Dear Members of the Cornell Law School Community –
The last few weeks have offered us many examples of the lethal violence that black men and women confront on a daily basis. From Breonna Taylor, shot in her own home by police serving a no-knock warrant; to Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed while jogging; to George Floyd, whose life we saw snuffed out on an excruciating video under the knee of one police officer while three others looked on with apparent indifference. This past weekend has brought us fresh images of violence against black citizens, as police in many cities around the country deployed tear gas and pepper spray and batons against people protesting the unjustified use of police violence.
I am generally reluctant to issue statements on current events, particularly where Cornell University’s leadership has already done so. President Martha Pollack’s statement earlier this week eloquently and powerfully spoke on behalf of all of us when she acknowledged that the “pain in the Black community is unfathomable, especially as these are occurring in the midst of a pandemic that is having such a disproportionate impact on communities of color.”
And yet as I woke up this morning to see this Reuters photo depicting a distinguished 2016 graduate of Cornell Law School, New York State Senator Zellnor Myrie, crying out in pain after being sprayed in the face with pepper spray as he attempted to keep the peace between protesters and law enforcement in his Brooklyn neighborhood, I felt the need to say something.
As a law school, we have a distinctive perspective to offer on these events. Committed as we are to the equal protection of the law, the killing of black Americans (by private citizens and by police) followed by the absence of the most basic legal accountability strikes at the very heart of the values we purport to teach our students. And the use of force against nonviolent protesters — against people like Senator Myrie — does the same.
To be sure, some who attended protests this weekend resorted to violence, which — as a law school — we do not condone or defend. But the moral authority of the law’s use of force comes from its constraint by reason and justice. The violence of some does not justify the state’s use of force against those who are seeking to exercise their legal rights to protest. The law must protect those rights against the violence of rioters, just as vigorously as it protects empty storefronts. Even at some risk to themselves, state actors must tailor their use of force so as to restrain lawlessness through proportionate responses while at the same time leaving space for the lawful exercise of constitutional rights of speech and protest. This is hard and thankless work, and it is sometimes dangerous. But it is the work and the restraint that is required if our commitment to the rule of law is to be more than empty words.
Even as he condemned riots, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. understood all too well that the devolution of protest into violence is often the product of deep injustice that the powerful have chosen to ignore. “As long as America postpones justice,” he said, “we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again.” As Pope Paul VI put it in his January 1, 1972 message on peace, “if we look for its true source, we find that it is rooted in a sincere feeling for man. . . . And what do we call this sincere feeling for man? We call it Justice.”
As we continue to struggle with the dislocation and pain of a global pandemic, Cornell Law School remains committed to the always unfinished project of promoting the values of our profession, which are built on the bedrock belief in equal justice for all under the law. And we stand with those — like Zellnor Myrie ’16 — who are working peacefully to bring that equal justice closer to reality.
Eduardo M. Peñalver ’94
Allan R. Tessler Dean and Professor of Law