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Zoe Farkas Reflects on Criminal Injustice Reform as a Summer Law Clerk at TCRP

The first time I truly grappled with the pervasive problem of police brutality was as a high school freshman in 2012, after the murder of Trayvon Martin. A few years later in 2015, the murder of black children struck even closer to home when Tamir Rice was shot in Cleveland, Ohio, my hometown. Five years later, I was once again protesting after the murder of George Floyd. Entering law school during this difficult but critical time quickly taught me something crucial; our current judicial system is not designed to protect the vulnerable. I discovered my passion to change this by fighting for racial justice, police accountability, and the end of mass incarceration.

I didn’t expect to spend my 2L summer clerking at a nonprofit in Texas. I had only been to Austin once. Yet, when I came across the Texas Civil Rights Project, I was intrigued. I was hooked by the incredibly impactful work of TCRP’s Criminal Injustice Program fighting for some of the most important issues in a state like Texas where this work is much-needed. I knew there was no place I’d be more eager to spend my summer than at TCRP.

As I became immersed in my summer clerkship with TCRP, I witnessed the immense value of the organization, especially in these times. Texas is a state that often sets trends for curtailing civil rights, and TCRP is a model organization when it comes to combating these injustices. It has the structure and resources to maintain a strong presence in Texas, while informing its work by listening to and maintaining relationships with Texas communities. As true movement lawyers, TCRP’s work is guided by the needs of communities of vulnerable populations.

TCRP’s movement lawyering and advocacy efforts are exemplified in our current case representing Janice Barnes, the mother of Ashtian Barnes, a Black man who was killed by a cop during a traffic stop in 2016. TCRP has worked tirelessly to demand justice for Ashtian’s mother while simultaneously advancing the long term goal to change current policies related to traffic stops, such as ending minor traffic fines and fees and pretextual searches. The Criminal Injustice team has an ongoing public advocacy campaign called Justice for Ashtian, which provides different opportunities for communities to get involved in our advocacy.

At this critical and scary time for civil rights, TCRP’s work has never been more important. Changing traffic stop policies would have a major impact on Texas communities. While certain names like Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, George Floyd, and Brianna Taylor are rightfully well known, it is important to remember how many hundreds of names we haven’t even heard of. In 2020, there were over 1,100 police killings; more than three a day. 120 of those were at traffic stops. This isn’t even counting instances of police brutality or shootings that did not result in death. Black, brown, and poor Texans, all groups disproportionately impacted by police brutality, deserve better from those who are purportedly meant to protect and serve.

Zoe Farkas (first row, second from far left) surrounded by TCRP staff and supporters at the 2022 TCRP Backyard Concert for Voting Rights in Austin, Texas.

As my summer clerkship with TCRP comes to an end, I’m grateful for my experiences here. It was a heartbreaking summer for civil rights across the country, especially in Texas. However, in the moments where I was most disheartened, I was inspired by the staff’s determination to keep fighting.

I have one more year of law school before officially beginning my career in civil rights law. With everything that’s happening in the world, I hope to maintain the same unassailable resilience as the TCRP staff and the Texans they serve.

You can contribute here so that TCRP can continue to provide opportunities like these to rising law students.

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