Jasleen Kohli estimates that she’s attended more than 100 protests, but until 2013 she couldn’t get arrested in this town. As a lawyer, she often was called on to witness demonstrations and spring her fellow activists from jail. The act of civil disobedience that finally landed her in the slammer was a 2014 rally in which demonstrators closed Cesar Chavez Boulevard during evening rush hour to protest the opening of the Chinatown Walmart. In all the images of her getting arrested, Kohli is smiling. “What you can’t experience from looking at a photo,” she says, “are all the people around you, chanting. It’s really powerful to put your body on the line.”
These days, as director of UCLA law school’s Critical Race Studies program, Kohli trains students to scrutinize the role of race in the justice system. She discovered her passion for social justice early. Born in Lucknow in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, she came to the U.S. as a baby with her parents. The family settled in Northern California, then relocated to Northridge when she was 9.
“My family is Sikh,” she says. “My dad wears a turban. I remember as a kid hating places where there were a lot of tourists. I would hate going to Disneyland because I knew at some point someone would point and laugh at my dad or brother and say something horribly racist, and we would just have to ignore it.” During the Gulf War, the family car’s tires were slashed and eggs were thrown at their house, bolstering her activism: “It wasn’t just about feeling angry because of what happened to my family. It was about connecting that to a larger history of oppression and injustice.”
After studying literature at UC Berkeley, Kohli made a rough transition to Harvard Law School. Partly it was the culture, partly the pedagogy. “The way that the law is taught, it becomes very theoretical,” Kohli says. “It’s easy to forget that the law has very real, possibly fatal impacts on people.”
Mentored by Lani Guinier, Bill Clinton’s short-lived nominee for assistant attorney general for civil rights, Kohli gravitated toward economic justice issues. “Think about jobs, housing, education — a lot of it comes down to different access to resources. The way those resources are allocated comes from a history of racism and institutional privilege.”
After graduating, Kohli worked at a labor law firm and then became the first staff attorney at Unite Here 11, a hospitality workers union. She later was a policy analyst at LAANE, an organization that promotes sustainable economic development.
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“As lawyers, we can’t stand idly by if we’re witnessing injustices and inequalities in the legal system we’re sworn to uphold,” she says.
After the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Kohli helped organize a “die-in” of more than 100 lawyers on the steps of downtown’s Stanley Mosk Courthouse in December.
Kohli does her best to unwind from the intensity of her job. She hikes, takes Bollywood dance classes and spends time at the South Pasadena clothing store named after her (it’s owned by her mom). “When I was younger, I remember feeling really pissed off all the time. I asked a friend, ‘How are you not always angry?’ She said, ‘We can’t do the type of work that we do without an underlying love of humanity.’”