In the last two weeks, my criminal justice campaigns team at Color Of Change has helped more than 6.5 million people take action to demand justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others killed and brutalized by police in our country. On Breonna Taylor’s birthday today, June 5, we honor their lives and recommit ourselves to fight for systemic change, so we never have to watch another police murder video, chant another name in the streets, or #justice on social media. That’s the vision, and while it may seem far off as our country burns, we know there are tangible ways to get us there.
For too long, this system has killed black people with impunity. As we respond, again and again, our strategy brings us back to local prosecutors, who hold outsize power in the criminal justice system. The criminal justice system in our country can sometimes feel like a monster with at least a half dozen deadly heads. Predatory money bail, hyper-investment in the police, false convictions, over-sentencing…the list of ways this system harms us goes on. But at the heart of the beast are these local prosecutors, who hold more power than anyone else in the criminal justice system.
When George Floyd was killed by police, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman didn’t announce filing against Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who kneeled Floyd’s neck, until after an excruciating nine-minute video of Floyd’s lynching went viral and the people of Minneapolis rose up.
When Ahmaud Arbery was targeted and killed by white vigilantes, two separate Glynn County district attorneys, George Barnhill and Jackie Johnson, refused do their jobs and failed to arrest father and son, Gregory and Travis McMichael, after the killing.
When Eric Garner was killed by police in 2014, Attorney General William Barr made the decision not to bring charges against the officer who killed him with an illegal chokehold.
These are elected officials who are refusing to keep their black constituents safe. Structural racism is the very foundation for the criminal justice system that they lead and it cannot keep us safe. After years of fighting, we’ve learned that targeting prosecutors is a winning strategy. District attorneys often run unopposed, and sometimes, as in recent races in Chicago and St. Louis, our work looks like supporting local candidates willing to challenge them on the ballot.
To make it easier to take up this fight nationwide, we’ve created the first directory in the country that allows anyone to look up their prosecutor, see if they’ve gone public with their views on protecting black people and hold them accountable if they won’t.
We build political power when we hold prosecutors who protect police violence accountable. Their job is not to answer to powerful police unions but to the power of the people.
Scott Roberts is the senior director of Criminal Justice Campaigns for Color Of Change. He leads digital campaigners, researchers and field organizers in rallying support to end mass incarceration, fight the way our society criminalizes black people, and secure more humane treatment for all those in contact with the justice system.
Each week Color of Change, the nation’s largest online racial justice organization will bring you frontline stories from #TheBlackResponse to COVID-19, highlighting the ways black people are taking action and demanding progress during the pandemic and beyond.