Creating real change: a conversation with UB School of Law alum Orlando Dickson

Photo of Orlando Dickson standing outside of City Hall, Buffalo, NY.

Orlando Dickson, JD ’19. Photo by Douglas Levere

by Laura Silverman

Published July 6, 2020

Civic leader and activist Orlando Dickson, JD ’19, brings a wide lens to the nation’s current reckoning with racism and police brutality. Born in Chicago and raised in Las Vegas, he spent most of his childhood homeless before joining the Army on his 18th birthday. He served for nine years, doing two tours of duty (in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively), and eventually taking college courses online. He left the military the day he earned his degree; two years later, at the age of 28, he entered law school at UB.

After graduating in May of 2019, Dickson decided to stay in Buffalo to help create change where he could make a difference. A 2017 Open Buffalo Emerging Leader, Dickson now works as a civic educator at the Partnership for the Public Good, volunteers with Barack Obama’s Boys and Men of Color Initiative, is on the board of Housing Opportunities Made Equal, is a certified community health worker, and serves on Buffalo’s police advisory board.

How did you become involved in advocating for racial justice?

Being homeless as a kid, I experienced something that I don’t think too many people experience in their lives. And once you experience something like that—you know, being at the proverbial bottom of the barrel—I think it makes you extremely aware of everything that’s going on around you. There’s a dichotomy in the way I was treated as someone who is homeless versus how people treat me when they find out that I graduated law school, or that I’m a veteran. I have literally seen the expression and demeanor of a person change when they realize that who I am is not who they thought I was.

I’ll give you one example. Recently, I was talking to a Black police officer, just having a conversation with him on the street, when another police officer, a white one, walked up. He was immediately like, “What’s this chump want? What did he do?” He just assumed I had done something wrong. Then the first officer told him I was a lawyer, and he was like, “Oh! My bad!”

When Trayvon Martin was killed, I started noticing how intersectional all of these things are—how your professional life can intersect with your personal life. At that time I was considering going to pharmacy school. But then I realized that the main reason George Zimmerman didn’t go to jail was bad lawyering. I decided I didn’t want that to happen again.

Were you thinking you’d become a public defender?

Yes, but then I realized in law school that lawyers can do a lot of different things. There are people who are suited to be in a courtroom, pushing judges and prosecutors to be more equitable. But there are also people who are in the room when decisions are being made, speaking truth to power when it comes to the laws, speaking truth to power when it comes to the political feasibility of things. I realized that I’m more suited to the latter.

This country has a long history of racial injustice, and many unarmed Black men and women have been killed by the police. Why do you think the killing of George Floyd was the turning point for so many people?

Eight minutes and 46 seconds. I can’t explain it any better than Dave Chappelle did. You think about how terrifying it is to be in a dangerous situation. I was in a tornado when I was stationed in Fort Riley, Kansas. I hid under a bed as it went down my street and was in absolute terror for five minutes. This man could not breathe for eight minutes and 46 seconds. That just does something to you at a very deep level. And people are finally waking up.

Black people have asked in all the ways possible to be treated as human.

But like Will Smith said, “Racism is not getting worse; it’s getting filmed.” It’s always been this bad. Police brutality is something I experienced very early as a kid. I was 12 years old sitting at a bus stop when two police officers pulled up, grabbed me and my friend, handcuffed us, had us splayed on the ground with our faces on the hot blacktop, and held us there. This was Las Vegas in the middle of the day on a Saturday. It was 112 degrees outside. They thought we had robbed a place, because, you know, we were just a couple of 12-year-olds sitting at a bus stop, so that made sense. If it wasn’t for the lady sitting at the bus stop, we’d probably be in jail. Or something.

People think it’s anti-police to talk about the brutality, but it’s not. It’s not anti- anything. It’s pro-humanity. Black people have asked in all the ways possible to be treated as human. We said, stop killing us. They essentially said no. We said, can the killers at least go to jail? They essentially said no. Okay, can the killers be fired permanently? No. Can we get unpaid leave for the killers? No. How about they pay out of pocket for wrongful death? No. De-escalation training? No. There have just been so many noes, and so many attempts at peaceful protest. At some point it was going to reach the boiling point.

Do you feel like one difference now is that white people are finally paying attention?

The most national attention the peaceful side of this has ever gotten was when Colin Kaepernick kneeled. At that point, I don’t think any human being could say they had not heard of the Kaepernick protest. So awareness was not the issue. I think this situation with COVID-19, and there already being so many people losing jobs and feeling like something was wrong with the system … that created the perfect storm for something like this to happen.

But it’s also because things are being broken. Things are being burned to the ground. It’s reached a fever pitch. And you know, nobody will sit here and say that rioting is the answer. Nobody wants to riot. But the focus on rioting completely negates the hundreds of years of peaceful attempts to create change.

What do you think cities like Buffalo need to do now that would lead to real change?

A lot of things. Riot police need to be permanently disbanded. You’ve got to fire officers with a history of police brutality. You have to prosecute those officers and get results, like actual punishment rather than a slap on the wrist. You have to make officers pay for the settlements from police brutality with their pensions or some other form, not taxpayer dollars. You’ve got to create independent external oversight bodies. You’ve got to cut the police budget and invest in reforms and community support. There has to be transparency of police practices, activities, policies, cameras. They have to update the use of force policies to focus on de-escalation. In the military, our escalation of force procedures were better than anything I’ve seen from police. We had so many steps before we got to the point where we were shooting people, and we were at war! Also, getting police out of schools and heavily child-populated areas, where Black children are being harassed. I could keep going.

Photo of Orlando Dickson sitting outside of City Hall, Buffalo, NY.

Photo by Douglas Levere

You mentioned defunding the police, although you didn’t use that phrase. Do you think people are misunderstanding what protestors mean by “defund the police”?

Divesting funds from police and reallocating them to public safety and social services and other community resources is the point of the call to defund the police. It doesn’t mean don’t give them any money. It doesn’t mean make their job unsafe. It just means shifting from the police handling every civil issue that arises to focusing on crime and crime prevention.

I think there are people who try to derail every movement. People say Black Lives Matter, then people come with All Lives Matter. There are people who are purposely saying that Defund the Police is going to create anarchy and lawlessness, and it’s just not true. The research supports that when you invest in public safety and social services, crime decreases. Over-policing has been shown to increase lawlessness. Putting people in jail, especially pretrial, increases lawlessness, it increases recidivism rates. Whereas just focusing on the underlying issues does not.

You’ve said that most people who say they want to be part of the change end up just making a Facebook post. What would you tell people they should be doing that would be more effective?

For Black and brown people, I’m going to say the thing you can do to change something is to show up. Make sure that you’re a part of some movement, because there’s a movement in every city.

If I’m talking to white people, I’m going to say, what are you doing to speak up? Are you having that conversation with your potentially racist friends? Are you keeping people from doing racist actions around you? Are you disowning the people who won’t commit to changing their racist behavior? Are you raising your kids to be anti-racist? It’s not enough to just not do the bad things. You have to actively engage when the bad thing is happening.

There are just so many instances where people can change little things, just be decent human beings and treat us like we’re human beings. It’s such an odd thing to have to ask people to value us as human beings. It’s such an odd concept, and yet it’s been an issue all throughout American history.

Are you feeling optimistic about this moment?

I’m optimistic that people are waking up to how we got here. Police in America have been protectors of property, but more specifically white property, since Black people have been here. From capturing enslaved people who managed to escape to removing Black people from lunch counters, to now responding to calls about Black people doing a barbeque at the park or swimming at a local pool.

What would make me more optimistic would be if the problem were looked at as a systemic issue, and not just removing that officer or changing a few policies. We need a massive shift in police culture, a massive shift in the way police are funded, the way they’re trained, what they’re responsible for responding to. We also need people to shift their behaviors about calling the police.

I do think some of these things are possible in this moment. Even though they should have been possible before, they weren’t. But now they are. It’s just a matter of elected officials answering the call, of them taking the conversation seriously and creating real change, instead of just change that will only reflect the moment.