'Drum Roll': Former University of Michigan Marching Band member passionate about 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.

“It is literally our foundation and impacts everything—the energy we use, where and how we live, what resources we have access to. It was such a cool way to study the future of our cities as we face climate change through an energy and resource focus,” she says. “Every class changed the way I looked at the world around me – something I’ve also found in law school but in a very different sense.”

But although Thayer loved geology, especially fieldwork, 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.

“So I signed up for the LSAT, took it about a month later, applied to Wayne Law as I knew I wanted to be in Detroit, and decided to totally flip my career.”

Now a 2L, Thayer appreciates Wayne State University Law School’s size and location.

“I love Detroit, and I get to live in my favorite city with my partner while in school,” she says. “My day-to-day life, while hectic and filled with so much reading, is exactly what I’ve always wanted.  I love how the school is small enough I can get to know my peers and professors easily, which has allowed me to learn so much outside of the classroom.”

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, eventually moving into 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 past summer, Thayer interned remotely with the Detroit Justice Center, finding it fulfilling to work with organizations directly aligned with her own personal values.

“This was something I hadn’t experienced yet, but it impacts every day and every interaction. I knew we all had the same goals, I felt respected and valued, and I felt empowered,” she says. 

Her work mostly involved research 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.

As a Wayne Law research assistant, she worked with Professor Justin Long and a student team looking into a potential state constitutionalism case under the Michigan Constitution, focusing on how litigation could be used to improve public education.

“I learned a lot about the history of education in Michigan, the problems with our current state funding system, who is empowered to effect change, and what I want the future of our state education system to look like,” she says. “The team I worked with was incredible, and I feel I learned so much with every conversation and meeting.

“I’m taking Education Law with Professor Long now, and it’s a unique and important frame for examining our current government and social systems, and who has power and who does not, and why.”

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 some legal observing, and connected people to volunteer and activism 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.

“My role has just been to support, and mostly run the e-mail side of things. The more details I can help hold behind the scenes, the more our incredible membership can shine and change the world in really big ways.”

Thayer also is vice president of Community Outreach for the Women’s Law Caucus, organizing fund-raising and outreach events for members.

“I love everything about this group of incredible people,” she says. “Our role has really shifted in this COVID-19, Zoom world. We’ve tried to be a place of support and love for our members, and have tried to help the 1Ls get a real sense for the fun parts of law school.”

On November 8, 2L and Women’s Law Caucus member Lydia Munn will teach a virtual yoga class that will double as a fund-raiser for an organization that helps women in Detroit who are returning to their communities after incarceration.

A member of Law Review, Thayer finds particular satisfaction in editing citations.

“I enjoy using the bluebook because it’s tedious enough to take my mind off of whatever else I’m stressed about, and there is always a right answer. You never get a clear right answer in the law—nothing is black and white, it’s all just some version of gray—so I think my scientific brain likes that citations are not part of that gray area.”

She also is a participant in mock trial, noting it has been more fun and challenging than expected.

“I love being in the courtroom, I love having to argue about really technical rules of evidence, and I love when I have the jury’s attention and everything is on me to convince them of my side,” she says. “My partner, Abe Miller, is incredible and I think we complement each other really well. He’s great at seeing the big picture, which helps because I frequently find myself deep in the weeds. It’s a unique opportunity to get trial reps before we graduate, but in a low-stakes way because we don’t have a real clients freedom on the line. I really enjoyed evidence, and the rules are fun when they come to life during trial. 

“Besides being an invaluable experience with a truly impressive team, I feel like I’m improving every day with my oral advocacy, organization, and planning skills. Plus, I get to act like a lawyer with my friends – what could be better than that?”
The Hillsdale native finds the “Zoom School of Law” a challenge, working from her home in Northwest Goldberg, a Motor City neighborhood near New Center and Woodbridge.

“I live in Detroit so I’m not saving any commuter time, and screen and Zoom fatigue is a real problem,” she says. “I’m an extreme extrovert, so being so isolated has been specifically difficult for me. I think what I miss most was the learning that happened in the hallways and after class – my friends and I would clarify material we didn’t understand during class, talk to the professor, continue a debate from class. All of this helped me learn the material, and you don’t get as much of that in the pandemic. 

“I’m thankful for more time with my partner, Jeremy, though I think he wishes he had the house to himself sometimes. So far the best thing about the pandemic is that my cat Admiral Nugget and I are closer than ever.

“Jeremy is a First Lieutenant in the National Guard and works as a Physician Assistant in the Medical ICU at Henry Ford Hospital. He was my ‘high school sweetheart,’ and we’ve been together almost 11 years now.” 

The two enjoy backpacking and hiking, especially up north in the U.P. and out west. Thayer also is an avid knitter, and usually finishes a sweater or two each semester of law school.

“It helps me focus when I listen to lectures or need to unwind or control anxiety,” she says. “I’m also on several sand and indoor volleyball teams, and play several days a week almost year round.”

An alumna of Hillsdale High School where she was drum major of the small band, Thayer then became the second-ever female drum major of the Michigan Marching Band—and first in more than 15 years—an experience she likens to playing on a sports team.

“It was competitive, time-intensive, and collaborative. I learned a lot about pushing through my nerves in order to perform in front of crowds of over 110,000 people or teaching over 400 band members over the course of two weeks.

“I think that translates to the courtroom really well. I have a goal and I have a lot of complicated steps to reach it, and it really is a performance, but I know I’m capable because I’m in control of my own nerves.”

Her favorite part of the MMB was teaching as a rank leader in the Alto Sax section, then as drum major.

“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.

She adds the MMB is big on traditions—and the most important lesson she learned was when traditions are valuable and carry an organization toward its goals, and when it is okay to break those traditions for something better. 

“I think being the second female helped me learn that,” she says. “I think being in a leadership position of such a historic organization taught me how to productively question the way we do things – which helped me improve the MMB and helps me push back on the parts of legal culture that aren’t serving our best interest as lawyers or law students. Because I was able to stand in front of the MMB and Michigan community, with their support, as the second female ever in that space, I feel comfortable standing up in spaces where others voices are traditionally excluded.”




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