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Since last week, two white police officers were charged with murder and manslaughter, respectively, for the shooting deaths of unarmed Black men, Walter Scott and Eric Harris. The incidents occurred within a few days of each other, and rocked the relative sense of calm many of us were finally beginning to feel. But the universe said “NOPE” and doled out another reminder that as far as the police are concerned, Black lives do not matter.
Many are happily surprised that the officers have been charged at all. Many more are champing at the bit to see the officers convicted and thrown in jail for the maximum sentence. Why shouldn’t they be? Black and brown lives are so routinely treated with disregard; it would be a welcome change to see white police officers treated equitably. But what, really, would result if these officers face jail time? What changes for us? Are we setting a precedent or are we taking an eye for an eye? Our culture is saturated with the notion that we have a responsibility to dole out punishment. Even those of us who know at our core that this system is corrupt understand the blood boiling desire for vengeance.
The Speakeasy has been restless this past week, working through our feelings, and trying to understand what justice looks like to us. Some of us believe in the abolishment of prisons; others just want to see criminals treated equally regardless of skin color. We are trying to reconcile our short-term needs with our long-term goals.
Nurin, a speakeasy member who lived and worked in EMS in North Charleston where Walter Scott was murdered, brought the Scott video to our attention. Nurin worries that a murder conviction would be an opiate to the masses: “I worry that if he is convicted, people will use that as evidence that the system works. Like, this officer committed a murder, he was charged and tried, and he was found guilty.”
Hannah, speakeasy member and Autostraddle Contributing Editor, echoed this sentiment, saying “If this officer is convicted, where does that leave us as a society? One cop in jail, along with hundreds of thousands of other Black and brown people, hundreds of thousands more to come, while we celebrate the small victory of the precedent set by sending a cop to jail for murder. Will it stop other police from killing black people? I doubt it. The threat of imprisonment has rarely prevented violent crimes from occurring.”
Both speakeasy members, however, recognized the need for retribution. Nurin spoke to this need, citing the family of the deceased, who deserve be able to lay this event to rest. “I know that in an emotional way I want that fucker to get locked the hell up, and I want his family to get something that feels like justice, and I worry about what it would do to Charleston, a city I love dearly, if he gets off. But the part of me that knows him not being convicted is much more likely to spark real, lasting change thinks it might be better if he is acquitted. Because it isn’t really justice if he gets locked up, it’s a damn circus and if anything it will be an attempt to placate the angry brown folk so they can keep on murdering us with impunity.”
Hannah was more concerned that the cries for these cops’ heads on a platter is a distraction from the larger task at hand: overthrowing the justice system as we know it. “It is Racism with a capital R that is so deeply entrenched within our society that created a cop who had no qualms about shooting a Black man in the back eight motherfucking times, despite the tumult around and massive media attention to police violence this year. That he gave no pause in planting a weapon on his body. Sure, while Black and brown bodies suffer under this system, let the killer cop rot too. I just don’t want people to lose sight of the good fight while we stand in picket lines demanding a verdict we are all uncomfortably certain we won’t get.”
Some of us, like member Alison, were adamant that the only kind of justice we’ll be able to see under the current system is conviction for these officers. Responding specifically to the death of Walter Scott, she said: “In the emotional roller coaster that was being a black person in America last year, the only day I just came home and cried was when they announced the Eric Garner decision. I just honestly had hope that the video would bring about justice. It seems like they are treating this case very differently and I hope that the murderer actually gets convicted. We need to start seeing that as the new normal.”
In both recent cases, the victims were committing a criminal act at the time of the shooting. Walter Scott was, according to the man who recorded the incident, in a physical altercation with officer Slager prior to running away. Eric Harris was caught selling illegal firearms to undercover police officers. Autostraddle contributor Carolyn worries that this will give leverage to the false narrative of the dangerous Black man.”This myth about black men being dangerous monsters has been taken as fact. Apparently ALL police officers assume guilt on sight. This has emboldened them to act as judge and jury right there, and the courts back them up.”
The media will try to paint these victims as dangerous criminals who got what they deserved. People will say they shouldn’t have run away. People will say anything to de-politicize the events we know to be political statements. “What they deserved” was a fair trial. They ran away because they knew they would not receive one. Will officers Slager or Bates receive fair trials? Likely not. They will receive trials that paint them as model citizens who took down hardened criminals.
“Black men automatically feel like they are in some sort of trouble when they encounter police officers,” Carolyn continues. “Statistically a good chunk of them already are, by way of probation, parole, previous incarceration or some other way that they have made it into the system. It is sad and it sucks and I’m sick of people ignoring the fact that police culture needs to change. Now it’s not even about getting black men into prison; it’s about killing them. If Mass Incarceration is The New Jim Crow then it follows logically that police murders are the modern day version of lynching.”
Autostraddle Contributing Editor Laura wanted to consider what needs to be done, here and now, while we forge ahead in the fight against mass incarceration and police brutality:
“Do I think that locking this cop up will serve Justice with a capital J? Not really. But do I want it to happen? Yes. And because of white supremacy and anti-blackness, I’m afraid it simply will not.
Our criminal justice system needs reform, badly. It’s a “racist, classist cesspool of unconstitutional and inhumane acts.” Queer and trans people of color are disproportionately harmed, as are other marginalized groups – and because we lack institutional power, we have to get our message across to those who do have it… To dismantle this system, we need to take it piece by piece. My vote? Let’s start with equitable treatment.”
Just as the conversation was tending toward defeatism, Speakeasy Editor and resident optimist Gabby swooped in to remind us exactly why we are having this conversation in the first place. “But what kind of justice do we really want to see? Because putting people in jail isn’t getting us anywhere,” she said. “I’m glad he was charged but that doesn’t mean shit. If we had magical powers and could re-do justice, what would that look like?”
We need, more than anything, something to look forward to. We need to have a thoroughly imagined world to one day realize. Because most people’s biggest fear is that if police are stripped of their power and prisons are abolished, the United States will be overrun with violent bloodthirsty criminals. But if we have a blueprint for the revolution, the idea of an actually free “free world” becomes a lot less scary.
Speakeasy member Oti was quick to point out that at the very core, capitalism is what drives bigotry and racism. “Under our capitalist system capital/resources/spaces are worth more than the lives certain classes of people. It’s the reason why people are so ready to shoot/kill someone because they stole a TV or accused of stealing cigars and “to protect my property!!!” They have decided that these things are worth more than the “thief/criminal/thug/etc” [human]’s life, and that is disturbing… My radical revolution would be to have people value the lives and autonomy of all people — especially those who are systemically killed to “protect the property” — to go back to pre-school and learn to share and critically think about how we consume things. Our societal consumption, I think, inflates the need for all the things we desire, that not only hurt the environment but create the tensions that lead to systematic killing and marginalization of people.”
Gabby wasted no time painting her portrait of justice for the group: “We need some kind of truth and reconciliation councils in the United States. We need reparations for native folks, black people, Mexicans (not that those identities are always separate, but I hope you know what I mean). I want the government and the people to put on live/televised trials where we gather these white men and their money and their corporations and put their evil ways to light… [I] need them to write mad fucking checks. All the Heinz families and the Nestles and the Hiltons and the great grandchildren of slave owners and ex-presidents, all of those motherfuckers need to come to grips with how they’ve come into their wealth and what havoc they’ve wreaked on the poorest and the those with the least means to fight a fair fight… and all the people who have been wronged get to say their piece, get to cry their tears and cash their motherfucking checks and that’s the kind of justice I want.”
Reparations seemed to be a running theme for many, including Laura: “To me, real justice would look like reparations. A lifetime pension paid to every person from an oppressed group, with support systems in place on top of that to provide free food, education, medical treatment and housing as needed. Immediate demilitarization of police forces, with a long-term goal of phasing them out entirely as our society addresses the structural inequalities that push people towards criminal activity. Prisons would still exist, but they’d function as therapy centers with a focus on rehabilitation and eventual reintegration into society. Only people who had committed violent crimes would be held there against their will; others could check themselves in and out freely.
Most importantly, we’d have large-scale, mandatory reeducation programs led by QTPOC. The goal would be to make everyone (no exceptions) aware of the racist, classist, sexist, cissexist, heterosexist impulses we’ve been programmed with, teach us all how to be better, and put it into practice. So hopefully in the future, we won’t fuck it up this badly again.”
Many of us were drawn to the idea of education as the starting point for the revolution. Carolyn recalled a radical friend’s upbringing: “I keep seeing clips of the Black Panthers with their children feeding and teaching them. I have a friend here in Oakland who is a proud Panther Cub, meaning she was one of those kids. She is one of the most powerful thinkers and activists I know. I wish I could have had that type of training when I was young. So if I could that would be my vision. But it wouldn’t be just little kids. We need to train leaders of all ages that can go out and re-educate our communities and facilitate meaningful change now.” In fact, education has been at the core of every revolutionary movement. During the Civil Rights Movement, people established “Freedom Schools” to offer young Black people an alternative to the sub-par, whitewashed education they would have received in public schools. Some of them survive today, though they are few and far between.
Whether officers Slager or Bates will face jail time for their crimes is uncertain. And after this conversation, many of us are unsure if it will really matter. As a poignant article written by Zak Cheney-Rice on Identities.Mic recently pointed out, “Racists lose jobs and favor, because racists have bosses, and bosses know the best way to show they’re not racist is to point at racists and say, ‘That’s the bad guy.’ Racism is a different matter entirely… Racism doesn’t have a boss… Racism thrives in systems and practices. Racism is hard at work in America, whether people see it clearly or not.”
We want to address racism, not racists. We want to build systems and practices that are free of racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia and bigotry. We want to take our magic wand and draw the blueprint for justice. We want a lot, actually. But it is all attainable, no matter how impossible it may seem.
The QTPOC Speakeasy