Our Quote of the Week reminds us that too many of us experience representatives of law enforcement and of the legal system -- police, attorneys, judges, mayors -- not as protectors and upholders of justice, but as a "source of danger and symbol of oppression." The quote also calls attention to the fact that there are links between poverty and justice that we must address if we are striving to create a more peaceful society.
Speaking about the Legal Services program to the Illinois State Bar Association in 1966, Sargent Shriver outlined why achieving justice for all must be at the heart of any effort to address poverty. He emphasized that economic opportunity, which is what the programs of the War on Poverty were designed to expand, must include "full recourse to the law." Although he gave this address almost exactly 54 years ago, Shriver's words speak to the same issues we're dealing with at this moment, particularly in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Today as back in Shriver's time, people all over the country have taken to the streets to make clear that they do not feel safe in their communities. They do not feel protected by law enforcement and by the courts. And for too long, there has been ample evidence that there are good reasons for people to feel this way, and yet nothing substantial has changed. To address this, Shriver said:
"Those of us who are champions of social change through law should not be content to limit our cry simply to 'freedom now.'
We must take the offensive. Our cry must be 'justice now', 'health now' 'education now', 'food now', "jobs now" — as well as 'freedom now.'
But we will not accomplish any of these if all we say to the rioter on the streets is: 'Violence will not be permitted.' We cannot do nothing. Nor can we do the same old things in the same old ways. We must have new education programs, new food programs, new health programs and new legal programs."
To be clear, we do not make Sargent Shriver's reference to "rioters" in order to cast the protests we are seeing on our streets in a negative light. Rather, we'd like to highlight something that Sargent Shriver understood, and that we must work to internalize and act on now: that if people speak out in pain in large numbers, we have to address the root causes of this pain, all of which stem from injustice.
As we make our way forward from this painful moment, we must remember that the injustices we must tackle exist, yes, in our poor communities, but also that people of color suffer them disproportionately. We must also remember that injustices exist in all of our institutions, not just in the legal system, but also in our schools, our churches, our workplaces, and, as the COVID crisis has made clear, in our health care system. Everyday injustices in every facet of our society compound to create a truly toxic, dehumanizing experience for too many of us, and we can no longer ignore them.