How Pierce County lawyers reimagined their role as community allies in the movement for systemic change
By Andrea S. Jarmon
It would be the video that touched the world. And for Pierce County Public Defender Dee Sonntag, it would be an emotional call to arms.
On May 25, 2020, Sonntag was among many in the nation who watched, in pain and disbelief, the viral recording of what would infamously become captioned as 8:49—the public death of George Floyd. Police accountability, disproportionality, and racial bias in the criminal justice system were already salient areas in which Sonntag engaged every day as a part of her work. Yet, while watching the last moments of George Floyd’s life, she was outraged.
“It was just the absolute disregard for human life,” she explained. “Seeing how those officers handled not only him but the bystanders who were trying to render aid … was just sickening.”
The images of George Floyd inundated media outlets. Countless businesses, organizations, and agencies issued public statements condemning the actions of the officers. Even police departments and law enforcement officials were speaking out against what they saw and understood to be an excessive use of force. But Sonntag wanted to do more. She had been grappling with how she, as a white woman, could use her privileged status to push and encourage others to do more than engaging in performative allyship such as posting on social media or taking selfies at a protest. And then Pierce County released the autopsy report of the 33-year-old African American male, Manuel (“Manny”) Ellis, who had died in police custody on March 3, 2020, while in handcuffs and being restrained by Tacoma police officers. For Sonntag, what happened to George Floyd was not just a national issue. It was local. It was home. It was right here in Tacoma.
She and other colleagues immediately came together. They did not have any concrete ideas at the time, but they had an unwavering consensus that they were committed to doing more to help bring about change. Initially, it was Sonntag and a few other female lawyers in her office, mostly white, meeting informally. Then in June, they learned of a national day for protest by public defenders in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. While the group (eventually to become known as LASR—Lawyers Against Systemic Racism) was not yet formally constructed, Sonntag and others from her office—including public defenders Sara Alavi, Jessica Campbell, Jennifer Freeman, Naomi Smith, Kelsey Page, and Kelley Kavanagh—went to work sending out notices of the protest; organizing the location of where they would march; coordinating speakers; and, of course, gathering supplies like masks and hand sanitizer to be responsive to COVID-19 concerns. When asked about whether the ongoing health crisis weighed on their decision to hold or participate in a public protest, Sonntag said the urgency of social justice compelled them to take action. The tragedies of George Floyd and Manny Ellis were part of a pattern of another pandemic people of color face every day—systematic racism.
On June 4, 2020, when the Washington Supreme Court issued a letter11 Find the letter at http://www.courts.wa.gov/content/publicUpload/Supreme%20Court%20News/Judiciary%20Legal%20Community%20SIGNED%20060420.pdf. outlining its call to action for the legal community to “work together to eradicate racism,” Sonntag said she was ready—the letter was a “green light.”
A few days later, on June 8, carrying “Black Lives Matter” signs and wearing masks, they led a group of attorneys and other legal professionals in a march that began at the local public defense office and ended at the back of the County-City Building next to the Pierce County Jail. There, in a powerful symbolic gesture of solidarity, the participants lay with their stomachs and faces to the ground and their hands behind their backs for 8 minutes and 49 seconds. Afterward, they led the group back to the front of the County-City Building, with various chants of “Say his name: Manny Ellis,” “Hands up; don’t shoot,” and “Black Lives Matter.”
Shortly after the protest on June 8, LASR became official. It is striking that the group, at the time of its formation and even now, remains primarily comprised of white females. There are nine directors, all of whom the organization’s bylaws say must be elected by members. The group is exclusive to lawyers and an application is required for membership. The group wanted to vet members to ensure that they understood the values and mission of the organization. The vetting process is not intended to exclude but to ensure commitment to anti-racist work. Sonntag says she is hopeful that membership will continue to grow and the composition will diversify.
Speaking to the visible absence of minority members, Joseph Evans, an African American defense attorney in the same office, said, “They were actively making efforts to recruit minority members to be in the group and in the leadership.” He was one of the individuals approached and has served as an advisor. But even in the absence of minority membership, he encouraged his peers to move forward, recognizing the value of allyship. “They are allies. They were asking how can they help … how can they serve the cause?” Evans expressed that this allyship is critical to any powerful social movement; allies beyond the community are necessary, as that “helps to diversify the message.”
And messaging is something that was clearly on the minds of the founding members, right down to the details of the name LASR and the logo of the organization. Sonntag said, “We were very conscious about what the acronym would mean and how it would look. We wanted it to be symbolic of our message.” The attraction to the name was also in that it reflected their intent—to be sharply focused on the issue of racism and the particular role of legal professionals in combating it. But being a lawyer wasn’t enough. Sonntag said she and the founding members “wanted to do more than just [their] day job. … We wanted to take an active role in changing the system.”
On June 18, 2020, after LASR had formally established itself, the group for the first time started protesting at the Tacoma Police Department, where members would continue to be present every other Thursday for the next four months.
For Evans, participating was not just about what else he could do as a lawyer. “As a Black man, I have been harassed by police more often than I can count,” he said. In an all-too-familiar script, Evans, speaking to the safety protocol he uses when encountering police, recited some of what he calls his personal plan—“hands on the wheel; no sudden movements; ask before I do anything.” Evan recognizes that as a tall Black man with stature, he is perceived as a threat and that perception of him does not subside because of his professional role as a lawyer. So it was personal for him to be a part of LASR and what they are trying to accomplish. “I am a human first, but I am a Black man in America,” he said.
LASR’s anti-racism work includes educating community members about their rights and how to navigate encounters with law enforcement. In connection with other community organizations, the group hosted a virtual panel entitled “Know Your Rights.” Recently, when the city of Tacoma was searching for a new chief of police, LASR was invited to participate in the candidate forum. LASR members have been a steady presence at Tacoma City Council meetings, asking for action in the Manny Ellis case and demanding other police-accountability measures. When allegations arose regarding the current Pierce County sheriff, LASR began facilitating community meetings. Other events have included sponsoring a monthly book club and food drives. Sonntag describes it as a “holistic approach.”
LASR demonstrates the powerful role of allyship, the power of a few to build a collective, and the responsibility that lawyers have to help build trust in their communities and collaborate in the movement for systemic change.