“I am a man!” eventually became the civil rights advances of the 1960s. So too must #BlackLivesMatter become something greater than the marches down Lake Shore Drive and through Manhattan and in so many other cities.
For weeks since grand juries in Missouri and New York decided not to indict Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo for killing unarmed suspects, mostly well-intentioned protesters have rallied to the cause of equal justice. That was a good place to start.
However any response equal to the tragedies of Michael Brown’s and Eric Garner’s deaths must examine the root causes of what happened, and rally for legislation that would fix it. Absent a deeper conversation around policy, we run the risk of missing an opportunity to fix a system of mass incarceration that has rounded up millions of black men and condemned them to second-class citizenship.
For comparison, the November 2005 massacre of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha certainly did not call only for a reexamination of the rules of engagement of frontline U.S. troops; it called for an examination of what U.S. troops were doing in Iraq to begin with.
Surely Brown and Garner’s deaths were not just two isolated incidents of intemperate police conduct. Why then have protestors directed their ire at the police, and not policymakers? And if it were directed at policymakers, what specifically would they ask them?
At the moment, we are left to grasp for straws. There have been no 95 Theses posted on the front doors of lawmakers’ district offices. There has been no Civil Rights Act to rally behind. There hasn’t even been a Biden Group assembled. The response to Brown’s and Garner’s deaths has been a rudderless mass of rage.
We need to quickly focus this movement before this moment passes, and like the aftermath of Sandy Hook, return to our daily lives.
In a can-you-top-this sprint to get “tough on crime,” presidents, governors, and mayors of all political stripes have deployed legions police officers to patrol the streets where they believe they are most likely to find crime. You can guess what neighborhoods they rush toward.
As fraternity brothers get high before heading off to a concert or football game, people in the other sections of town – people like Eric Garner – are regularly confronted by police officers, and frequently stopped and frisked, before any concern of what crime has occurred even enters into the discussion.
This is just one element of a system of mass incarceration, and mass incarceration is just the latest in a long line of systems of institutionalized racism: slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, housing covenants. Put simply, we have tightened up drug laws, enforced them mostly against African Americans, levied draconian sentences, labeled those convicted of drug crimes as felons, and condemned them to second-class citizenship for the remainder of their lives.
The United States is now home to about 2 million prisoners, more than quintuple the number of prisoners in 1980 – the beginning of the decade when the crack epidemic was peaking and get-tough-on-crime legislation started taking hold. President Bill Clinton, with the historic – many say very flawed omnibus crime bill of 1994 – accelerated this and the prison population, skewed against minorities, only ballooned as we feared the super-predator generation that never came to pass.
Sentences for drug crimes are so far outside the bounds of the global norm as to resemble North Korea in its absurdity. Administration of justice against such crimes – crimes committed in roughly equal proportion by whites and blacks – is almost entirely directed toward African Americans.
More than 5 million ex-offenders are been legally barred from voting – far more than enough to turn a presidential election.
This is the system thoroughly and aptly described in Ohio State University law professor Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow.” Ending this system of institutionalized racism is the only proper response to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. All other responses are woefully inadequate.
What then is the next step in #BlackLivesMatter?
Perhaps a New Civil Rights Act? New sentencing laws are being worked out, but perhaps legislation that eliminates all mandatory minimums for drug crimes, and instead institute mandatory maximums, requiring states to, at most, sentence first-time drug offenders to treatment programs and not prison?
A New Civil Rights Act would roll back programs like the Byrne Grant that have so strongly incentivized municipalities to strengthen police presence where it simply isn’t needed. And it would rigorously enforce everyone’s constitutional right to vote, regardless of one’s criminal history or possession of a photo ID.
We shouldn’t just look toward Washington for leadership.
At the state and local level we can support reentry programs with proven track records of success, and bar employers from “asking the question” if an applicant has been convicted of a crime until that employer is ready to make an offer.
Time is short. Our collective attention span is short. But sadly, absent fundamental reforms, there will be future opportunities to reform our criminal justice system. Let’s not wait for the next opportunity.
Thomas L. Day is a fellow with the New Leaders Council.