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Mychal Denzel Smith | The Nation

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Mychal Denzel Smith

Mychal Denzel Smith

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

No Indictment for Darren Wilson, No Justice for Black Lives

Ferguson, Missouri, November 24, 2014 (Reuters/Adrees Latif)

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.

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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.”

In Ferguson, a Militarized Police Force Isn’t Necessary for Suppression

Ferguson police

Protesters gather outside of the Ferguson police department, November 2014. (All photos by the author)

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.

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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.

Read Next: Can Ferguson’s protests build a nationwide movement against police violence?

Failing to Indict Darren Wilson Won’t End the Movement Against Police Violence

Protest in Ferguson

Ferguson, Missouri (AP Photo/Sid Hastings)

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.

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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”

How to Get Millennials to Vote

young voter

Young voter in Florida (J Pat Carter/AP)

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.

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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.

 

Read Next:“Rock the Vote” redux: campaigns compete for the youth vote in the 2014 midterm elections

Police Are the Problem

NPYD

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

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.

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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?

Give Police Less Work

NYPD car

(Photo courtesy of drpavloff, CC 2.0)

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.

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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.

Read Next: Mental illness, homelessness, drug addiction: do these sound like crimes?

‘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

Prison

(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

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