Mychal Denzel Smith | The Nation

Mychal Denzel Smith

Mychal Denzel Smith

All the blackness that’s fit to print. And some that isn’t. 

‘Evolution of a Criminal’: A Conversation With Filmmaker Darius Clark Monroe

Darius Clark Monroe

(Courtesy of ITVS)

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.

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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.

Read Next: Yes, arresting subway dancers is still a way of criminalizing black youth.

Why Voting and Movement Building Go Hand-in-Hand

Voters in Florida

Florida voters stand in line during the fourth day of early voting. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

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.

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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.

Read Next: What’s next for the voting rights movement?

Michael Dunn Was Found Guilty—but That’s Not Enough to Ensure Justice in an Unjust World

Michael Dunn

Michael Dunn in a Jacksonville, Florida, courtroom, February 10, 2014. (AP Photo/The Florida Times-Union, Bob Mack, Pool)

Yesterday, Michael Dunn was found guilty of first-degree murder for the 2012 killing of 17-year-old Jordan Davis. It was the second time Dunn was tried with murder, after a jury in February of this year was unable to rule unanimously for conviction or acquittal. Dunn was already going to spend the rest of his life in jail, having been convicted of three counts of attempted second-degree murder for the other passengers in the car with Davis; each count carried with it a twenty-year minimum prison sentence. The first-degree murder conviction for killing Davis will add a life sentence to Dunn’s punishment.

Meanwhile, in Ferguson, Missouri, Officer Darren Wilson still has not been arrested for shooting and killing 18-year-old Michael Brown. It has been almost two months since the incident, and a grand jury (which is now under investigation for misconduct) has until January to decide whether to charge Wilson with anything.

I return to the question that plagues me every time we reach a resolution in these cases, be it a guilty verdict of (Dunn) or a not-guilty verdict (George Zimmerman), and as we await action in another case that involves the killing of young black person: What is justice?

Because if the definition of justice is confined to the meting out of punishment for individual acts of wrongdoing, more young black people will be killed. Punishment alone is not enough of a deterrent, particularly where black bodies are concerned. Murder convictions, as we see in the case of Michael Dunn, and Theodore Wafer, who was convicted of murder killing Renisha McBride, are rare. In America, almost always, you’re allowed to kill black kids with impunity.

If justice is merely an arrest, a trial, a conviction and a prison sentence, then there is no reason to contest the ways in which the criminal “justice” system operates. The goal, in this system, is not to build the type of society where murder (and other serious offenses) does not occur, but to catch, trap and do harm to the perpetrators. There’s no need to concern ourselves with the factors that led to those actions, about the emotional well-being of the victimized, or the mental well-being of the offender. We’re allowed to wash our hands of the entire affair because we can simply remove them from polite society and hope they learn their lesson on their own.

But if that is the basis of our understanding of justice, it’s no wonder Michael Brown was killed. And it won’t be surprising when the next young black person is shot and killed by a police officer or vigilante. We think justice is a matter of individual accountability. We, at our best, think the injustice lies in a not-guilty verdict.

But a “not guilty” in a courtroom trial is the least of our concerns when black children are born with the presumption of guilt. If they exist in a world where blackness marks them as targets, where racism defines their experience and where white supremacy is the law of the land, what good is a jury saying “guilty’ when they die?

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Justice, real justice, is not impossible. It’s elusive. It hides from us because our current definition is oriented toward revenge. But a real justice system, one that would have protected Michael Brown and Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin and every black child waiting to have their name added to the roll call, is not outside of our reach. It is, at the time, outside of our collective will and imagination. And we’re too afraid of upsetting the unjust order of our world to to grasp for it. Capitalism, white supremacy and retributive “justice” provide comfort for those who will never experience the sting of their lash. Justice would be divesting from these systems and investing building supportive communities focused on access to stable home lives, education and recreation.

For Ron Davis and Lucia McBath, Jordan Davis’s parents, I hope this guilty verdict brings some peace to their lives. For Michael Brown Sr. and Lesely McSpadden, Michael Brown’s parents, I hope an arrest of Darren Wilson could help them sleep a little better at night. But none of it is justice. Justice would ensure their pain is never felt by any other parents.

But I know we’ll be back here again.

Read Next: Jordan Davis and the refrain of black death.

Why White People’s Awareness of Racism Isn’t Enough


(AP Photo)

According to a survey conducted by the Public Religion Institute, 51 percent of white Americans agree that black people and other racial minorities are treated unfairly in the criminal justice system. That’s up from 42 percent in 2013. If one of the consequences of the last year of high-profile trials—in which justice for black victims was hard to find—and subsequent outrage and protest is that a slight majority of white people now understand that the justice system is racist, then perhaps everything hasn’t been in vain.

However, this data point isn’t reason enough to become totally optimistic, particularly when paired with a study out of Stanford University, “Racial Disparities in Incarceration Increase Acceptance of Punitive Policies.” Two psychologists, Rebecca C. Hetey and Jennifer L. Eberhardt, conducted two experiments in which they presented white people with varying images or statistics, either reflecting the actual percentage of black people who are incarcerated or an exaggerated number. Their study “found that exposing people to extreme racial disparities in the prison population heightened their fear of crime and increased acceptance of the very policies that lead to those disparities.” When white people believed that the number of black people incarcerated was higher than it actually is, they were less likely to sign petitions in favor of making California’s “three strikes” law less harsh or for putting an end to stop-and-frisk. In other words, when the criminal justice system harms more black people, is more racist, white people are more likely to support the policies that perpetuate this system of racism.

From the Stanford study, we learn not only that awareness doesn’t necessarily lead to action to fight racism—it may lead, even unconsciously, to greater racial bias. That white people can be aware that the criminal justice system is racist and still wish for it to be more punitive toward black people speaks to how entrenched racist ideology is in our society, figuring into our perceived best interests. Blackness and criminality are synonymous in so many people’s minds, and the natural correctives are the police and prison. But because they would never explicitly say “arrest black people for being black,” most people would never say their views are racist. They tell themselves they’re simply looking out for their own safety.

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It’s that specter of black criminality that means that even though stop-and-frisk has all but disappeared in New York City, police continue to be a major presence in majority black communities and, under Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and his “broken windows” philosophy, still harass black residents under the suspicion of committing minor offenses. Yes, it’s racist, but does anyone think that’s actually a problem?

Awareness is not enough. Knowing that racism exists is not enough for white people to want to see its destruction. So often they’re more interested in not being labeled a racist than in actually fighting racism. That means it isn’t enough to present the facts. Racism will have to disrupt the lives of white people before they are moved to action—that’s part of the reason some activist groups stress the crushing financial costs of maintaining the current criminal justice system—after all, it’s white taxpayers’ money, too. Until then, they seem content on doubling down.


Read Next: Healing the rot at the heart of the criminal justice system

Sparing the Rod Won’t Spoil the Racism

Student reading

(AP Photo/Jose F. Moreno)

The NFL’s reaction to two of its players’ off-the-field misconduct has sparked some important national debates about domestic violence and, most recently, child abuse. And because these players—Ray Rice, caught on video beating his wife, and Adrian Petersen, accused of beating his son—are black, it has also prompted us to examine how these issues intersect with race.

Let’s take the corporal punishment of children. Spanking kids as a form of discipline is not unique to black American culture. That’s an obvious statement, but it still needs saying. However, there is a certain justification for spanking that is a reaction to the specific experience of being black in a racist American society.

In his New York Times op-ed on the subject, Michael Eric Dyson writes:

Adrian Peterson’s brutal behavior toward his 4-year-old son is, in truth, the violent amplification of the belief of many blacks that beatings made them better people, a sad and bleak justification for the continuation of the practice in younger generations. After Mr. Peterson’s indictment, the comedian D. L. Hughley tweeted: “A father’s belt hurts a lot less then a cops bullet!”

The idea here is that a child who is properly disciplined is less likely to incur the wrath of an armed police officer. Brittney Cooper expands on this type of thinking in her piece at Salon:

The loving intent and sincerity of our disciplinary strategies does not preclude them from being imbricated in these larger state-based ideas about how to compel black bodies to act in ways that are seen as non-menacing, unobtrusive and basically invisible. Many hope that by enacting these micro-level violences on black bodies, we can protect our children from macro and deadly forms of violence later.

But she also adds:

The thing is, though: Beating, whupping or spanking your children will not protect them from state violence. It won’t keep them out of prison. Ruling homes and children with an iron fist will not restore the dignity and respect that the outside world fails to confer on adult black people.

Corporal punishment is an extension of respectability politics, the idea that with the correct behavior one can avoid the harshest aspects of American racism. This line of thinking has not and will not ever protect any black person from state-based racist violence, but it continues to hold weight as legitimate counterpoint to dismantling racism. It speaks to a collective idea that the problem is not a country beholden to racist policies but rather a deficiency among black people and within black culture.

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But how much discipline would have been required so that the black women allegedly sexually assaulted by Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw never would have been targeted? How many switches should Rekia Boyd have fetched to have been able to dodge Chicago’s Officer Dante Servin’s bullets? How many whippings did Marlene Pinnock need to endure in her fifty-one years so she could avoid California Highway Patrol Officer Daniel Andrew’s fists?

We continue to place the responsibility of correcting racism and avoiding racist violence on those who are victimized by it, and our black children continue to the pay the biggest price, at home and in the streets. It may engender helplessness to believe that you cannot protect your child from harm, but it’s no more helpful to inflict that harm yourself under the belief that spankings at home will shield them from racism outside.

Read Next: The 2014 NFL: Where Racketeers Condemn Child Abusers

What to Do While You Wait for Darren Wilson to Be Acquitted

Protest in Ferguson

Protesters march in Ferguson on August 11, 2014. (AP Photo/Sid Hastings)

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, testified before a grand jury this Tuesday, September 16. Wilson testified for four hours and was “cooperative,” a source told the Post-Dispatch. At the direction of St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch, the grand jury will have until January 7 to decide whether to indict Wilson on criminal charges. As of now, Wilson is still on paid administrative leave.

With each day that passes without Wilson being arrested, the citizens of Ferguson become (rightfully) more angry. Witnesses keep coming forth, the evidence continues to pile up, and yet Wilson still walks around free. More and more it looks as if no one will be held accountable for killing Michael Brown.

And we should all prepare ourselves for such an event. Police officers are rarely arrested for on-the-job killings—from 2005 to 2011, only thirty-one were—let alone convicted. Brown’s family may file a civil suit, and perhaps they could win. But even with a victory there, Michael Brown would still be dead, and black children in Ferguson, St. Louis, and all over the country would still have to live in fear that they could be next.

Brown’s individual death matters, because all lives matter, but it’s what his death represents that will be of greater significance the further Ferguson recedes from the news cycle. Brown’s death represents America’s failure. For the entirety of its existence, this country has failed to respect black people’s humanity. Our laws and customs have aggressively denied black people the full rights of American citizenship. And worse, when black people have stood up to demand equal treatment, this country has pretended that there was nothing wrong.

Michael Brown died because we failed to deal with all of this when it happened to… pick a name. We failed them all.

And we will fail more black children if we don’t find a way to confront some basic truths. We can start with this one: America routinely criminalizes black youth. Whether it’s the disparities in drug arrests despite similar rates of drug use as white people, or the rates of school suspensions and arrests, or arresting kids for dancing on the subway, one thing America does not fail at doing is making it illegal to be young and black in public spaces. And that’s why the police can get away with killing so many young black people. Everyone thinks they’re a bunch of criminals receiving their just desserts.

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In the weeks and months to come, the details of the investigation into Michael Brown’s killing will likely continue to infuriate anyone who wants Darren Wilson arrested. The “justice system” will fail (or succeed, if you see, as I do, the purpose of the American justice system as the maintenance of racism, white supremacy, and black people’s second-class citizenship). But we can’t allow that to dampen the fight. America must be pushed to account for its failures. This country has to admit to itself not only its past sins, but its current ones as well. Then it has to reverse course.

Continuing to fail all the Michael Browns out there can no longer be an option.


Read Next: What More Will It Take To Arrest Darren Wilson?

What More Will It Take to Arrest Darren Wilson?

City Council Meeting

Ferguson residents at a City Council meeting (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

“Hands up, don’t shoot!” has been the cry of the thousands who took to the streets seeking justice for Michael Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old who was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri, by Officer Darren Wilson on August 9. According to multiple witnesses, Brown had his hands in the air—a gesture generally understood to signal surrender—when Wilson shot him to death. The police have a different story: they say Brown was the aggressor, having reached for Wilson’s gun while the officer was still in his vehicle, and later charging toward Wilson. This version of the story, frankly, sounds ridiculous. And now there’s more reason that ever to doubt the police’s explanation. CNN has reported on two witnesses that had not previously given statements to journalists:

Two men, shocked at what they saw, describe an unarmed teenager with his hands up in the air as he’s gunned down by a police officer. They were contractors doing construction work in Ferguson, Missouri, on the day Michael Brown was killed.And the men, who asked not to be identified after CNN contacted them, said they were about 50 feet away from Officer Darren Wilson when he opened fire. An exclusive cell phone video captures their reactions during the moments just after the shooting.

“He had his f**n hands up,” one of the men says in the video. The man told CNN he heard one gunshot, then another shot about 30 seconds later. “The cop didn’t say get on the ground. He just kept shooting,” the man said. That same witness described the gruesome scene, saying he saw Brown’s “brains come out of his head,” again stating, “his hands were up.”

At this point, I need someone to answer this question for me like I’m stupid: What else is needed to arrest Darren Wilson? I’m not asking what a prosecutor would need to for a murder conviction, or even what a grand jury would need to bring formal charges. What else is needed for police to say, “Darren Wilson, you shot and killed someone, you are under arrest”? What more?

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At least six witnesses have given near-identical accounts of what happened to Michael Brown. A shot was fired, Brown ran, Wilson kept firing, Brown put his hands in the air, and Wilson kept shooting. The autopsy shows Brown was hit six times. He was unarmed. What more do you need to make an arrest?

And I’m not of the belief that arrest, a trial or even imprisonment constitute real justice. That punishment model does not create a more just world. But currently, it’s what we have. If under this system, the value of black life is such that an 18-year-old can be shot and killed in cold blood and the police can’t even place the person responsible in handcuffs—a month and counting later—I find it difficult to maintain faith that we’ll one day move to model of justice that respects black humanity. Our lives are too expendable.


Read Next: Obama is responsible for the protest in Ferguson—but not in the way you think

More Police Will Never Be a Solution to Black America’s Woes


Police officers patrol in Brownsville, New York. (Reuters/Eric Thayer)

While riding the subway the other day, I overheard a mother and daughter discussing the police. The two of them had just boarded the train after witnessing an officer stop a young man whom the officer believed didn’t pay the fare. Apparently, the young man had explained to the subway booth attendant that he didn’t have any money, and the attendant took pity on him and let him through. The young man became defensive when the police officer didn’t believe his story.

The mother, a black woman who looked to be in her 50s, was upset about the interaction she witnessed. “As a police officer, you should be out trying to catch people doing murders and robberies, not things like hopping the turnstile,” she kept saying. “I feel like they’re just picking on these kids.” The daughter, also black and probably in her 30s, had a different view: “They’re doing their job. They know enough to know which kids are the ones coming on the train stealing iPhones. Not paying the fare is the beginning of mischief. These kids are bad,” she said.

“These kids are bad” isn’t solely the opinion of that one woman I overheard on the train. And as such it wasn’t surprising to read the findings of this Quinnipiac University poll that shows that 57 percent of black voters support “broken windows” policing. It’s one reason why folks like President Obama and the Rev. Al Sharpton can go before black audiences and, as The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart argues, “air the dirty laundry” of black America and receive rapturous applause. “These kids are bad”—and if we don’t set them straight early on, the thinking goes, they’ll be worse adults. Even given the adversarial (at best) relationship between black folks and the state, many black Americans still view police as part of the solution.

It’s important to note, though, that this particular poll surveyed registered voters. As Kristen West Savali points out at The Root, “Older black people are more likely to be registered voters than younger black people, and in populations most affected by police brutality—low-income, black communities—access to a landline or cellphone is not assured.” She adds: “When reading these results, one also has to take into consideration the disenfranchisement restrictions placed on black voters on parole.” In other words, the people not as likely to face police harassment are the ones who support a crackdown on so-called “quality-of-life” crimes.

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Fact is, black people can also be complicit in upholding the system of racism, having internalized the idea of black criminality and inferiority. Consider that during the 1980s, at the dawn of the crack epidemic, the War on Drugs had the support of many black activists. They saw it as a means of cleaning up their neighborhoods; in reality, it was a way of creating a new racial caste system through mass incarceration.

I understand where the impulse comes from. We look around our neighborhoods, witnessing despair and desperately wanting a solution. But the police aren’t it. They are not disciplinarians. They are agents of the state whom we have authorized to use force, often with impunity, against mostly black youth. But when you believe the answer to “these kids are bad” is police intervention, and then don’t take into account what those interactions often entail—harassment and disrespect, sometimes violence—you’re damning those children even further. Instead of pushing for more police intervention, while simultaneously chastising black youth for their behavior (much of which is not, or should not be, criminal), we need to find the political will to invest in the things that actually work. Affordable housing, recreation, education, food security. These are things that will build the type of neighborhoods and communities we want to see.

Even if we were all to concede that “these kids are bad,” more policing won’t make them any better.


>Read Next: How Trayvon Martin launched a new black youth movement.

Black Millennials Are Emerging as the ‘Movement Generation’

Michael Brown protest

Christina Bijou holds a sign during a rally outside the Department of Justice, August 27, 2014, in Washington, to call on the Attorney General Eric Holder to help secure justice for Michael Brown and the people of Ferguson. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

On August 22, almost two weeks after Michael Brown was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, The Washington Post published an op-ed by Columbia University professor Fredrick Harris titled “Will Ferguson be a moment or a movement?

I started working on my piece about the new era of black activism (which you can read here) months ago, and so I read Harris’s op-ed with the same level of irritation that made me want to write that piece in the first place. Not that there isn’t any value in what Harris wrote, because there certainly is. But if you’re asking the question “Where is the movement?” you simply haven’t been paying attention.

“A moment of trauma can oftentimes present you with an opportunity to do something about the situation to prevent that trauma from happening again,” Charlene Carruthers, national coordinator for Black Youth Project 100, told me in an interview for that piece, and the millennial generation has been presented with trauma after trauma. The killing of Sean Bell, the over-prosecution of the Jena Six, the killing of Oscar Grant, the killing of Aiyana Stanley-Jones, the killing of Trayvon Martin and so many more moments that may not have captured the national media attention but those events have defined the late adolescence and early adulthood of black folks of the millennial generation. As part of that demographic, let me say: the trauma has been fucking exhausting.

So, too, has been the haranguing from older generations that we have been too apathetic, that we have been too “post-racial,” that we have not done our part in upholding the legacy of the civil-rights movement. And so I wanted to write a corrective to that narrative, as I’ve seen my generation take up the fight and organize and begin along the hard road to movement building. It’s happening at this very moment. It was happening before Michael Brown was killed.

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Harris writes:

What may keep Ferguson from becoming a national transformative event is if “justice” is narrowly confined to seeking relief for Brown and his family. If the focus is solely on the need for formal charges against Wilson, a fair trial, a conviction, a wrongful-death lawsuit—rather than seeing those things as part of a broader movement that tackles stand-your-ground laws, the militarization of local police, a requirement that cameras be worn by police on duty and the need for a comprehensive federal racial-profiling law. If justice remains solely personal, rather than universal.

But that work had already begun before Ferguson erupted. The Dream Defenders traveled to the United Nations to present a case against “stand-your-ground” laws, and BYP100 recently organized an action at the Chicago Police Department headquarters to address discrepancies in marijuana arrests. The movement is here. The pictures are not as arresting as what comes from a moment like Ferguson, and therefore aren’t as compelling to media outlets only interested in the sensational. But the criminalization of black youth has emerged as the central focus of organizing efforts for the millennial generation and the work is being done.

On Twitter, filmmaker/writer/activist dream hampton called millennials the “Movement Generation.” It fits.


Read Next: Mychal Denzel Smith on what matters in Ferguson

Strange Fruit in Ferguson

michael brown protest

People are moved by a line of police as authorities disperse a protest in Ferguson, Missouri, early Wednesday, August 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

The people of Ferguson, Missouri, have rallied and marched and protested for eleven straight days and nights. They want justice for Michael Brown, the 18-year-old unarmed black boy killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on August 9. They’ve been met with tear gas, assault rifles, rubber bullets, armored police cars, dogs and the National Guard. And they show no signs of letting up.

But why?

I’ve been trying to figure out why so many people have had such a strong reaction to Brown’s killing. Because this isn’t new. His death is tragic, but fairly ordinary in the course of black people’s interactions with the police. We deal with this all the time.

On her MSNBC show this past Saturday, Melissa Harris-Perry demonstrated just how ordinary it is. She read a list of names of unarmed black men killed by police in the last decade alone, and it was chilling, to say the least. “Timothy Stansbury, unarmed. Sean Bell, unarmed. Oscar Grant, unarmed. Aaron Campbell, unarmed. Alonzo Ashley, unarmed. Wendell Allen, unarmed. Jonathan Ferrell, unarmed. Eric Garner, unarmed,” she said, before adding, “From 2006 to 2012, a white police officer killed a black person at least twice a week in this country.”

Twice a week. It’s business as usual for police to kill black people. And those are only a few names—many more black men and women have been killed by police. Many of them were also unarmed. Many were around the same age as Michael Brown. So what makes him special? Why did his death elicit such a strong reaction?

Of course, there are several factors to consider. That he was a young black man and not a young black woman is part of it. Black women/girls are often forgotten as victims in the discussion of police violence. That he was regarded as a “gentle giant” (Brown was 6'4" tall and close to 300 pounds) and a prospective college student are relevant. His image as “harmless” and “respectable” makes him more sympathetic to some people. That a mostly white police force routinely harasses black residents of Ferguson matters. And the fact witnesses say at the time of his shooting Brown had his hands up in the air, surrendering, also matters. It makes the six bullet wounds he suffered appear even more callous.

But for me, the detail that sticks is that Brown’s body was left in the street for at least four hours. Not only did people in the community witness the shooting, they were forced to look at the aftermath. For hours, they had to see Michael Brown’s bullet-ridden, bloody body lie rotting in the street.

It’s not unlike Henry Simmons’s bullet-filled body being hung from in tree in Palm Beach, Florida, in June of 1923. Or that of William Turner, whose body was hung, then cut down, then hung again before being burned in a bonfire in Helena, Arkansas, in November 1921. There was also Jim Roland, shot and killed by a mob in Camillia, Georgia, after having refused to dance for a white man who was pointing a gun at him in February 1921. And also Frank Dodd, shot and hung from a tree “in a negro settlement on the outskirts of DeWitt, Arkansas, in October 1916.” And so many more.*

They were lynched. They were killed and displayed publicly for the amusement of the lynch mobs and other white folks, and for the further terrorization of black people.

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The police didn’t hang Michael Brown, but they made a public display of his killing. They left his body lying there for all to see. The psychic toll that exerts on a community calls to mind the eerie words once sung by Billie Holiday: “Southern trees bear strange fruit/ blood on the leaves and blood at the root…/ here is a fruit for the crows to pluck/ for the rain to gather, for the wind to suck.” But for Brown and Ferguson, the “poplar trees” were replaced with a city street.

It is an injustice that Michael Brown was killed. But injustice alone doesn’t move people to action. His killing is one of many. But the sight of Michael Brown’s body being left in the middle of the street is the closest this generation has come to seeing, in real life, the strange fruit of which Holiday sang. That’s an image you just can’t shake.

*Each of these lynchings is documented in the book 100 Years of Lynchings, by Ralph Ginzburg.


Read Next: Dani McClain on why the murder of black youth is a reproductive justice issue.

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