All the blackness that’s fit to print. And some that isn’t.
More than 50,000 people marched on the streets of New York City this past Saturday, December 13, to protest the two recent grand jury decisions—in Ferguson, Missouri, and in New York City—not to indict the police officers responsible for the deaths of 18-year-old Michael Brown and 43-year-old Eric Garner, both unarmed black men. The New York march was conceived and organized by Synead Nichols and Umaara Iynaas Elliott, two young performers, with support later coming from Million Hoodies Movement for Justice and Justice League NYC. Similar demonstrations took place in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and other cities across the country. Among the signs and chants that decorated the day, the words “Black Lives Matter” were perhaps the most popular. The simple but powerful slogan was created by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, and has moved from a Twitter hashtag to “movement project,” to borrow Garza’s phrase, that has “connected people across the country working to end the various forms of injustice impacting our people” and “created space for the celebration and humanization of Black lives.”
All that is a bit different from what unfolded in the nation’s capital that same day.
Rev. Al Sharpton and the National Action Network (NAN) called for a national march on Washington. They drew a crowd of about 10,000, but among those were some young people expressing anger toward Sharpton and his organization, suggesting that the event was co-opting their struggle for Sharpton’s own aggrandizement, diluting their message and drowning out the voices of the people who have faced down tanks, tear gas and rubber bullets in their efforts to get justice. The tension reached a tipping point when a group of activists, some who had been on the ground in Ferguson from the day Michael Brown was killed, took to the stage and demanded the microphone. Johnetta Elzie, one half of the duo responsible for the Ferguson e-mail newsletter that has kept its subscribers apprised of the latest in movement news, used the moment before the microphone was cut off to say: “This movement was started by the young people. We started this. It should be young people all over this stage. It should be young people all up here.” Sharpton told The Root there were young people invited to speak.
The day after all of these marches took place, reclusive soul singer D’Angelo released the long-awaited third album, Black Messiah. It’s quite a hefty title, particularly for a project fifteen years in the making. In explaining why he chose this title for this new album, D’Angelo wrote: “For me, the title is about all of us. It’s about the world. It’s about an idea we can aspire to. We should all aspire to be a Black Messiah….bIt’s not about praising one charismatic leader but celebrating thousands of them….’ Black Messiah’ is not one man. It’s a feeling that, collectively, we are all that leader.”
In order for us all to be leaders, though, we also need to know what role we play in the movement. I think this is what some of our elders are struggling with most.
Sharpton has been a constant presence in the streets and in the media for nearly thirty years now. There’s no denying that his work, however polarizing he or his persona have been, has kept the victims of police violence in our national consciousness when others would have turned away. But now, at 60 years old with a nationally syndicated radio show, an MSNBC primetime television program and a seat in President Obama’s unofficial cabinet, Sharpton’s days as an outside agitator are over. He is firmly part of the establishment. And being part of the establishment (and wanting to maintain that position) necessitates that you not advance an agenda aimed at radical change, lest you compromise your own privileges. Sharpton has become a leading voice or respectability politics, consistently admonishing black youth for their choices in music and clothing. And his position on police brutality is that the problem is a few bad apples, rather tha the racist and unjust nature of policing in the United States. If all we are left with is Sharpton to lead a grassroots movement from an establishment position, we march toward justice would move along at a pace that Toni Morrison’s “slow walk of trees” would find too stagnant.
But it isn’t all bad. We could use more insiders that understand and/or are sympathetic to the voices of outsiders. From his new position, Sharpton could be amplifying the voices of those young people fighting every day in this new movement, providing them a platform to be heard. The media attention that he once had to fight for he can now hand over to a new generation with relative ease. But he has to understand that he no longer defines the movement.
In saying that, I don’t mean to suggest that Sharpton, or any other leaders/activists/organizers of his generation, should have no say in the movement’s direction. Healthy dialogue, debate and critique from all sides are vital to any movement. But when you’re sucking up all the oxygen in the room, and not using your resources toward the most effective means, you have to ask yourself if you’re being more of a hindrance to progress.
This new movement is being led by mostly young black women who won’t allow us to forget that black women’s lives matter, too (Columbia University Law professor Kimberle Crenshaw was present with a large banner that featured the pictues and names of black women and girls also killed by police). It is drawing in diverse crowds, including white allies who are not calling for gradual change, but a total end to white supremacy. The people in the street have neck tattoos, are dressed in sagging skinny jeans, and curse loudly (among the more popular chants: “BACK UP, BACK UP, WE WANT FREEDOM, FREEDOM, ALL THESE RACIST ASS COPS, WE DON’T NEED ‘EM, NEED ‘EM!” and “WHO SHUT SHIT DOWN? WE SHUT SHIT DOWN!”). The movement doesn’t look or sound like anything our elders remember (or were taught) about the civil rights era. And that’s OK. We have a new fight. We have to create a new model of resistance.
Everyone has a role to play, and in order for a movement to be successful, everyone (young and old) must understand what that role is and not be afraid to shift into a new one when the time for that comes.
Read Next: “It’s 1963 All Over Again,” writes Dani McClain.
That a grand jury decided not to indict NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo for killing 43-year-old Eric Garner the same week that President Obama proposed spending $75 million in federal money to outfit 50,000 police officers across the country with body cameras would seem to be hack Hollywood writing with neatly applied plot points. Garner’s death was caught on video—video that the police were aware was being taken—and it still was not enough to indict anyone, least of all the man responsible for choking Garner to death, for any type of wrongdoing. It’s as if this decision was handed to us at this time in order to get us to say, “Now what?”
So… now what? We can move forward with this notion that police officers wearing body cameras will make them more judicious in their use of force, but it seems pretty clear that they just don’t give a fuck, and the court system is content to allow them to keep on not giving a fuck. And we’ll be right back here when they don’t indict the officer who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland.
So… now what? Not much, so long as the reverence paid to police officers lends itself to deference. They are not regarded as citizens also beholden to the law. They are an armed force charged with maintenance of a status quo steeped in white supremacy and anti-blackness. Key to the reign is the suspension of a belief in the rule of law. Whatever tools they require for to carry out their actual purpose, the public and the courts are eagerly ready to provide.
So… now what? Body cameras seem like a good idea when we think the issue is there isn’t enough evidence with which to hold police accountable. They’re a good idea if we think the issue is accountability. Other things get tossed around, like diversifying police forces (the NYPD is among the most diverse in the country). That sounds like a good idea if we think the problem is sensitivity or cultural miscommunication. We are thinking wrong.
We keep applying the language and framework of accountability, diversity and sensitivity to an issue of oppression. We are attempting to fly an airplane with the keys to a motorcycle. Our tools are woefully inadequate, and until we are ready to admit to ourselves that the police are an inherently oppressive force, and then use the language of anti-oppression and anti-racism in our analysis and solutions, it will not end today, as Eric Garner had hoped. The dead bodies of black folks will continue to line our streets and sidewalks, and they will be treated no better than the roadkill with whom they occupy those spaces.
Last night, at an event addressing racial profiling on the campus of Vassar College, a student told their administration that putting body cameras on security guards was like “Band-Aids to a bullet hole.” I was in attendance and was struck by just how literal that phrasing was. We are being choked and shot with impunity, and yet all that is being offered to us in response is a means to relive the experience over and over again. But we already do.
It has now been announced that Officer Darren Wilson will not be indicted on criminal charges for the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown. But the writing has been on the wall as well, and on the bodies of protesters who have demanded justice. No one I talked to while in Ferguson believed there would be an indictment. No one I spoke to could bring themselves to trust that the system that killed Michael Brown would care about his life now. All that I spoke to were prepared to continue this fight.
Because even if Wilson had been indicted, true justice would not have come to Ferguson, St. Louis, Missouri or America. It would have meant one cop being tried for the death of one black boy in one town. Wilson’s indictment would not have prevented the deaths of Kajeime Powell, Vonderrit Myers, Tanesha Anderson, Tamir Rice or Akai Gurley. Only a lasting justice that values black life is capable of that.
But what is justice in a nation built on white supremacy and the destruction of black bodies? That’s the question we have yet to answer. It’s the question that shakes us up and makes our insides uncomfortable. It’s the question that causes great unrest.
There is fear in that word, “unrest.” It’s become synonymous with violence. But it is unrest that put Michael Brown’s name into our consciousness, and it is unrest that his kept his memory alive. Unrest is the key to justice.
Protesters in Ferguson should not be calm, as they have been admonished by everyone from the president on down. Michael Brown doesn’t need calm. Black boys and girls who grow up in America need their lives to be respected. They need justice.
Read Next: Chase Madar on “Why It’s Impossible to Indict a Cop.”
Nearly every night in Ferguson, a group of protesters gathers in front of the police department demanding justice for Michael Brown. The size of the demonstration has varied, depending on people’s availability and on the weather conditions, but the dedication to protesting has remained consistent since Brown’s death.
In these days leading up to the announcement of whether a grand jury has indicted Darren Wilson for killing Brown, everyone is on edge. The uncertainty of when the decision will be released to the public, coupled with Missouri Governor Jay Nixon’s declaration of a state of emergency, has left plans for action up in the air and the quest for justice without answers. But the people still show up to police department.
The anxiety has only been exacerbated the last few nights in Ferguson, as those protests have been met by a show of force on the part of the Ferguson police department. The night I was there—Wednesday, November 19—there were no more than about forty protesters at any given moment, met with police presence of equal or greater number. Of course, the major difference was that the police stood armed, in riot gear, and the protesters had only their bullhorns, chants and emotion.
It remained relatively calm for a time. The police, lined up as if to block the passageway to the department doors, already unavailable to anyone because of the metal barricade, played a game of cat and mouse, advancing a few feet and backing protesters up, before retreating themselves. Things escalated when during one of their advances they arrested a young man who had shown up to livestream the event.
The police advanced further as the protesters took to the streets, directing traffic away from their action. Protestors ran to what they thought would be a safe space across the street, but a few weren’t lucky enough to make it. At least five people were arrested that night, mostly for unlawful assembly as well as resisting arrest.
Aside from the chanting, there was no provocation of the police on the part of the protesters. There was one instance of an object a being thrown, a water bottle, but other protesters quickly handled it: the person responsible, dressed in all black from head-to-toe, including a black mask that obscured their face, was run off of the protest site and heckled as an agitator who was putting the lives of the protesters at risk.
“If the media wasn’t out here, they’d have arrested us all,” one protester remarked.
A similar scene played out on Thursday evening, with the lesson here being that a militarized police force isn’t necessary to inflict terror. The police have proved themselves violent even without the use of tanks and tear gas. The people’s right to assemble peacefully won’t be protected. The Ferguson police department hasn’t taken any of the national or international criticism they have received to heart. And as the announcement of the decision on whether to indict Wilson dangles in some unknown future, the anxiety builds and takes an unknowable psychic toll on the most dedicated protesters.
But their resolve to see this through is strong.
Not for a second have I believed that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson would be indicted for killing 18-year-old Michael Brown. Not in the moments after hearing about the shooting, not during the four hours Brown’s body lay in the streets, not when the police attacked protesters in the first few weeks of demonstration, and not during the subsequent three months of organizing and rebellion. And with Missouri Governor Jay Nixon’s recent declaration of a state of emergency ahead of the imminent grand jury decision, I have even less reason to believe charges will be brought against Wilson, as the local governments and police forces appear to readying themselves for a strong reaction from activists. But I have every reason to believe this movement will not die.
People are scared. Residents of Ferguson are boarding up their businesses and stockpiling weapons, under the assumption that a non-indictment will lead to rioting and property destruction, on a level that surpasses the initial reaction to Brown’s killing back in August. The tension is thick enough to choke on, but it still pales in comparison to the looming threat of police violence faced by black people everyday across this country. This is why the protesters, activists and organizers who have emerged from this moment will not go away. They know they are disrupting the lives of citizens who never gave thought to the institutionalized violence young black people navigate, but that’s the point. And it will remain the point until something is done.
Indicting Darren Wilson is a start, but it is not the movement. There is the possibility that some who have been involved in these protests would move on in the (unlikely) event of an indictment, seeing that as the ultimate victory. Chicago-based prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba warns against this in a piece for In These Times:
To the young people who have taken to the streets across the country and are agitating for some ‘justice’ in this moment, I hope that you don’t invest too deeply in the Ferguson indictment decision. Don’t let a nonindictment crush your spirit and steal your hope. Hope is a discipline. And frankly, the actions you have and are taking inspire so many daily. On the other hand, a decision to indict Darren Wilson isn’t a victory for ‘justice’ or an end. As I’ve already said, an indictment won’t end police violence or prevent the death of another Mike Brown or Rekia Boyd or Dominique Franklin. We must organize with those most impacted by oppression while also making room for others who want to join the struggle too as comrades.
It’s certainly something these young people have come to understand, and they have used their newfound platforms to speak not just about the killing of Michael Brown but the daily atrocities of police harassment, sexual assault/rape, economic violence and political disenfranchisement.
That’s what Governor Nixon, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay (who is calling for 400 National Guard troops to be posted throughout St. Louis), Ferguson Mayor James Knowles, Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson, the Ku Klux Klan and so many others don’t understand. You can potentially squash an uprising in this moment, through intimidation and bloodshed. But the resolve of the people has held steady for three months, and these young people are becoming more aware of their history, just how long these battles must be fought, and are willing to risk their lives for their liberation.
Just last week, a group of eight young activists from the group We Charge Genocide traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, to testify before the United Nations’ Committee Against Torture about police violence in Chicago. During that same time, 37-year-old Tanesha Anderson of Cleveland, Ohio, was slammed to the ground and killed by police officers. As the movement grows, the police continue to provide reasons for why. It was never just about Michael Brown or Darren Wilson, Trayvon Martin on George Zimmerman. This has been, and will continue to be, about the protection of black life and the end of the police state. It is about the ability of young black people to move through the world unmolested by a repressive government. It is about bringing to fruition the promise of freedom that our ancestors fought for. It’s about America paying its debts.
Read Next: “Police Are the Problem”
Mid-term elections are supposed to be “turn out the vote” elections. Because voter turnout is so much lower than during presidential election years, the aim is not swaying a general mass of undecided voters. Rather, since most of the people who vote in midterms are assumed to be staunch ideologues, whichever side is able to get more of their ideologues to the polls will win. Here, Republicans have the advantage, because their base of ideologues is old white people. There is no history of voter discrimination or suppression among old white people. They are not a group that has systematically denied their rights without redress. They’ve had a pretty good go of it in these United States and find no issue participating in the sacred tradition of voting.
It’s a little different for Democrats. The Democratic Party has a assembled a ragtag coalition of the huddled masses shunned by the GOP. Among that group is young people—called “millennials” this time around—who are supposedly the most apathetic of all voting blocs. Each election cycle, a mix of guilt-tripping, shaming and celebrity-driven get-out-the-vote campaigns attempt to get young people to the polls. And each election cycle someone wonders, “Why don’t young people vote?”
But young people do vote. They vote at about the same rate in most midterm elections, with the 18-to-30-year-old vote making up around 13 percent of the total electorate. But it’s not the 19 percent that Obama brought in during his presidential runs, and therein lies the problem for Democrats. They believed they had an energized new base that they would be able to turn out even in off years, one that would sway elections in the forseeable future. Twenty fourteen was a huge disappointment for them. And now the “Why don’t young people vote?” questions have begun.
If I had the answer for what would have gotten millennials to vote in midterm elections, I wouldn’t be writing for The Nation; instead, I’d be charging exorbitant amounts of money in consulting fees to both major political parties. Besides, what I do have to say is hardly novel. It’s a message Democrats don’t seem to want to hear, but it remains true nonetheless: If you want voters to show up to the polls, you have to give them something to vote for.
Particularly millennials. Democrats have to understand that the coveted millennial vote comes at a greater price than “the other side is horrible.” That’s an old script that works for an old way of seeing the world, where voting is harm reduction at best. millennials want their votes to count. That’s why, in the past few years, you’ve seen people who cast their first ballots for Barack Obama sleep in Zuccotti Park and occupy the Florida state capital. For all the lofty rhetoric about change, the machinations of Washington felt eerily similar after Obama’s election, and local governments no better, even though millennials had been sold on the idea that voting would have this incredible impact. In turn, they’ve found their voice in other forms of participatory democracy.
At the same time, though, things have changed, and this is where it becomes tricky. In their young adult lives, millennials have seen the tide shift on marriage equality, moves toward legalizing marijuana, the largest representation of women in Congress (which has directly impacted the conversation around sexual assault in the military), the election of the first black president, a black nationalist (may he rest in peace) win the mayorship in Jackson, Mississippi and a socialist be elected to city council in Seattle. The understanding of what is possible politically is being stretched and millennials aren’t willing to settle for what is “practical” or “pragmatic.” They’re interested in change happening now.
The issue is, who are they going to vote for?
Progressive policies—that, by the way, enjoy broad millennial support—are winning but progressive candidates aren’t. Why? Because there aren’t any progressive candidates. Democrats are afraid setting out an acutal progressive agenda, for fear of losing the magical center. Maybe that’s a strategy worth adhering to in presidential years, but when the game is “turn out the vote” and you’re not willing to engage the issues that your base wants addressed, of course you’re going to lose.
That’s not entirely fair. They did try. A little. In southern states, campaign literature and radio ads connected Republican-supported policies such as Stand Your Ground to the death of Trayvon Martin. It’s one way of nodding to African-American voters, particularly the young people who have taken Martin’s death and the deaths of other young black people up as their cause. But it’s not then connected to any calls for police reform and decarceration, two looming issues that get to the heart of criminalizing black youth. And it’s a bit hard to swallow this message when a state with a Democratic governor has pointed tanks and thrown tear gas at young black people exercising their right to protest in pursuit of justice for another slain teenager, Michael Brown. Democrats’ lack of self-awareness borders on egregious.
The Dream Defenders, a youth-based organization formed in the wake of Martin’s killing, also did GOTV work, notable for the provocative nature of the campaign. The “Vest or Vote” billboards and videos, a play on Malcolm X’s “the ballot or the bullet,” were meant to make the same connection as the previously mentioned Democratic efforts, but with the images of otherwise smiling and happy children being made to wear bulletproof vests in order to protect themselves. But Dream Defenders didn’t endorse any specific candidates, and they aren’t a large enough organization as of yet to turn out a substantial number of voters.
Millennials know what the stakes are, but aren’t willing to participate in a system they see as inherently unjust, especially if their issues are consistently ignored. I know I’m probably ruining my potential career as a “millennial political consultant” here, but if anyone wants millennials to show up to the polls, even when Barack Obama isn’t on the ballot, they could try running candidates that speak to the issues they’ve taken to the streets to protest.
That’ll be a million dollars, please.
Policing in the United States is racist. The “broken windows” theory of policing is racist. We criminalize people and behaviors based on racist and classist ideas. Police are a problem, not a solution. The diversity of a police department or its community relations are issues that are beside the point. Police are a reactionary force that upholds the status quo of a repressive state.
I make these arguments all the time, but I think it’s necessary to repeat them in clear language because our cultural understanding of police as heroes feeds our political reliance on them as problem solvers. The longer we hold on to these ideals, the longer communities will be terrorized by police.
And lest it be assumed I’m just saying these things because of my own ill-will toward police, we have the numbers to back this up. A new report from John Jay College of Criminal Justice shows that since 1980, arrests for misdemeanors in New York City have increased from 60,000 a year to almost 250,000. Most of these arrests are for “low-level drug enforcement, especially of marijuana, prohibitions against commercial sex work, the many disorderly activities associated with living on the streets, and a variety of minor offenses mostly engaged in by young people such as graffiti and riding a bike on the sidewalk,” writes Alex S. Vitale at Gotham Gazette. In fact, 25 percent of all misdemeanor arrests since 1980 have been for low-level drug violations.
Last year, the arrest rate for black people in New York City was 6.4 percent, down from its high of 7.5 percent in 2010, but almost double that of its low of 3.6 percent in 1990. For Hispanics, the arrest rate was 2.5 percent in 1990 and jumped to 4.7 percent in 2010. White people, of course, have experienced the lowest arrest rate, at 0.7 percent in 1990 and reaching a high of 1.4 percent in 2011.
So, what do these numbers mean?
They mean policing in the United States is racist. The “broken windows” theory of policing is racist. We criminalize people and behaviors based on racist and classist ideas. Police are a problem, not a solution. The diversity of a police department or its community relations are issues that are beside the point. Police are a reactionary force that upholds the status quo of a repressive state.
So where do we begin to undo all of this?
We first have to be honest that police are not capable of solving all of the “problems” we have made them responsible for solving. We then have to admit that not every “problem” we have defined as such is a problem that needs solving. Not everything needs to be or should be a crime.
A step in this direction is legislation like Proposition 47 in California. Prop 47 is The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act of 2014, a voter initiative “that will change sentencing for low-level nonviolent crimes such as simple drug possession and petty theft from felonies to misdemeanors and direct financial savings to K-12 schools, mental health treatment, and victim services,” as explained by the group Artists for 47. It won’t decriminalize drug possession, but it does provide an important stop gap measure, where (mostly young) people will not be saddled with felony charges for low-level drug charges, and the money that is saved from not arresting and prosecuting will be funneled into services that actually go toward building strong, healthy communities.
More importantly, it begins to move us from an over-reliance on police and criminalization as solutions to our societal ills. And hopefully, once we see that the world won’t fall apart if our first response to everything is not “more police,” we’ll be more willing to sit down and talk about how to dismantle the rest of the racist, oppressive police state.
Read Next: Do mental illness, homelessness and substance addiction sound like crimes?
If you’re a serious person, having a serious discussion about police and policing in America, you better pay deference to just how difficult a job the police have, or else your ideas about police reform are not taken seriously.
I was reminded of this unspoken rule while reading this conversation between former NAACP president Ben Jealous and Slate’s Jamelle Bouie.
And… OK. If we’re all required to talk about how difficult and dangerous a job the police have, let’s get that out of the way: police have a difficult and dangerous job. Sometimes people do horribly violent things and we expect the police to respond. ABC News says being a police officer is the third-most-stressful job in America. It’s tough being a cop. Sure.
But a few things bother me about the constant injection of this caveat into discussion about racist and violent policing. First is that the process of humanization seems to work only one way. When a cop shoots an unarmed black person, we’re asked to consider the position of the officer—how difficult their job is, how they must make split-second decisions in order to save their own lives, how their high stress levels can be expressed in aggression, how they’re working-class citizens who only want to make a living. It’s a redeeming narrative never afforded to the victims of their violent behavior, violent behavior that is conducted in the name of the state, with legal justifications at the ready, and with little or no recourse available to those who suffer behind it. It’s the job of the person beaten or shot or killed to prove they didn’t deserve to be beaten or shot or killed because, hey, police just have it so hard.
Further, when we’re reminded of how difficult a police officer’s job is, the speaker seems to be telling us that they’re a compassionate person who cares deeply about the police as people. They’re not interested in denigrating the many brave men and women who don the uniform and protect our communities, just those “bad apples” that make it into this otherwise honorable profession.
But if we can’t have a conversation about the ways in which police target, harass, beat, shoot and kill black people at alarming rates without making it about individual police officers, we repeat the mistakes we make in every other conversation about racism. The personal morality of some police officers is thought to override institutionalized racist violence, and it simply doesn’t work that way. To echo the sentiments of a popular online discussion around the harassment of women, it may not be all police officers, but nearly every black person must fear that any interaction they have with police could end violently.
Let me propose a solution, for those who care about how stressful a police officer’s job is: give them less to do. In 2011, law enforcement made 12.4 million arrests, a rate of 3,991 arrests per 100,000 inhabitants of the US, a number that doesn’t include citations or traffic violations. Of those arrests, 1,531,251 were for drug-abuse violations. Imagine how much less work the police would have to do if drug use/possession was decriminalized (actually decriminalized, not the way New York City has said it would end marijuana arrests and hasn’t). There are between 70,000 and 80,000 people (mostly women) arrested on prostitution charges every year. If sex work were decriminalized, there’s another thing police don’t have to worry about, reducing their work and stress loads. If we invested in an adequate mental health care system, instead of making police our primary mental health care professionals, and provided housing for all people, instead of asking police to dispose of the homeless, they could just be police and not social workers, cutting their workload down significantly. And if they weren’t charged with preventing crime by arresting and serving citations to people for petty, “quality of life” crimes that pose no actual threat to safety, as is the prevailing theory behind the continued existence of “broken windows” policing, they might have time for a little relaxation.
If police weren’t responsible for keeping the city budget afloat through fines collected through traffic violations, as is the case in places like St. Louis County, or their own department’s budgets through civil assets forfeiture (legalized theft), or preventing people from exercising their First Amendment rights of speech and assembly through protests and rallies, they’d almost have a vacation on their hands. Subsequently, with so many fewer responsibilities, they wouldn’t need as many weapons, and therefore the stress of having to decide when are where to use them wouldn’t enter the equation.
To be clear, I think Ben Jealous would agree with most of what I’ve laid out here. But he still returned to that “police have a tough job” narrative without laying out why their jobs are so tough. We have created a police state, criminalizing innocuous behaviors (largely those associated with blackness) or those harmful only to the person participating. We have handed over responsibility of solving social problems like mental illness and drug abuse to police officers who are not equipped to do anything other than arrest or shoot. We think we can stop violent/serious crime by tasking police officers with cracking down on petty crimes, rather than address root causes of violence and inequality. We still have a society predicated on the control of black bodies. That’s enough to stress anyone out.
Instead of offering it up as an excuse for a job done poorly, give police less work to do. Then we can all relax a bit more.
While attending NYU Film School, Darius Clark Monroe got an idea for his first feature-length film. He would tell the story of how he robbed a bank when he was 16 years old—which, in fact, he did—but not just the story of the robbery, and being punished for it. Monroe wanted to tell the story of his a Southern black family, the effects of generational poverty, trauma, desperation, the prison system and redemption. He captured all of this in his autobiographical documentary, Evolution of a Criminal. Executive-produced by Spike Lee, Evolution of a Criminal, which took Monroe seven years to complete, features interviews with the family members, friends, teachers and some of the victims affected by Monroe’s action, all sorting through the root causes and figuring a way to deal with the aftermath. I spoke with Monroe recently by phone; during our conversation, Monroe told me what he hopes people take away from his film, which opened this past weekend in New York City.
The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Mychal Denzel Smith: You robbed a bank when you were 16 years old. What made you want to make a movie about it?
Darius Clark Monroe: I think it initially just started from me wanting to go back and find the customers inside the bank. I realized I just was so soaked up by the case and prison and my life then, I just never dealt with [the fact] that I had a hold on these individuals. Then I talked to my mom about it and I realized my family, we haven’t talked about any of it. The whole reason behind me getting into trouble in the first place and me wanting to do the robbery, [our economic situation] definitely influenced my behavior. We really didn’t talk about it. So I think the film almost gave her an excuse to sit down and have a [conversation we wouldn’t] ordinarily have.
The film is called Evolution of a Criminal. But anyone who watches probably isn’t going to come away with the sense of you being a criminal in the way we typically understand who is a “criminal.” So why name the film Evolution of a Criminal?
I wasn’t speaking necessarily to my own definition of who I am or who I was back then, but more to how black and brown boys are painted by society. Just being a young black male is already worthy of being criminalized. So I wanted to subvert the audiences’ expectations of who and what we think a criminal is. What does a criminal look like to you? Who is that person? Because there is no singular or broad stroke that just boxes everybody into. There are thousands and millions of individuals who find themselves in really hard situations and tough predicaments and they have sometimes to make unfortunate choices. Are these people criminals? These are people who are complicated, may have made a bad mistake or made a bad choice. For me the title subverts expectations. You go in and you’re expecting to watch this show about a “criminal,” this kid going bad. And what you see is an individual who has been consistent, personality-wise, throughout his life. It makes it difficult trying to force you into a category. Human beings are way more complicated than that.
And what are the factors that led you to make the decision to rob the bank?
My whole life as long as I could remember, my mother would get up and work. My stepfather had two jobs. These were working people. And I just couldn’t get over the fact that they would work all day, be exhausted, and I couldn’t really see how there was any light at the end of the tunnel. I was getting old enough to see [economic] disparity in [my hometown of] Houston. And you see what struggle and stress looks like. Even though we had clothes and food, a roof over our head, I could tell things were precarious when it came to our finances. I was always well aware of that.
In 1996 we had a home invasion. My house was robbed. The neighbors’ house was robbed. We didn’t have a lot of money to begin with, and that just seemed so invasive. I was working part-time at Jack-in-the-Box, and none of the small money I was making just seemed to be making hell of a lot of difference. I couldn’t figure out how to respond to [the burglary] at 16, but I knew that I did not want to retaliate by robbing other people’s homes. Robbing a bank [didn’t] feel at the time as extreme, because it felt like an institution. The money belonged to this institution; they will be able to replace it. So in my mind I tried to rationalize the whole crime as now I go take the money, it won’t hurt anybody. It’s a huge bank. We’ll get away. So that was just the being young and short-sighted. It just started as this thing we can pull off and get little money, and be done with it.
At one point in the film you say your family was doing okay. You weren’t on the path to wealth, but you could pay your bills. It was the home invasion that set off this robbery, that set off the idea that you had to do something, because one little incident like that can set you back. Not just financially—it can demoralize you.
People think that you have to be destitute to know what that feeling feels like. I’m not ashamed that we weren’t. I felt in my gut that we were a situation away from slipping down further into a worse situation. I couldn’t tell what that was, I could just feel it. I felt it was really fragile. We were looking for stability, but it just never felt like stability was a real option. The car breaks down, it needs brakes—and where are you going to take that money from? How are you going to cover this—are you going to pay with a credit card? It’s strenuous, for a family with children and lives to protect and provide for. It seemed like a lot for mom and my stepdad. Both of them were trying to do their best, and just couldn’t get a leg up. It wasn’t because of a lack of effort—these people were hard-working people.
And you went to prison. How long were you there?
I was in prison for three years of a five-year sentence.
What people could take away from your story is that you’re exceptional. You went in prison already having been a straight-A student. So it doesn’t seem too far fetched for you to go into prison and continue your studies and get your GED and start college classes. But those aren’t opportunities available to everyone in prison.
What you said is true—I was not a perfect student, but I definitely had an interest in school before I went to prison. In prison, the guys who were in trouble in school before they went to prison, they were decent students [academically]. Once they got into prison and decided to focus, they were able to do well. [Others] were people I knew instantly had been allowed to slip through the cracks repeatedly. Even if they weren’t in an environment like a prison, when it comes to just getting their reading levels together, getting their math skills up, taking a GED test—it felt like a huge challenge. It’s embarrassing to say, “Hey I need help. I need assistance.” There’s just so many distractions [in prison], so many things in there to stop you from bettering yourself. A lot of these guys want to do it. Some don’t know how to do it. If they find out how to do it, it’s a long, long process. If you don’t really have the tools before you go in there, it could become a complete wasteland.
You were compelled, as part of a mandatory prison labor program, to pick cotton, and that ‘s the most striking image I took away from the film—of the cotton fields, and listening to you talk about your experience while in prison, being a black man in the South, picking cotton. If you can’t convince people any other way that the prison system is a continuation of slavery, I think that image does it.
I knew I wanted to use [the cotton fields] to convey [my experience] because it is shocking. At 17 years old I didn’t know that cotton still grew. Going up to the prison, and I’m looking out of the window, I see way out in the distance fields of white. I was trying to wrap my head around what the hell that was. The fact that it was cotton and having to go out and pick it blew my mind, man. It blew my mind. I knew I was in that place because some bad choices I made, but this is surreal. It was like another level and it really opened my eyes to what the whole system was. I felt it was all planned and mapped out. It was no coincidence. I was at a place on a farm or a plantation as they call it. [Out of] 2,000 inmates, the majority are black and brown. Only had a handful of white boys. Only a handful of Asians. Even in prison the whites typically had the better jobs. And in the fields, you see a sea of black men working. Back-breaking work, picking cotton. There are people working in the fields, picking cotton and just working in general, getting paid zero dollars [and] other companies are profiting from that. So I don’t know what you want to call that, but it is a system and it’s a system inspired by another system set to oppress. And it’s a trap. If people leave [the film] with nothing else [they should] understand [that] this whole system is a trap to defeat you, and keep you down and to turn off your light so you can’t contribute to society, so you can’t bring forth new ideas and new experiences.
What do you want people to think when they see this film?
I want people to think about their own experience. Just their own lives, the choices we’ve [made] as human begins and the mistakes we have made that we have regretted. I hope they would think about the fact that they don’t want to be judged forever by that mistake, by that event and hopefully it will provide a sense of compassion.
And what do you want them to feel?
I feel like some folks cannot empathize with people who look different, who have a different [experience]. I hope the audiences are able to empathize. I’m not asking for people to like me or like the story to prove. I’m saying empathize with something other than yourself, something outside yourself. Think beyond your own singular experience, and understand that we all have our own different walks and different journeys. It’s not all the same.
Who needs to see this film?
I want to say “everybody.“ Is that too broad? I know that there are 2 million people who are currently in the [prison] system or getting out of the system, and that’s a large population of folks. And these people have records now. They have a history. These people still have dreams. They still have desires. They still want to live their life. They’d still like to vote. They’re still going to pay taxes. And they need to be given the tools to do that. I feel like you can’t send somebody [away for] some time and once they’re out continue to dramatically creating incarcerated individuals surviving in a free society. And that’s exactly what happens. And so I’m hoping I’m talking to the people who have been down a similar path I’ve been down, [saying] don’t give up, don’t feel discouraged, and move forward. And they don’t have to be stuck in that situation. We need people [who] are not just a part of the system, we need folks who make decisions, people who rent out apartments, people who give out cars loans, people who [do hiring]. We need everybody to understand. I’m not saying we need a parade or a welcome wagon. I’m just saying these people have served their time, and in most cases served too much time, and they should be allowed to be back in society. I don’t know how else to say it.
Evolution of a Criminal is showing at the IFC Center in New York City.
Voting is an important feature of democracy, it is a mechanism for accountability, and the right to vote should be extended to all who desire to do so. That being said, I wish we could demystify voting as the single most important political act a citizen does.
I say this as the push to get Ferguson, Missouri residents to vote is underway. In the almost two months since 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson (who still has not been arrested), 3,000 Ferguson residents (total population is 21,000) have registered to vote. And that’s good. Certainly some of the problems that led to Brown’s killing have to do with a political system that is not representative of the citizens it is charged with governing. In a town that is two-thirds black, only one of its six city council members is also black. If more than 6 percent of the black residents had voted, there would likely be a different mayor, and perhaps a different police chief.
That doesn’t mean, however, Darren Wilson would not have shot Michael Brown.
As I said, voting is a means by which we hold elected officials accountable, but it does not guarantee they do the right thing. In the aftermath of Brown’s killing, there was much reporting on the daily interactions black residents of Ferguson have with police. Much of it has to do with persistent traffic stops and ticket writing, the fines from which make up a large part of the city’s budget. It’s noticeably racist when a largely white city government and court system prey on working-class black families in this way, but as Radley Balko reported for The Washington Post, it isn’t that much different for surrounding municipalities, even those with proportionate black representation in government. People in office uphold structures of oppression.
Voting can change the makeup of who is in office, but in order for there to substantial change, the people who run for office must accurately reflect the values of the community they represent. That’s where activism, direct action, organizing and movement building come in.
“For all the righteous indignation it inspired,” writes Charles Cobb, a a former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee field secretary, in The Washington Post, “the Ferguson turmoil has become the latest in a series of flash-in-the-pan causes that peter out without inspiring lasting movements for racial justice.”
I have more than a few issues with this assertion. It’s the reason I wrote a few thousands words about the work that a new generation of activists have been doing, before Michael Brown was killed and Ferguson became recognizable shorthand, in organizing and building a movement. Cobb nods to this toward the end of his op-ed, but doesn’t seem to take these young people seriously.
But he also admonishes the residents for their low voter turnout. “Just two generations ago, black Southerners endured arrests and beatings in order to vote,” he writes, “And yet, it seems we’ve already forgotten the immense power of the ballot.” I don’t believe that’s true. Young black people in particular, the ones who showed up in record numbers in 2008, 2010 and 2012, know well the power of the ballot. They also know the limitations. They have watched the past six years unfold, on a national and local level, and understand that voting on its own is not enough. And that’s why they’re in the streets building a movement.
I want to stress that I’m not anti-voting. I’m anti-rhetoric that posits voting alone as the supreme political act and does not recognize the other influences in politics that diminish the power of the vote. Our two-party corporate-funded elections are not a balm on our most pressing political issues. Activism, organizing and direct action are crucial, and the work young people are doing on those fronts can not be easily dismissed.
Voting is way of holding politicians accountable. Movements are a way of producing politicians we’d actually want to vote for.
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