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Ralph Yarl Deserves Justice Beyond What the Criminal Legal System Can Offer

While the man who shot Yarl was not a cop, his whiteness allowed him to bear an invisible badge of the police force.

Protesters attend a rally for Ralph Yarl in front of U.S. District Court on April 18, 2023 in Kansas City, Missouri.

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Kansas City, Missouri, has been in a frenzy. While the city grapples with escalating gun violence, rising alongside soaring temperatures, the much-anticipated NFL draft is currently generating millions of dollars for the city and plenty of screen time for local elites. Yet, amid all the noise, one name stands out: Ralph Yarl.

On Thursday, April 13, Yarl was shot by Andrew Lester, an 84-year-old man influenced by extreme right-wing ideology, as confirmed by his own family. Yarl was trying to pick up his siblings from a house in a neighborhood in northern Kansas City. Though he only lived a few miles away, Yarl was looking for an address on 115th Terrace and mistook it for a house on 115th Street. When he approached the home and rang the doorbell, he was shot twice. Yarl was just trying to pick up his siblings and made a simple error that we are all liable to make at any time. On April 17, Lester was charged with first-degree assault and armed criminal action.

Cries for justice have rung out not just in Kansas City but the entire nation. We hear it in the streets, on the news, all over social media: “Justice for Ralph.” For many, justice is served with a conviction for Yarl’s shooter. But what does justice for Yarl really look like when the entire system enacting “justice” is the same system that enabled the harm to happen in the first place?

Despite the obvious racism in Yarl’s case, it’s unsurprising that there’s been an initial reaction from law enforcement and community members to defend Lester’s actions. Kansas City Police Chief Stacey Graves claimed that the incident didn’t appear to be racially motivated, as Lester’s defenders have tried to justify the shooting by citing Missouri’s “Stand Your Ground” law. Such responses demonstrate how, time and time again, racism is something that has to be probed and examined under the court of law for it to be deemed unjust and for accountability to be pursued.

But Yarl’s shooting in Kansas City is not a unique incident of racist violence. During the summer of 2020, the community put pressure on the city to fire disgraced Police Chief Rick Smith. Under Smith’s leadership, Kansas City Police Department (KCPD) officers killed and brutalized Black citizens at an alarming rate, and Chief Smith shamelessly defended his officers at every turn. In 2021, Smith himself faced a reckoning when KCPD officer Erik DeValkenaere was convicted of manslaughter in the killing of Cameron Lamb. DeValkenaere claimed he was reaching for a gun — a claim that was refuted by the officer’s partner who was also on the scene.

In addition to DeValkenaere’s 2019 killing of Lamb, KCPD has also killed Ryan Stokes, Donnie Sanders and Malcolm Johnson, all Black men, in recent years. KCPD faced multiple allegations of racism within the department under Smith’s leadership, prompting a federal investigation. In early 2022, Smith “voluntarily” retired early from his position, but the violence continues.

In the fall of 2022, Kansas City’s Black community expressed concern over an alarming spike in missing Black women from east Kansas City neighborhoods. KCPD dismissed the claims and refused to investigate. Less than a month later, a Black woman escaped from a suburban basement where she had been kidnapped and tortured by a white man named Timothy Haslett, Jr.

Many in Kansas City believe that the possibility for change is limited because the city does not have local control of its police department. While most police departments would be accountable to the municipal body, KCPD is controlled entirely by the state of Missouri and administered by a board appointed by the governor. Even with new leadership, KCPD remains embroiled in controversy and investigations. Many point to local control as the first step to addressing these core issues, but the violence is embedded even deeper than that.

Even if Lester is convicted for shooting Yarl and spends the rest of his days behind bars, what does it truly mean when the entire system that allowed this most recent tragedy and the cases that came before it to remain intact? The system that perpetuates the same harm that caused Yarl’s shooting still exists, and until it is dismantled, we will continue to see these senseless acts of violence.

In other cases around the country where racist white shooters have been convicted, such as in Ahmaud Arbery’s case in Georgia, many considered this “justice” served. But what did the conviction of Arbery’s killers ultimately do to prevent Yarl’s shooting? What would Lester’s conviction do to help the next Black child targeted by racist violence in their own neighborhood?

Our current criminal legal system stifles our imaginations, forcing us to think about justice only in terms of whether someone is charged, arrested, convicted and imprisoned. Instead, we must rethink what it means to enact justice despite a system that is bent on perpetrating harm. To be clear, this is not necessarily a call to reverse the charges brought against Lester.

As abolitionists, we’re less interested in the question of whether Lester deserves to be convicted to the fullest extent of the law, and more interested in the ways in which the “fullest extent of the law” falls short of ensuring justice and safety for all Black people.

While Lester was not a cop, his whiteness allowed him to bear an invisible badge of the police force for the purpose of “protecting” private property, absolving him of wrongdoing and letting him off the hook just a few hours after he nearly killed someone.

We know that this threat is also present for Black people living in other parts of the country, from Kansas City to Minneapolis to Arbery’s Satilla Shores neighborhood in Glynn County, Georgia. We know that this threat doesn’t go away with the conviction of one man.

Convictions and prison sentences have not done much to prevent white supremacist violence. This is because the system that convicts is in itself white supremacist and cannot be expected to pursue forms of justice that will keep us safe. We must imagine a new kind of justice for ourselves. We have to imagine accountability and pursue it in community without relying on the systems that claim to protect us with one hand, while killing us with the other.

So, what do we do when we know that there are obvious limitations to the kind of justice made available in our current systems? Abolition gives us a framework to fight for a world where it is safe for a Black boy to knock on the wrong door only miles from his own home. History tells us clearly that our current criminal legal system will not do anything to bring us closer to that world. When we treat racist violence as individual acts of violence, we miss that the entire system is deeply rooted in a history of oppression toward those who are marginalized.

A truly just system must prioritize the voices and experiences of those who are oppressed by the current system and ensure that they are actively involved in shaping and implementing these solutions. It must also recognize the interdependence of all communities and prioritize building relationships based on collective care.

This is what abolition is about: not simply dismantling structures but building new ones that prioritize the safety of everyone. It’s about creating a world where Black children can walk through their own neighborhoods without fear of being targeted and attacked. It’s about imagining and building a world where justice is not just a buzzword but a lived reality. But how do we get there?

First, we have to acknowledge within our communities that solutions lie in alternatives, not the status quo. Then, we have to embrace candid conversations about our current crisis of safety and the ways in which the police and courts do not keep us safe. From those conversations, we must build a network of people-centered solutions that range from community care to policy interventions and budget justice. All these solutions hold equal importance in a world of unlimited justice, and if supported in an organized ecosystem, will move us closer to justice that we can feel in our bodies, that we can live out in our communities.

We see examples of these alternatives popping up across the United States, led by community organizers seeking a better vision of justice. In Oakland, the MH First program presents a model for community response to mental health crises. New York-based organization Survived & Punished publishes an annual toolkit for survivors of intimate partner violence seeking justice beyond the court system. In Kansas City, we recently intervened in the 2023 city budget to remove all funding for a new city jail that would inevitably lock up Black folks at catastrophic levels. Our hope is that these programs and interventions can orient us toward a new vision of justice that will replace the old one, which we know simply doesn’t do what we need it to do.

As the NFL draft takes over town April 27 to 29, Kansas City will be inundated with festivities, but for those of us who call Kansas City home, the threat of violence is ever-present. We must remain vigilant and cautious, always mindful of ringing the doorbell in the wrong neighborhood or running in the wrong neighborhood or getting into the wrong car that could turn us into yet another tragic headline in the social media whirlwind.

In the case of Ralph Yarl, justice is not realized in the prosecution of his shooter. True justice would mean addressing the root causes of violence and dismantling the systems that enable it to continue. It would mean creating a world where Black lives are valued and protected, and where all communities can thrive. This is the kind of justice we must demand and work toward.

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