Blake Strode and Jacki Langum

Blake Strode, executive director of ArchCity Defenders, spoke at the celebration of its 10th anniversary at the Stifel Theater on Friday, November 8 as Jacki Langum, director of Advocacy, for ArchCity Defenders listened.

We were proud to be entrusted to break the news two years ago when Thomas Harvey, co-founder and executive director of ArchCity Defenders, decided to leave the St. Louis-based civil rights law firm and leave its leadership in the hands of Blake Strode. In addition to wanting The American to break that major piece of news about black leadership in St. Louis, Harvey also credited our paper's coverage of the firm's fundraising efforts to attract and retain black attorneys for its ability to retain Strode after his Skadden Fellowship from Harvard University expired. It was the Skadden Fellowship that funded the return home for the Pattonville High School graduate and former tennis pro – but it was the Ferguson unrest that made Strode want to come back home and get to work.

ArchCity Defenders was Strode’s first job coming out of Harvard Law School, and he told us that the firm’s “multi-faceted advocacy” practice is truly unique. Unlike many civil rights firms that find a policy they want to change and then search for the right clients to front their suit, ArchCity does direct legal service to poor clients and moves from solving their individual problems to finding opportunities to strike for systemic reforms.

Two years later, as ArchCity Defenders celebrated its 10th anniversary on Friday, November 8, Strode and Harvey both made those precise points in a gala at the Stifel Theater, attended by everyone from ArchCity’s clients to the chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court (and a former chief justice). These are attorneys who embrace the mandate to use the power of the courts to elevate people from poverty and force the criminal justice system to change in ways that undermine its systematic racism and criminalization of poverty. For a young Harvard Law graduate like Strode, this advocacy for the poor and oppressed comes at a tremendous opportunity cost, since more lucrative opportunities (including in regions where blacks have greater socioeconomic opportunity) abound for him.

The pay-off comes in human, not economic, terms. “These guys save people’s lives,” said Katie Plax, M.D. Like many of ArchCity’s supporters, Dr. Plax is herself a lifesaver, as the medical director of the SPOT (Supporting Positive Opportunities with Teens), a program that addresses the serious health risks facing youth ages 13 to 24 in the St. Louis region. No less an authority than international human rights activist and actor Danny Glover has taken notice and came to St. Louis for the gala. “You know where exactly they stand in relationship to building community and drawing upon our ability to build constructive change,” Glover said of ArchCity Defenders.

We celebrated the first decade of this courageous, transformative law firm alongside Glover, Dr. Plax, Chief Justice George W. Draper III, former Chief Justice Mike Wolff and hundreds of other committed fighters for social justice in our region. We were especially touched by cofounder Michael-John Voss’ remark (in the very brief moment any of the three cofounders would remain in the limelight) that “it is our clients’ lives that we are celebrating tonight, their truth and their voice.” Strode defied the co-founders’ resistance to accepting attention by bestowing surprise superhero capes upon them, but we agree with Voss that the real heroes are the oppressed who refuse to suffer in silence and seek help to fight the criminal system for something that actually resembles justice.

We also remember and want to remind everyone of what Strode told us two years ago when taking the helm. “Sometimes there is this illusion that after Ferguson everything has been fixed with the local criminal justice system,” Strode told us, “when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. We are still only nibbling at the edges of systemic reform. The municipal courts are still a functioning system for the oppression of poor people.” Two years later, we are still nibbling – and ArchCity Defenders still needs our support.

Get involved with or donate to ArchCity Defenders at www.archcitydefenders.org.

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