When the courts began to shut down in March, Habekah Cannon, then with the Mecklenburg County Public Defenders’ Office (MCPDO), knew she would have to pivot in the ways she served the community. She didn’t know that work would lead to multiple arrests and her being fired. Now she’s taken those lessons and launched her own law firm, which she calls the first “wholeheartedly abolitionist” law firm in Charlotte.
Cannon recalls how her workload shifted after that second week in March, as she found herself writing motions to release people from jail in light of COVID-19 and doing Zoom hearings from her living room. In May and June, spurred by Charlotte protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Cannon found herself volunteering at Jail Support, an aid hub set up by Charlotte Uprising that began as a bail fund during the 2016 protests following Keith Lamont Scott’s killing and came back in 2020 to become an organization that not only helped bail out protesters but offered help to anyone leaving the Mecklenburg County Detention Center at any time.
Growing up doing missionary work in South Africa from 4 to 13 years old, Cannon got a taste for advocacy and activism at a young age. It stuck with the Goldsboro native wherever she went, from Hampton University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice, to North Carolina Central University in Durham, where she attended law school. She returned to Charlotte in time to take part in protests following Scott’s killing, and knew she had to take action as protests broke out around the country following Floyd’s killing.
“As a Black woman first and as an attorney, police brutality is not new to me and the way that the world reacted to the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, it raised awareness about an issue that had been going on for a while … I fought every day to make sure that people’s rights were protected, and I did that as an attorney,” Cannon said. “There was a series of events that everything changed and that’s kind of where my dedication to my volunteering came into play with Jail Support.”
Multiple arrests lead to Cannon’s firing
Throughout June, Cannon would sit for shifts at Jail Support, first at their original location directly in front of the county jail, where she was one of 43 people arrested on June 16 after Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s deputies attempted to shut down the support hub. She continued to volunteer after Jail Support moved across East 4th Street, and on Sept. 12, a day after five people were arrested during another raid on the camp, about two dozen deputies encircled Cannon while she was waiting outside of her office and arrested her for trespassing.
On Sept. 21, Cannon was once again taken into custody during another mass arrest at Jail Support. She was live-streaming and video appears to show her identifying herself as a legal observer while being taken into custody, with a deputy telling her she “should have moved.” Shortly after her third arrest, she was asked to resign from the MCPDO due to “not drawing wide enough margins between my work as an Assistant Public Defender and my activism,” she says.
Requests for comment from the MCPDO on Cannon’s firing and policies regarding public defenders engaging in activism went unanswered as of this story’s publication. According to Cannon, she was unaware of any such policy.
“I didn’t know that to be an issue before now,” Cannon tells Queen City Nerve. “Most certainly it’s nothing that was addressed with the office from a policy point-of-view or anything. I will say that my termination was a direct attack toward my activism, however, I’m really committed to the fact that it won’t stop my activism. I’ll just figure out a new way to go about it. But this is the first time I’ve ever been told that those margins even needed to be drawn.”
In early December, Cannon announced a crowdfunding campaign for “Charlotte’s first abolitionist, community-based legal defense firm,” through which she plans to take on a mix of for-profit cases and pro-bono ones that help the jobless, houseless and housing insecure. Cannon’s firm will focus on misdemeanors such as soliciting alms, failure to pay fare, trespassing, larceny and prostitution.
“We will also take cases such as resisting a public officer and assault on a government official due to the fact that officers often tack on these charges to the poor, Black and Brown people as an intimidation tactic,” Cannon wrote in her *spotfund page. “We are a for-profit firm but we specialize in defending the indigent by raising funds, as a community, to cover bare essentials for a thorough legal defense.”
Cannon also plans to offer community services through the firm, including record expungements and drivers’ license restoration clinics.
“Activism, doing the work, community, that’s always been a part of me, so it’s always been my purpose and my passion to help people and help these marginalized communities, and it’s been so since I decided to go to law school to become a public defender,” Cannon tells Queen City Nerve. “I think that me starting this law firm was the only right decision to continue my activism work here in Charlotte being that we only have one public defenders’ office and not a lot of opportunities for private lawyers to represent the marginalized communities. There’s a monopoly on those cases and they’re either all on the public defenders’ office or they’re all given to court-appointed attorneys, but what I’m saying is we need a new way of doing it.”
Cannon’s firm has already begun accepting cases, although with only the Superior Court currently in session due to COVID-19, she doesn’t expect to see a courtroom for her District Court cases until 2021.
What is an abolitionist law firm?
Cannon describes her firm as a “holistic, low-barrier, and wholeheartedly abolitionist” approach to law, so what does that mean, exactly, and how does it affect her work as a defense lawyer?
“I do believe that we can envision a world where we don’t put people in cages and in prisons, and we don’t feel like that’s the way to reform people,” Cannon says. “When you look at the criminal justice system and the prison-industrial complex system and you realize that it’s a system that’s designed to limit, to prohibit, to exclude poor Black and brown people, then you realize that this is a system that we can advocate that we want things to be done differently … So my thought process is, having that mindset, understanding that my clients are up against a system that’s bigger than them, a system that is connected to the prison-industrial complex, that pretty much allows people to be enslaved so as long as they’re found guilty — when you understand all of that as a criminal defense lawyer, I feel like you can put on a better and more solid representation for your client and help them navigate this criminal justice system despite what they’re up against if you have that basic understanding.”
Many folks learned about abolitionism through the scope of history lessons about slavery in the United States, but the new movement, the one Cannon and her legal aid Liv Highfill believe strongly in, involves the abolishment of jails and prisons across the country. It’s a natural next step, they say, as the 13th amendment only abolished slavery outside of the prisons.
Cannon and Highfill understand it’s still a far-fetched concept for many people not familiar with the movement, but it has to start somewhere.
“The people that have been charged and convicted of really horrible things, we often want to think about it from a point of view of of, ‘If someone murdered my family member, I would want them to be in jail.’ But then there’s also the side of, well, if a family member or loved one or someone you know was accused of something, you would want them to be treated with basic dignity, humanity and respect. What we’re saying is those things aren’t happening in there for these people,” Cannon says.
“And what we also know is that way too often people are being held there and they’re innocent, and we also know it’s disproportionate, there are more Black and brown people [incarcerated],” she continues. “There are all these things that come into play, and until that system is better, until that system is perfect, which we don’t think that can be reformed at this point, what we want to do is raise awareness. This is what’s going on, these are people too. Even though they’re incarcerated, their lives matter, and they should not be mistreated while they’re in there at all, despite what they’ve been charged or convicted of.”
Reframing how we think of violence
For Highfill, her work in the abolition movement, and now with an abolitionist law firm, has involved looking at how legal forms of violence are ignored as compared to illegal forms. When low minimum wages cause starvation or the potential for debilitating medical debt leads to unnecessary deaths, these are all legal forms of violence that need to be considered equal to any violence you may read about in the daily news.
“For me it’s about reframing how we think about violence and we will be able to address individual acts of violence or harm better in an abolitionist world, where we can address the harm that was done instead of putting people away forever and not ever addressing the actual harm,” Highfill says.
For Cannon, her multiple arrests over the summer only added drive to her belief in the cause, which she says will translate into her work.
“I understand [abolition] is a radical idea that’s hard to conceptualize and wrap your mind around, but I think that prisons and jails are such a horrible place to be because I know what that treatment on the inside looks like,” she says. “When I’m making an argument for anything, no matter how big or how small, in the courtroom, my passion is that much stronger because I know what’s at stake for my clients. I don’t want my client to ever have to be standing beside me and then be handcuffed and taken to go behind those doors because I know the effect that has. So I think that makes me go that much harder in the courtroom because it’s like, that’s the place I don’t believe humans should be.”
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