Like many in the early days of the pandemic, Ahmed was looking for meaningful change, in her case after seven years at a New York firm. A job posting at the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana caught her eye: it was specifically focused on racial and gender justice and sought someone who could enhance partnerships with large law firms interested in pro bono work. She was keen on social justice and change and, as a woman of colour, had personally dealt with racism. In addition, she felt well positioned for the job due to her familiarity with both big law and social issues. In her interview, she stated bluntly that her goal was to rally an army of lawyers to Louisiana.
She expected a slow transition to her new work, but within two weeks of accepting the job, George Floyd was murdered and Justice Lab was born. Outraged law firms spoke up about ensuring proper justice in underrepresented communities. Ahmed acted quickly to seize this momentum and rallied her contacts.
Plenty were looking for lockdown-friendly work. Ryan Hicks, BCL/LLB’21, associate at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, says he “jumped at the opportunity to participate, because it’s the kind of work lawyers have a duty to do.” Hicks has known Ahmed since they were both English teachers in France nearly 20 years ago. “She is a force, in all the positive meanings of the word,” he says.
“It was an excellent pandemic project,” Ahmed says. “People had to imagine what a world of lawyering looked like when you couldn’t be in person.” Before long, Ahmed had an online army of hundreds, rallied from as far away as Ireland and Australia.
Ahmed, along with a paralegal and a team of more than 20 dedicated summer interns, developed a repository of guidebooks and, with the assistance of experts across the country, training videos for firms willing to take on a case. She and her executive director were acutely aware of the possible tensions of having “wealthy, largely white people in the top 1% of society engage in conversations and relationships for which many of them were likely not prepared.” Ahmed thus arranged for legal and advocacy experts to give targeted workshops on the legal system, constitutional amendment violations, and movement lawyering.
Then came the search for plaintiffs, by advertising on billboards, radio, busses, and the Internet. If someone had experienced a negative racialized interaction with police, there was a hotline to contact.
Hundreds came forward, and volunteers tackled the intake forms by interviewing plaintiffs and witnesses, as well as gathering documents. Ahmed and the team learned as they went, and tweaked the process to evaluate legal claims sooner if a claim was viable. If so, Justice Lab would proceed to an in-depth investigation and, where feasible, litigation.
Thanks to all the intakes, “we now have a good sense of where complaints are coming from across the state,” says Ahmed. The community is better informed of rights and recourses. That information was used to encourage the U.S. Department of Justice to initiate a “pattern or practice” investigation into the State’s police. Indeed, in June 2022, it did so, announcing an investigation to assess whether it uses excessive force and engages in racially discriminatory policing.
To date, Justice Lab has filed 39 cases before the courts, and is investigating 11 other complaints. “Our goal is to proceed with the litigation of 50 cases during this first phase,” Ahmed says. “We’ll reopen the intake once the docket falls to 25.”
Justice Lab is explicit about race in its litigation. It will mention the history of a neighbourhood or say if the KKK is still operational there. Ahmed is happy to find that “a handful of cases against a single police department causes them grave consternation.”
Ahmed recently won a case (now being appealed) in which officers tackled a Black woman in her driveway and threatened to tase her minor age child. Someone had accused her of driving a motorcycle without a helmet. “Even if it were true,” Ahmed says, “this wouldn’t happen to a wealthy white person. Police would go to their house, have a conversation, give them a ticket … They wouldn’t arrest them and treat them in this way.”
Police officers’ racist, unconstitutional behaviours must be challenged, but Ahmed’s goal isn’t to play “gotcha.” The goal is to get involved in the life of a Derek Chauvin “ideally after the first complaint,” she says. “Not after someone is dead.”
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