On ‘Law and Order’ in ‘America’ and New Imaginations for white People
Author Notes: This piece is directed at white folks, from a white person. It is never my place, or the place of any white human, to speak on behalf of, or advise BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) on these matters. Lots of content warnings including, but not limited to, police, prison, the injustice system, and other forms of murder and rape. Please be in a grounded and resourced place internally to read this, and have time to resource yourself afterward. Feel free to reach out to me to discuss.
Writer, vocalist, sacred scholar, and activist Amber McZeal speaks the hard truth when she says, "The most dangerous space that blackness occupies is within the imagination of whiteness." This is the same space in our brains that continues to justify the existence of police and prisons.
Our Current Reality
In losing touch with our humanity and culture in exchange for our white privilege, we’ve lost the creative, generative, and caring parts of our imaginations, and have replaced them with fear and complicity. How many times have you heard a white family member, boss, teacher or board member say, “that’s just how it is?” and maybe you were left with a sinking feeling, but then, all your responsibility to change shit just evaporated since there’s “nothing you can do,” so you might as well just go back to your latte to alleviate how crappy everything feels? As world-renowned activist and poet Sonya Renee Taylor explains in The Body is Not An Apology, “Systems do not maintain themselves; even our lack of intervention is an act of maintenance. Every structure in every society is upheld by the active and passive assistance of other human beings.”
As white folks, so many of us have so much political power and inherited wealth, and if nothing else, just ease of existence in how we don’t have to fear for our lives being taken by police when we leave the house, or feel the dread of all the racial microaggressions waiting to happen that day. We have the most power to turn the tides of “how it is,” but we are the most resistant to try. It makes sense though -- we white folks get resistant in acknowledging that the systems are working as they were designed -- to “protect” us, to protect white supremacy. If it somehow wasn’t clear enough before, I hope we can now understand how real this is after Trump refused to condemn white supremacy during the debate and told the proud boys, aka today’s KKK, to “stand back, and stand by” (which they are now using as their slogan). So, let’s take a breath, and begin deepening our capacity to envision a world in which we actually want to live. (And if the current world we live in feels good, if we are actually proud to be Americans, we have seriously created a different world in our mind that relies on our white privilege to keep turning.)
In reality, we live in a country in which a grand jury doesn’t indict any officers for murdering a Black woman and medical worker, Breonna Taylor, in her own home. We live in a country in which protesting this violence committed by cops and courts results in the only Black woman legislator in the state, Attica Scott, and her 19-year-old daughter, Ashanti, getting arrested for being out after curfew before the curfew actually started. We live in a country in which cops blocked their path to get to a sanctuary church on time. We live in a country that now has curfews again because the state keeps killing people. Let’s take a moment, perhaps a lifetime, to examine every messed up element in this paragraph, and how we got here. The “justice” system we live under is really an injustice system, and it is structured oh so intentionally, and this is why the whole system must go.
A Bit of History We Were Never Taught
In the upcoming election, I will vote for Biden as the lesser of two evils, but let us be clear, even if he wins, the country he will enforce is not one I want to live in. Biden’s version of law and order can’t be where we get stuck. You can’t “reform” a system that was literally crafted by the Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton administrations to maintain modern day slavery and Jim Crow as described in 13th, which Netflix has posted for free on YouTube. As Michelle Alexander explains in the The New Jim Crow, “Once you are labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination -- employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service -- are suddenly legal.”
Many folks are interested in police training and reform, but the thing is, policing was designed to maintain white supremacy so reforms typically have little or no impact on officer behavior. The number to call when someone is hurt shouldn’t trigger fear, harm, deportation or murder. I don’t want to live in a county in which I wake up and fall asleep to sirens, hoping that Black and Brown folks won’t be harassed or harmed by those police. The system is working as it was designed, and to keep it running that way, police are protected by qualified immunity and prosecutors are protected by absolute immunity. In plain terms, this covers them when they lie, wrongly imprison, and murder people. To take us back even further and explain how policing directly descends from slavery, here’s a two minute video, Slave Patrols: The Birth of the Modern Police for some quick education we never learned in school, which I do encourage you to pause and watch before reading on…
Now that you’re back, take another breath. If we are just learning for the first time how we live under an injustice system, perhaps we can understand how manipulatively designed it truly is. We must be accountable for how we’ve been able to move through life without this understanding so far. The first step, however, is not getting stuck in our shame and guilt, but committing to being more present and engaged moving forward.
Healer, trauma specialist, and author of My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, Resmaa Menakem, talks about how white folks lose our imaginations to fear. We must examine how and why we hold this fear, and how it continues to justify the carceral system, and therefore, the continued murder of Black and Brown folks by the hands of the state, whether by the cops themselves, or slow death by the courts and incarceration.
Resmaa describes how “The white body sees itself as fragile and vulnerable,” and how it turns to cops for protection and safety, while seeing Black folks as simultaneously “dangerously impervious to pain,” “needing to be controlled,” and also “potential sources of service and comfort.” Maybe you don’t personally feel this way, but these messages are woven so deeply into our psyches and bodies that we justify the existence of cops and incarceration. Cops internalize this so deeply that, as Resmaa explains, their “thinking brains” often don’t shoot unarmed Black men; their bodies do, and then they say things like, “I feared for my life.” We must dismantle this white supremacist propaganda from our minds and bodies if we truly care about other human beings, and accessing our own humanity.
Re-imagining Our Imaginations
For those of us who can’t yet imagine living in a society without police and prisons, I would invite us to understand that again, that is by design, and empower us to re-imagine our imaginations. Our inability to imagine a world without police and prisons keeps them intact. When folks say abolish police and abolish prisons, this is what we mean. Sure, it won’t happen overnight, and I honestly can’t imagine it happening in my lifetime, but I am committed to it for life. It would be so much easier to make strides forward in this generation and the ones that follow if more white folks also adopted this mentality, and I am certainly not just talking about republicans. I am looking at, and asking for your help too, well-intentioned white liberals!
Think for a moment about any superhero/villain/vigilante/fantasy movies and books you are familiar with. As white folks, we often have the luxury to think of them as fiction and ponder whether, if we were in that position, would we fight the corrupt state? The thing is, we are in that position. Just because we have the privilege for it to not be our lived reality doesn't mean it isn’t the lived reality for BIPOC, which we then reinforce with our refusal to acknowledge that the corrupt state depicted is our criminal injustice system.
So many of us have the option to escape into our privileged lives. We talk about the news in this detached, intellectualized way as if it’s something sad or terrible “happening over there,” and so often, we really do feel that way if there aren’t Black and Brown people in our lives being traumatized by the violence of the state and by white dominance daily. We have the ability to turn off news and turn to some garbage television. Let me be clear that I am not saying we shouldn’t take breaks and rest -- that is vital, and in fact, white folks, we need to slow all the way down in so many areas, like for at least a few centuries. We can certainly drop the idea of “getting ahead” this second for the rest of our lives. What I am saying about turning off the news is that we have the privilege to disconnect from the fear, grief, and rage that is a constant state of existence for fellow BIPOC. We have the privilege of not having to experience the weight of the news and loss of human life like it is our own family. And then to top that off, we still can’t imagine a world without cops or prisons. We say shit like, “but what about murderers and rapists? We can’t just have them out on the street!” Oh, you mean like cops? They are murderers and rapists and they continue to be out on the street, policing other people, and I don’t hear white folks being scared of them!
So maybe at this point in the conversation someone says, “oh well cops should go to prison too.” Cops must be held accountable, but this response from white folks is another way to prevent us from moving forward. Abolishing prisons and police means abolishing prisons and police. Police do not keep people safe. Prisons to not keep people safe. Crimes happen before either of those injustice systems get involved. Resources and investing in community are what keep people safe.
In this current moment, we as white folks, have a real opportunity to get behind dismantling these systems, but we can’t do that if we can’t imagine where we are going. I want to live in a world where communities of Color have access to as many resources as they need. I want to live in a world in which folks being pulled over for Driving While Black is no longer a thing, in which targeting Black and Brown folks on public transportation to meet quotas, and swarming Black and Brown neighborhoods to enact stop and frisks and jump-outs, aren’t things. I want to live in a world in which people aren’t incarcerated for stealing and kept behind bars without bond or with a bond they can’t pay, so then they just sit in a cage, which often costs them their job, and is a traumatic experience in itself, affecting their mental and physical health. What if, instead of stealing being a “crime” to be “punished,” people were connected with no-to-low-lost cost resources for whatever they needed that they couldn’t afford in the first place because of the systems we live under? What if we lived in a country where community members who couldn’t afford masks got handed masks by community teams, instead of getting handed unpayable fines by cops not wearing PPE?
"Ok fine, but what about really serious crimes?"
Well, first off, let’s take another breath, put our feet on the floor if we can, and release that breath nice and slow. I’m serious. When I said earlier how important it will be for us to slow down as white people, that includes when we read and engage in conversation. We get in our heads and want to “go, go, go,” “fix it,” and “get to the point.” We must build our capacity to hold discomfort and complexity and notice what our bodies are doing as we think and express ourselves. How is our anxiety manifesting? Have we become rigid and stationary in our torsos? Are we sweating, internally or externally? When we are challenged, we start trying to hold on to the good version of ourselves in our heads that we must maintain, and so then we don’t have enough space to be human, to be wrong, to self-correct, breathe, be thankful for feedback, and grow.
As I get into this conversation of “what about murderers and rapists,” I first want to be very clear, I will never tell a survivor of any type of violence what they should, or should not want to happen to their perpetrator, and especially any survivor of Color. I will remind us that this essay is focused on the ways we, as white people, derail conversations and keep systems running as designed. I also want to remind or inform folks of the fact that jails are full of Black and Brown loved ones who can’t pay fines or bail (for misdemeanors white folks would never have been charged for), who are doing time for drug charges (for using and selling drugs white people also use and sell), for “trespassing” and “loitering” (also known as: a white person got anxious because a Black person was existing nearby) and for having mental health episodes that have resulted from what this country does to Black and Brown folks. People lose their jobs, their homes, and their families while they are incarcerated, and if they get out, they have little to no resources to survive on, and end up getting thrown back in a cage. I will remind us of these things, and then point out how we derail conversations and unintentionally justify this entire system by saying, “but what about murderers and rapists?”
We are so far removed from being able to envision new systems designed with actual safety, accountability, mental health services, and community care at the core. Here comes the “well, that’s impossible” or “not in our lifetime.” We have to start somewhere. And if we care about human life, we have to start. I’d like to remind us too that for both of those crimes above, in order to commit those acts, the person is not doing well, mentally, emotionally, financially, or at least is unwell in the sense of how the violent rape culture and racist, sexist, society we live in makes us all unwell. That person has been indoctrinated and/or traumatized to a breaking point of committing violence on another human being. This is where I remind us that cops and prisons do not prevent crime, and they only create further trauma when they are involved. If we start investing in community resources and dismantling the racism, sexism, transphobia and other systems of fear we live in, we can prevent so much crime, and when crime does still happen, we can focus on accountability, healing and justice, justice that will never be found through our injustice system. If you haven’t already watched it, Michaela Coel’s “I May Destroy You” gifts us with such a nuanced depiction of the rape culture we live in, and what accountability culture and support for survivors could look like. Also, how amazing would it be to be able to provide safety, support and healing for survivors and families and friends who have lost loved ones without involving cops who further gaslight and traumatize folks?
What if we took the rest of our lives to focus on building a culture that stops producing humans who reach breaking points of committing extreme violence? And for folks who still do commit horrific crimes, what if we actually really commit to building mental and physical health support systems, supervision and accountability processes, and defer to the most impacted Black and Brown communities on building that so that we don’t replace one system of violence (the carceral system) with another? We can at least start by never shutting down another conversation with “that’s just how it is,” or “what about ‘x’ thing,” that then allows the state-sanctioned death and destruction of Black and Brown loved ones by the hands of cops, courts, and prisons to continue.
“But what can we do?” “How do we do that?”
We can first take a moment to regulate our nervous systems and get out of that sense of new-found urgency that could have been present our entire lives. We can take another breath, and begin, in a less frantic way. Our franticness to “do something/anything” often ends up further endangering People of Color who have been surviving this shit without us, all along. We can do internal work on ourselves, which I describe the importance of in my essay on how our mental health affects our anti-racism work and why, as Resmaa Menakem says, we must “build a culture, not a strategy.” We can make ourselves safer people for BIPOC to be around, physically, mentally, and emotionally. We can read, listen to podcasts, and watch documentaries to learn about the history of this country, our ancestors, and the way epigenetics continues to influence us, and then, we can challenge and educate white family members, colleagues, friends, and partners. We can push groups we are involved in. We can cook (seasoned!) food for folks and listen to, and pay reparations to, BIPOC, in, and out of our lives.
We can write and call elected officials and vote them out of office when they don’t listen to BIPOC movement leaders. We can campaign for, and elect abolitionist officials at every neighborhood, school, and government level. We can find out what work is already happening and support organizations like Black Visions Collective and Reclaim the Block, rather than try to reinvent the wheel that is already turning. We can stop being a cog in that machine. We can support Black-and-Brown-lead movement work, nationally and locally to demilitarize and defund the police, get cops out of schools, end police engagement with ICE, watch the courts, pay bails, do other forms of jail support, and disrupt efforts to open new jails and prisons. Locally in the DMV, Black Lives Matter DC, Life After Release, Court Watch PG, Cop Watch DC and Stop Police Terror Project DC are just a few of the many amazing organizations supporting community members and envisioning new ways of existing. What groups can you support locally, and what do they want from you?
People going into law can become movement lawyers, and medical students can become street medics. Youth who are considering law enforcement can be educated by their families on all the things the education system will keep from them, and they can be supported to find new paths. Folks who are currently working as officers can be encouraged by loved ones to resign and find different passions. We can put pressure on elected officials to release community members from cages, decriminalize sex work, and invest money in affordable housing and food, education, healthcare, schools, living-wage jobs, and programs that protect residents, not criminalize them. The money is there. The systems thrive off us having a scarcity mindset and our belief that we need cops and prisons.
We can refuse to get trapped in our complacent and complicit behaviors, we can re-imagine our imaginations, acknowledge that we live in a designed (and failed) state, and we can start actually caring for one another through mutual aid, which is solidarity, not charity. I could keep going on for pages about all the things we can do, but this video on what mutual is and is NOT does a great job in eight minutes. And then to get your creative juices really flowing about what the world could be, check out writer, healer, and Somatics practitioner, Prentis Hemphill’s podcast called Finding Our Way.
Let’s relearn and nourish our imaginations to envision and move toward a world we actually want to live in, and let’s defer to BIPOC movement leaders in how to redirect resources in ways that won’t replace one system of violence with another.