Patrick Dwanka John, an attorney with deep ties to Austin, made history last month, when he was sworn in by Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans as the first Black Christian president of the Decalogue Society of Lawyers.
Founded in 1934, the “Decalogue has supported Jewish lawyers and the legal community in Chicago and throughout Illinois,” according to its website.
The organization is one of the city’s ethnic bar associations, similar to groups like the Chinese American Bar Association of Greater Chicago, the Black Women Lawyers’ Association of Greater Chicago and the Hispanic Lawyers Association of Illinois. But unlike those associations and in what may likely be a first in Chicago’s legal history, the Decalogue has at its helm an attorney who is not from the ethnic group that the organization was founded to represent, John said during a Zoom press conference on July 2.
John’s swearing-in comes as racial tensions between various ethnic groups across the country have heightened, particularly in the wake of the death of George Floyd in May. During Thursday’s press conference, John offered a glimpse into how his time as an attorney in Austin will inform his 1-year tenure as Decalogue president.
“I lived in Austin for about five or six years and when I moved there, I started volunteering for community organizations,” John said last week. “One of the things I volunteered for was a program where attorneys would volunteer their time to represent people in police stations and only in police stations. You don’t represent beyond that, because most false confessions that people make are done in police stations within the first 72 hours of a suspect being taken into custody.
“I’ll never forget one night, it was about 10 p.m., and I and another Black lawyer show up and we say, ‘We’re here to see Mr. X, because his family told us you have him in custody and we do not want you to continue to question him and we’d like to see him,'” John recalled. “Two detectives come out—one older and one younger—and the younger detective starts doing most of the talking. He says, ‘Yes, we have your client back here and if you want to go see him, that’s fine, but first he needs to answer some more of our questions.’
“Me and the lawyer look at each other in shock and disbelieve that a police officer would tell us, when being instructed to stop questioning our client, that we could only see our client when he’s done questioning him some more,” John said, adding that after a heated confrontation, the older detective apologized and eventually let the attorneys see their client. The moment, however, stuck with John.
“I couldn’t help but think to myself, if two attorneys in suits with IDs in the lobby of a police station are treated so dismissively, and in a public space, then oh my God what is happening in the back to those suspects? What is happening in the back to those suspects?”
John got choked up as he described his conversations with Black police officers in Chicago, who recounted to him the racism that follows them once they remove their uniforms.
“The same racist cop that puts a knee on George Floyd would also engage in racism against his fellow officers,” John said, before sharing what those officers told him may be the most effective way to confront police abuses, such as false confessions and the planting of evidence.
“They said if you could find a way to change the residency requirement, so that cops don’t just have to live in the city but live in the police district in which they work, they told me unanimously that we would see police brutality end practically overnight, because those officers would know that everybody knows where they and their families live,” John said.
John, 51, emigrated to the United States from Guyana, South America when he was four years old, still attends the Rock of Our Salvation Church, 5628 W. Washington Blvd. in Austin.
He said that he got involved with the Decalogue not long after he graduated from law school. John said he’d attend the organization’s free Continuing Legal Education courses.
“These were the best CLEs ever,” John recalled last week. “I said, ‘These guys are so smart, I’ve got to join them.”
Helen Bloch, John’s immediate predecessor as president, also lauded the Decalogue’s legal training, mentoring and professional connections, which she credited with her rise in Chicago’s legal industry.
“If it weren’t for the relationships that I met through Decalogue, I would not be in the position that I am in today,” Bloch said on June 25 at the society’s Zoom meeting that included John’s installation as president.
John said his first attempt to join the society was rejected, because he wasn’t Jewish. When membership opened to non-Jews five years ago, however, he jumped at the chance and quickly rose through the organization’s ranks.
John, who writes regularly on racism and anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel, said that he
“When I first started coming to Decalogue events, I was easy to spot,” he said, explaining that people would sometimes ask what made a Black Christian want to join a Jewish organization.
“I would say, ‘Well, you know, Jesus was Jewish, so I’m in pretty good company here,” he said. “One of the things that shocks me in terms of bringing Blacks and Jews, in particular, Christians and Jews, in general, together and in fighting anti-Semitism, at least as far as Christianity is concerned, is that the number of Christians who are simply surprised to learn that Jesus is Jewish is quite astounding.
“Joining the Decalogue Society for me has been such an eye-opener in terms of how much anti-Semitism there is,” John said. “I had no idea how much anti-Semitism there is, how deep it is, how interwoven it is, how institutional it is in the church. I feel like one of those white people on TV who says, ‘I thought all my friends and family were open-minded until I started dating a Black guy and now all of a sudden I found out all the racists … After I joined Decalogue, I really understood the depths of the anti-Semitism.”
John said he hopes to broker more honest conversations between Jews and Christians in the coming months, starting with his West Side church.
“In all my years of going to church, I have never heard a sermon that said, ‘This is what Jesus said about intolerance, because there are some instances in the Gospel where he deals with that,” John said, adding that after speaking with his pastor, that could change soon.