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

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.