African-Korean American Kimberley Motley is an international human rights defence attorney from Milwaukee Wisconsin. Having made a name for herself through her radical approach she is known for her unconventional legal mind. Her fundamental belief that everyone has a right to justice has made her a legend in a deeply conservative environment. She was the first foreign lawyer to practice and successfully overturn sentences for men and women in war torn Afghanistan, for both Afghans and Westerners, who had suffered appalling miscarriages of justice.
Kimberley is also an activist and author of the book, Lawless.
Alain Elkann interviews her in the light of the Black Lives Matter movement giving us further insight into a phenomenon that has gripped the world for the past month.
Kimberley Motley, how tough was growing up in Milwaukee?
Milwaukee is the number one most segregated city in the US, it incarcerates more black men than any other. My father was an air force man, my mother a Korean immigrant, and I grew up with humble beginnings in a very multi diverse environment. My neighbourhood was African-American, my private school mostly white students, and I was the only black Korean.
Did the street smarts that you learned help your legal career?
Yes, how to deal with people from different backgrounds. I was in the Milwaukee public defender’s office and the cultural and religious aspects are even more different in Afghanistan.
What is your specialty?
Litigation in human rights and criminal defence, which are often very similar. In Afghanistan, if a woman is raped she can be charged with adultery as a crime. People look at that as a human rights case, but I look at that as a criminal defence case.
What was your first feeling when you were confronted by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis?
I was at home in America, and I am horrified by the shootings and death of black and brown Americans at the hands of the police. George Floyd’s death was particularly horrible because it was so inhumane. There was no excuse for the eight minutes and 42 seconds that the officer killed him.
You have three children. How did your family react to these events?
Everyone was outraged that this public servant could commit murder. We all essentially became witnesses to this death. He and the other officers meant to murder George Floyd.
Did you and your family march in demonstrations?
Absolutely. We support Black Lives Matter.
“I’m currently representing two separate families of black men who were murdered at the hands of a police officer who has killed three people.”
Kimberley Motley, what feelings have those marches and demonstrations evoked?
I’ve been getting calls from people around the world apologising to me and saying, “I’m so sorry that this is happening. I had no idea.” Calls from Afghanistan, Hong Kong, London… and some of these people have travelled to the US. As an African-American Korean woman, the systematic racism within the criminal justice system that you see with law enforcement has been prevalent all my life.
What do the protests mean?
It’s the announcement that obviously Black Lives Matter, but also the acknowledgement that there is systematic racism within this country and within criminal justice, and that has to change.
How do you react to the confluence of the coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations?
It should be highlighted that the killer virus has disproportionately killed African-Americans in the U.S. because we have an unequal health system. When I’ve protested, I’ve seen about 80 percent of the people wearing masks, being mindful, but gathering together for the protest is a real risk.
Did you predict that the response to this murder would be so massive?
My first thought was, thank God this was videotaped by that 17 year old girl. My second response was they can’t let him get away with this. I try to be optimistic about the criminal justice system but I was bracing myself for these officers not to be prosecuted. Had the Minnesota district attorney’s office done the right thing and prosecuted these officers within hours of the video being released, we wouldn’t be having all these protests. The fact they waited is an insult to the indignity of what happened to George Floyd, and the indignities of what happened to so many black and brown people murdered by police officers. The death of George Floyd is completely awful, but to a certain extent I am slightly pleased that the Minnesota District Attorney’s office waited all that time to charge the first officer, because we wouldn’t be protesting and this wouldn’t have been as big of a deal had they charged him right away.
How badly did the District Attorney’s office behave?
They tried to put out a false narrative that he had intoxicants in his system. I’ve never seen a criminal complaint against the defendant where they put what a person may have in their system without doing a toxicology report. They weren’t even admitting that he was choked, that that officer had his knee on the man’s neck, when the first complaint came out nine days later.
What about the media coverage?
They were putting out his criminal record and his interactions with police. With a lot of these black and brown people who are murdered by the police, the media will call the deceased person things like “the suspect”. This charged language, attacking the victim when the police officers have been murdering people, happens all the time.
What are you doing about this professionally?
I’m currently representing two separate families of black men who were murdered at the hands of a police officer who has killed three people. He has shot his gun at least 23 times within a 5 year time period, and killed people on two separate occasions. One of the victims was a 17 year old kid.
“There’s not an adult black person I know who doesn’t have a story about a police officer mistreating them. Not one.”
Kimberley Motley, all over the world there has been support for Black Lives Matter. Do you think that this is an encouraging signal for people to be less racist?
It has opened people’s eyes, and I hope that this will encourage them to not just be less racist but to be mindful of how they may be contributing to systematic racism, especially in the US. I can’t underscore how amazing it is to see protests in London, Afghanistan, Syria. The art murals you see are somewhat reminiscent of the 1960s when African-Americans were complaining about racism, but it wasn’t until photographic images were released around the world that lots of people realised what was happening. I hope that this helps to address systematic racism, not just in the U.S., but also in the U.K. and in many other countries.
Is the situation similar to the global events of ‘68?
In the 60s racism was more open and now it’s not as open as it was; but actually it’s becoming more open thanks to Donald Trump encouraging it. The 60s are a good blueprint to what is happening today and we should learn from history.
You’ve been fighting all your life for human rights and women’s liberation. Do you feel personally wounded?
This is not new for me, I’ve had the experiences. My African-American father is from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and my mother was born in North Korea. When they married, their marriage was illegal in Louisiana. This has been something that I’ve dealt with personally all my life. Just like there’s not a woman I know who doesn’t have a ‘me too’ story, there’s not an adult black person I know who doesn’t have a story about a police officer mistreating them. Not one.
Are you going to continue trying to change the American system from the inside out as a defence attorney?
I certainly will continue to fight for human rights in the US. My power personally is that I’m an attorney. I can represent people. I’ve had many clients mistreated by police, and I’ve been harassed by police. This is a lifestyle for me.
How has the criminal justice system been functioning during the coronavirus lockdown?
Disproportionately black people are being arrested and charged, and we are still seeing police brutality against black and brown people during this pandemic. It’s not just killing George Floyd. The complete credibility is in question for any police law enforcement officer that has violated the law.
“The police think that they are the military, but they’re not.”
Kimberley Motley, are the Black Lives Matter protests having results?
A lot of progress within a short period. Four police officers in Minneapolis have been charged for the murder of George Floyd, and the charge of the main officer involved, Officer Chauvin, has been increased. The State of Minneapolis is suing the Minneapolis police department to review their files for the last 10 years. In Dallas Texas, they’re adopting a duty to intervene, to require officers to stop other officers who are using inappropriate force. The New Jersey attorney general has said the state will update its use of force guidelines. In New York they are saying that chokehold will no longer be used by police officers. In Maryland state legislators are announcing that they’re creating a police reform bill. The Los Angeles Police Department’s budget could be cut by 1.8 million dollars, a message that funding for the police should be cut if they’re not behaving in a way that supports their role as public servants. They are law enforcement officers. They are not military people. There’s been suspensions of police all around the country, who have been attacking protestors violently or who have been lying about what they’ve done within these protests. In Buffalo, New York, two law enforcement officers pushed down a 75 year old man who has brain injuries now and they’re being charged. Legislation is being put in place in Congress to defund or put more scrutiny on the police. People are pushing for body cameras around the country. Companies are donating money to Black Lives Matter, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other organisations, specifically to address police brutality and to fund and defend protesters who are being attacked, and also to fund these organisations for the purposes of addressing systematic racism. Confederate statues are being torn down that should’ve been taken down a long time ago. All you need is a rope and a car and it happens in a matter of minutes.
Did you personally witness police brutality when you marched?
I was on a peaceful protest with my two daughters in Charlotte, North Carolina. No one was doing anything wrong and it was not curfew time, but the police started shooting rubber bullets and tear gas. The police think that they are the military, but they’re not.
Former US presidents Barack Obama and George Bush Jnr have interfered publicly with an incumbent president and criticised him for using the military. Is this a sign that democracy is working or is it in danger?
It’s both, but I think it’s a sign that democracy is working. What Trump did against the protesters in D.C. was disgusting, using the military as an authoritarian tool to try to quell the protest so he could have a photo op outside a church holding a Bible. That has been of great concern to a lot of citizens, past presidents, and a lot of people in the military.
Do you think Trump is losing the support of the American public?
To be honest, I don’t think by and large he really has the support of the American public. The electoral college system helps facilitate his brand, but three million more people voted for Hillary Clinton. People are tired of the chaos, the racism, the instability that he has put the country under, not just domestically but also internationally. It’s unacceptable.
How do you see the future of America?
I’m worried. It’s wonderful that there’s concern about the systematic racism within the criminal justice system, and Black Lives Matter is going strong. But I fear for my country, because the protesting and everything that is happening can’t fail. It HAS TO WORK. I can’t bear even thinking, what if it doesn’t? But I know it will. It will work.