On Monday night, a crowd of 20 people, mostly women, gathered in the Ypsilanti District Library to partake in a panel put on by Mothering Justice, a non-profit organization that advocates for women to become active in policy-making. The panel discussed how Black women are viewed in the legal system.

The focal point of the evening was the caricature of “Sapphire,” a character made famous on the “Amos n’ Andy” show. According to Ferris State University, the character Sapphire was a berating housewife who saw her husband as a failure and regularly scolded him for his flaws. 

Attorney Erane Washington, who practiced law for 26 years and opened her own law firm in 2005, said the Sapphire narrative has not only negatively impacted her clients’ lives, but hers as well.

Washington also told a story of road rage between an older Black woman and two young white men. The two white men jumped out of the car and started harassing the woman. Fearing for her life, she placed her gun on the passenger seat and was charged with brandishing a weapon. Though the older woman was acquitted, Washington said she thinks the situation would have progressed much differently if she was white. 

“If it had been a white man that pulled the gun out to protect himself, nine times out of ten no charges would have occurred,” Washington said. “But it was a Black woman, so she was charged was brandishing a weapon. Now, she never showed it to them, she never threatened them with it, she sat it there to make sure they would walk away from her.”

Eli Savit, chief legal counsel to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, also took part in the panel. Savit is running for Washtenaw County Prosecutor. After spending time in Washington, D.C., Savit came back to work in Ann Arbor. Savit spoke about how the Sapphire caricature is not age-specific.

Savit also brought up how the needs of Black women are often dismissed. He said a particular client of his requested to have adjustments made for her son, who has autism, to accommodate his sensory overload in gym class. The school accused her of lying, and changes weren’t made until the school was threatened with a civil rights lawsuit.

The panel talked about how Black women struggle to have their voices heard when they are victims of sexual or physical abuse. Dennis works as a legal counsel for SafeHouse — a non-profit organization that provides safety and support for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence — and said she has found that people are afraid to call the police and worry the police will make them feel even more uncomfortable.

“The police will take longer to get there. The police will not ask the questions they need to ask. The police may not even notify the SafeHouse Center,” Dennis said. “Every police station in this county, including the Michigan State Police, are supposed to notify us of any domestic violence or sexual assault incidents.” 

Assistant city attorney Arianne Slay, an additional member of the panel, said she has worked closely with SafeHouse. Currently, she works for the city of Ann Arbor and is running for Washtenaw County Prosecutor in addition to Savit. Slay said her office helps plan for police officers to meet with SafeHouse as an attempt to build a better relationship with the community. 

“Just recently, I was talking about setting up another one of those great meetings. Our last survivor that we were working with, she was all excited and ready to go, and I got some initial responses (of affirmation),” Slay said. “And then (the police) had a chance to view the report and they were not as excited.”

Slay asked why they were suddenly resistant, to which the officers in question responded the victim “seems like she can take care of herself” despite living in an impoverished area of the county where police take longer to respond.

During the discussion, audience members became passionate over the lack of action they had experienced in the legal system. One audience member discussed how her Black grandson was charged with raping a white girl. His attorney from the public defender’s office told him to take a plea deal for two years since something prior on his record could affect the trial and lead to a guilty sentence of 30 years. 

Robin Stephens, who has been with the Washtenaw County Public Defender’s office since 1999, said everyone deserves a fighting chance, especially those who have been convicted of a felony. Stephens said she believes in a restorative justice which recognizes both parties involved in a crime have been hurt. 

“We have a responsibility to try and help fix that,” Stephens said. “And that includes working with prosecutors and judges in the criminal justice system to understand the impact of that felony, and it should not be given out like candy. Let’s start with the premise that everybody is innocent until they’re proven guilty.” 

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