'Drum roll': Former U-M Band member focuses on civil rights

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By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

After discovering earth sciences during a University of Michigan “Intro to Geology” lab, McKenna Thayer had found her undergrad major But although she loved geology, her real passion is people.

“I was growing tired of reading the news about so many injustices with our criminal system, and I felt like I was on the sidelines,” she says. “One day it just kind of hit me—actually, while I was listening to a very tedious legal podcast—that there was no reason I couldn’t go to law school and become a lawyer. I didn’t know any lawyers, but I couldn’t come up with any reason I couldn’t be one.”

A 2L at Wayne Law School, Thayer’s passion is criminal defense and civil rights—“Because of the advocacy lawyers get to practice for people who have been oppressed by every system they come into contact with,” she says. 

“I think the fact I could improve people’s lives and break down oppressive systems, all while working with people and following the community’s lead is what I’m looking forward to most.”

Her career goal is to become a public defender, and a role where she can focus on abolition work through policy and advocacy. “A lot of people say the criminal system is broken – when you look at mass incarceration, the school-to-prison pipeline, cash bail, and all of the other aspects of our criminal system it’s easy to see,” she says. “But it’s worse than that – the system isn’t broken, it is working as it was designed to. Our current system of policing and jails/prisons is a system of white supremacy.

“I came to law school to be an advocate against systems of oppression, systems of white supremacy, so it feels like the only clear path for me is in liberation and abolition. Because of my own privilege I benefit from the systematic oppression, so I have a personal responsibility to push back and change that system. When a system is broken to its core, when it is founded in principles of white supremacy, the only thing to do is abolish it and start over.

“I think realistically this will be in public defense work because I love to be in a courtroom and love working with clients directly. Wherever I end up, both in my daily work and in my free time, I will be working with organizations that are focusing on movement lawyering, abolition, and liberation.” 

This summer, Thayer interned remotely with the Detroit Justice Cente,  researching on future potential litigation strategies and supporting DJC in a case against the Wayne County Jail. She worked with some National Lawyers Guild attorneys and visited jails to help ensure people incarcerated were protected during the pandemic. “I also got to work with an organization that was supporting the Black Lives Matter protests and movement downtown, which was so lucky since I only got this position because of COVID,” she says.

 Thayer is secretary on the National Lawyers Guild that she describes as “a radical organization fighting for human rights over property interests.” She has done  legal observing, and connected people to volunteer opportunities.

“This summer has been especially exciting as the Black Lives Matter Movement has been more visible in Detroit—it’s always been here, but this summer brought unique attention after the murder of countless Black people at the hands of police, but especially George Floyd and Breonna Taylor,” she says.  “I’ve learned the movement doesn’t live if we don’t share the work, so I’ve been connecting members with ways they can get involved,” she says. “We have students volunteering and supporting both the criminal defense of protesters and the civil case being brought by protesters against the City and Detroit Police Department, we have students fighting for food justice on campus and for divestment from food systems that take advantage of prisoners, we have students fighting for liberation and abolition, we have students actively involved in the campaigns of several local and national political leaders, and we have people who are working hard to bring the principles of people over property rights to Wayne Law.

Thayer also is Vice President of Community Outreach for the Women’s Law Caucus, a member of Law Review, and  a participant in mock trial.

Thayer was the second-ever female drum major of the Michigan Marching Band. “It was competitive, time-intensive, and collaborative.“I think the most important thing I took away from the MMB was how to be competitive with the peers you care a lot about – that’s law school in a nutshell,” she says.



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