This piece is part of our 2021 Year in Review, a reflection on the issues and causes that mattered most this year – and the tangible ways you can support before year-end.
A whole host of groups, projects, initiatives, and publications like the ARD emerged after the police murder of George Floyd exposed the rotten core of the American “justice” system. Officer Derek Chauvin did not relent when the members of the community he was hired to protect and serve screamed that he was taking a man’s life. And he did not stop when he saw witnesses record his actions for the world to see. It’s hard to imagine more solid proof that such brutality is routine, systemic, and usually free of consequences for those who carry it out. To reckon with this inequality, we must reimagine justice: in the streets, in the courts, for those locked in cages, and those in mourning.
• As civilians: Support the Prison Abolition Initiative, the Audre Lorde Project, and Silicon Valley De-Bug or another participatory defense hub.
• As a community: Make plans for keeping yourself and the people around you safe without calling the police.
• As advocates: Oppose a new jail in Santa Clara County, or locally, and fight laws that would increase criminalization, even when attached to seemingly-progressive causes.
The United States government incarcerates a greater percentage of its population than any other nation in the world. It also incarcerates more people than any other nation, despite China and India both having populations around four times greater. Our first article by a currently-incarcerated writer explores the prison system’s failure to stop crime or create safety. We learn that mass incarceration is extremely successful at something else entirely: generating profits for an array of private corporations.
Of all the forms of harm we might be subjected to, discriminatory violence is perhaps the most shocking. Violence of this sort is rooted in the mere fact that we are one of the millions of people with a certain identity, and that alone makes us repulsive to someone else. We are both placed apart and reduced to a faceless mass, attacked in both body and being. It’s understandable to demand additional punishment for objectionable acts. But hate crime laws themselves have been twisted to punish those they were designed to defend. Demanding the American criminal justice system enact retribution against those who commit discriminatory violence ignores that discriminatory violence is what constitutes American courts, prison, and police, as well.
The sprawling U.S. “justice” system is massive, entrenched, and strongly resistant to demands for justice. It’s tempting to throw up our hands when confronted by its scale. But in the face of gigantic, publicly-funded harms, we don’t have the luxury of turning away. We also can’t be satisfied with superficial or inconsequential reforms. We spoke with Alicia Chavez about participatory defense, a model that has saved marginalized people from serving thousands of years in incarceration. As you read this piece, there are about two million Americans who will spend this holiday season behind bars — more than the total populations of Seattle, Boston, and Atlanta, combined.