One Label Too Many
Late one evening several years ago, I sat parked in my car on a residential street in midtown Memphis when nearly ten minutes later, two officers walked over, tapped on my driver side window, and questioned, “what's going on here?” The officer standing closes to my window followed up by warning me that the police had received a call about “suspicious activity in the neighborhood.” In that moment, I felt vulnerable and scared, but most of all, I knew I had been labeled “suspicious” by my mere existence in a middle class white neighborhood.
My mother was a homecare provider and worked inside of the home where I had legally parked my car out front. I had done nothing wrong and I was determined to prove my innocence to these two officers. I assertively and in hindsight, mistakenly, followed up with “I am not sure just what suspicious activity you are referring to but I am doing nothing wrong. Just a black lady sitting in my car picking up my mother from work. Some suspicious black lady I am.” The officers didn't too much care for my snappy response. In fact, it gave the two even more ammunition to find a way to criminalize my existence in this neighborhood. One officer asked for my license and registration and returned to his police cruiser to run my background while the other kept an eye on the one who deemed herself the “suspicious black lady.” When the officers couldn't find anything to cling on to in my background, they decided it best to write me a ticket for obstructing traffic. But, the issue here was, I had not obstructed traffic. As a result of this ticket and subsequent clerical errors within the court's clerk's office, my driver's license was later suspended.
Now as a public defender, I look back and think, wow, why did I think it was a good idea to try and prove my innocence to those officers? On the day of the incident, I had just returned home to Memphis for winter-break after having completed my first semester of law school. And while I had completed one semester of criminal law, learning about the model penal code in no way prepared me for that moment. I was crippled by the frustration and fear of being interrogated by two white male police officers who I knew deemed me as “suspicious” based on my mere presence.
One of the most traumatizing moments of the entire obstructing traffic/driving on a suspended license debacle was when I went to court and heard the prosecutor say “the defendant ” right after he announced “the State of Tennessee versus Folasade Omogun.” That was me. And I was the defendant. And I was being prosecuted by the State of Tennessee. It was humiliating. I felt judged, I felt like an outsider. I questioned if I had, in fact, done something wrong that night with the two officers. After I entered a plea of guilty to driving on a suspended license, I felt even more judged. Labeled as a “convicted criminal.”
It's a horrifying reality that the labels we attach to persons accused of and convicted of crimes greatly affects how we view a person's humanity. Our country's history and current practices especially labels people of color as “criminals” simply from their mere existence. This has been illustrated time and time again through the systematic shooting and killing of black men [and women] in our country. Labeling people as “defendants” “criminals” “convicts” “ex-offenders” and “convicted felons” certainly helps perpetuate the narrative that people of color are presumed guilty until they prove themselves otherwise and makes it more difficult for those convicted of crimes to successfully re-integrate after serving a sentence. Labeling forces us to see a certain of our population as less than human.
From my own experiences in practice and in speaking with colleagues who practice law in other states, it is the norm to hear prosecutors, judges, and even defense attorneys, labeling those accused of crimes as “criminals.” I am certainly grateful to have friends and public defender colleagues who agree that, in order to force the death of labeling, we must start by checking each other. I always make an effort to use my clients' names both when I enter my appearance in court and when I file motions and pleadings on my clients' behalf. I once forgot to change "Defendant" to my client's name on a proposed jury verdict sheet and my colleague, who second-chaired me on the case, told me to “never underestimate the importance of detaching labels from our clients." I told him to never underestimate the importance of checking me more often.