Let me explain some genuine confusion about abolishing the systems of policing and mass incarceration
This is Part Two in my brand new weekly series called ABOLITION where I unpack and explain how we deconstruct and abolish America's criminal, legal, and justice systems - piece by piece.
Every Saturday for all of 2021, I’ll be writing a special article on how we abolish the thing that we call the American justice system. If you are just now joining us, here’s Part 1. And if you love this series, and aren’t yet a member of The North Star, please consider joining now.
I want you to read everything I am about to say, of course, but no single book in the world could help you understand what I hope to unpack than the Pulitzer Prize-winning text, Slavery by Another Name, by Douglas A. Blackmon. They also produced a very good documentary on the book that I am embedding here now. You can get clearer versions of it here from PBS, but this one is still quality enough to watch, OK? Watch it, but get the book too, because it’s far able to go far deeper.
Another book that’s harder to find is Slave Catchers, by Stanley Campbell. My goal, in part, with this series, is to give you a deep understanding of how the American criminal justice and legal systems were built, and why, so that we can deconstruct those systems together. So whenever I can, I’ll share resources that can help you grow your knowledge base.
Today, I want to share a core idea that’s at the center of the modern movement to abolish the American justice system. Next week, I’ll get super granular and put on my historian hat to show you the white supremacist origins of the modern-day justice system, but today, I want to share something even more fundamental and basic than that. And if you don’t get this, the rest of the series won’t quite register with you the way I need it to.
Almost daily, I see that people are genuinely confused when they hear us say that we want to abolish the whole damn network and system of American policing and mass incarceration. And I’m not just talking about obtuse conservatives or open racists. I’m talking about good people. Smart people. People who sometimes fight for justice and freedom alongside us in this journey. And they ask me, sometimes in comments on my posts, and frequently through direct messages, something like this…
“Shaun - how in the world could we get rid of all of the police and all of the jails? Are we supposed to just shut all of those things down right away? Society would fall apart. And people who genuinely do harm would just roam free. That would never work.”
I see responses like that day in and day out, and in this series, I will answer those questions in a hundred different ways, but let me first answer them this way.
Police departments and jails were never created for the safety of Black people.
They weren't created to protect Black people.
They weren't created to protect the property of Black people.
They damn sure weren't created to give justice to Black people.
Let me put what I have to say next in BIG bold print. I mean it with my whole heart, mind and soul.
The modern systems and structures of policing, prosecution, probation, parole, and mass incarceration were created to protect and advance white power and white power alone.
They were created to protect white people and white property. They were created to provide easy pathways to justice and accountability on demand for white people. And this is the most important thing I need you to understand today…
These systems were not only built for white power, they were imagined, designed, constructed, and deployed as well-funded, well-fortified, deeply entrenched tools of oppression against Black people.
This core mission is deeply embedded in the fiber, in the code, in the DNA, in the blood and guts of these systems. I don’t mean that in the abstract, either. I mean it as plainly as I'm saying it to you right now. And I say this as someone who has not just studied, researched, and written about these systems for the past 20 years, but as someone who has worked inside of the systems as a teacher in jails and prisons for years, as an advocate for hundreds of families all over this country seeking justice from this system, and finally as someone who has helped elect nearly two dozen prosecutors across the country to try to change this system from the inside out.
Every day American police kill at least 3 people. Sometimes it’s as many 10 or 11. And at the end of the year, every year, like clockwork, we end up with at least 1,000 people murdered by American police. At the end of each decade, we’re talking about over 10,000 people killed by police. All the while, some nations haven’t had a single person killed by police in decades. Our police departments kill more people per day than some nations kill per decade. Do you understand how staggering that is?
But that’s not even the main point I want to make. In the worst cases of police brutality you could ever imagine, over and over again, I’ve held the hands of families and walked them through the painful process of pursuing justice. And guess what I learned? Guess what they learned? No matter how hard we pushed, no matter how ugly and obvious the injustice, no matter how clear the evidence, with very few exceptions, we learned that the systems we were now asking or demanding justice from, simply were not built to give such a thing to them. The systems, the offices, the policies, the laws, the staff, the personnel were not deployed with the idea that grieving Black families would one day need those systems to give them justice and accountability. And no matter how hard we squeezed, no matter how eloquent our pleas, nothing like justice came out on the other side. Nothing.
It’s because we were asking a fish to bark. We were asking a monkey to meow. We were asking a bird to moo.
Hear my heart - I care about public safety. I do. I want our communities to be safe. Period. But what I know is that police, prosecutors, and prisons were NEVER designed to give those things to Black people, Black families, or Black communities.
And what I am saying to you - what I am saying to us - is that these systems cannot be redeemed. They cannot be reformed. They aren’t a body camera away from being righteous. Here’s the best way I’ve been able to illustrate it across the years.
You see that cake? It’s baked, right? It’s finished.
What if I told you that I want the eggs back? I want you to give me the eggs back that were baked into this cake, ok? As a matter of fact, give me back the eggs, and the milk. And if you don’t mind, I want those eggs and that milk to look like they did before the cake was baked. Please give me back my stick of butter.
Say I gave you $1 million dollars to give me back the eggs, milk, and butter, in their original form, and I gave you 24 hours to do it. Could you do it?
You’d want to. I’d want to. But the eggs, milk, and butter that were baked into that cake just can’t be given back to us - at least nowhere near their original form.
White supremacy is the made ingredient of the American justice system. It’s baked into the cake. And it simply cannot be extracted. These past 10 years have taught me that. It’s the painful truth.
Now, if I just asked you for a stick of butter or a cup of milk or some sugar or a few eggs, you could do that - easily - right? Of course you could. What I am saying is that we have to create a new system - we have to bake a whole new cake. And this new system has to be created with different goals, objectives, priorities, and people in mind. Public safety can absolutely still be at the center, but we have to carefully redefine what that even means. Because here’s what I know, above all else, the most heavily policed and prosecuted communities in America are also the least safe. And the least heavily policed and prosecuted communities are the safest in the nation. Next week, I’ll explain why that’s so.
If you are already a member of The North Star - THANK YOU! I can write a series like this, speaking truth to power, in my way, because of generous members just like you. But if you are learning and growing from this - if you like what you read, if you listen to my podcast - we need your support. We are fully funded by everyday people and can only do our work if you chip in. Love and appreciate you all.