For 10 years, Damario Solomon-Simmons has worked as a civil rights lawyer in Tulsa, Okla., most recently filing a federal lawsuit against Tulsa City Transit on charges of wrongful arrest and extortion.
His clients were arrested, extorted, and jailed by the city of Tulsa for reasons that still remain unclear, but he believes the problem has to do with the color of their skin: The five men and one woman are all Black.
He thought he’d seen everything until he and his friend and colleague National Bar Association President Benjamin Crump decided last week to visit the trial of former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, who is being tried for sexually assaulting 13 Black women while on duty.
Charges include 36 counts of rape, sexual battery, forcible oral sodomy and stalking. He thought he’d picked easy targets: poor, Black women, who were in and out of the criminal justice system, and would lack credibility if they tried to pursue charges.
But that hasn’t stopped the women from fighting for their rights, although most must suffer the indignity of being escorting into the the courtroom by officers in shackles, jumpsuits and handcuffs, while their alleged attacker sits unchained in a suit, he said.
What Solomon-Simmons saw during the visit, he says, underscores the importance of seeing the Black Lives Matter protests spread across all aspects of life, including the legal system and corporate America.
“More than 50 years removed from the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Black people rank the same or worse in almost every social-economic category such as incarceration rates, health disparities, education achievement, employment opportunities, income and wealth inequality, housing segregation, and, of course, police brutality,” he told NewsOne. “So, it is important and appropriate for Black Lives Matter advocates to work to make our nation understand that currently Black lives are undervalued and underserved in every aspect of American life.”
Here, NewsOne talks with Solomon-Simmons about the court proceedings and the victim blaming happening within.
NewsOne: You and Ben Crump recently visited the trial of Holtzclaw. What prompted the visit? And what did you see?
DSS: As Black men and lawyers, it was important that we attended the trial to both personally show solidarity and Ben, as President of the National Bar Association (NBA) which has over 65,000 lawyers, judges, and legal professional of color, to let the world know that the NBA supports and stands with the 13 female victims Holtzclaw is accused of sexually assaulting.
Frankly, it was a surreal and disappointing scene that was more like 1915 than 2015. First, we quickly noticed that not only were there no Black jurors, there were not any Black lawyers, bailiffs, clerks, or security personnel in the courtroom. In fact, Ben immediately leaned over and stated to me that the “only thing Black in this trial are rape victims and the Judge’s robe.”
Next, we were disappointed to see that, while defendant Holtzclaw was allowed to attend the trial in a suit and free from handcuffs or restraints, some of the alleged victims were actually forced to testify while shackled and “dressed out” in jail orange jump suits.
Lastly, we were disappointed to find out that many of the victims didn’t have proper representation or support to help them navigate the confusing and complicated legal proceedings.
This is emblematic of a legal system that is embarrassingly void of Black participation except as defendants, too often treats Blacks as “guilty until proven innocent,” and is undeniably slanted in favor of our White, wealthy, and connected citizens such as Holtzclaw.
NO: Do you think more cases like this will come to light as a result of Black Lives Matter protests?
DSS: Yes, I do because the harsh reality is that these types of abuses have been and are occurring all across this nation in Black, brown, and poor communities. In fact, as a civil rights attorney, I receive calls and investigate credible allegations of police brutality, abuses, and impropriety more often than most Americans would be comfortable knowing.
So, while the Holtzclaw allegations are egregious, unfortunately there are rogue “Holtzclaw type” officers terrorizing Black communities all across this nation. The good news is that, with the prevalence of social media, cell phone videos, and the unapologetic Black Lives Matter attitude many Black are adopting, more bad police and policing will be reported and exposed by victims and activist.
NO: What can be done to reform the legal system?
DSS: To reform the legal system; first, those in power, or elected officials, must acknowledge the system is rigged against Black, brown, and poor people; second, we must organize and elect better district attorneys who control how people are prosecuted, including bad police officers and mayors who control the police force.
Third, we must become more involved in the process at every level including as jurors, lawyers, judges, and observers. Lastly, be it police officers or district attorneys, there must be swift, stiff, and public punishment for those who violate their charge and whose oath is to abide by and enforce the law equally and fairly regardless of race, class, or connections.
NO: Can people who have been wrongfully convicted as a result of juries and courtrooms like Holtzclaw’s case receive justice?
DSS: Yes, Oklahoma, like most states, has statutes that allow individuals to receive compensation. Additionally, individuals can bring civil rights lawsuits against the cities and police forces who violate their rights, and cause injuries and or unjust incarcerations.
For now, look for Black lawyers to challenge the proceedings of Holtzclaw’s trial as protests continue to grow louder. Sound off…
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that Daniel Holtzclaw was a former Tulsa police officer. He is a former Oklahoma City police officer.