By Cat Brooks
Last summer, the murder of George Floyd ignited unprecedented support for the movement for Black lives. Finally, after decades of screaming genocide into the ether – only to have it fall on deaf ears –the brutality of Floyd’s public execution seemed to mortify white Americans into action. A national chorus of voices spoke up to stand with Black demands for more accountability for law enforcement and a change to the legal system. Support among white progressives boomed, with thousands joining protests against systemic racism and brutality in policing. Corporations and sports leagues, long allergic to criticizing law enforcement, spoke out en masse against the unequal and abusive treatment of Black people. This wider acknowledgement that profound change was necessary brought the movement to defund the police into the mainstream.
With discussions about transforming policing came fierce opposition from defenders of the status quo, including fear mongering, misinformation, and doomsday predictions that defunding the police would mean BIPOC communities running rampant in the streets, doing whatever fearful white folks think cops keep us from doing. In many circles however, those tactics fell on deaf ears as would-be accomplices in our struggle stood firmly in solidarity with the defense of Black life.
Where is that solidarity now? The fight is far from over and yet, not even a year after thousands took to the streets, and as the police continue to gun down Black and Brown people, there are efforts to take down elected leaders who stand for more accountability and equality in our system. Some of the same people who decry violence towards Black people are leading those charges.
The current effort to recall San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin is one of them. I supported Boudin’s candidacy for DA and I support him now. I support him because unlike most prosecutors, he’s taking real steps to move us away from the criminal industrial complex. Chesa is actively addressing racial bias and disparities, dramatically shrinking the criminal legal system, and respecting the inherent value and potential of all those drawn into it. For the first time in San Francisco, an elected D.A. has held police accountable. This recall effort endangers the safety of Black people in our community, with a looming threat of return to the status quo of mass incarceration, dead Black bodies, and singular pathway pursuits toward public safety.
The criminal legal system inflicts needless and unjust suffering on Black people every day. As compared to other races, Black people are more likely to be arrested, held in jail pretrial, and ultimately convicted. Prosecutors charge Black people with more serious crimes, including those that carry mandatory minimum sentences. We receive disproportionately longer sentences than do people of other races and ethnicities. These patterns hold true at all levels of the criminal legal system, from the least significant to the most serious offenses.
One out of every three Black boys born today can expect to serve time in prison during his lifetime. Hundreds of thousands of Black men and women have disappeared from our communities, leaving loved ones and children without social, emotional, psychological and financial support.
Children with incarcerated parents have a substantially increased likelihood to become homeless, suffer from depression, anxiety, or behavioral problems, struggle with learning disabilities, or become involved in criminal activity. Partners of incarcerated individuals suffer from depression and economic hardship. Members of communities heavily impacted by mass incarceration are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression, even when they have not been incarcerated or had a loved one sent to jail or prison.
Of any actor in the criminal legal system, the prosecutor has the most power to limit or eliminate these types of threats to Black lives. Prosecutors choose not only who will be charged and what sentences will be sought, but also whose potential will be recognized, whose life will be valued, and whose contributions to their families and communities will be respected.
Chesa Boudin is committed to bringing equality, fairness, and humanity to the criminal legal system. Of course, like reimagining policing, substantial changes to our criminal legal system make some uneasy, particularly those whose power is centered in mass incarceration. Boudin’s opponents are using the same tactics that conservative media harnessed to thwart the movement for Black lives: fear mongering, misinformation, and doomsday predictions.
No one who genuinely cares about Black lives can support the effort to remove Boudin. Without progressive prosecutors, we will return to a system where jail and prison are the only acceptable responses to all of society’s ills, where those caught in the criminal legal system are villainized and thrown away, where communities of color continue to be devastated not just by racist policing, but also by inhumane prosecutions, harsh punishments, and mass incarceration and where Black life doesn’t really matter at all.
Cat Brooks is a nationally-recognized Bay area artist and activist against police brutality.