Student Takes Initiative on Legal Rights Education

Elizabeth Kuhr, Staff Writer

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.

Email This Story

Standing in front of 50 Oberlin students in Craig Lecture Hall on Thursday, Feb. 21, College sophomore Katie Thornton gave an hour-and-a-half lecture titled “Knowing Your Rights.” An extension of her Experimental College class, the Power Point presentation reviewed people’s legal rights during run-ins with police in the United States.

According to the ExCo’s syllabus, Thornton aims “to give people a comprehensive understanding of our legal rights in the United States of America.” In the simplest terms, her series of lessons and lectures hopes to educate people about remaining safe and distinguishing between fair and unfair legal treatment.

“I’ve seen a lot of friends get into trouble with the cops,” Thornton said. “I would like to give people the tools to stay safe in those interactions.”

Although most of her teaching experience has taken place while at Oberlin, Thornton’s history with civil rights training started before her college years. During her gap year before college, Thornton was organizing in Montana in support of environmental sustainability. A group she was working for put together a tar sands resistance conference, including a “Knowing Your Rights” training to promote protestor and activist safety.

“I had been to a couple of the ‘Knowing Your Rights’ trainings and thought that they were really important,” Thornton said. “Since then, I have been more and more interested in the ways in which our policy system is abused.”

Originally, Thornton taught activitists at Oberlin who participated in protests where arrests or detainments often occur. Over the past year, Thornton conceptualized the ExCo and lecture series in hopes of widening her audience.

“I wanted to open it up to a more general training for people, including those who are not choosing to put themselves in situations in which they’re harassed,” Thornton said. “People who are affected every day based on the activities they’re involved in, their habits, their appearance, their race, their presentation.”

Thornton’s ExCo is a practical overview of the United States’ legal system. Over the course of the semester, the class reviews how courts function, the history of policing and privileges and misuses of the system.

“The training is not based on the assumption that all police officers are inherently bad,” Thornton said. “But it is based on the fact that there are a lot of instances of violence and malignance.”

To elaborate on her lessons, Thornton welcomes examples and insight from current activist movements. According to the syllabus, the ExCo will speak with the One Town Campaign, the Prison Justice Project and employees at the Trans Youth Support Network.

In tandem with the weekly class, Thornton gives public lectures. Focusing on “everyday and street scenarios,” the first lecture on Thursday, Feb. 21 educated participants on civilian rights when encountering a police officer in daily life.

“I learned to always say that I do not consent to searches,” said College junior Mirelle Thaler. “Also to stay calm … and not be influenced by what the cops are telling you.”

Although the main purpose of the classes and lectures is to “give people tools to be safer,” Thornton also seeks to educate about how privilege affects civilian-officer relations.

“To talk about the legal system and navigating encounters with the police without talking about different privileges is ineffective,” Thornton said.

Insisting that she is not an expert, Thornton welcomed questions and stories from the attendees at her first lecture.

“If she didn’t know something, she just said ‘I don’t know’, or ‘I’ll look it up and get back to you,’ ” College junior Paul Miller Gamble said. “Everyone was working within their own knowledge and experiences.”

Thornton has opened the ExCo and talks to all Oberlin community members. Although the current programming has been on campus, Thornton hopes to move the entire operation into a public location, “to truly not be just for students.”

Although the current programming has been on campus, Thornton hopes to move the entire operation into a public location, “to truly not be just for students” and to include “people who are not allowed to be on campus, or if they are on campus, are potentially going to be arrested [if they are in violation of a no trespass notice].”

Although this is the first semester these trainings have been formally offered, Thornton plans to continue and expand her project.

“Until the system is entirely turned on its head,” Thornton said. “I would like to give people the ability to stay as safe as possible.”