By NEIL COSGROVE
ArchCity Defenders, the 2018 Thomas Merton Award winner, is living proof that when an organization’s mission fits a clear and present need, rapid growth and renown can follow.
In 2009, three friends from St. Louis University Law School started the organization after witnessing how vulnerable the city’s homeless were when caught up in the legal system, almost inevitably, for such petty crimes as panhandling, trespass, and drug use. But the three newly-minted lawyers —Thomas Harvey, Michael-John Voss, and John McAnnar — also knew that legal services alone would be inadequate, if they hoped their clients could ever escape the dire circumstances in which they found themselves.
So ArchCity Defenders (ACD), named for St. Louis’s 630-foot Gateway Arch, the tallest monument in the United States and the tallest arch in the world, decided to adopt what they call “holistic legal advocacy,” an approach that goes beyond mere representation and into such activities as helping clients find housing and employment, and other services like treatment for addiction. Gradually, the organization’s mission grew to include “combating the criminalization of poverty and state violence against the poor and people of color,” as Blake Strode, ACD’s Executive Director puts it.
Indeed, the now notorious use of fines, penalties, cash bail, and jail time by municipalities in the St. Louis region, to both supplement tax revenues and intimidate minority citizens, was a clear impetus for expanding the scope of ArchCity’s activities.
In 2015, ArchCity filed class-action lawsuits against Ferguson and Jennings, arguing that these cities were in truth operating debtors’ prisons, in which multitudes were jailed primarily because they were poor. Jennings has since settled for $4.75 million in an attempt to make whole “almost 2,000 people who had been locked up for a combined total of 8,300 days,” according to The Nation magazine. Not surprisingly, the city of Ferguson is still holding out.
Overall, ACD has filed 16 class-action cases since 2014, successfully settling “about half,” the organization reports, with over $7.4 million in damages collected. While those cases have been almost exclusively filed against St. Louis area municipalities, ArchCity’s successes and “holistic” approach have caught the notices of national media, including the Washington Post, the New York Times and New York Daily News, The Nation, and the Huffington Post.
From three volunteers in 2009, ACD now has 18 full-time staff members who “collaborate with organizers, universities, and racial justice organizations in St. Louis and around the country.” As part of ArchCity’s media and policy advocacy, the organization now sponsors Excellence in Poverty Journalism Awards. Close to 30 local media outlets were nominated for the 2018 awards, which were handed out this past July.
Regardless of its rapid growth, ACD’s “attorneys routinely take clients to doctor’s appointments, help people move out of and into new apartments, give people rides to job interviews, and take kids to school,” the organization’s literature proudly states. “Our collaboration with social workers, organizers, and activists, and our trusted relationships with our clients is what distinguish us from other providers of legal services to the impoverished.”
Executive Director Strode and cofounder Michael-John Voss will receive the Merton Award on behalf of ArchCity Defenders at the Center’s Award Dinner on November 28th at 6 p.m., at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial in Oakland. (Tickets can be ordered at this link: bit.ly/TMCaward2018) Strode, at 30, represents both ArchCity’s expanding footprint and still youthful energy and commitment. He was hired in June, 2015 straight out of Harvard Law School, where he graduated with honors, to head up a project in which ACD sought to develop partnerships with university organizations to address enforcement of housing law. His apparent leadership qualities and easy fit within ArchCity led to his appointment as Executive Director this past January.
“ArchCity Defenders is thrilled to receive the Thomas Merton Award,” says Strode. “To stand alongside a list of individuals and organizations as illustrious as the recipients of the Thomas Merton Award is an incredible recognition for which we are honored and grateful.”
Neil Cosgrove is a member of the NewPeople editorial collective and the Merton Center board.
(TMC newspaper VOL. 48 No. 9 November 2018. All rights reserved)