(photo by Jamelle Bouie)
“Black Lives Matter.” For over four months, protestors from across the country have been stating both this simple fact and profound demand on a daily basis. Young activists from Ferguson and dozens of other cities have seized this moment to remind the country that change does not occur without a demand. Their energy and commitment in the streets have elevated the moment from one of tragedy to one of transformation. They have created a historic moment ripe for reflection.
“Black Lives Matter” has been carried on protest signs by thousands—a rallying cry for the immediate need to keep Black folks alive. But, as the creators and organizers of “Black Lives Matter” understand, this movement for transformative change is more than just about communities surviving; it’s also about thriving. This requires a deeper look at the role of government in creating the conditions from which predominantly Black communities like Ferguson emerge.
Already, folks across the country are sharing a wide range of solutions (Check out #FergusonNext). One thing is clear among all of these solutions: the criminal justice system, as it stands, must be transformed—from police departments to courts and from its reach into neighborhoods to its presence in schools.
While transforming the criminal justice system is urgent and necessary, it is not sufficient in order to achieve the thriving communities that we all deserve. In our rush to a quick fix we must not lose sight of the demands to invest in communities of color that government has ignored or actively disinvested from.
Essentially, we have yet to grapple with the realities in which our government over time has systematically disinvested from neighborhoods—realities which deeply impact the life trajectories of communities of color, particularly Black people. This is the context from which a neighborhood like Ferguson emerges. Government policies and practices have fueled a cycle of poverty and criminalization, which robs communities like Ferguson of dignity and opportunity, increases racial biases, and foments distrust between police departments and the people they are suppose to serve.
Our criminal justice system is a response to the symptoms we’ve created. We’re told that policing upholds the rule of law and keeps citizens safe. Yet we ignore the structural violence that government and public institutions have created, in which police act more as an occupying force maintaining the status quo. If we are to be driven by the premise that “Black Lives Matter,” we need to find solutions that create structural transformation, and that means not just overhauling our criminal justice system, but overhauling other institutions as well.
Historically, local, state, and national governments have played primary roles in creating racially segregated neighborhoods. Historically, redlining and zoning rules across the country consistently have disadvantaged Black folks and downgraded the credit ratings of predominantly neighborhoods of color. Today, Blacks are more likely to receive a subprime loan than Whites earning the same amount of money. Before 1954, segregated schools were the law. 60 years later, our schools continue to have profound racial segregation—and we see the results in school funding and student achievement across race. This is a direct result of discriminatory housing policies and practices as well as the move towards privatizing of public schools. All of this, along with many other racialized policy decisions, results in the huge and widening wealth gap that drive outcomes for Black communities.
What results from the cumulative, multigenerational impact of these policies? Neighborhoods just like Ferguson. And the policies of segregation and disinvestment in these communities then create the very outcomes that fuel racial bias and fear.
This is our history. It’s a history driven by government and public institutions.
What steps can we take?
In the immediate term, we can take steps to stop the deaths. We need deep and sustainable changes in the criminal justice system. We need body cameras. We need police officer training in de-escalation, the history of racism, and the histories of the communities they serve. We need federal investigations of the shootings and review of use of force, as well as accountability for excessive and deadly use of force.
These are but a few steps of many still needed for justice, and we need more tools to save lives in the immediate term. At this point, the relationship between police and community is tattered. Building trust requires recognition of the historical antagonistic and destructive relationship between the police and communities of color, and an overhaul of the policies and practices that have shaped police institutions for decades. Transforming police departments means working within departments to re-envision what “to protect and serve” actually means.
In Seattle, as part of my work in helping to create a community police commission, the community asked the department to track and report its own race-based disparities in policy and practice. Not only must community hold the police accountable, but police officers must learn to hold each other accountable.
But this is the immediate term. To be clear, we need less policing and more community alternatives to policing, but this also requires a strong foundation from which to build those solutions.
In housing, we need to think about mixed income development tied to opportunity-building infrastructure like good public transportation and access to healthy food. In jobs, we need policies like the earned income tax credit and access to Broadband technology for businesses. In education, we need to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline. Within Ferguson’s local economy, we need more opportunities for residents to own and direct infrastructure rather than merely to be consumers. And, we need capital and financing to start building that infrastructure.
All of these are interconnected, and each policy change builds to the next level of opportunity. This is what it means to disrupt structural racism, and this is our charge today.
Communities know that the roots of this crisis go beyond the criminal justice system. The creators of “Black Lives Matter” know this. They know that the crisis we find ourselves in is not new; it’s been years in the making. This is the call for us to act. We must transform our institutional cultures that perpetuate racial inequities into institutions that advance racial equity. Policies created these conditions and policies can undo them. Will you join us?
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