Drastically Changing How We Fight for Justice in America
Like most of you, I have a lot on my mind today.
I am so deeply disturbed by gun violence and mass shootings in this country. The thought that 17 families sent their children to school yesterday in Parkland, Florida — only for them to be shot and killed with an AR-15 assault rifle, a weapon of war basically, by a man who everybody in the school feared would one day do such a thing — the thought is just overwhelming.
Last night I wrote a tweet that ended up being the single most shared tweet in the country yesterday. It says,
And I want to pause right there for a moment and inject a thought.
For several weeks now, I have planned on making an announcement this afternoon on a new project I am joining to help change the game with America’s crisis of police brutality and mass incarceration. But early this morning, as I woke up to prepare for the Tom Joyner Morning Show, I had a revelation.
A primary reason we struggle to make a deep lasting impact on any particular issue in this country, including mass shootings, and gun violence, and police brutality, and all of the many different issues related to the tangled web of mass incarceration, part of why we sincerely struggle to change, even though we have every necessary tool and resource to make change, is because our nation moves from crisis to crisis, emergency to emergency. It’s exhausting.
The United States of America is an exhausting place.
You might’ve heard me say it before, but I’ll say it again — in this country, in our own communities, it often feels like our house is on fire and when your house is on fire, it’s hard to focus on strategic plans and policies, when your house is on fire, it’s really, really hard to focus on the big picture, because of the emergency right in front of your face.
I had to say this, because as I travel the country, one of the questions I get over and over again is “Shaun, why does it seem like this country has a total inability to fix its worst problems?”
And I think the answer is four-fold:
1. I think we struggle to focus on any one problem long enough to craft meaningful solutions.
2. The solutions we often craft just aren’t nuanced or comprehensive or sophisticated or thorough enough for the actual problems that we’re facing.
3. I think we are coming to understand that many of our worst problems, including things like mass shootings and mass incarceration, stay where they are because they have very powerful, well-funded people and groups behind the scenes fighting to protect guns and prisons and police.
4. Lastly, it’s sincerely a matter of will. Do we have the sheer force of will, the determination, even the anger and emotion, the drive to force hardcore solutions to our worst problems? Do we have the will to force those solutions into existence?
WHY I’M MAKING A DECISION TODAY
Four years ago, in the summer of 2014, I was the Director of Communications for an international environmental charity called Global Green. With 5 kids from pre-school to high school and my wife working full-time as a school teacher in South Central Los Angeles, my primary objective in life was mainly thinking centered around finally providing some stability for my family.
All the way back in 1999, I was protesting police brutality right here in New York when the NYPD fired 41 shots at a brilliant unarmed, non-violent young brother, Amadou Diallo, on the doorstep of his home — killing him right there. That injustice radicalized me. For many of us, it was our Ferguson moment.
A few months later I was elected Student Government President at Morehouse. Back then I was known as an activist and speaker and organizer. I literally owned my own megaphone. I was that dude. Then everything changed.
My longtime girlfriend was pregnant. Yeah, I knew how babies were made, but it wasn’t planned. Soon we were married, in college, trying to support ourselves, 9/11 happened, and the country was a mess. I was working full-time. We barely graduated.
And in that moment, I left my life as an activist behind. Of course I still cared about police brutality and racial violence, but I now found myself just trying to keep my head above water. We adopted our five year old niece, bought a home we couldn’t really afford, and at 23 years old, I was married, with two kids, and working full-time as a high school history and civics teacher.
Soon, I started working full-time as a teacher and counselor in Atlanta’s justice system — traveling from jail to jail, prison to prison, sometimes teaching five classes a day, five days a week. I started a church in inner city Atlanta. I ran campaigns for children in Atlanta Public Schools. I started and sold several businesses, and eventually found myself, in a cushy cubicle, doing decent work, for Global Green.
And then I got an email that changed the entire trajectory of my life. A former classmate of mine at Morehouse who still knew me and saw me as “Shaun the Activist,” emailed me, as my classmates would often do, to tell me about an injustice they had heard about.
This is July of 2014. My God, so much has happened not just in my life, but in the nation, and the world since then. You have to go back in time a bit. Facebook Live didn’t exist. Hashtags were new. You really couldn’t even upload videos to Twitter yet.
“Shaun — this is an emergency man. I’m sending you this YouTube link,” my friend wrote.
What was on the other end, had not yet gone viral. In fact, no video of a fatal encounter with police had ever gone viral at that point.
My friend continued, “Man, this is murder. It looks like a middle-aged Black man on a street corner here in New York. He’s begging the police to just leave him alone when a plain clothes officer comes up behind him and begins choking him UFC style. Shaun, the cop drags the dude to the ground, and keeps choking him. It was like Radio Raheem man. Dude kept saying he couldn’t breathe, and the cop kept choking him until he died right there on the sidewalk Shaun.”
I didn’t know it yet, but on the other side of that link was Eric Garner being murdered by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo.
I clicked the link there at my cubicle. It was just as my friend described, but worse, much worse. In broad daylight, an unarmed, non-violent man was confronted, choked, and killed by the NYPD while a host of cops just looked on and did nothing.
I was shook. I literally never had a another productive day at my job again. A few weeks later John Crawford was killed at a Wal-Mart in Ohio, then Mike Brown was killed on Canfield Drive in Ferguson, and I learned, as the nation learned, that those men weren’t the first three people killed by American police that year, but were around the 700th people killed by police in 2014. The award-winning databases on police brutality had not yet been built. Most of the names and stories had never gone viral, but I accepted, as did millions of people all over the world, that our nation was in a full blown crisis.
That month Ieft my job at Global Green and began immediately organizing people around issues of injustice in America. I began writing stories about each case, breaking down the facts, and sharing the pain that families were experiencing from their own perspective. I met those families, and saw their pain up close with my own eyes.
I became personal friends with Erica Garner and with so many other families affected by police violence.
With our nation reeling from the murders of Eric Garner, John Crawford, and Mike Brown, an officer in Cleveland, who had been fired from his previous department for gross incompetence and had noted on his termination record by his supervising officer that he should never work in law enforcement, shot and killed a beautiful 12 year old boy, Tamir Rice.
And it’s right here that I have to confess a huge mistake that I made for the entire fall and winter of 2014. It was mainly based in ego, but I believed every bit of it.
Over and over again, I looked family members who had lost loved ones to police violence, I looked them right in the eye and told them, “Don’t worry. We will get justice for your family.”
Nobody on earth could’ve told me otherwise.
34 years old at the time, I had operated my entire life under the assumption that focus, determination, organization, and hard work would pay off. And for most of my life that was true. When I fought hard for something, focused, and organized, and then surrounded myself with other people who were doing the same, it normally worked.
I knew how hard I was working for justice. I was working morning, noon, and night. I knew how hard thousands and thousands of others, many who had also left their jobs, were working, and I just could not imagine a scenario where so many of us marched, protested, boycotted, demonstrated, petitioned, organized, and hashtagged, against injustices that clearly violated not just police department rules, but laws, I could not imagine a scenario where our hard work would not produce justice.
I grossly underestimated the gravitational pull of America’s justice system toward white supremacy. The entire world saw the injustice, and was disturbed.
What I never imagined was that America’s justice system was fully willing to watch millions of us march and protest, see tens of millions of us Facebook and tweet and dominate the trending topics, and that every case would be the top news story in the nation, over and over and over again, and do nothing.
And with rare exception, that’s about how much justice we got for families — none. None at all.
None for the family of Eric Garner.
None for the family of John Crawford.
None for the family of Mike Brown.
None for the family of Tamir Rice.
None for the family of Rekia Boyd.
None for the family of Freddie Gray.
None for the family of Philando Castile.
I’ll stop. I could literally name over 3,000 more names here of families that didn’t receive a hint, or even a shadow or taste of justice. Just nothing. And I’m just talking about fatal police encounters.
I can only speak for myself here, but I had a gross misunderstanding of the who, what, when, where, why, and how of justice for families affected by police brutality.
And it was at that time, in part for my own well-being and sanity, but mainly so that we could finally begin getting families the justice they deserve, that I began searching for how we could fight for justice for families affected by police violence and misconduct and corruption — and actually win. Every protest, every march, every tweet and Facebook post, they were all necessary. They just aren’t enough.
So I wrote this 25 part series on how to solve the crisis of police brutality in America. None of the solutions are magic potions. Some of them must be enacted in partnership with others. Many will take years to pass and then several more years before we actually see the results. Each one will only reduce police brutality by a few percentage points — making the change virtually undetectable on the macro level, but we must understand that those percentage points equal lives saved. And when you enact 25 reforms, with each reform reducing police brutality by 2–3%, we have a chance of cutting police violence in half in 10 years, and by nearly 75% in 20 — leaving us with something like 300 people killed per year by American police instead of 1,200 — taking us from 3 people per day being killed by police to less than 1 per day. Those changes matter. Most of the names of police brutality victims that you’ve come to know across the years would be saved by these meaningful reforms. Those men, women, and children would just be everyday strangers to the masses of us — living their normal life.
Again, this is to say that actually reducing police brutality is a complex Rubik’s Cube of a problem. When we reduce the problem to a platitude like “ending white supremacy,” which I damn sure want to see ended as well, we trivialize the mechanics at work. It’d be like staring at the flood ravaged neighborhoods of Hurricane Katrina and yelling “Black Power.” I want black power, and even believe it must be said out loud, but saying it, and producing it, are wildly different. Amos Wilson’s legendary text, Blueprint for Black Power, for instance, is over 1,000 pages long — because the solutions to our problems absolutely require that level of specificity.
Imagine needing to make a complex cross country roadtrip and being forced to use a simple one page drawing of the United States as your only guide. How are you supposed to know what turns to make or high traffic areas to avoid? You could end up winging it, and maybe still get to where you need to go, but winging it is not good enough for this fight for criminal justice reform — not at all. And too often we are bringing painfully simple solutions to massively complex problems. Listen — I’m putting myself right there, as well. Most of our solutions for criminal justice reforms could be sketched on the back of a napkin or squeezed on to a page or two of a website.
I want you to know why I think this is good news. It’s good news because our worst problems have not yet seen our best solutions. We’re barely even scratching the surface.
But with all of my travels, all of my research and writings, all of my failures and victories as an organizer, here is what I think is the most essential, capacity and momentum building first step to not only reduce police brutality, but to effectively combat the entire crisis of mass incarceration itself.
We must change the primary gatekeepers of America’s justice system.
If you read my piece from earlier this week, you saw me press my case that no single person or position in the entire nation directly impacts every metric of America’s justice system more than one single person — your local prosecutor. Most of the nation calls them District Attorneys or DA’s for short. Some states call them the Commonwealth’s Attorney. Other states and districts call them the State’s Attorney — it’s all basically the same role. It’s the elected prosecutor for your city, county, or region, depending on where you live.
Our nation has 2,400 elected prosecutors. Not thousands, but millions and millions of cases come through 2,400 officers every single year. And it is these elected prosecutors who decide not just whether or not violent or corrupt cops are prosecuted, but these prosecutors decide how seriously to take those cases and how many staff members to put on them.
These prosecutors are 95% white, 81% male, and only 1% of them are women of color. They are also, as you can imagine, overwhelmingly conservative. Hundreds of them are effectively serving what amounts to unofficial lifetime appointments because they basically run unopposed term after term. Some of these prosecutors have been in office for over 30 years.
And they wouldn’t know a serious challenge if it smacked them in the face.
That’s where we come in.
No position in all of politics is more overdue for a complete reboot than that of America’s 2,400 District Attorneys. It’s ripe for innovation.
Today I am announcing that I am joining the Real Justice PAC, a grassroots political team determined to reimagine and completely overhaul America’s justice system. I will be joining an already talented staff as Co-Founder and as a lead organizer.
Before I tell you about our team and our plan — and how you can join us — I need to explain a deeply entrenched systemic crisis that is a direct cause for why those leading the justice system are so deeply disconnected from the people and families they prosecute.
I hope I can do justice to what I am about to attempt to explain.
America’s tax laws are putting up a thick barrier, a force field if you will, that is effectively preventing the most capable advocates for criminal justice reform from telling the full truth about the problems of the system, and who can solve those problems.
Over the past three months, as I’ve prepared to make this announcement today, I’ve come face to face with this problem dozens of times. Let me explain…
At last count, we have over 70,000 black churches in America. The leaders of those churches, because of various tax laws, are not allowed to use their buildings or pulpits for explicit political endorsements.
So, we have 2,400 District Attorneys in power, with 70,000+ pastors who cannot freely campaign for alternatives.
It goes much deeper than that.
Because of tax laws governing charities, including almost every single civil rights organization you’ve ever heard of, those organizations are not allowed to endorse political candidates or use their resources in political campaigns of any kind.
That includes most fraternities and sororities. It even includes hardcore justice organizations that do amazing work, but would lose their non-profit status if they actually endorsed a political candidate.
It includes pretty all school and colleges as well.
Think for a moment about the traditional seats of black power and influence in America. Our teachers, preachers, pastors, non-profit and civic leaders basically have their hands tied.
So guess what they say when it comes time to vote?
That’s about it. If they say much more than that, it could truly jam them up.
Can I be frank?
“Go vote” is not enough. The proof is the very system itself.
If “go vote” was enough, our 2,400 prosecutors would look and feel and act very differently.
If “go vote” was enough, Republicans would not control the House, Senate, Presidency, Supreme Court, and the majority of governorships and state legislatures right now.
What I am about to say pains me. I am not pointing at you. I am owning it.
We got where we are right now because we’ve been out-organized.
People who mean us great harm are in power right now because they have out-organized us.
Yes, they’ve often gerrymandered their way into success, but even that was them out-organizing us.
Yes, they’ve often enacted laws and policies on who can and cannot vote, but that is simply another expression of them out-organizing us.
When the primary people who have influence and power in our communities are not even really allowed to educate you on who to vote for and against, we’re in trouble.
This is the root of why I have decided to shift all of my organizing energy and efforts into the Real Justice PAC.
We are completely and totally unrestricted. Toward that end, and this is actually a serious problem, we are one of the only fully unrestricted organizations in this country when it comes to criminal justice reform. 99% of the other groups and organizations, because of those of their tax status, either cannot get involved at all in the work we are about to do, or have great restrictions on just how much they can say or do.
What that means is that when you give to our work, or to the candidates we’re going to support, your donation is not tax deductible. We have, in essence, decided to trade in the genuinely wonderful gift of tax breaks for you and for us, in exchange for being able to do this critical work without ever feeling muzzled.
We feel very, very strongly that this tradeoff is necessary.
Now let me tell you about the work we’re doing.
Before most of the nation ever heard of the Real Justice PAC, we worked on the ground in two very important DA’s races — one in Philadelphia that helped elect Larry Krasner — who may very well be the most progressive DA in America and the other was in Portsmouth, Virginia where we worked with and helped get Stephanie Morales reelected.
Krasner has just been in office for a few weeks but is already doing amazing work.
The race in Portsmouth may sound like small potatoes, but it was actually one of the most important races in the nation. Stephanie Morales was one of the only DA’s in America who charged an officer in the murder of an unarmed black teenager, and actually got a conviction. Nationally, it was widely believed that any DA who did such a thing could never win reelection. Stephanie Morales proved otherwise. People want criminal justice reform — period.
So those are two amazing DA’s, but we have over 2,400 of them to go.
What We’re Demanding from District Attorneys
Our team is fiercely independent. We’re not simply looking to elect Democrats as prosecutors. Hundreds of the worst prosecutors in America are lifelong Democrats. That political affiliation, when it comes to criminal justice, has not proven itself to mean so much.
We’re much more interested in the actual positions of prosecutors and candidates. Here is what we are looking for. It’s a platform for a 21st century prosecutor and was built in partnership with the Justice Collaborative:
Prosecutors can and should use this power to end the scourge of mass incarceration in America. The United States has the largest prison population in the world, and 87 percent of those imprisoned are held in state or local prisons and jails. The United States’ over-reliance on incarceration and harsh punishment is both costly and ineffective; it exacts enormous financial, emotional, and social costs on communities across the country while exacerbating recidivism and leading to more crime.
This platform outlines specifically how local prosecutors — through a combination of prosecutorial discretion and policy reforms — can address key drivers of mass incarceration. It relies on five basic principles:
1. Ensure that everyone is treated equally under the law
2. End the War on Drugs.
3. Promote Transparency and Accountability.
4. Promote Policies that Aid Undocumented Communities.
5. Make Punishment Fair.
— — Let me break those down for you.
1. Ensure that everyone is treated equally under the law
- End the Use of Money Bail: The continued use of unjust money bail policies contributes to the overall incarceration of poor people and disproportionately harms people of color by keeping them incarcerated simply because they cannot afford to pay bail.
- Make Diversion Programs Accessible to All: Pretrial diversion creates opportunities for people charged with an offense to get the support and education necessary for rehabilitation, and allows successful individuals to avoid the collateral consequences of a conviction, which can be detrimental to future employment, housing, and education. Pretrial diversion should be available to anyone eligible to participate in the program, irrespective of an individual’s ability to pay a fine or fee.
- Avoid the Criminalization of Poverty: Local criminal justice systems disproportionately harm people living in poverty. Whether through the imposition of fines and fees as a condition to resolving cases, or through laws that effectively criminalize homelessness, local actors have imposed a poverty penalty on many people within our communities. Locally-elected prosecutors should adopt the following policies to reduce the number of people who remain in jails or have criminal convictions simply because they are poor.
- End Civil Asset Forfeiture: In many states, law enforcement can seize money, personal belongings, and property from people without even charging them with a crime or obtaining a conviction. Often, the money seized is then used to pad law enforcement budgets. There is no place for this practice, which has received criticism from across the ideological spectrum. Prosecutors must resolve to put an end to asset forfeiture in their counties.
- End Debtor’s Prison: Thousands of people are jailed for fines they cannot afford to pay for low level, traffic, and quality of life offenses. Incarceration destabilizes individual’s lives, the lives of their families, the community as a whole. No person should be jailed because they could not pay a fine or fee.
2. End the War on Drugs.
- Keep People Out of Jail for Drug-Related Offenses: Years of experience with aggressive yet ineffective drug laws and the latest medical research on addiction suggest that treating drug use as a public health issue, as opposed to a criminal justice issue, is a more effective approach to reducing harm. Locally-elected prosecutors should adopt the following policies or engage in the following actions to reduce the number of people in jails and prisons for drug-related offenses.
- Treat Opioid Addiction as a Public Health Problem: The opioid crisis claims tens of thousands of lives every year, and has shown few signs of abating. Prohibitionist policies did not win the war on drugs, and they will not end this crisis. Prosecutors can play an important role in ending the crisis, but only if they treat addiction as a public health crisis, rather than a criminal justice concern.
3. Promote Transparency and Accountability to the Community
- Engage with the Community You Represent: Enhancing transparency and accountability within the district attorney’s office is critical to ending the win-at-any-cost pursuit of high conviction rates that fails communities and to ensuring community accountability. Providing the community with information about arrest rates, charging decisions, and sentencing policies will help build and maintain trust between the office and the community it serves.
- Create an Independent Public Integrity Unit: The district attorney must be committed to rigorously and independently investigating and prosecuting police and other official misconduct. An independent Public Integrity Unit tasked with investigating and prosecuting alleged instances of public corruption, fraud, police shootings, or other abuses of power will help avoid concerns about bias in cases involving police misconduct.
- Develop Policies that Ensure the Integrity of Convictions: Law enforcement officials and prosecutors will inevitably make mistakes. The consequences of wrongful convictions are manifold; the innocent person spends years in prison for a crime he did not commit, and justice continues to elude the victim’s family. Prosecutors must be vigorous in re-examining prior cases whenever there is credible evidence of innocence, and must develop policies that limit the possibility of future wrongful convictions.
4. Promote Policies that Aid Undocumented Communities
In the last year, undocumented communities have come under increasing attack because of increasingly vicious federal immigration laws. These policies not only allow for deportation because of minor allegations like possession of drugs, but they also make communities less safe, as undocumented victims fear going to court or speaking to law enforcement. Prosecutors protect our most vulnerable individuals.
5. Make punishment fair.
- Treat Kids Like Kids: Children’s brains continue developing until around the age of 25 and research supports their enhanced capacity for rehabilitation. As a result, children should not be prosecuted in adult court, nor should they be given punishments that preclude the opportunity for redemption. Locally-elected prosecutors should adopt the following policies to ensure that children are treated like children in the criminal justice system.
- Do Not Seek the Death Penalty: The use of the death penalty has become increasingly isolated to a handful of jurisdictions within the United States. There is mounting evidence that the death penalty is fraught with error, provides no additional public safety benefit over other available sentences, and is routinely used against individuals with diminished culpability, including persons with intellectual disabilities and severe mental illness, youthful offenders under the age of 21, and those who have experienced extreme childhood trauma. Locally-elected prosecutors should use their discretion not to seek the death penalty.
- Promote Proportionate Sentencing and Pathways to Second Chances: People are more than their worst acts, and even people who commit the most serious offenses often change their lives profoundly over time. To recognize the worth and potential for growth in all people, it is important for local prosecutors to provide individualized consideration to the character and background of each person and to the circumstances surrounding the commission of the offense. It also is critical for elected prosecutors to promote opportunities for release, through parole or clemency, and to help remove barriers to reentering society for those who are released from incarceration.
- Eliminate Unnecessary Punishments: Criminal punishments for certain crimes, including quality-of-life offenses, are by definition excessive. They saddle people with criminal records, and therefore lifelong barriers to economic success, who pose no public safety risk.
Electing 2,400 progressive, reform-minded prosecutors is a mammoth task and will require grassroots organizing on a scale that has never quite been done before. Our experienced team, though, is up for the task. We’re all hardcore organizers with the experience building massive coalitions from the ground up. That’s what this is going to take.
I have 7 priorities I will be focusing on straight away.
- Building a searchable national database detailing every single DA in America, the important dates of their primaries and general elections, what their views are on essential issues, and who the local leaders and organizers are on the ground that can help either flip that DA seat or hold a good DA accountable.
- Recruiting strong, reform-minded candidates for local prosecutor positions all over the country. This is not just about checking the right boxes, it’s about finding women and men who genuinely care about reform and have a demonstrated history that they will not buckle under pressure once in office.
- Building a grassroots movement of organizers and volunteers in all 2,400 districts.
- Educating the nation on the essential role of local prosecutors in the fight for criminal justice reform
- Providing on the ground support in important DA races all over the country. Most candidates for District Attorney are not natural organizers or fundraisers. Many don’t even have a presence on social media because they have often previously served in very private judicial roles. This puts them at a tremendous disadvantage to the incumbent prosecutor who often has huge local name recognition after years of being featured throughout the local news.
- Jumping right into urgent races that have important primaries and general elections coming up very soon.
- Raising funds and finding financial partners for our efforts so that we can steadily expand the reach and depth of our work. We expect to spend at least $1 million this year, but that will only allow us to have an impact in a small percentage of races. We will need to raise much more than that to have the impact we need to have. Put it like this — last year the NRA had a budget of over $300 million. And clearly it is working for them.
If you’ve made it this far, you are clearly committed to the cause. Here are the first two action steps that we need you to take.
- Sign up right away to join our team. We really need your phone number as a part of this process because we will be hosting calls and providing information via text often.
- Donate to our efforts. It’s going to take your financial support for us to change the game here.
Over the next few days, I am going to help introduce you to our first candidates in San Antonio and Dallas. This is going to be where the rubber meets the road.
Also, on Wednesday, February 21st we are hosting a big event in Dallas and I’d love for you to be there. RSVP here.