On a Saturday afternoon in June of 1982, I walked into Peoples College of Law to be interviewed for possible admission. I had no doubt I wanted to attend, but I wasn’t certain I would be seen as a good candidate.
The building—a squat, shabby old two-story former medical center two blocks from MacArthur Park in downtown Los Angeles—was alive with students, clients of the PCL legal clinic, kids running around, and a sense of purpose: everyone was engaged in doing something.
This was the place which then-LAPD Chief Darryl Gates had called, “The most dangerous institution on Los Angeles,” because of PCL’s and its graduates’ and supporters’ effective and tireless work fighting for social and economic justice in LA and beyond.
I was, thus, a bit intimidated—not about the LAPD’s hatred, but about earning the right to be part of such a “dangerous institution.”
And I was a little wary: the prospect of joining an ongoing radical collective of more than a hundred students and faculty, for an intensive four-year Juris Doctor program in which I had to commit to study and learn the law and legal practice, was onerous enough for this dropout from DC public schools who’d never earned a college degree.
I also knew that the place was riven with internal issues, factions and even allegedly infiltrated by government agents (which was later proven, in litigation against LAPD’s Police Disorder and Intelligence Division case, which settled a couple years later, leading to the dissolution of the PDID.)
My experiences working with and in collectives and community-based progressive organizations, some dysfunctional, some not, some also infiltrated, taught me to expect conflict, social, personal and political challenges. These were not as onerous to me as the academic Everest I would have to climb.
So, yeah, I was eager yet wary, prepared but uncertain, ready—and yet already tired just thinking about it.
I was directed to a second-floor room in which a few students were waiting to interview me. One of them was familiar to me, he thought he’d recruited me. However, I had years earlier decided this was the law school I would eventually attend, with or without a college degree.
The three student interviewers were friendly, but a bit aloof. We spoke for at least an hour, during which I realized they had read at least some of my PCL application essays and were interested in whether I had actually written them, and meant what I‘d written.
To their credit, they left me wondering whether I would be accepted: a white, middle-class male drop-out with a mixed work history.
To their credit, they left me wondering whether I would be accepted: a white, middle-class male drop-out with a mixed work history. I didn’t strike me as their ideal applicant for training to be a radical progressive attorney.
Yet I was accepted to attend PCL! In my first class, in September, 1982, the thirty-five First Year PCL Law students sat around a circle of tables, each asked to explain why the wanted to be a, “Peoples Lawyer.” There was a Baptist minister, a couple lay-ministers, a social worker, two communist party cell leaders, three grade-school teachers, a couple car mechanics, a few union shop stewards, among others. Many students had B.A. or Masters degrees, and several of us had none. Some were community organizers and activists, several students were already working in law offices, and a few seemed like fish out of water, indeed a few were, and some didn’t last the first month.
By the end of that first year—during which we were challenged not only to do the academic work, but also building maintenance and cleaning, fund-raising, admissions and recruitment, library management and clerical support for the ongoing legal clinic, as well as governance issues—our 35 First Year students had winnowed down to about a dozen. After the Baby Bar took its toll, there were only about seven of us first-timers who passed into our second year of law school (plus others who had re-taken and passed the Baby Bar, then joined us in the Second Year Class.)
Now, we were on our way, and the prospect of becoming peoples lawyers was tangible, if not inevitable. Many of us succeeded, and the main reason we did is—the people of Peoples College of Law, who worked with us just as we did with the newer students after us, as a collective of very diverse people with a unified goal: to use the law—and everything else we could—in our struggle towards social and economic justice.
At that time there were, as I recall, more than a hundred students at PCL. Today, there are about forty. The school’s tumultuous history has persisted, while still producing effective peoples attorneys. And despite a decade of poor Bar exam pass-rates, or rather because of them,
PCL has this summer been re-born with new leadership, greater community and alumni involvement, more academic accountability and support, and more great students!
Now, thirty-five years after I walked into PCL, and thirty years since becoming a Peoples Attorney, I am back at PCL as a teacher, helping others just as I was helped so, so much, throughout my legal training and career, by the People of Peoples College of Law.
Si Si Peude! Only through collective struggle can progressive change for social and economic justice be wrought.