May 29, 2012 Please do your part to defend human rights and civil liberties worldwide
My life beginning with college has been particularly obsessed with protecting civil liberties and human rights. In college, I immediately got active with the campus Amnesty International group, and, with a fellow student, started a chapter at my law school. Two years after law school, I began my criminal defense practice, which is inextricably intertwined with civil liberties defense.
Doing human rights and civil liberties work during those first few years took a particularly high emotional toll on me. I felt that too many people let down human rights victims over human history, including letting down slaves, victims of Hitler, victims of Jim Crow, and the list goes on. I resolved to do my share to to reverse the human rights violations. I felt it was my duty to do such work, and all the more so living in a country where I was unlikely to suffer any government repercussions from my actions (unless I tried demonstrating without a permit, which I got into a problem with when protesting over the then-upcoming Gulf War I, but not when protesting over Tiananmen Square). The emotional toll that set in over doing human rights defense work came from learning how deep, broad, severe and repeated are global human rights violations; learning how much human rights violations are not caused merely by people intending evil but by human rights violators "just doing their job" to keep their paycheck and position often expecting no available similarly-paying replacement jobs, those meaning well on the road to violating human rights, and politicians engaging in political compromise; and learning how frustrating it can be to circulate human rights petitions, send human rights letters, and join human rights demonstrations often without seeing immediate and tangible results.
The lessons have always been present for me to be in good spirits while fighting the good fight, without sacrificing my devotion to social justice. Amnesty International consistently speaks of lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness, and about the prisoners of conscience who have been released as the international letter-writing outcry pounded on the ears of government officials. The Dalai Lama — whom I learned more about as I was reaching greater harmony with myself and the world — is a living example of being happy even in the face of some of the most vile violations by people against people. Gandhi spoke gently and peacefully as British soldiers cracked the skulls of peaceful Indian demonstrators. Accumulated feathers sink the boat. Doing nothing to serve social justice other than to kvetch is not even worth the weight of a feather.
One day after becoming a public defender lawyer, I told an Amnesty International activist how much more satisfied I am seeing the immediate results, in court, of my work for social justice. She voiced her frustration at not being able to get those kind of tangible results with her usual non-lawyer route of letter-writing, petitions, editorial-writing, tabling, meetings, demonstrations, and teach-ins.
The truism remains that we need people pushing inside and outside the establishment to obtain social justice victories. While I am pushing within the courtroom for justice for medical marijuana users, for instance, we need the grassroots activists and all other activists encouraging and educating lawmakers and government executives to legalize marijuana for medicinal users and everyone else, and raising public awareness to this issue. Lawyers can join them.
Human rights and civil liberties activists often will debate how best to achieve their goals. With Amnesty International, for instance, after becoming a lawyer I felt alienated to learn how frequently Amnesty was urging human rights-violating governments to use their unjust criminal justice systems to bring human rights violators "to justice". When it comes to the violence option to fighting human rights violations (for instance by sending in NATO and UN forces), that needs to be a last resort, if ever a resort.
In the meantime, just as one can go insane if s/he is hyper-aware every second of every single physical sensation in and movement of his or her body, one can go nuts thinking every second about all the human rights and civil liberties violations out there. To be effective in fighting for social justice, we must balance taking care of our emotional and physical health, while still taking action for social justice.
Among the major human rights violations happening right now are the Syrian government’s continued killings of civilians, China’s heightened crackdown in Tibet as self-immolations continue, and the ongoing legalized murder/capital punishment system in the United States. Let us not be silent about stopping the globe’s ongoing injustices.