For ArchCity Defenders' New Director, Blake Strode, Home Is Where the Injustice Was

For Blake Strode, a post-law school fellowship turned into a chance to helm St. Louis' scrappiest law firm.
For Blake Strode, a post-law school fellowship turned into a chance to helm St. Louis' scrappiest law firm. KELLY GLUECK

In 2013, more than a year before their scrappy law firm catapulted to national prominence, Thomas Harvey and Michael-John Voss finally sat down to hash out the future of ArchCity Defenders. The two attorneys were in agreement. To really make a difference, the firm would have to grow. And, when it did, they shouldn't be the ones to lead it.

They had scribbled out the idea for the nonprofit firm on a napkin as law students at Saint Louis University, and, along with their classmate John McAnnar, they kept the idea alive even after graduating in 2009. They were idealistic. They were also angry.

From their earliest assignments as interns assisting on criminal defense cases, the trio had become increasingly distraught at the patterns they saw. Whether in the city or county court systems, their clients were overwhelmingly poor and black, with circumstances placing them outside the help of the state's overworked public defender system. These were not hardened criminals, but regular people living one interaction with police away — one traffic stop away — from being arrested on "failure to appear" violations for missing previous court dates. And once in law enforcement's grasp, they were being jailed by the thousands, destroying families and weakening communities, merely because they couldn't afford to pay fines and bail fees.

Of course, the three were not the first law school students to take a hard look at the criminal justice system and see endless lines of impoverished minorities staring back. But where others move on to cushy corporate jobs and stable salaries, the trio set to embodying ArchCity Defenders' mission statement with fervor — "Combating the criminalization of poverty and state violence against poor people and people of color."

The mission was far too big for three lawyers (even with a collection of interns and volunteers offering assists). That much was obvious in 2013. But the prospect of expanding the organization wasn't just about raising funds or hiring attorneys. In the minds of its founders, it also meant finding someone to take the reins, someone who'd lived the battles they were fighting.

"If we're going to be ... a racial justice organization, that's going to serve predominately low-income communities of color, we need to have leadership that's more reflective of the community we serve," Harvey remembers thinking at the time. All three founders are white. "If we are going to be true to our principles, that was something we needed to do."

The plan would have to wait: The next four years would find ArchCity on the front lines of court battles challenging everything from modern-day debtor's prisons to the indiscriminate use of tear gas.

With Harvey as executive director, the firm made its name in the wake of protests that rippled across the region in August 2014. The protests, sparked by the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, drew intense scrutiny to the sprawl of court systems in the 91 municipalities scattered across St. Louis County — their penny-ante harassment of minority residents providing a vivid backdrop to the mantra that "Black Lives Matter."

As the firm's stature increased, ArchCity Defenders went from being mostly a three-man show to an indispensable source for both activists and policymakers trying to fix St. Louis' criminal justice system. Word about its good works spread.

In Boston, that word reached a St. Louis native attending one of the most prestigious law schools in the world. His name was Blake Strode.

On September 25, 2014 — the same day that the Ferguson police chief delivered a stilted video apology to Michael Brown's family — the Harvard student emailed ArchCity. "He wanted to see if there was any way to return to St. Louis after he graduated," recalls Harvey.

On a recent weekday, sitting behind the desk in his fifth-floor office within the Christ Church Cathedral, Harvey clicks through his inbox, finally finding the old email. "He and I talked a little bit, and we started exploring ways to bring him here," Harvey says, noting, "We didn't have enough money to pay someone, certainly not a Harvard graduate."

Harvey can't help but smile at the improbability of it all. Strode — who has just been named the firm's incoming executive director, replacing Harvey — felt in some ways like the answer the co-founders had been looking for ever since they dreamed up their firm almost a decade ago. If anything, he was almost too good to be true.

"That wasn't what I was envisioning, having someone who was from St. Louis, went to Harvard and wanted to come back," says Harvey. "I don't think I ever could have imagined someone like Blake."

click to enlarge After founding ArchCity Defenders in 2009, Thomas Harvey (center) Michael-John Voss (right) set its aim on poverty and homelessness. - COURTESY OF ARCHCITY DEFENDERS
After founding ArchCity Defenders in 2009, Thomas Harvey (center) Michael-John Voss (right) set its aim on poverty and homelessness.

At the height of his career as a pro athlete, Blake Strode was around the 300th best tennis player in the world. He had twice taken a wild card spot in the U.S. Open by triumphing in free-for-all national playoffs that pitted him against other hopefuls across the country. But despite a mean forehand and speed, by late 2012 Strode found himself at a crossroads. He was clawing his way up the rankings, but not fast enough for his liking. In three years, his exploits as an athlete had earned him less than $60,000.

So Strode went with his backup plan: Harvard Law School.

"All my life I've had the dual track thing, school and tennis," says Strode, now 30, in an interview at ArchCity's offices.

The son of a minor league pitching coach (his dad, Lester Strode, is now the Cubs' bullpen coach) and an educator with University City's Parents as Teachers organization, Strode's childhood found him bouncing between various towns in St. Louis County before settling in Bridgeton, where he attended Pattonville High School. He then attended the University of Arkansas on a full academic scholarship. By the end of his collegiate athletic career, he'd been named an All-American. He also graduated magna cum laude with degrees in Spanish and international economics.

Growing up, Strode had idolized Arthur Ashe, and he dreamed of fighting his way up the ranks of the world's best tennis players. He threw himself into the professional circuit.

"It's a difficult sport to make a living in," Strode concedes. "There's no draft, there's no teams, and you're sort of on your own until you reach a certain point." He never reached that point.

"I didn't get to play all the slams. I didn't become the top ten in the world or anything like that, but it was still a fulfillment of one of my childhood dreams. I got to travel the world. I think I played on every continent except Asia."

Strode pauses, and flashes a grin.

"And Antarctica," he says in a soft-spoken deadpan. "Obviously, there is no tennis in Antarctica."

Strode's lanky frame shares the couch with a throw pillow — given as a gift to the firm by a grateful client — which is printed with the cover from a 2014 issue of Riverfront Times, an illustration showing the firm's three founders as masked comic book superheroes leaping to pummel a cartoonishly evil judge. At the time it was published, Strode was two years into his studies at Harvard, having finally accepted the admission he twice deferred while pursuing his athletic dreams.

"I loved tennis," he stresses. "I loved all the challenges of it. But there was this other part of me that I wasn't attending to."

In his last year in law school, Strode was leaning toward taking a policy-oriented position in Washington. Then Ferguson officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown.

Amid the chants for justice for Brown's death — which a grand jury would ultimately decide didn't warrant criminal charges — was a consistent thread of complaints about the way that local police departments squeezed fines from poor black residents. And even more disturbingly, behind those departments were municipal governments that survived by generating 20, 30 or even 50 percent of their revenue from those fines and fees.

"I was sort of watching everything unfold from a thousand miles away," Strode recalls. "A friend of mine sent me this Radley Balko piece, and he said, 'Have you heard about this ArchCity Defenders place?'"

The piece, written by Washington Post columnist Radley Balko, was titled "How municipalities in St. Louis County, Mo., profit from poverty." About 14,000 words long, it featured the three founders of ArchCity Defenders in what amounted to starring roles. Here were attorneys actually helping people trapped in unconstitutional court practices that set bail without hearings to determine whether detainees had the ability to pay it.

After reading the story, Strode emailed Harvey. "It all happened very quickly," he says.

Within two weeks of their first email, at Harvey's suggestion, Strode applied for a Skadden Fellowship, a sort of "legal Peace Corps" funded by a giant national law firm. Each year, two Skadden fellowships are awarded to recent law school grads, each lasting two years. The fellowships pay for them to work pretty much anywhere they want. Strode decided he wanted to work for Harvey in St. Louis.

The fellowship pays each attorney for two years at a $50,000 annual salary — or roughly $100,000 less than what Strode's classmates were earning at corporate firms.

"There's a point at which people tend to choose a private firm path or the public path," Strode says. "I decided fairly early on in my law school career that I was firmly rooted in the public interest camp. I didn't do any 'Big Law' interviews during the time I was in law school; that was not the path I was going to take."

The year 2014 brought in around 200 applications for the fellowship, about 30 from Harvard alone. As with the U.S. Open playoffs, though, tough odds turned in Strode's favor. He took one of the two coveted spots.

And so after graduating Harvard in 2015, Strode moved back to St. Louis to start at ArchCity Defenders in September. By then, the firm was embroiled in its biggest case to date — a class action lawsuit accusing the north-county municipality of Jennings of running an unconstitutional debtor's prison.

Strode, all of 29 years old, was thrown into the lawsuit with veteran civil rights attorney Stephen Ryals. It didn't take long for him to start turning heads. Over the next year, Strode went from learning the ropes of federal litigation to sitting at the negotiating table, hammering out settlement terms on monetary damages for hundreds of clients.

To Harvey and others' joyful astonishment, Strode, Ryals and attorneys from two other legal clinics made it work. A judge signed off on the terms, and ArchCity Defenders emerged from the negotiations with a $4.7 million settlement.

click to enlarge Strode's public role has seen him co-moderating debates with activist Kayla Reed, an example of the firm's "non-legal advocacy." - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
Strode's public role has seen him co-moderating debates with activist Kayla Reed, an example of the firm's "non-legal advocacy."

Talk to the lawyers who've worked with Blake Strode, and you'll start hearing the word "brilliant" a lot.

"He's got a brilliant mind," says Michael-John Voss, who notes that Strode didn't get much of a grace period while going from law school student to Skadden Fellow to full-time staff attorney.

"At first, he was spending like 80 hours a week to catch up on the backlog," Voss remembers. "There were 200 documents filed in the Ferguson debtors' prison case alone. It was impressive. There were over 30 civil rights cases, and he naturally fell into the role of managing them."

SLU law professor Brendan Roediger had first met Voss and Harvey when the co-founders were still in law school. He's watched the firm expand into the plucky, punchy voice for the underdogs around St. Louis.

"I was initially mad when I met Blake," Roediger jokes, "because I thought I was the best lawyer-tennis player."

Like Voss, Roediger was initially impressed by how quickly Strode tore through the backlog of pending cases. The two attorneys eventually worked together on the Jennings settlement, which produced $1.2 million in legal feels to be split between ArchCity, SLU's legal clinic and a third legal aid group, Equal Justice Under Law. The remaining $3.5 million pot was directed to around 500 people whom Jennings had jailed over unpaid fines and fees, providing about $1,500 for each day the detainees spent behind bars. In a separate settlement, Jennings also agreed to alter its court policies for how it would enforce fee collections in the future.

"He litigates like he's been litigating for a decade," Roediger says of Strode. "It's a combination of analytics and confidence. He wins like he's won before, and loses like he's lost before."

To Strode, the first year on the job was like "drinking from a fire hose."

"I was learning, in practical sense, how to practice law," he says. "I was engaging with our clients for the first time and doing a lot of intakes, getting a lot of client narratives and translating those into pleadings. And then the Jennings settlement became a model for us on what we seek to achieve out of the debtor's prison litigation."

It was a lot to juggle. And while Strode dove into the deep waters of litigation — simultaneously representing indigent clients in municipal courts around St. Louis County — he started building connections with local activists, particularly with the St. Louis Action Council, a coalition of protesters, activist groups and established social justice organizations.

In a more traditional law firm, Strode might have been encouraged to keep his battles in the courtroom.

"One thing I appreciate so much, and something that is so unique about ArchCity Defenders, is that it's just not the way things work in most legal organizations," he says. "I'm a big believer that all of the problems that we face, including the legal problems, are really at their core political problems. I don't want to speak for anyone else, but I think that the way ArchCity Defenders engages in advocacy is a reflection and part of that belief."

On June 16, 2016, Strode got the chance to speak directly to the political side of the problem — not as a candidate, but as co-moderator of an unprecedented series of debates organized by ArchCity Defenders and local activist groups. Strode was joined by Kayla Reed, a Ferguson protester and community activist, and the two grilled candidates for both the Circuit Attorney's Office and St. Louis mayor. Their questions were intentionally framed around the aftermath of Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement.

After their debate experiences, Reed and Strode, activist and attorney, started meeting up at Mission Taco Joint every few weeks, passing ideas back and forth on the state of St. Louis. Last year, Reed joined the board of ArchCity Defenders, and it wasn't long before Harvey confided that he was planning on leaving the firm to help create a national bail-fund organization. Harvey hinted to Reed that while the firm was willing to conduct a national search for its next director, he was also considering a certain former tennis pro on staff.

Reed held her tongue, though she says she tried to plant the idea in Strode's head that he should be the one to take over for Harvey.

"I think Blake has earned this right to lead ArchCity Defenders," she says. "I remember, after I learned that his fellowship was only for two years, that every time I saw him I would say, 'This is why you can't leave, this is why you can't leave, et cetera.' And then one day he just kind of said, 'I'm not leaving, that's not going to happen.'"

click to enlarge ArchCity's latest class-action lawsuit targets the City Workhouse. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
ArchCity's latest class-action lawsuit targets the City Workhouse.

In early November, Strode stands on the wine-colored rug beneath the vaulted ceilings of what used to be a sanctuary on the second floor of Christ Church Cathedral. Behind him, arranged in a semi-circle, Voss, staff attorneys and the plaintiffs in the firm's latest class action lawsuit face reporters who have gathered for a press conference.

At a podium, Strode announces that the firm has just filed a class action lawsuit against city of St. Louis over the "unspeakably hellish and inhumane conditions" at its Medium Security Institution — better known as the Workhouse.

"Detainees in the Workhouse are subjected to conditions that include infestations, extreme temperatures, overflowing sewage and more," Strode says, adding that the vast majority of inmates at the Workhouse aren't yet convicted of a crime. The plaintiffs in the suit allege they lived in sub-human conditions, with dozens sharing toilet and shower facilities and breathing in mold and waste.

One man detained over the summer said that Workhouse guards and staff were well aware of the filth and mold, and that kitchen workers told him, "If you see the mice feces, just scrape them off."

The latest lawsuit follows the strategy ArchCity Defenders has been refining for years. The strategy doesn't begin with the idea for a lucrative class action lawsuit, but with individual clients, regular people in need. In Jennings, those clients were being jailed for bench warrants and shaken down for traffic ticket revenue. For the Workhouse case, the firm's attorneys found clients as they attempted to bail out inmates during the heat wave last summer that pushed temperatures inside the facility to 125 degrees.

Thomas Harvey, though, is not standing with the attorneys and plaintiffs behind Strode. Casual in a cozy gray cardigan, he's sitting in the final row of seats, watching the next executive director of ArchCity Defenders command the room.

The past year has seen Harvey focusing his efforts on the cash bail system. For many defendants, being held on a $500 or $1,000 bond presents little obstacle to freedom. If they don't have the cash, surely they know people who can pool the funds together.

But that's not the case for those mired in true poverty. They don't have the cash or the connections.

Back at his office, Harvey weighs in on the subject with palpable frustration.

"There was a time when we took the idea of liberty and not throwing human beings in cages seriously enough that the presumption was, whoever is charged with a crime, they be brought before the court, told what they're going to be charged with, told what their charges were, and released on a promise to come back on the day of court," he says, tapping the table for emphasis. "It's very hard for even lawyers to remember that in the American legal system, the presumption is no bail."

click to enlarge Thomas Harvey, the outgoing executive director of ArchCity Defenders, is moving to California to start a bail fund. - CHUCK RAMSAY/ARCHCITY DEFENDERS
Thomas Harvey, the outgoing executive director of ArchCity Defenders, is moving to California to start a bail fund.

In the city of St. Louis alone, more than 1,000 people are in jail because they don't have money for bail. Across the country, that number is as high as 450,000, says Harvey. He wants to reach as many of them as possible, and in January he's going to do so as the new national director of strategic relationships and advocacy for the Bail Project.

It's a massive step up in terms of scale. While ArchCity Defenders has mobilized bailout campaigns in St. Louis — this year, the firm raised $40,000, enough to free 25 people from the Workhouse and the city's Justice Center — Harvey has his sights set far, far higher.

Modeled on the Bronx Freedom Fund, which has been running in New York City for more than a decade, the Bail Project will use a $16 million fund to bail out a projected 160,000 people in the next five years. The money will be "recycled" as the cases are adjudicated and the bail amounts returned to the organization, and individual community funds will be set up in 40 jurisdictions, including St. Louis.

Leaving St. Louis is both a bitter departure and a sweet reunion for Harvey. He met his wife at the University of Missouri while he was studying for his master's in French literature. She was studying Spanish. Academic careers being what they are, the couple found themselves flung to different parts of the country, and they've essentially lived a long-distance marriage since 2007. He'll be moving to Los Angeles, where she is a Spanish professor at California Lutheran University.

His exit, though expected by his cohorts at ArchCity Defenders, still hurts. (Both Kayla Reed and Director of Advocacy Jacki Langum offered virtually the exact same commentary: "We're grieving.")

This will be the second departure for an ArchCity Defenders founder, as John McAnnar left St. Louis in 2015 to become general counsel for the temp agency run by his father in South Carolina.

Under Harvey, the staff has swelled in the past three years. Donations and grants poured in after Ferguson, increasing revenue from around $80,000 in 2013 to just under $800,000 one year later. Harvey was able to hire more lawyers; ArchCity now has nineteen full-time employees, who are supported by dedicated volunteers and a rotating cast of interns hailing from all corners of the country.

While continuing to deploy attorneys on criminal defense cases, ArchCity Defenders is ramping up its civil rights work. The firm filed six civil rights suits in 2017 alone, bringing the number of such cases that are pending to nineteen, among them a massive class action suit against thirteen county municipalities. The cases — Harvey's legacy as director — will fall to Strode and Voss when Harvey formally steps down on January 1.

With Harvey gone, Voss will become the sole remaining founding member of ArchCity Defenders — the last of the original superheroes who graced the RFT cover in 2014, back when the firm was little more than three lawyers with meager experience and lots of guts.

"It's a personal loss to me," Voss says of Harvey's move. He still vividly remembers sitting down with Harvey at Cafe Ventana, the two law school students tossing around ideas for a project that seemed beyond their abilities and resources, but felt like the right thing to do.

That mission — fighting for the poor, the overlooked, the exploited — will continue. Voss will make sure of that. And, yes, Strode will make sure of that too. St. Louis has plenty of room for new heroes.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly described the Christ Church Cathedral as decommissioned. We regret the error.
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