Criminal? Justice?

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Photo by Jacob Morch on

What if instead of building our civic order around “police” and “criminal justice” we actually built it around public safety?  As a progressive faith leader, I resent the idea of any autonomous human being “policed” and the assumption of a reciprocal relationship between “criminality” and “justice” seems inadequate at best.  These terms mutually reinforce the binaries of our culture around right and wrong, good and bad and they play into the tragic racial interpretation of a binary black and white in America.

With the depth and breadth of racism in our country, strategies that can ultimately fix the overwhelming impact of police violence against black people will need to factor in the ethical, moral and spiritual violence that racism has been for over 400 years.  Even if we never teach an ignorant white male cisgender police officer to recognize the humanity of a black trans woman (although I wish to God we could) our laws must represent her full humanity and protect her equally well.  Currently, they do not.  As long as we frame justice in the black and white terms of how one is policed or how someone is a criminal in contrast with innocent justice we will never have public safety in full nuanced color.

This is not a conversation for legislators to have alone.  Nor is it exclusively up to police forces who, nationwide are notoriously bad at policing themselves.  In fact, this is not a conversation.  It is a national reckoning and a cultural reconciliation.  It is first a reckoning in that the exchange must take full accountability for the way racism has both been a motivator for and a result of policing.  In a nation that has even within my lifetime struck down laws that “policed” people’s movement based on their race[1], real change means coming to terms with the ways in which non-white Americans have been herded, punished, abused and manipulated like sub humans with no agency.  It is a reconciliation in that reform must not simply erase all efforts at public safety.  There should be a way to deal with people who commit grievous acts against one another, abuses, violence etc.  But that system must not have any trace of the racist assumptions that assign guilt based on skin color, phenotype, sexual and gender orientation and other factors that we call “marginal”.  More importantly, it must not offer varying degrees of safety solely based on the proximity one has to whiteness.  We must all have access to safety.

This type of change can be led by faith leaders.  We are people who study and interpret and untangle the ancient violent history of Roman oppression, the Ottoman Empire, the Egyptian enslavement of the Israelites, and more current crimes of Jim Crow, lynching, Chinese exclusion, Japanese internment and our modern immigration debacle.  We are trained to deal with the human condition in real time.  Our perspective is unique and crucial.  Our job should not just be to pray after the fact of tragedy.  We are also called in our leadership to offer prophetic insight that points to the consequences of being out of covenant with our fellow beings.  One thing is sure, whether you identify with a faith tradition or not, the question of dismantling what we have come to accept as police and criminal justice must begin with wrestling deeply with moral and ethical questions of humanity or it simply devolves into negotiating degrees of what becomes for some, martial law.

It is time for faith leaders to raise their voices and help re-imagine and advocate for a public safety policy built on human equity not on racist misconceptions of assumed guilt and racist cultural tropes.  With the question of policing and criminal justice being an issue of human dignity and quite simply an issue of life and death, there is no faith “leader” in this moment who can afford to follow.


Pray for DeRay…

IF YOU HAD ANY DOUBT ABOUT THE POTENTIAL IMPACT OF TRUMP APPOINTED JUDGES ON CIVIL LIBERTIES, have a look at the current case being brought against activist, educator and author DeRay McKesson.  The 5th Circuit has reversed a prior ruling and describes the case as follows:

During a public protest against police misconduct in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, an unidentified individual hit Officer John Doe with a heavy object, causing him serious physical injuries. Following this incident, Officer Doe brought suit against “Black Lives Matter,” the group associated with the protest, and DeRay Mckesson, one of the leaders of Black Lives Matter and the organizer of the protest. Officer Doe later sought to amend his complaint to add Black Lives Matter Network, Inc. and #BlackLivesMatter as defendants. The district court dismissed Officer Doe’s claims on the pleadings under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), and denied his motion to amend his complaint as futile. Because we conclude that the district court erred in dismissing the case against Mckesson on the basis of the pleadings, we REMAND for further proceedings relative to Mckesson. We further hold that the district court properly dismissed the claims against Black Lives Matter.1 We thus REVERSE in part, AFFIRM in part, and REMAND for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

Basically, the court is trying to hold McKesson personally liable for the harm done to the officer because of his prominence and affiliation with and leadership in Black Lives Matter.

Never mind that the officer is unnamed in all of this…

Never mind that I cannot find any evidence of a tobacco executive going to jail for the generational damage to human health they promoted…

Never mind that McKesson did not lead this protest, but attended it at the request of local organizers…

What you should take note of is that the three judges in the 5th Circuit hearing the case are deeply conservative.  Their names:

1.) Don Willett (Federalist Society…Trump appointee) – You can read about objection to Willett’s nomination to the bench:

2.) Jennifer Walker Elrod (Federalist Society…Bush appointee) – Read about criticism of her appointment and lack of qualifications:

3.) Grady Jolly ret. Jolly has retired and Halil Suleyman Ozerden has been nominated by Trump to fill this seat. Ozerden became a member of the Federalist Society this year.  Ironically, Ozerden is apparently not Conservative enough for some Sentors:

There is nothing wrong with conservative judges.  There is also nothing wrong or out of the ordinary with a President appointing judges aligned with their party and politics.  The problem is that Trump’s current Republican party and politics is driving an agenda that opportunistically cultivates mistrust, fear and ideologically based dis-information. Judges with the kinds of records and clear political agendas apparent in these judge’s careers are in my opinion more likely than not to be biased in this specific case; every judge has some bias and ethical leaning.  But the danger lies in that with our current environment, the toxicity of natural bias is multiplied tenfold.  The real damage being wrought by Trump and Mitch McConnell is their ability to amplify partisanship and ideology through our existing systems that have long been bastions of public trust…like the judiciary.  The “Information Age” is being weaponized by the politics of disinformation and it is being used here as state sponsored intimidation.  McKesson himself says,

“The goal of lawsuits like these is to prevent people from showing up at a protest out of the fear that they might be held responsible if anything happens [.…] If this precedent lasts, it could make organizers all across the country responsible for all types of things they have no control over, such as random people coming into a protest and causing problems. We can’t let that happen.” – DeRay McKesson – ACLU 12/6/19

We are all aware of the epidemic disinformation currently being propagated by the Republican Party at the behest of President Trump.  That’s the big stuff.  What we need to be aware of is this smaller (though equally important) stuff closer to home that works on a local and state level.  Dealing with a political party that is obsessed with framing itself in terms of “states’ rights” requires diligence.  “States’ rights” have a long history of legitimizing violence against people of color (lynching is a prime example.)  All of us need to be aware of the judicial appointments being made in our areas.  Our rights to protest, to resist, to push back against authoritarianism and to fight for something better than a reality TV government are at risk.  Our rights mean nothing before a judge who has been given the authority to pre-judge based on a narrow ideology and enabled by a government that is force feeding the public lies.

Get to know your district justice system (List of US District Courts of Appeals) and recognize that the poison being spread by Trump will last well after he is dead. For all of our good, pray for DeRay.