I wanna get right to it and make one clear, strong point for you right now. It might surprise you. It’s important that we get our language right with what I’m about to say – because I hear a lot of us saying it wrong. We mean well, but we’re off.
Our criminal justice system is not broken – no, it’s not broken. It’s functioning just the way it was designed and intended and financed to function.
When we say the criminal justice system in this country is broken, it suggests that it is a well designed, well orchestrated, well meaning system that has developed some flaws along the way, but that’s not what we have. Our criminal justice system – from our laws, to policing in America, to the system of mass incarceration that now has 2.3 million people in prison and millions more under supervision, is a fundamentally oppressive, white supremacist system designed to destroy our communities.
It’s not broken. It’s firing on all cylinders.
It’s not broken. It’s operating like a well-oiled machine.
It’s not broken. Not at all.
America’s police departments, America’s courts, and America’s jails and prisons work the way they work on purpose. We must stop saying the system is broken, because that suggests we just need to tinker with it a little bit. When we say the criminal justice system is simply broken, we are suggesting that it just needs some quick fixes and basic reforms and that’s not at all what we’re up against.
Let me give us some numbers.
Last year, at least 102 fully unarmed Black men, women, and children were killed by police in this country. To give that number some context, we would have to go all the way back to 1902 to find a single year in America where that many Black folk were lynched. That means that last year, more unarmed Black folk were killed by police than were lynched in any single year for the past 104 years.
We don’t get to that point on accident.
Right now, more African Americans are in jail, prison, or on some type of supervised probation than we had enslaved during the height of slavery in this country.
The United States, in spite of having just about 5% of world’s population, has nearly 25% of the world’s prisoners.
This is not on accident. Not only do we have FAR more prisoners than any other country in the world, we also have the highest percentage of our citizens in prison of any country in the world – and that includes countries like Russia, China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia that we like to make out to be repressive regimes.
We are a repressive regime.
In fact, and this is shocking for me to say, but it’s true, black folk in America are the most heavily policed, heavily incarcerated people, not just in the world today, but in the history of the world. Let me repeat that – with the exception of a few wars, you will never find more people in jail and prison, in the history of the entire world, than we have with black folk in America right now.
That’s staggering. More Black men and women are currently incarcerated in this country, by total number and percentages, than were locked up in Apartheid South Africa.
I’m 37 years old, and for any listeners who are about my age or younger, this is the only America we know, but it has not always been this way! From 1865 – 1975, we steadily had 200,000 people in jail and prison, but during the Nixon Administration, it was decided, in powerful, painful ways to criminalize Blackness itself and in our lifetime, because of what Michelle Alexander calls the New Jim Crow, our prison population has exploded by over 1,000%.
Listen, if you have not yet seen yet seen 13th, which is the new Netflix documentary on the criminal justice system by Ava DuVernay, you need to do that right away. It’s far and away the most important, informative, enlightening 2 hours you’ll spend watching a screen this week.
In it, a powerful group of scholars, leaders, and activists repeatedly make the same point I’m making right now – this justice system is not an accident, it’s not broken, but it was BUILT ON PURPOSE.
I’ll close with this thought…
When it comes to criminal justice, mass incarceration, and police brutality – our organization has to match our outrage. We are being outspent and out-organized by the forces behind this system, but I sense the tide is turning.
What we’re up against is serious, but every problem we have ever faced down in this country, when we unify and organize, we win.
We’ve done it before. We can do it again!