Struggle for Racial Justice is Local

Struggle for Racial Justice is Local June 14, 2014

Since Michelle Alexander published The New Jim Crow in 2010, communities of color across America have been talking about the need to dismantle America’s system of mass incarceration. As with the old Jim Crow, the problem is institutionalized racism (not just “a few bad apples,” but a system that corrupts the best of people). The language of “law and order” many have replaced “segregation forever,” but the result is the same: black men are subject to a system of control that cannot be questioned because it is the law.

But what can be done? Change the laws, most say, for until the laws are changed the criminal justice system cannot change. Since the Trayvon Martin case, the NAACP has made challenging “stand your ground” laws a centerpiece of its legal strategy. On the issue of drug laws, Attorney General Eric Holder has taken some direct action to change the way federal agencies prosecute drug offenses.

Even still, the population of America’s criminal justice system continues to swell, restricting the bodily freedom of more than 7 million US citizens on any given day (not including undocumented folk, who are first detained and then deported at a rate of over 400,000 per year). Anyone who has a criminal record in this country knows that once you’ve touched the criminal justice system, you can never be entirely free. There are over 55 million such people in the US today, and they are disproportionately people of color.

Mass incarceration is a domestic crisis that touches every community in America. Because it does, the struggle against this racial justice must begin in local communities.

This is what I’ve been learning from my friends and partners is the FADE Coalition here in Durham. As it turns out, it’s not only people of color in directly affected communities who feel the impact of institutionalized racism. This issue also affects public defenders and jailers, faith communities and political action groups, tax payers and soccer moms. When those who understand the problem are empowered to explain it to their neighbors, people begin to understand. And when we do, it turns out there are concrete actions we can take in our local communities to cut off the supply chain to our prisons.

Durham’s FADE Coalition has named five:

1) Implement a mandatory written consent-to-search policy for all vehicle searches.

2) Make marijuana enforcement the lowest law enforcement priority.

3) Require mandatory periodic review of officer stop data.

4) Reform and strengthen the local Civilian Police Review Board.

5) Mandate formal racial equity training for local police.

In Durham, the data can’t be ignored: we have some of the worst racial disparity in our state when it comes to stop and search numbers. The numbers are important because they make it clear that this is a systemic problem. But one story makes it clear why these numbers are urgent. Take, for instance, Mr. Hill’s story.

When Mr. Hill told his story to a judge, she threw out all charges against him and reprimanded the police officer in court. When FADE told stories like his to Durham’s Human Relations Commission, they spoke clearly to City Council: there is evidence of systemic racial bias in our police department. To date, Durham’s major clergy network, political action committees, and community organizing groups have endorsed FADE’s five recommendations. What’s more, we’ve said clearly that the time to act is now.

In short, the people have spoken. Our elected officials will have to decide how best to implement these reforms. And we must thank them for their service because changing our police culture is no small task. (When we broached the subject with our police chief at the beginning of this process, he refused dialog and committed the department to an all-out defense against the reforms that will now be mandated.)

But FADE is showing America something important in this local struggle: if we do the work of education, letting those who are most directly affected speak as our experts, its possible to build consensus on this issue.

Yes, we must dismantle America’s system of mass incarceration. And this is how: one community at a time, until the groundswell of our collective action makes it impossible for Washington to ignore this issue any longer.


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