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Vanita Gupta: Making of an Activist

October 2006
Vanita Gupta: Making of an Activist

Khabar talks to VANITA GUPTA about her journey from a recent law school graduate to a civil rights defender who received national attention for her impassioned pursuit of justice that was responsible for the reversal of wrongful convictions of 38 African Americans in a small Texas town.

In 2001, Vanita Gupta, who had recently joined NAACP's Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF), saw a 12-minute documentary on a case in Tulia, Texas, where 38 people had been wrongfully convicted in 1999 and 2000.

The details of the cases compelled Vanita to get involved, but the odds were hardly in her favor. She was a recent graduate from New York University School of Law. The families of those convicted were poor and African-American in a small Texas town. They were stuck in the criminal justice system without access to expensive lawyers and resources. But that only compelled Vanita to try harder.

By the fall of 2001, she was immersed in the cases. Through her hard work and commitment to the cases, she won the trust of families of those falsely convicted. She mobilized other firms, the media, anything she needed to bring attention to the cases and demand accountability and justice. By August 2003, with the help of over a dozen national law firms, she was successful in getting the convictions overturned.���And in 2004, as co-counsel, she settled the civil rights cases filed on behalf of the 38 wrongfully convicted Tulia residents for $6 million. Not bad for a young law school graduate guided by her convictions in equal and fair access to the legal system.

For her work in Tulia, Vanita has been featured on numerous national television and radio shows. The New York Times profiled her in its "Public Lives" section. She received several awards, including the Reebok Human Rights Award in 2004 and American Red Cross "Rising Star" award in 2003. Despite the attention and accolades, Vanita is down-to-earth and clear on her convictions. As an Assistant Counsel at LDF, she is knee-deep in work centering on civil rights litigation that promotes systemic reform of the criminal justice system, including the ongoing Operation Meth Merchant case that targeted South Asian shopkeepers in North Georgia.

Vanita was the keynote speaker at Raksha's 10th anniversary celebration and subsequently has been to Atlanta in connection with the Racial Justice Campaign on behalf of the defendants in Operation Meth Merchant case. She spoke to Khabar from her home in New York City.

How did you get involved in the Tulia case?

I saw a short documentary about the cases at a civil rights conference organized by the LDF. I worked for the NAACP and had just joined the Legal Defense fund (LDF).���I made my first trip to Texas and discovered that there weren't any attorneys representing the defendants who had had their appeals denied. I spent a lot of time meeting with the families, going to the courts and bringing all the information back to New York.

Was your being young and South Asian an issue in performing your role in this high profile case?���

My youth was definitely something that struck everyone, including my clients. How young I really was and how young I looked. But the fact that I kept returning, demonstrated my commitment to the cases. So after a while, even the partners I had recruited from law firms, who had far more legal experience than me, treated me with full respect. In large part because I had developed close ties with the family members and the community. My age became inconsequential. But the fact that I was South Asian was of interest to everyone. There were people in the Panhandle who hadn't met anyone Indian. It was a source of conversation and in lots of ways it also opened doors for me because of the diversity element.

Was there anything about the justice system that surprised you during this case?

I knew that there were huge problems of racial bias and even application of the law in our criminal justice system. That is why I joined LDF instead of going to a big law firm.���The possibility that people could lose their liberty in violation of the Constitution was too abhorrent for me. What surprised me was the extent to which people can be railroaded. That, all this happened in 1999 and with such ease, is what shocks me. It just went to show that the criminal justice system has serious problems in the U.S. It was eye-opening for me. The fact that poor people get very different kind of justice then rich people in this country. They say, it's a lot easier being rich and guilty in this country than it is to be poor and innocent. That I think is a real shame.

Was there anything you discovered about yourself during the case that surprised you?

When I saw the documentary I thought, "What a huge injustice! But really what can any one do about it?" But I learnt over time that in certain situations your only limitation is yourself or your imagination. It just requires effort and imagination and [knowing] how to access resources that are already out there. You know, in a lot of situations, people see things that disturb them or things they may want to do but they immediately cut off that avenue because they just think it is impossible. I think that's too bad.���I learned that if I put my mind to it, I can really try to make a difference and make change happen, so that was surprising to me. There were times when there were a lot of low points while I was working on these cases. But my sense of hope also sustained me and that was kind of surprising to me. Thank god for the sense of hope!

Do you think what happened in Tulia was specific to the case being in Texas?

I think this stuff happens everywhere. Tulia was and is the tip of the iceberg. These kinds of problems appear everywhere. They appear in New York City, they appear in Buffalo, they appear in rural Georgia, they appear in Texas.

During the case, what was the biggest barrier for you?

I think support. The current political climate is so hostile to civil rights and to entertaining any claims of racial bias that pressing these kinds of cases is incredibly difficult in the courts today. And so you can just automatically, before you even delve in, decide that a case can't go forward, that there is no chance of winning. But I think that there are other ways to make justice happen, outside of the courts. To build pressure to bear on courts. So, I think that even though the political climate, the judicial climate was definitely the biggest barrier, ultimately we were able to overcome it because we were able to think creatively for solutions.

The Tulia case got you so much attention and made you a celebrity of sorts. How do you stay excited and focused in your other work after that?

The amount of attention that Tulia got really did surprise me. I don't do this work in order to work on high profile cases. I do it because I am very disturbed by the state of the criminal justice system. Huge human rights violations are going on in the system. Tulia is just one of hundreds and thousands of cases out there crying out for help. In some ways, there's a lot more work than there are people to get it done.

When you see the racial biases, wrongful convictions, human rights violations, how do you maintain your trust in the system?

Without the rule of law, you don't have democracy. And in order to have the rule of law, you have to have some belief that the justice system can run or help change it. The American legal system is one of the finest in the world. But large sectors of the population don't have the same kind of access to the ideals of the justice system that others do. In order to make the ideals of our legal system a reality for all residents of the United States, you have to work within the system. You have to represent clients who don't have the same kind of access.

How do you think the South Asian communities can further bridge with other communities of color and see the common ground or challenges to allow for better alliances?

It takes work. There are cases that happen where it would be good to have multiracial support of coalitions. Kind of what we saw at the Racial Justice Campaign with Meth Merchant (in Georgia), where we saw support from many communities. As we do for the immigrant rights protests. Sometimes we think that there are a lot more divisions than there really are. On a personal level, it takes each of us recognizing where our own racial prejudices and biases come from. But on a more macro level, it means reaching out to groups that may not be where we most likely go to get support. There are great strengths to be gained by reaching out to other communities. The oppressive struggles and gains of civil rights are a lesson for all of us. Like Martin Luther King and Gandhi, it requires a historical perspective.

Have things changed significantly since 9/11 and the Patriot Act, or is it just the target group that has changed?

I think it [patriot act & 9/11] has changed a lot of things. But it hasn't made it any easier for communities that were already being victimized or targeted before 9/11. And there still is a great amount of denial about what's going on with our community post 9/11. It is hard to ignore that some in our communities have been targeted with little or no evidence. The climate really changed and it has required a lot of community focus to understand that our problems are not disconnected from the problems of other communities of color.

You were talking earlier about the distinction between good and bad immigrants in relation to the Meth Merchant case. How do you think this impacts the communities' response?

I think the danger is that immigrant communities often divide themselves in the good and bad categories. In some way, in a response to the way the media portrays our communities. Operation Meth Merchant is a good example. People who were affected were working very long hours in the United States, with low wages, trying to do whatever they thought best for their families. They woke up one morning to find these charges [against them]. Some barely spoke English. These are not drug dealers but sometimes we assume that just because somebody's charged with something that they must have done something or must be guilty. Then we say those are the bad immigrants and we don't need to deal with [their problems]. The kind of law enforcement that took place in and around Georgia can take place in any of our communities.

How do you think you and your work are opening doors for young South Asians?

I am one of many South Asian public interest lawyers that are out there. I hope I can serve as a model for what's possible for those who make different choices and take the path less traveled. Like many other immigrant communities, our community tends to be risk-averse. Taking a job that provides you most financial security might be the easier path; but there can be tremendous value in choosing the path that your heart wants to take.

Your sense of injustice and equity was formed by your childhood experiences in London. What is that you remember the most?

Well, I think that it's very frightening to a young child when racial slurs are yelled at you. We had just moved to London. I was about five or six years old. It makes you immediately feel that somehow you're different and isolated and ashamed at first, quite honestly, because you don't understand where it's coming from. I realized that it was a reflection of something like racism. Words can do a lot of violence, particularly to children, who, you know, want to believe that everyone is the same. I think that the incident that I experienced in England, and others experience elsewhere, can shape one's values and one's perspective about what it means to be a citizen or a resident in a country where you are a racial minority.

What about once you came to the US? Have you had similar experiences here?

I think that they're more subtle, but I think that racial stereotyping goes on everywhere and that each of us engages in it all the time. I think the real hard work comes from trying to recognize the fact that you are engaging in racial stereotyping and try to unlearn them. I have racially stereotyped people and people have stereotyped me. That is a form of racial bias that occurs at a very subtle level.

Other than being a lawyer, what gets you really excited?

I love to read. I read a lot of fiction and I am an avid long distance runner. It's my big stress reliever. I have run two marathons (Boston & New York) and hope to run my third. And hanging out with my friends and family – that I value a lot.

Is there anything you would like to say to the people in Atlanta and Georgia?

There has been a lot of activity in Georgia and there has been a lot of energy in Atlanta. I've been really impressed by that and I think that the goal is to really figure out how to sustain that. I think the Racial Justice Campaign needs more support. There're a lot of different places to become more engaged and there's a lot of ways to become more engaged. You can volunteer, give money to [organizations like] Raksha, get involved with the Racial Justice Campaign, educate yourself about the needs. All of these things matter!

By Alka Roy

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