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Civil Rights Attorney Who Repped Tupac and Rodney King is Still Defending Black Lives Today

Photo: Burris, Nisenbaum, Curry & Lacy

Back in the day, civil rights attorney John Burris litigated for Tupac Shakur when the late rapper sued the Oakland Police Department. Two officers stopped him for jaywalking and mocked his name, which in turn infuriated the West Coast hip-hop star.

“Tupac was a difficult guy to handle because he didn’t follow directions well,” Burris said to the Associated Press.

Burris was also the attorney of the late Rodney King in the 90s, though King’s first choice was Johnnie Cochran, who of course represented O.J. Simpson in the trial of the century.

Burris said he remembers King as a regular person who couldn’t handle the media frenzy that would depict him in a negative light.

“He never got to the point of being able to handle being Rodney King,” Burris said. “He wanted to be Glen.”

Still, Burris was able to help King win a civil jury verdict that awarded the victim $3.8 million.

But Burris, 77, who still is going strong today, didn’t get into being a civil rights attorney to be a star. He did it for the everyday person.

He became the go-to lawyer for Northern California families that grieved for a loved one killed by police.

For the last 50 years, Burris questioned narratives that didn’t make any sense, particularly those of police brutality. The civil rights attorney said he has represented more than 1,000 victims of police misconduct, mainly in California, though elsewhere as well.

To this day, Burris travels with clients at news conferences to continue his work of saving those done wrong by the police. And, he said, what helps him even more so today than in years past are cellphones that can record video.

How did this all start?

Growing up in Vallejo in a two-parent household in which his father worked in a naval shipyard and his mother as a psychiatric nurse technician, Burris was an avid reader of the Civil Rights era. And a speech class at Solano Community College showed him that folks took note of what he had to say.

He would go on to graduate with advanced degrees in business and law from the University of California and Berkeley.

Upon graduation, it still bothered him that proud Black men he admired were held back because of the color of their skin. It hurt him that the police continually beat and belittled Black fathers in the presence of their children.

Police didn’t have to do certain things,” Burris said. “I could see how Black men were treated in the criminal justice system. I understood it was the destruction of the African-American family that was taking place.”

Because of his burning desire to stop this evil, Burris now has clients crowding into a small waiting area of his law firm before being ushered into a conference room with alluring views of Oakland.

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