By NEIL COSGROVE
When Blake Strode, Executive Director of 2018 Merton Award winner ArchCity Defenders (ACD), saw the list of the 45 previous awardees, he felt something like “impostor syndrome.” Did his organization belong on a roster with the likes of Dick Gregory or Angela Davis or last year’s winner, the Center For Constitutional Rights?
The way he and ACD co-founder Michael John Voss were received by those gathered for the Award Dinner on November 28th suggested that “impostor” was the word furthest from attendees’ thoughts. That the two ACD representatives spent much of the day leading up to the dinner ensconced in their hotel room, working on various cases and campaigns, only reinforced the unanimity of support for what ArchCity does.
Strode and Voss told the NewPeople that, for one thing, they were waiting on a decision from the 8th U.S. Circuit Court on whether Ferguson, like the city of Jennings beforehand, must accept that the city has been operating a debtors’ prison and make whole the multitudes who have been jailed there primarily because they are poor. ACD is leading a campaign, based on the 14th and 8th amendments of the U.S. constitution, to close down St. Louis’ notorious Workhouse jail, and have filed a dozen lawsuits on behalf of campaign protestors badly treated by that city’s police.
Both Strode and Voss told dinner attendees about individual clients they’d had, including one given a $500 ticket because her neighbor had left the lid of a garbage can ajar. Such cases are “not unique,” said Voss, “but everyday life for thousands of poor people across the country.”
“The most radical commitment that we make,” added Strode, “is to listen to what our clients say and to believe them” because those clients are often “made to suffer irreparably for the most ridiculous charges.”
Tiffany Sizemore, who welcomed the event’s attendees, said her experiences as a public defender in Washington, DC and a clinical law professor at Duquesne University demonstrated that the cases on which ArchCity works are not unique to the St. Louis area. “When you represent black and brown people,” said Sizemore, “you can’t take anything for granted. … Judges don’t make your case for you, as they will at times for prosecutors, landlords, and the like.”
Jules Lobel, a professor at Pitt Law School, explained why he thought the last two Merton Award winners have been legal organizations advocating for the rights of minorities and the downtrodden. “We are in an era when law, justice, and democracy are under attack,” said Lobel. “The issues of racial and social justice are at the forefront.” The 2017 and 2018 awards, he added, are recognition that integrating religious, social, peace, and legal activism is now necessary.
Since ArchCity Defenders was founded by three newly graduated lawyers, volunteering to legally assist the homeless of St. Louis, the organization has grown to 22 full-time staff, consisting of lawyers, paralegals, and other support positions. Their basic mission of providing “holistic legal advocacy” has led ACD to partner with the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University, providing its students with “practicum semesters,” and Strode said the organization hopes to have some in-house social workers in future.
ArchCity is also seeking to expand their geographic footprint into Illinois and other areas of Missouri, while also “making linkages” with other organizations in the Midwest, a region Strode said is “really underserved.”
For Strode and Voss, at the present moment, the St. Louis city budget is indicative of a destructive, counter-productive mindset, with 63% of expenditures going to “public safety” and an “outsized, bloated police force,” while less than one percent is spent on human services. In his speech to dinner attendees St. Louis native Strode reviewed his city’s racist past and warned that “a loss of a sense of history, or rather a denialism of history, is an incredibly dangerous thing,” a phenomenon that is at the core of this country’s inability to engage in systemic reform. Meanwhile, ArchCity Defenders keeps fighting that system, one case, one class-action suit, one campaign at a time.
Neil Cosgrove is a member of the NewPeople editorial collective and the Merton Center board
Photo: Michael John Voss, co-founder, and Blake Strode, executive director of the ArchCity Defenders, with the 2018 Thomas Merton Award. Photo by Steve Capri.