Justice for All Panel Held at USC


Aashna Banerjee and Emily Barrie, Staff Writers

Most students from Upper St. Clair High School did not attend the optional Justice For All Panel Discussion on April 29th 2021 in the school’s theater, but, for those who did, it was a moving and engaging experience. Hosted by the Black Student Union and No Place For Hate and attended by students from Upper St. Clair, Thomas Jefferson and Alderdice, the assembly featured Aaron Allen, Gabrielle Lee, Chris Ivey, and Darrick Payton. Both Allen and Payton are police officers for Pittsburgh, with the former being a corporal along with being educator to local police academies on how to deal with race relations. They both have had significant experience in law enforcement and de-escalating racial tensions that can otherwise likely lead to violence. Ivey, another discussion panelist, grew up in an openly racist North Carolina and is currently an acclaimed filmmaker who makes documentaries with a focus on advocacy and giving a voice to those less heard. Lastly, Lee is an accomplished attorney who graduated from Pitt Law School and now works specifically as a public defender for the state. Being that all four speakers are African Americans living through such a profound time in the United States’ racial history, they all have experienced forms of racism throughout their lives. Still, each individual had a unique story to share with the audience in respect to how race comes into play with law and justice. A variety of perspectives were expressed as each person shared their profession’s connection to the law. Unlike most assemblies, the audience was encouraged to ask questions throughout the entire discussion, and being that the group was smaller, a very enlightening and rich dialogue developed between the students and the admirable guest speakers. The Q&A session for the whole panel, toward the end in particular, offered a special opportunity for students to pose their own questions to all the speakers. Questions asked, such as “how have you been able to forgive the  criminal justice system?” and “ how do you keep rallies peaceful?” garnered thought provoking responses that highlighted important issues in our justice system of which all people should be aware. 

When asked about the atrocities she has witnessed as a lawyer, Lee recounted times where clients were sentenced to life in prison for a drug possession. To put this in perspective, crimes that warrant life imprisonment include murder and drug trafficking. Lee shared that the cases in which her clients were sentenced to prison for drug offenses are the ones that impact her the most. Corporal Allen shared his experience with impactful cases, stating that the Antwon Rose incident impacted him on a greater level than others as he recalls running from the police as a kid. Antwon Rose was a 17 year old African American who was fatally shot in East Pittsburgh by a police officer after being suspected of a drive-by shooting. The police officer responsible, Michael Rosfeld, was acquitted of the charges after a four day trial. As a result, Corporal Allen tries to spend a significant amount of his time in the East Liberty Community of Pittsburgh. To combat these injustices, Corporal Allen advises everyone to speak up because the need for people who truly want the system to change is urgent. Similarly, Lee stated that she has not forgiven the criminal justice system, which is why she is continuously striving to reform it through her profession. She feels that there has not been any significant moment that is worthy of forgiveness yet.

Furthermore, Ivey says that his group of supporters know better than to do something that takes away from the movement, such as looting businesses. His message to his supporters who are protesting is to be the most disruptive without being destructive. John Lewis, a different civil rights activist, used to say that getting in trouble with the law for the cause of racial justice is the good kind of trouble. Additionally, Allen adds that the protests that are broadcasted on the news are a very small percentage of protests and the vast majority of rallies are peaceful and run by well-meaning people. According to Allen, rallies are kept under control by units that specialize in protests. These units then sit down with the protest organizers to discuss their plans. Allen has personally spoken at dozens of protests because people want to hear from the law enforcement, especially black law enforcement. The speakers mainly articulated that the news does not cover all the good protests, so be careful of news leading to the belief that every protest is people coming together to cause destruction

Even after the Q&A session concluded, students were not in a rush to leave, but instead stayed after to individually talk to the speakers, who were more than happy to engage with them. Lee even generously gave out her contact information so that students could reach out to her about upcoming trials she is doing per request of one student. As she informed the audience, courts are open to the public, so anyone can have access to judicial proceedings, which came as a surprise to many students. That was a point Lee truly wanted to stress to the audience: it is everyone’s job to hold the courts accountable and educate ourselves on how the justice system works so it can be secured for all. Ivey reemphasized Lee’s words by sharing ways one can educate oneself. He recommended “ A love song for Latasha ”, “When they see us” and “Buenos Aires” as films and/ or documentaries that are insightful into the world of law and justice. As noted by one tenth grade student who attended the discussion, “the speakers’ suggestions toward the end were very insightful and inspiring to all of us”. Additionally, the books Michelle Alexander, Between the World and Me, and Abolitionist Law Center were all noted by the speakers as being great reads on gender and racial inequalities. Allen reminded participants, though, that making one’s own opinions based on one article was not smart; one should read things from multiple perspectives before making decisions so that one is properly informed. In all, by hosting the Justice For All panel discussion, Upper St. Clair High School demonstrated its desire to encourage the much needed discussion of equality in the justice system. The speakers offered a unique opportunity for students to see what their future would look like if they were interested in being a lawyer, police officer or filmmaker. Maanasa Reddy, a 10th grader, said that “as someone who is interested in law, it was very insightful to learn about Ms. Lee’s experiences”. The speakers may have only talked for a short time, but their messages have undoubtedly inspired the next generation of activists, lawmakers and police officers alike.