Black Lives Matter (BLM) is the most visible movement for Black liberation, and it invests a lot of resources into protesting the unjustified killings of Black people by police officers. According to the Washington Post, US police killed 963 people (Black, white, Brown, armed and unarmed) in 2016. So far in 2017, the police have killed 484 people, and even if advocacy were to reduce the number to zero in 2018, it wouldn’t budge the needle on Black liberation.
Of the 484 people killed by police in 2017, 112 were Black. Imagine that instead of 112, all 484 people were Black. Now imagine the fatality rate increasing by 1,000 every year, from 484 to 1,484 to 2,484 and so on. In 10 years, the fatality count would reach 55,484, and that would be less than 8 percent of the nearly 1 million Black lives in prison today. Although police brutality is the most sensational crisis facing Black communities, the most destructive effort against Black lives in the US is the imprisonment of Black people. Our inability to give the latter more focus than the former lies at the root of why police accountability and Black liberation continue to hover beyond our reach.
It’s easy to understand the moral mandate to protest Trayvon Martin’s death. People have a harder time understanding why it’s just as vital to Black liberation to fill the streets for the Black youth of the world whom we sentence to decades in prison every week. After all, people reason, these youth put themselves in prison by committing a crime. Michelle Alexander describes this reasoning in The New Jim Crow as the politics of responsibility. She describes the latter as a trap that destroys Black lives with unreasonable expectations and standards of exceptionalism embodied by the lions of the Civil Rights Movement. Alexander argues that urging people to live up to high ideals can be an empowering tool, but she challenges the shaming and ostracism of populations, struggling in criminogenic conditions, for being “merely human.” Alexander questions the ethics of such indictments.
When black youth find it difficult or impossible to live up to these standards — or when they fail, stumble, and make mistakes, as all humans do — shame and blame is heaped upon them. If only they had made different choices, they’re told sternly, they wouldn’t be sitting in a jail cell; they’d be graduating from college. Never mind that white children on the other side of town who made precisely the same choices — often for less compelling reasons — are in fact going to college.
Here, Alexander touches on a crisis as damaging to Black liberation as mass incarceration: the history of fear, anger and shaming that has resulted in the mass abandonment by Black communities of their incarcerated members.
I’m an incarcerated Black man; I live this abandonment. Since the emergence of Black Lives Matter in 2014, I have engaged with several efforts that affirm the value of incarcerated Black life: the fight to end solitary confinement and life without parole for juveniles. In these efforts, the vast majority of free people who worked beside me were white. Race could never detract from my love and respect for my allies, but on the other side of my gratitude weighs a bone-heavy sadness. My Black life matters to a lot of people. Just not my people.
James Forman Jr. documents the roots of this abandonment in Locking Up Our Own, a history of crime and punishment in Black America. Forman describes the heroin epidemic that decimated Black communities during the ’60s and ’70s; the crack epidemic experienced by Black communities during the ’80s as an apocalypse; and the resulting pain, frustration and desperation that forged deep antipathies between the Black middle class and “the poorest blacks, who were forced into living conditions that generated violence.” These antipathies ushered in a “tough on crime” era that prominent voices of Black liberation hoped would save Black communities from annihilation.
It didn’t. But who wouldn’t cut off an arm if they thought it would save the body? Black communities cut off their poorest members, leaving them to overzealous cops and race-baiting politicians, and with this contribution to mass incarceration, Black communities shared in destroying themselves. We continue destroying ourselves when we fail to protest for the guilty Black lives that matter. When we shout in the streets for Trayvon, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice but don’t block freeways for the mandatory minimum sentences that are ending Black lives with gavels instead of bullets, we’re making an implicit argument: Black lives matter, but guilty ones matter less.
We only have to look as far as BLM’s philosophy to see how problematic this argument is: ” … we understand that when Black people in this country get free, the benefits will be wide reaching and transformative for society as a whole. When we are able to end hyper-criminalization and sexualization of Black people … every single person in this world has a better shot at getting and staying free.”
If we want to reach this vision, then we must also understand that if we achieve dignity for guilty Black lives, the benefit will touch all lives. More than that, we must wake up to the concomitant truth that we won’t end the hyper-criminalization of Black people by perpetuating alternative means of devaluing Black life.
In June, a jury in Minnesota cleared the officer who killed Philando Castile after he reached for his wallet. We’re outraged, but so long as our actions contradict our claim that Black lives matter, so long as guilt is a reason for them to matter a little less, Black lives won’t matter to juries in Minnesota or elsewhere. The reason: hyper-criminalization of Black people is so intense in this country that to be Black and young is to be presumed guilty of something. Some imagine respectability will protect them, but “living respectability” didn’t protect Prince Jones who was, as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in Between the World and Me, “not killed by a single officer so much as he was murdered by his country and all the fears that have marked it from birth. It didn’t protect Charles Kinsey, the behavioral therapist shot in the leg by police while he sat on the asphalt with his hands in the air.
At day’s end, whether victims of police bullets are doctors or valedictorians, by the time their stories come before a jury, they are Black bodies facing both the presumption of guilt and the presumption that the officer had a good faith reason to shoot. Philando Castile must have reached for his wallet too aggressively. Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old, should’ve shown better judgement than to play with a toy gun. Officers couldn’t be expected to believe Eric Garner couldn’t breathe because he was using breath to plead for his life.
When communities face problems, they evolve theories and put them to practice in good faith. Black communities under siege throughout the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s tried shaming, “tough on crime,” and cutting off offending members. These tactics didn’t work. BLM’s framers talk the loudest about innocent Black youth like Trayvon Martin for the same reason that my early work organizing focused on inhumane treatment of children. Such focus often feels like the only way to galvanize white Americans who’ve consumed a culture that has devalued Black lives for so long that only the most shocking injustices prompt mainstream Americans to reexamine their “American dream.” BLM’s focus is strategic, and Natalie Baptiste writes about what BLM’s narrative achieved: It resulted in a continuing, national conversation about police brutality, forced politicians “to speak the language of Black Lives Matter,” and increased incidences of police officers charged with shooting unarmed citizens.
These are valuable outcomes for Black communities. But if we’re to make Black lives matter, we have to raise our volume about the realities of “guilty” Black people. We have to embrace new strategies. We need to center incarcerated people in the conversations about Black lives, to name the harm incarcerated people have done without forsaking them. Nobody is justified in committing crimes, but the person who hopes to move the needle on Black liberation should hold such acts in the context of the larger truth.