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Black Lives Matter: the role of Justice Defenders in advancing racial equality

17.7.2020

Black Lives Matter: the role of Justice Defenders in advancing racial equality

I was only nine years old, but I vividly remember the photograph on the book cover. It was of a Black man in a striped prison uniform, surrounded by besuited White men constraining him with wide leather straps. The expression on his face was as if life left his body before he was dead.

Later I read about a Black boy named George Stinney. At 14 he was convicted of murdering two White girls. Because of a confession he gave to a sheriff who offered him ice cream and the chance to go home in exchange. George was too small to fit in the electric chair and had to sit on a Bible so his head could reach the electrode.  

As well as being poor and Black, these two humans had another thing in common: a look of defeat. There was no spark in their eyes – pupils replaced by a dull blankness. This is the effect our law and justice system can have. The ability to drive the lifeblood, the joy, the hope of a future from us, and leave us broken.

I’ve seen this same look on the faces of countless prisoners around Africa. And on men, women, and children around the world. Not behind bars or physically restrained, but weighed down by the burden of systemic racism. Stifled in their ability to live fully because of brutality enacted by those specifically charged with community safety. Eyes with no sense of mattering. No hope. No connection. No justice. No peace.

I’m the son of a Jamaican father and a British mother. I write this as the descendent of slaves and slave owners. I come from those who have perpetrated great crimes and those who have suffered. As my very DNA attests, I believe we have the opportunity to make bridges of our lives. To find ways of connecting and recombining, leaving behind what hasn’t served us and moving forward in a radically new way.

Seeing with eyes that have cried

The Black Lives Matter movement was formed in response to specific American challenges. A government founded in ideals of liberty and equality, now embroiled in battles of police brutality, mass incarceration, and systemic racism. As with many others, George Floyd’s death and the events and conversations following it have caused me to shed tears. But the problems evident there are also felt here in the UK, and around the globe. There’s a reason the eyes of the world have fixed on issues of racial justice, and demonstrations and activism have sprung up in all corners. Racial oppression is an invisible web. And when we look closely, we see its very structure is what holds up our systems, governments, and ways of life.

It’s high time the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement receive attention. We’re faced with a collective reckoning of how our justice systems work for some, against others. And this movement – wrapped in a global pandemic that also highlights racial disparity – gives us the chance to examine ways we can make real and lasting change.

People often ask why Justice Defenders trains people behind bars in law rather than simply working to give prisoners access to lawyers. My answer is to quote the words of Saint Oscar Romeo: “There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.” And also because we believe dismantling the threads of injustice can best be done from the margins. That those with the least power in society can be agents of change and reform, unpicking and unraveling the unjust to weave together a seamless garment of justice.

As the Black Lives Matter movement plays out in a country long considered a world superpower, Justice Defenders is working with a quiet urgency in Kenya and Uganda. I’m encouraged daily to see how our defenders of the defenceless are showing a new way of living together. We might be oceans away and each experience unique particulars. But we’re joined in a common cause, dismantling the master’s house from within.

Creating a preferential option for Black lives

I’ve found the 'preferential option for the poor' to be a helpful framework for thinking about how we must prioritise Black lives in our work. The preferential option is an aspect of Catholic social teaching that requires the defenceless and marginalised to be considered primarily when assessing institutions, policies, and lifestyles. This doctrine implies that the moral test of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable members. “The poor have the most urgent moral claim on the conscience of the nation. We are called to look at public policy decisions in terms of how they affect the poor.”

If we apply this frame to matters of law, order, and justice, we can see how powerful a preferential option for Black and brown lives could be in transforming the status quo. When being Black is one of the strongest indicators of poverty. When being Black means you have an exponentially higher probability of being incarcerated, arrested, stopped and searched. When being Black means you’re disproportionally the victim of police brutality. When being Black means you are punished more than White people who commit the same offences.

And if we also take to heart a mantra of ‘radical integration,’ we commit to breaking down any barriers that exist within our community. Finding ways to elevate voices that are traditionally muffled. Hiring people from defenceless communities. And connecting those from vastly different walks of life through conversation and reflection in a soon-to-be-launched series we’re calling Unlikely Allies.

Reimagining the relationship between offender and law enforcement

Even as the Covid-19 crisis spreads across the globe, I received a WhatsApp video from our team in Kenya. It was of a woman named Susan from Machakos Prison. In her prison uniform and issued face mask, she sat in front of a computer in a plastic chair. She was attending her own virtual hearing with the high court. In the video, the judge informs her she's been acquitted from her murder charge. And after being held for five years in prison on remand, she was now free. I watched her weep in joy and relief, as cheering and singing breaks out across the prison yard from fellow inmates rejoicing alongside her. And then she’s held in a long embrace by a female prison guard. The same person charged with her confinement and keeping, now celebrating alongside her.

Our community of Justice Defenders is comprised of those from either side of the aisle. Prisoners and prison guards. Defense paralegals, judges, and magistrates. Police officers and day laborers. We’re proving every day we can radically reimagine relationships between those in the justice system and the officials who enforce public safety. Reflecting a new way of thinking about what these relationships could be. Connection, compassion, and restoration is possible. And adversaries don’t have to be created as communities seek public safety and justice.

Disrupting a justice system built by and for colonists

As we witness these moments of relationship, we step back to view our larger context. The prisons in which we work are outposts of colonial times, built during a period of British rule where containment and control of poor, Black people was a means of subjugation. The same powdered wig justice system set up in Kenya and Uganda is modeled after British courts.

In these prisons, it looks like White prisoners wearing trousers while Black ones wear shorts. It looks like White prisoners receiving more, higher quality food than the Black imprisoned people. In my father’s country of Jamaica, the Cat O’ Nine Tails was used to whip prisoners until 1997 – a holdover from the time of slavery.

The Kenyan prison system still feels the ripple effect of colonial rule of law: loitering punishable by imprisonment. Those who attempt suicide receiving imprisonment rather than care. Impossible fines slapped on minor offences, detention therefore inevitable. Poverty handled punitively.

In stark contrast, the entire Justice Defenders model proves the loftiest of ideals don’t require execution by the elite. Rather, we put the power of the law into the bound hands of the disenfranchised. Proving that radical integration is the only means of ensuring liberty and justice for all.

Weaving a seamless garment of justice

While the Black Lives Matter movement is US-centric, the issues it raises reverberate worldwide. I strongly believe there's a fundamental alignment of the work of Justice Defenders, the ethos of BLM, and our global reckoning of the costs of racial inequality. Yet as I state this, I want to be clear: we cannot use this movement to frame every story of injustice. Doing so is opportunistic whitewashing, a version of ‘All Lives Matter’ we cannot ratify out of respect for the unique circumstances underpinning BLM.

Justice Defenders’ engagement with the Black Lives Matter movement should be marked by both humility and ambition. Humility in recognising the powerful work which is already underway. And the ways it grew from specifically American processes of racial injustice, violent policing, and mass incarceration. Ambition emerging from the fundamental alignment of the aims of Justice Defenders and the ethos of BLM: searching for justice for communities ‘systematically targeted for demise.’ And in doing so, our goal is to practically connect the injustices experienced by our defenceless communities with the structural issues engaged by BLM. Because in the words of MLK, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

In solidarity,

Alexander McLean
Director General and Founder