The year was 1997 and I was a young 25-year-old prosecutor in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, one of the largest in the country. I was fresh out of law school and the plan was to get as much trial experience as possible before starting my own firm.
Determined to see the other side, I was “the spook who sat by the door.” The revelations I made confirmed everything that I had ever thought about America and white supremacy. However, I underestimated the insidious nature of white supremacy and America’s commitment to Black, social, political, and economic alienation.
The reality of it all hit me immediately one day while I was in court with a friend, peer and fellow attorney, Michael Choi. We had to approach the judge’s bench one day along with defense counsel to discuss the case as we often did. Presiding was Judge Seymour Rotker, a judge who today would be considered a liberal in New York City. When we got to the bench, the judge glanced up, looked over his glasses, looked down at me and in a calm unbothered voice said, “No defendants at the bench.” When Choi and I informed Judge Rotker that I wasn’t a defendant but a prosecutor, he said nothing and just moved on with business as usual. There was no apology, no acknowledgment and no embarrassment. This was typical and symbolic of white supremacy and this incident was just one of many such personal experiences I would have in the legal profession. I can’t imagine what those before me had to endure.
The incident reminded me of another similar experience I had during my first year of law school when I applied for a summer associate position at Seward and Kissel. I interviewed with an East Indian partner who asked me what I’m sure he thought were tough questions. However, I knew I was knocking them out the park with thoughtful and informed responses. So, while I’m speaking, he suddenly looks to the door of his office and waves in an older Black man. This older Black man looked like he could be my grandfather and he had the presence of a man who had worked extremely hard his entire life. As he walked in, I noticed he was carrying a shoe-shine box. He then proceeded to get down on his knees and start shining the partner’s shoes. The partner continued to ask me questions as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening. To this day, no one can convince me that this wasn’t calculated, although my white law students tell me that this shoe-shine culture at the top law firms still exists in 2017. I gave the partner a blank stare as If I was trying to burn a hole in him. I don’t remember what, if anything, was said at that time, I only remember going back to my law school and removing my résumé from the pool for summer associate positions. It was at that moment that I vowed never to work for a firm unless it was my own.
As these experiences continued — and there were plenty — they would remind me of when I was a 15-year-old student at Martin Luther King Junior High School in Manhattan. One day at 59th Street and Columbus Circle, police officers began harassing me about whether I had a train pass. While a team of white male undercover officer’s continued to harass me, I asked to see their badges as I loudly proclaimed, “It is my right.” (Yeah, I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer.) After I said it, one of the officers, who had a Tom Selleck mustache and a Long Island accent, responded by saying, “Yeah, just like it’s your right to carry guns and sell drugs.” I exploded in anger. One of the officers immediately began shaking his head and looking away, he realized his partner had crossed the line. That officer still gave me a disorderly conduct summons that eventually was dismissed in court.
The doses of reality kept coming in the District Attorney’s Office. Whether it was a white colleague comfortable and honest from drinking and confessing to me that “I was different from the other blacks in that I was smart, even though I was still black” or witnessing colleagues, cops and staff all gathered around the television celebrating the acquittal of the police officers who had murdered the unarmed and innocent Amadou Diallo. With blood in my eyes and rage throughout my body, I quickly left the office because I didn’t want to explode on them. Tears of anger burned my eyes as I walked across Adams Street to the A train at Jay Street in downtown Brooklyn.
That dose of reality reinforced to me that America and white people do not look at us as humans and that the American legal system is a part of the problem, not the solution. It made perfect sense to me, after all, this was the society that enslaved us, terrorized us, killed us, raped us and became the most powerful nation in modern history on the backs of our pain and our labor. All the while, they alienated us socially, economically, politically and academically through the very laws and policies of “democracy” and the American rule of law. It was all in my face to see with no filter.
This legal system, federal and state, is here to reinforce this white American nationalist experiment. Our brown and Black bodies are the cogs to maintain the social order of white privilege. Think about the dynamic that exists in the legal system all across this country, where 2.4 million people are incarcerated and Black and Brown people are the majority. You will find that the majority of the federal and state judges and prosecutors are white and are the beneficiaries of white supremacy. They are now judging us, the victims of terror. The benefactors of privilege are personally offended that they have to discuss the causal and correlative effects of racism, white nationalism and white supremacy and how those things contributed to these Black and brown bodies that stand before them accused. I started off this story intending to talk about the statistics that you have heard a million times and why we fill these jails. However, we already know why. We just refuse to accept the truth, which prevents us from changing the narrative. We need to change the narrative.
Kenneth J. Montgomery is a federal and state criminal defense trial attorney and civil rights litigator in New York, where he as practiced for 20 years. He also is a former Brooklyn prosecutor. He serves as a federal Criminal Justice Act-appointed defense attorney for both the Southern and Eastern districts of New York, where he has defended clients charged with capital murder and terrorism. Kenneth is a Trial Advocacy professor at Fordham Law School and a board member of the Kings County Criminal Bar Association.