years since.  This philosophy has become one of the brightest guiding lights in my career.

A big turning point in solidifying my personal philosophy in defending guilty individuals, was an article entitled “Dialogue Between a Prosecutor and Defense Attorney” in the Clark Memorandum, a magazine put out by the J. Rueben Clark law school at Brigham Young University. This article highlighted a one-hour discussion the 2005 Orrin G. Hatch Distinguished Trial Lawyer Conference between United States Attorney, District of Utah Paul M. Warner and Ronald J. Yengich, a prominent defense attorney in Utah. The words of Mr. Warner resonated with me, explaining all the many reasons he loved being a prosecutor, many of the same reasons I loved being a prosecutor. But even more important were these powerful words of Mr. Yengich:

I have a statement in my office: ‘To prosecute is human, to defend is divine.’ I believe in my heart of hearts that I will be accused before the great white throne and Christ will be my advocate, and he will certainly be defending a guilty client. I know that about myself. I am a defense attorney because I know all of the errors I have committed in my life and the luck that I have to be standing in front of you honorable people after a life that has been full of mistakes and errors that could have put me in trouble.” The imagery of these words have vividly stuck with me all these years since.  This philosophy has become one of the brightest guiding lights in my career.

All of us are guilty. We’ve all made mistakes. Some are just more serious than others. My goal is to provide the assistance and protection that each of my clients deserve, despite their guilt. I will forever protect my client’s rights, but I cannot defend their actions.  I defend the rights of the guilty because that is what is right and just.

I strive to live by what Mr. Yengich calls “The Defense Attorney’s Oath” (quoted from Walt Whitman):

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and the sun and the animals. Despise riches. Give alms to everyone that asks. Stand up for the stupid and the crazy. Devote your income and labor to others. Hate tyrants. Have patience and indulgence toward the people. Take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or any number of men. Go freely with powerful uneducated persons and the young and mothers of families. Reexamine all that you have been told at school or in church or in any book and dismiss whatever insults your soul.