Across the nation, countless protests have occurred with the slogan, “Black Lives Matter.” At one level, it is fascinating to watch how widely it has spread.
A recent example was earlier this week, in San Francisco, where 200 public defenders held a “hands up, don’t shoot” protest on the steps of San Francisco’s criminal courthouse to “show support for racial justice and stand in solidarity with protesters in New York, Ferguson and around the country.”
“There are few organizations in the United States that have closer ties to the black and brown members of our society than the public defender offices through the nation,” said Deputy Public Defender Chris Hite, co-chair of the Racial Justice Committee. “We felt it was essential to cast a light upon the racial injustices of the black and brown in our communities and to celebrate the notion that black and brown lives matter.”
San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi called for accountability on behalf of victims of racial profiling and police brutality.
“As public defenders, it our responsibility to ensure that there is justice for all in the courts,” Adachi said. “We are here to say that our criminal justice system has no credibility when it fails to hold police officers accountable for the killing of black and brown people.”
At the same time, there are a couple of strands of counter-response that have emerged. The first one is the response line I have seen by mainly conservatives – “All Lives Matter,” or the variant, “Police Lives Matter.”
While there is a risk of taking slogans seriously (and that goes both ways here, for sure), I think the response line misses some critical points. First, by stating “Black Lives Matter” it does not mean nor imply that other lives do not matter, but rather that many believe that, in the system, black lives have been undervalued.
There was long a problem in that police would not investigate crimes against black people. We can cite notable cases from the south, whether it was the deaths of Medgar Evers, Emmett Till, or the three civil rights workers killed in Mississippi, among countless others who did not gain justice in the court system during their time.
The reality is that, for a long time, black victims did not get equal justice in this country. With few exceptions, that seems to have disappeared, but the perception persists.
Part of the reason why in 1987 Al Sharpton defended Tawana Brawley — who accused six white men of raping her — even after it was clear to most people that she had fabricated the story was this perception and distrust of authority. It is also worth noting that Mr. Sharpton turned out to be correct with regard to the Central Park Five in 1989 — they were falsely accused of rape.
What I think we need to focus on here gets back to the point I raised way back in November when the riots broke out in Ferguson following the grand jury decision not to indict the officers – trust. Trust in the system has to be built, and until we can rebuilt trust by large segments of the public in the system, these incidents will continue to rekindle dormant tensions that have always existed below the surface.
The second point that gets raised in response to “Black Lives Matter” is why are we focusing on police shootings of blacks — that we should be focusing on black on black violence, or poverty, or mass incarceration, or far bigger problems.
I actually think that is a more fair point than perhaps some have given it credit for being.
The first answer goes to the trust issue – police officers operate under the color of authority. They represent the legitimate authority of government and the power of government to enforce laws. If you do not trust the government, if you believe that laws are unjust or applied in an unjust matter or that law enforcement discriminates against one group of people, then incidents such as these again expose the raw underbelly of society.
A police officer killing an unarmed black man once against brings up all of the unresolved societal issues that have come rushing to the surface. That leads to my second point answer as to why the focus on this, and that is the most simple and most basic answer – it is the instant-issue at hand. We focus in society on what is in front of us, and this is in front of us.
With that said, my hope is that this movement can re-focus us on the issue of mass incarceration.
I think part of the problem we face dealing with this issue at hand is that the problem we face is multifaceted and it is deeply entrenched. It is not going to be easily solved.
So here is what I have come up with so far. First, blacks are disproportionately arrested for crimes, charged with crimes, convicted of crimes, and disproportionately serve sentences for crimes.
However, the complex data analysis that I have read, and I will spare you the details of at this time, is that the reason for all of these facts is that blacks disproportionately commit more crimes than whites. So this factor alone is not by itself a sign of racial prejudice in the system.
The one area where there appears to be racial prejudice is that blacks, for the same crimes with the same priors, receive longer sentences than their white counterparts – probably on the order of 10 to 20 percent.
That is not an exoneration of the system, but rather it suggests that the problem lies elsewhere than with enforcement.
I still think the Michelle Alexander – writer of the New Jim Crow book – angle on mass incarceration is the right way to start thinking about this problem. The problem is that we have a system that is basically a trap, that once people get into the system, they can’t get out, and it cycles to the next generation.
The problem is that we have a cycle. A youth grows up in a home where the father is incarcerated. The youth’s family lives in a poor neighborhood. The schools are failing. The neighborhood is crime ridden. The family lacks the resources to leave. The mother in many cases is raising the children by herself – she may be struggling to hold jobs and put food on the table or she may be self-medicating herself.
Either way, moving forward, we have a cycle. This kind of upbringing is likely to bring about a second generation of crime. Once in the system, education stops, so you have kids without high school diplomas let alone college degrees. If you become incarcerated, the next generation’s kids grow up with absent fathers.
Once convicted of a felony, the individual is ineligible for various forms of public assistance, they have to check the felon box — making it unlikely that they get a quality job, and the cycle perpetuates itself.
One of the points that Michelle Alexander raises in her book is that we end up putting felony tags on people whose crimes are drug related or otherwise minor. That is part of what Prop. 47 attempts to deal with in California.
So yes, it is easy to say, the problem is absentee fathers. That is certainly a contributing factor, given the need for fathers for economic stability and guidance for the children. But when fathers are incarcerated, they are going to be absent. When fathers get into the system, they are unlikely to be able to make a decent living, finish school, etc.
Based on that, I do not think we can start the intervention at that stage. I think we have to start with moving people out of felony status for minor offenses, to put money and resources into education and job training, and we break the cycle by taking people who are about to enter the system and who are becoming parents at the same time, and intervene.
The question that I think should be raised is can we go from “Black Lives Matter” to having a discussion on mass incarceration and its impact on the poverty-dependency-crime cycle? If we can, then this movement can have an enormous impact.
We can focus on police practices and reforms to the legal system – and we need to. But to me, the bigger issue is the linkage between incarceration and poverty and figuring out ways to break out of that feedback loop.
—David M. Greenwald reporting