What Must Be Done?

A Message to the St. John's Law Community from Dean Michael A. Simons

June 1, 2020

Dear St. John’s Law Community,

In 2014, protests consumed New York City after a police officer killed Eric Garner. In the wake of those protests, St. John’s Law students and faculty came together for a conversation about law, race, and justice. Out of that exchange grew our annual tradition of Dialogue Days, community-wide conversations spearheaded by our student-run Coalition for Social Justice and the Ronald H. Brown Center for Civil Rights.

Here we are five years later, and it feels like nothing has changed. George Floyd’s cry of “I can’t breathe” is excruciatingly and infuriatingly familiar. And the pain and anger of this moment is not just about the killing of George Floyd or Ahmaud Arbery or Breonna Taylor or so many others. The senseless killings of Black Americans are the most visible manifestation of a much deeper and systemic problem: structural racism that stems from 400 years of oppression.

At St. John’s Law, students, faculty and staff will once again come together for a conversation about law, justice, and racism. But now, the question is not just “What are we going to say?” but rather, “What are we going to do?”

That question is central to our mission as a Vincentian university. In 1617, St. Vincent de Paul was asked by one of his benefactors, What must be done? This question—now known as the Vincentian question—became the driving force behind St. Vincent’s ministry to the poor. Four hundred years later, that question continues to animate the Vincentian mission, and it must drive our response to the injustice and racism so manifest in these killings. Indeed, what must be done?

I know I don’t have the answers. But we are a law school, a community of lawyers, teachers, scholars, and students. And so we have a special role to play in seeking answers to injustice. Throughout American history, we have seen that the law can be a source of oppression or a force for justice. It is up to lawyers to ensure that the power of the law is used for justice.

I also know I don’t have the lived experience of racism that defines the lives of so many. This is a moment of real pain—pain that is felt most acutely by our Black colleagues and Black students. I don’t pretend to have the authority to speak about that pain. But I do know that, as a teaching-and-learning community, it is our responsibility to care for each other, to be with each other, to learn from each other, to love each other. To bear each other’s pain and lift each other up.

Confronting racism is painful; but we must do it. Anti-racism work is hard; but we must do it. It is our mission as a Vincentian university, it is our obligation as a law school, and it is what we owe each other as members of the St. John’s Law community. Though our country is right now consumed with pain and anger, I have faith that truly engaging with St. Vincent’s question—What must be done?—can move us not just to dialogue, but to action; not just to hope, but to justice.

Michael A. Simons
Dean and John V. Brennan Professor of Law & Ethics


Dean Simons’ Follow-Up Update: No More Talking, What Are We Going to Do? (June 5, 2020)