Beyond the Law

Michael Coard — lawyer, activist, teacher — on defending the bad guys, fixing the city’s court system, hating on hip-hop, and forever changing the way you see George Washington

Criminal defense attorney Michael Coard is in constant motion. One minute he’s involved in a high-profile cop-murder case; the next, he’s hosting a radio show on WURD; then he’s off to teach a hip-hop music course at Temple. His biggest project of late? Fighting the National Park Service to reinterpret American history. A North Philly kid who once dreamed of a baseball career, Coard harbors the highest hopes for his hometown even as his work keeps him ensconced in our city’s underbelly. Over lunch at Butcher & Singer, we talked about why he does it all, and where he draws inspiration.

Sam Katz: We both know you’d rather be playing baseball. How are you handling the beginning of another Phillies season?

Michael Coard: When I’m watching baseball, nothing else exists. I can escape from the brutal murder cases and head off to my own fantasy world.

SK: Is an afternoon game perfect or intrusive?

MC: It depends on the judge. If the judge lets me go watch, it’s perfect. If not, it’s intrusive. My nightmare is coming up with a great excuse for not being in court, but the judge sees me at the Bank as the camera pans the crowd.

SK: Where does hip-hop fit into your life?

MC: Hip-hop is my number one escape.

SK: With so many escape hatches, when do you have time for your real world?

MC: It’s there 24-7! People think the bullshit you see and hear on TV and radio is hip-hop. That’s no more hip-hop than Kenny G is jazz. When Three 6 Mafia won an Academy Award for their idiotic song “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp,” lots of middle-class folks watched. They think that’s hip-hop. That crap is outrageously stupid. Hip-hop is not a ball cap backwards, an oversized t-shirt, baggy jeans and Timberland boots.

SK: So what is it?

MC: It’s a modern manifestation of ancient African culture, with four basic elements. There’s the MC or the rapper; the DJ or the beat-maker; the break-dancer; and the -graffiti-writer. The MC has the verbal rhythm; in West Africa, there’s the griot, the oral historian, who holds the people’s history. The DJ or beat-maker comes from the beat of African drums. The connection of the break-dancer to West African dance, physical and highly expressive, is obvious. The graffiti evolves from the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt – that’s Africa.

SK: The music you’re describing doesn’t sound like the music coming out of the car that pulled up next to mine this morning.

MC: I’m licensed to carry a firearm. If murder weren’t a capital offense, I might use it on some of those people. That ear-exploding garbage is not hip-hop. The formula for commercial success is copying what sells. But artists like Talib Kweli and Mos Def are legitimate poets with a beat. They’re not part of the formula. They don’t call women “bitches.” They don’t call each other “nigger.” They aren’t into drugs and sex and violence. They won’t sell at platinum levels, and therefore they remain underground. But they’re great artists making great music.

SK: So “If you’re rhyming for the loot, then you’re a prostitute”?

MC: Wow. You did your homework. Yes. I think if you do anything just for the money, it makes you a prostitute.

SK: Your bailiwick, the court system of Philadelphia, is under a microscope. Change is coming. How do you feel about what’s about to happen?

MC: The Inquirer put a spotlight on the criminal justice system, but it was an amateurish “hair on fire” report. I’ve been in court for 15 years, and it’s nothing like the out-of-control situation one takes away from that series. They said too many cases were being dismissed in preliminary hearings. That’s wrong. Everyone starts with a presumption of innocence. Everyone. Say the accuser doesn’t come to court while the alleged perpetrator sits in jail, and then is a no-show for the second and third hearings. The Inquirer would have us keep the alleged criminal in jail until hell freezes over. Why treat nonviolent first offenders like convicted murderers? Why keep them in jail because they can’t make bail? We have limited resources. Let’s be innovative. The system is broken — but it’s fixably broken.

 

SK: Who’s doing a good job trying to fix the system?

 

MC: So far, district attorney Seth Williams is on the right track. Alternatives to incarceration and pretrial detention, a system for nonviolent offenders, turning minor marijuana cases into summary offenses — these things are exactly what we need to be looking at. Criminal defense lawyers are in the best position to do the most, but we dropped the ball. Nobody’s gonna speak for the so-called bad guys except us. The greatest threat to civilized society is not one bad guy – it’s an unchecked law enforcement system. Good defense attorneys need to be there to make sure this system plays as fairly as possible.

SK: To a lot of folks, you’re looking for loopholes to get the bad guys off.

MC: If the D.A. or law enforcement screws up the case and my client is found not guilty, he’s not coming to your neighborhood; he’s coming back to mine in North Philly. So, Mr. D.A., I want to make sure you dot every “i” and cross every “t.” I’m optimistic that the criminal defense bar is getting its act together to make the case against some of these outrageous proposals to get more convictions.

SK: Speaking of change: You just significantly impacted the nation’s interpretation of history.

MC: So one day I’m reading about relocating the Liberty Bell and the excavation of the President’s House on Independence Mall. Buried in that article is a reference to the fact that George Washington held black people as slaves. I’m born and raised here. I went to one of the best schools here [Masterman High.]. We went on class trips to the Bell. How come nobody ever told me about this? I wrote a letter to the Park Service and asked what the hell was going on: Nobody’s talking about slavery and Washington! No response. We held a meeting of activists and demanded that the Park Service let the public know that George Washington owned slaves there. When we learned they were building a replica of the first “White House,” we demanded that slavery become part of the story. And so it is.

SK: This has dramatically changed our understanding of the conflicts between what the founders wrote and what happened on the street.

MC: Truly. As you enter this heaven of liberty — the Liberty Bell pavilion — you have to cross through the hell of slavery, just five feet away.

SK: Your advocacy group uses the word “Avenging” in its name. Is that a little confrontational?

MC: It’s the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition. Avenge is not revenge. We’re not talking about getting even. We’re avenging, seeking reparations. Not money, but repairing history and telling the truth.

SK: Our history is so rich, with all of its warts, and you’ve helped open up new, more balanced interpretations.

MC: To many people, Washington was a true hero. But he wasn’t perfect. We don’t need to deify him. History doesn’t have to lie. People who love him can still love him, but they need to know the complete story. History should be about what really happened.