Local lawyer decides it’s time to walk the walk for equal justice

Buffalo

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Shawn Carey led off his group email last week with that quote from Dr. King. He also admitted he had never done anything like this before. Carey had worked for 25 years as a lawyer, but he had no experience in organizing a social protest. He wondered if he might be over his head.

But he knew he had to do something. The realization struck Carey in the comfort of his own living room in Grand Island, when he saw the horrifying video of George Floyd dying with a Minneapolis police officer’s knee on his neck on May 25.

“You can’t watch that and not be moved to say, ‘Enough’,” Carey said by phone on Monday. “We’re way beyond ‘enough’, but we have to all stand up against this. It was devastating to watch that. The level of injustice is so high it’s almost like we can’t breathe, either, watching it.”

Carey, who has four sons in their 20s, was moved by the words of Floyd’s brother, Terrence, who urged protestors to channel their anger in non-violent ways. He saw the protests raging through the streets of downtown Buffalo. 

How could he just sit there? After all, this was essentially about the things lawyers pledge to uphold: Justice, the rule of law, the Constitution. With young people in the streets protesting racism and police brutality in the country and the city, the least attorneys could do is go out there themselves.

“I had set in my own mind, I’m going to personally take a walk to reflect and think what I could do to further justice here,” said Carey, whose Carey Law Firm has offices in Grand Island and downtown Buffalo. “Then I thought, ‘Why don’t I share this out there? In these lockdown times, it’s good to gather.”

That was the genesis for the Walk For Justice. At 1 p.m. on Wednesday, members of the Western New York legal committee will have a silent walk in downtown Buffalo, “in quiet reflection of the legacy of George Floyd and the countless others who have been denied justice for so long and far too long.”

Carey, who was a newspaper reporter in Syracuse for three years in the early 1990s, began with a “raw” email appeal to some of his fellow personal-injury lawyers. He enlisted the aid of three local attorneys — Jennifer Fay, Kevin Habberfield, and Chris O’Brien — to help the organizing effort.

Fay, who is on the board of directors of the Erie County Bar Association, arranged a video conference with the bar’s Human Rights Commission. Carey’s group sent out an email to the 225 members of the Western Region affiliate of the New York State Trial Lawyers Association. 

“A lot of us have been doing a lot of soul-searching,” Carey said. “I sent the email that sort of launched the ship, but they were already packed and loaded with people ready to sail. I had one member respond, ‘I’m in’ and I thought, ‘OK, we’ve got a protest march.’

“It’s been a little overwhelming, but phenomenal to see. This started out as our plaintiffs/personal injury group. But we’ve gone across the other side to defense lawyers who work the other side of our civil cases. There’s clearly a great unity of thought on this issue, which is great to see.”

So lawyers who oppose one another in court will be walking side by side on Wednesday.

“Absolutely,” Carey said. “George Collins is a great guy. He’s done nothing but insurance defense his entire career. I’ve done nothing but plaintiffs/personal injury. George was the opposing counsel on a case where I represented my father! But George and I have become very good friends and we couldn’t be more equal thinking on this issue.”

“He said it could be cathartic for us, too, just to be up and out of the office in Niagara Square.”

They invited everyone in the legal community to remember George Floyd and walk for justice: All lawyers, judges, court and legal staff. The judges have said they won’t take part because of a perceived conflict of interest.  Carey said he respects the judges’ position. 

Carey has no idea how many people will come, though the message definitely got out. They’re not going to turn away citizens who jump in and join the walk, presumably in a peaceful manner. It’s not an official protest, and they couldn’t get a parade permit during Covid-19, so they’ll walk on the sidewalks, 

The walk will start on Franklin Street, in front of the Old Count Courthouse, move south to Church Street, then proceed to Delaware Avenue past City Court and City Hall, stopping at the U.S. District Courthouse and then back to the starting point. 

The walk will stop at the federal court building, where anyone who chooses tp can take a knee and observe a moment of silence in front of the “magnificent replication of the U.S. Constitution” on the panels of the building.

“Given how misconstrued Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling was with the anthem, we want to make it very clear that the knee in no way is meant to disrespect or dishonor the U.S. Constitution — just the opposite,” Carey said. 

“Take a knee in humility that we in the legal community need to do more to continue the fight to ensure that the promises in the Constitution are in fact supported by us as we took an oath to do as New York State attorneys.”

Carey said the walk was laid out to encompass the courthouses and buildings that dispense justice in the community and support the rule of law, which was violated in Floyd’s death and so many other killings in America.

“It’s for us to show the rest of the community where we stand,” he said. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Unequal justice is simply not justice. It’s injustice. When the rule of law and the Constitution don’t deliver on the promise of justice for all, it’s at its most vulnerable.”

Walking for justice is only the start. Working for justice is what truly matters. Carey wants the legal community to “walk the walk” so to speak, to find how they can do more for equal justice in their various legal specialties.

“Frankly some of us, myself included, have maybe been focusing more on the business of law,” he said. “It’s good to have our attention focused on the purpose of the law. That’s equal justice for everyone, first and foremost.

“That’s where change is going to come.”

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