Now we all know Michelle Alexander. Whether you’ve read The New Jim Crow or excerpts or just been indoctrinated in her conclusions and radical aura, Michelle Alexander is a 21st century legal legend. When she came and spoke at Berkeley Law, she shocked us all. She has left the law and joined the Union Theological Seminary. There is a plague in our souls, our collective consciousness, that predated and will persist post-COVID. The human spirit has been so corrupted that we are desensitized to avoidable war, housing displacement, hunger, and carceral enslavement. This magical spiritual thread that Michelle Alexander is searching for has a glimmer that may be dimming in common society, but it’s blazing alive at 1950 University Avenue. Lucky for me, I got to be part of the magic by working with Jassmin, Seema, Hewot, Fernando, and my fellow co-interns in the Community Economic Justice (CEJ) Clinic.
So many believe that adjustments to the law can revive humanity in our culture. But often it’s the law that suffocates humanity. At CEJ, I learned the inextricable link between tools and people, between method and spirit. We cannot support local businesses without making sure their owners and employees are protected from the risk of displacement. We can’t support housing development without ensuring policies that protect the current tenants and residents of South Berkeley. And surely, we can’t draft policies with the City of Berkeley without building coalitions, workshops, and dialogue with the people to make sure their voices are reflected in policy. Jassmin, Seema, Hewot, and Fernando work endlessly to ensure that our approach to lawyering is one that accounts for these intersections so that we can effectively resist the systemic forces that we are up against.
My work at CEJ was thus never confined to a vacuum. At CEJ, I was provided the opportunity to facilitate the longevity of historical and community-oriented businesses, represent local community groups in new zoning and planning initiatives, and work with community members and Mayor Arreguín to draft anti-displacement legislation in the City of Berkeley. Naturally, I participated in and witnessed the strength and brilliance of coalition-building and coalescing power for resistance. I experienced the apex of this strength and resilience when my co-interns and I worked with our supervisors to draft Berkeley’s very first Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) policy to help tenants organize and unite with nonprofit organizations to repurchase their buildings and combat displacement and gentrification in the city.
CEJ disabused me of the trick show, the smoke and mirrors that clouds the law. The magic, the power, is within each of us. The power is in Moms4Housing. The magic is in community land trusts and real estate cooperatives. EBCLC, and CEJ especially, is home to humbling lawyers, teaching us that we are the protectors, not the performers, of the magic show. May the show go on!