South-Central Los Angeles was hell in the late 1980s. Poverty was rampant, housing deplorable, and graffiti scarred almost every edifice. Drugs and gangs begot drive-by shootings and daylight robberies. Yet for some in that topsy-turvy world, the criminals were heroes, and cops were the enemy.
Nekima Levy-Pounds was 8 years old when her family moved from Mississippi to South-Central, but her inspiration did not come from the gangster rap records then emanating from her neighborhood and nearby Compton.
Her heroes were the attorneys on TV.
“I knew I wanted to become a lawyer from watching lawyers on television,” she says, smiling. “I figured if I could become a lawyer, I could help change things. Now I look back, I don’t know why I thought that. But I did.”
Part of what she had in mind, she thinks, was a notion that the law could be used as a tool for social justice, which also was not a common perception in South-Central L.A. Nonetheless, Levy-Pounds, now the director of the University of St. Thomas’ Community Justice Project (CJP), has never lost faith in that premise.
In fact, because of her work challenging laws and policies that hold back communities of color, some see her as a key local leader in the next phase of the civil rights struggle.
“I don’t think that is an over-characterization,” says Luz Maria Frias, director of the St. Paul Department of Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity (HREEO). “She is taking this very practical approach to civil rights and to resolving some very deep, long problems that have become embedded institutional barriers.”
CJP’s work in partnership with the local branch of the NAACP this summer earned both organizations a share of the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Partnership Award for Campus-Community Collaboration, along with its $10,000 prize.
“To me, the award symbolizes the fact that we are on the right path,” Levy-Pounds says. “And it is off the beaten path.”
Levy-Pounds got her first taste of civil rights legal work shortly after graduating from law school at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana in 2001. She was then a fellow for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights in the Law in Washington, D.C., focused on employment discrimination and voting-rights work.
To her disappointment, the job seemed mired in the 1960s.
“It was a different experience from what I had expected the work of civil rights to be like,” she says. “As someone who had grown up in the inner city, I was thinking about the criminal-justice system and the juvenile-justice system. I wanted to see civil-rights attorneys wanting to take on those issues.”
In 2003, she took a job as associate professor at St. Thomas’ Interprofessional Center for Counseling and Legal Services. For the first few years, she ran a legal clinic that focused on domestic violence issues. It was good work, she says, but in 2005, she was driven to make a change.
“I was home on maternity leave and doing some soul searching,” she says. “I knew I needed to go in a different direction – it was in my spirit. I am a person of faith and I spent time praying and asking God for direction. And I knew that I was supposed to start a civil rights clinic.”
When CJP launched as a pilot project in 2006, she was still juggling it with the ongoing domestic violence clinic. CJP got off to a fitful start. She didn’t know many people locally who were involved in justice-oriented civil rights work, she says. And those she sought out were, like her peers in Washington, D.C., focused on the civil rights issues of the past, she says.
Then she called Nathaniel Khaliq, president of the St. Paul Chapter of the NAACP, and proposed a partnership. He was skeptical, he says, but curious. St. Thomas was an elite private school not exactly known for its civil rights activism.
“We just hadn’t seen St. Thomas that much involved in issues in our community,” Khaliq says. “And I was born and raised here.”
“I had to convince him that I was sincere and that we were serious about doing this work,” Levy-Pounds says. “Over time, the more we communicated, the stronger our relationship with the NAACP became.”
A partnership began with CJP’s first pilot project in 2006. NAACP staffers alerted Levy-Pounds to a surge in obstruction of legal process (OLP) arrests, many involving African-Americans, she says.
“Police would show up on the scene and decide they were going to arrest someone,” she says. “If you were going to go up to the officer to ask, ‘Why are you arresting this person?’ rather than responding, they would arrest you and charge you with obstruction of the legal process. There were times when it was probably legitimate, but other times it happened when someone just held up a camera or asked a question.”
In 2000, according to figures released by HREEO, there were 269 OLP cases referred to the city attorney for prosecution. In 2006, there 568 cases. How many arrested on OLP charges were African-American is unknown because city prosecutors said they don’t track arrests by race.
However, John Harrington, the city’s police chief at the time, took note of the upsurge in OJP charges, blaming it on a high number of new, unseasoned officers dealing with high-stress situations. Despite that admission, Levy-Pounds says, nothing substantive was immediately done to change the situation.
Levy-Pounds assigned her former student Artika Tyner, now a CJP law fellow, to write a memo to then City Attorney John Choi detailing how the law defines obstruction of the legal process and challenging the spate of arrests.
“We gave him our memo and talked about our issue,” Levy-Pounds says. “He agreed with our analysis and went back and retrained all the prosecutors in his office.”
As a result, there was a “huge decrease” in the rate of prosecution for OLP charges, says Levy-Pounds. According to HREEO figures, there were only 416 OLP cases in 2007, a 27 percent decrease from 2006. During that same one-year span, the number of OLP cases dismissed by city prosecutors increased from 39 percent of total OLP cases filed in 2006 to 49 percent in 2007.
Though year-over-year OLP figures after 2007 weren’t available by deadline, sources indicate that the decline in OLP cases has continued. St. Paul Police spokesman Sgt. Pete Crum confirmed that between Jan. 1 and July 16 of 2010, only 99 OLP cases were filed.
Still, Crum says that CJP’s take on the dip in OLP cases is open to interpretation. Just because prosecutors are pressing fewer obstruction cases doesn’t necessarily mean that the offense is no longer being committed, he says.
“Were these arrests still made,” he says, “but just under different charges – say, disorderly conduct or assault, or something along those lines?” Crum says it would take a year’s worth of research to ferret out that answer.
Despite his skepticism, however, Crum credits Levy-Pounds and CJP for bringing attention to an issue that needed to be addressed.
“Whenever you bring public pressure on something, it will change behaviors on the part of police officers,” he says. “Clearly, it did have an effect on OLP charges.”
A true warrior
More recently, CJP and the NAACP also teamed to successfully challenge the way that names were compiled in the law-enforcement database, GangNet.
After reading a report compiled by CJP staff urged changes to the way a list of suspected gang members is compiled, Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher agreed to purge 6,000 names from the database. He also reduced the duration that names are kept on the county’s list from 10 years to five, while instituting parental notification when minors’ names are placed in the database.
Khaliq credits NAACP’s partnership with the legal clinic from prestigious St. Thomas with securing him a seat at the table in discussions with law enforcement, city and county leaders and legislators that might not otherwise have been available.
“This is the first time that an academic institution has established a program and gotten behind this work and the consequences and repercussions,” he says. “We have touched on some hot-button issues.”
Khaliq wonders if any of the recent work CJP has helped the NAACP accomplish could have happened if Levy-Pounds had pursued her career elsewhere.
“I don’t think so,” he says. “She has a strong sense of faith, and that allows her to have the courage to stand up and say the things she has to say without fear. She is a true warrior, and someone that has unlimited potential to help people. As a former Marine, I would love to go into battle with her.”
For Levy-Pounds, the recent Carter award is a signal that her legal clinic is making a difference.
“To me,” she says, “it symbolizes that people are recognizing the value of fighting for the rights of those who are oppressed, and not thinking that it is someone else’s responsibility.”
Name: Nekima Levy-Pounds
Job: Director, Community Justice Project; associate professor of law, University of St. Thomas
Grew up in: Mississippi, moved to South-Central Los Angeles at age 8
Education: Graduated from the Brooks private boarding school in Andover, Mass., which she attended on a full scholarship; B.A., African-American Studies, University of Southern California; J.D., University of Illinois College of Law, Champaign-Urbana
Lives: Brooklyn Park
Family: Married for 11 years to Phalen Pounds; five children, ages 5-14, all attend school in Brooklyn Park
Service activities: Board of directors, Excell Academy Charter School for Higher Learning; executive producer, “Imagine Opportunities: Law School” video project
Governing board, Black Women Lawyers Network, numerous others
Little known family fact: Phalen Pounds played as a 310-pound starting offensive guard under coach John Robinson at the University of Southern California, until his career was cut short by a serious shoulder injury.