Last year, Black women called upon themselves, made themselves heard, and shared their political talents and minds.
The violent insurrection by domestic terrorists last week at the U.S. Capitol was not Black people’s fight.
But make no mistake: It was all about Black people. Because white supremacy is about Black people.
The Oxford dictionary defines white supremacy as “the belief that white people constitute a superior race and should therefore dominate society, typically to the exclusion or detriment of other racial and ethnic groups, in particular Black or Jewish people.”
What else explains how people can think it’s perfectly within their rights to try to overthrow the government because their guy didn’t win?
But it was about more than an election. President Donald Trump exhorted the armed, angry and violent extremists to “fight like hell, or you’re not going to have a country anymore.” The mob went through with their plans, breaking into the Capitol with crowbars, sledgehammers and ropes, destroying property, assaulting Americans, taking selfies, gleefully posting on social media, waving Confederate flags in the Capitol vestibule, beating a police officer to death, and fully expecting to walk out with impunity. In case those actions didn’t tell the story enough, they wore Camp Auschwitz shirts and other racist and anti-Semitic branding, and hung a noose.
Had the foaming mobs gotten their hands on a member of Congress, God only knows what could have happened.
The assault on our democracy was a culmination of what the supremacists see as a larger threat: the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the first Black, Asian and female vice president. It was an election decided, in large part, by Black voters, turning out in large cities with Black populations, such as Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Detroit and Atlanta. Not coincidentally, those were the cities where Trump sought to strip electoral votes from.
State-sanctioned racial violence to keep Black people from attaining power is nothing new. After all, wasn’t that what the Civil War was about? Black voter suppression has always been embedded into our democracy’s shameful history.
You don’t need to look any further than Philadelphia. Octavius Catto, Black American educator and activist was on his way to vote in 1871 when he was murdered by a white man who opposed Catto’s politics and very existence. The murderer was not charged, and the police were later found to be aiding and abetting the mob to keep Black people from voting.
Suppression through violence and intimidation continued throughout history: States employed tactics such as poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses, all to keep Black people from voting. In 1920, a Florida mob of white men, aided by the Ku Klux Klan, massacred as many as 50 Black people on Election Day, because a single Black man was intent on casting his ballot.
It took civil rights activists marching in the streets — some sacrificing their lives — to force Congress to enact the Voting Rights Act only 55 years ago, which was supposed to ensure that cherished right.
But even today, voting rights are under attack through restrictions of voter ID laws and polling place shutdowns.
“When you look at every portion of American history where we’ve made gains toward easing some of the burdens of that oppression, we’ve seen some type of violent backlash,” said Timothy Welbeck, a Philadelphia civil rights attorney and Temple University professor. “And because of the history of Black voter disenfranchisement in this country, I guess that allowed some whites to think that the election was rigged, even though it was fair and free.”
So, when we watched in horror as the orgy of violence unfolded at the Capitol, well, I was shocked. But I couldn’t say I was surprised.
Yes, Trump has been impeached for the second time, but it doesn’t stop there.
White supremacy will always rear its ugly head. We’ve seen it take all kinds of forms in these dangerous times. It comes in the defiant refusal of folks to mask up during a global pandemic because, well, their personal freedom is at stake, never mind they’re putting their fellow citizens in harm’s way, particularly people of color. It comes not only from far-right extremists living in rural communities, but in suit-wearing CEOs, cops, teachers, real estate agents, nurses, military men and women and even a gold-medal Olympian.
It comes from lawmakers, too. And now we’re learning it might even come from right inside of Congress, from the very people who took a vow to uphold our democracy.
This is not who we are? Black people know better.
During a symposium on We Are Not Slaves, Ernest McMillen, a co-founder of SNCC, Dallas, and an activist for the incarcerated, observed that, “The prison system is a microcosm, a concentration, of what is actually in the whole of society. This idea of going from the universal to the particular, and back to the particular and to the universal, is very important for people to see,” McMillen continued, “because the very forces [of oppression] that are at work concentrated in the prison system, are the same as those at work in our everyday society—from economic exploitation, to racism, to sexism, to untold injustices that we see every day. They are perfected first in the prison system.” This incredibly thoughtful observation is precisely why I wrote We Are Not Slaves.
*This post is part of our online roundtable on Robert T. Chase’s We Are Not Slaves. On Friday, January 15, at 12noon EST, Chase will be in conversation with Talitha LeFlouria about this book. The event is free and open to all. Click here to register for the event. During a symposium on We Are
“Hicks’ poignant conclusion reminds us that the ravages of COVID-19 leave today’s incarcerated peoples especially vulnerable. In a recent discussion with Kinetik Justice, the co-founder of the Free Alabama Movement, he told me that he had been placed in permanent solitary because of his organizing, but was recently relocated. In his words, “it’s obvious that several people in this neighborhood have been exposed to the virus and it’s very probable that the Administration knew that prior to moving me. Could it be coincidence? Lol. Well, it could be.” 2 This twenty-first century punitive cell displacement near a bio-virus harkens back to the disciplinary strategy I uncovered of purposeful cell displacement to generate racial and sexual violence. The disciplinary tools may change, but the strategies remain similar. Hughett’s final point is where I also concluded We Are Not Slaves, ending carceral violence “will require abolishing the prison.” That political project requires resistance against both the prison particular and the universal carceral apparatus and with a broad coalition of people inside and outside of prison.”
Long before the internet caught wind of him, Henry Earl was already a local legend. By the time the Charleston Gazette dubbed him a “cult-status hero” and Newsweek called him the “town drunk,” Earl was already known around Lexington, Kentucky, as James Brown. He liked to dance, and he’d do a few moves in exchange for a couple bucks, money which he’d usually promptly spend on alcohol.
Earl was born in the Jim Crow South and adopted at age seven. Drinking was a habit he picked up as a teenager after his mother died, one he never could quite shake. By age 19 he was homeless, and by 20 he’d been arrested for the first time. That was back in 1970. Over the next several decades, Earl was arrested more than 1,500 times, almost always for alcohol intoxication. This is how he became known as the World’s Most Arrested Man. Over the years, he spent a total of more than 16 years in jail, usually in couple-day spurts. He was never once charged with violence or theft. “I like to drink,” he said once. “Alcoholic, that’s what I am. Every police knows me on the force. They see me drunk; they pick me up; I get five days.”
Interest in Earl peaked a few years back, with websites dedicated to his mug shots that amusedly tracked his arrests. Late-night TV cracked jokes at his expense. National outlets ran stories on him. Around town, people called him harmless and happy, a “lovable loser.” But there were times Earl saw it differently. “It’s a sad life, it ain’t worth a dog,” he said in 2003, tearing up. “I got more sense than some people think I do. I’ve seen what it’s doing. It is ruining my life.”
Last year Attorney General William Barr addressed the Fraternal Order of Police’s biennial conference. “[W]hat stands between chaos and carnage on the one hand, and the civilized and tranquil society we all yearn for,” Barr told his audience “is the thin blue line of law enforcement.” Barr is a right-wing Republican who has for years advocated for a harsher and more robust police state. But his proclamation reflected a deeply held idea in American politics—that police are essential to an ordered and just country. Barr’s worldview is time-honored and bipartisan. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden might not be the same politician he was when he championed the 1994 crime bill, but his belief in the necessity of American policing—Biden proposes to pump $300 million in federal dollars to the police—has not changed. And it’s not just politicians who proselytize the necessity of policing. Boilerplate TV procedurals, true-crime podcasts, and the evening news sell us a world where the police, beleaguered and badgered, are ultimately all that stands between those of us who wish to live in society and the others who would choose savagery.
This is a myth. Despite much reporting of a spike in murder this year, the long-term trend still shows the murder rate hovering roughly in the same place it was in the 1960s, half of what it was in 1980. And while procedurals may paint a picture of cops chasing serial killers weekly, the actual face of police is more mundane. In June, the New York Times culled available data and estimated that police spend roughly 4 percent of their time addressing “violent crime.” Most of their time is spent dealing with noncriminal matters. And yet no matter the call—the loud party next door, the permit for a parade, the expired car tags, the escort for a funeral procession, the elderly welfare check, the frolickers barbecuing in the park, the schoolyard fight, the opioid overdose, the homeless person outside in the cold, the stray dog—the state’s answer is to respond with armed agents blessed with the near unimpeachable right to kill. The impact is not theoretical. After James Smith noticed the door of his neighbor’s home was open and the lights were on, Smith called the police, hoping an officer would conduct “a wellness check” on his neighbor. Instead, Officer Aaron Dean shot and killed Atatiana Jefferson in her own home as she played video games with her young nephew. Smith was left to draw a grim conclusion. “We don’t have a relationship with the police because we don’t trust the police,” Smith recently told the BBC.
Even the impact of policing on violent crime is debatable. “We are fighting an unrelenting, never-ending fight against criminal predators in our society,” Barr claimed at the FOP conference in New Orleans. But the “never-ending fight” in the very city in which Barr was speaking is not going well. New Orleans has the fourth highest murder rate in the nation but clears only 35 percent of homicide cases. In 2018, the city’s police cleared only 2 percent of all rapes. The country at large isn’t much better. Last year, the Washington Post launched an investigation into murder clearance rates in 50 cities over the course of 10 years. The results were bracing. “Despite a nationwide drop in violence to historic lows,” the Post reported, “34 of the 50 cities have a lower homicide arrest rate than a decade ago.” In St. Louis, during the period the Post studied, it calculated that 54 percent of all homicides resulted in no arrest. In Baltimore, during the period it studied, the Post calculated that only 35 percent of all homicides resulted in an arrest. In Chicago the rate was 26 percent. The “line” isn’t just thin and blue—it’s porous and arbitrary.
One argument for policing holds that while police may not solve much violent crime, their very presence helps ensure safety. In a survey of research, the National Institute of Justice concludes that “hot spot policing” was “associated with reductions in violent crime relative to control areas.” What is “hot spot policing”? According to the survey, it includes “order maintenance and drug enforcement crackdowns, increased gun searches and seizures and zero tolerance policing.” This isn’t just a list of policing tactics; it’s a list of prerequisites for the present moment. For “order maintenance,” Eric Garner was suffocated on a New York sidewalk. For “drug enforcement crackdowns,” Breonna Taylor was killed in her own home. For “gun search and seizure,” the Black neighborhoods of New York endured Stop and Frisk. For “zero tolerance policing,” George Floyd was choked on a Minneapolis street.
It would be at least honest if we said that enduring arbitrary harassing, beating, tasing, and strangulation by the state was the price of being “associated with reduction in violent crime relative to control areas.” That we don’t say this, and that we only imply it for certain classes of people, exposes the assumptions built into American policing. It’s those assumptions that, on the one hand, allow Henry Earl to be arrested more than a thousand times, and on the other offer a sporting chance for anyone who’d like to try their hand at murder or rape. Policing accomplishes this dubious feat by imposing costs on innocent people who happen to live in proximity to crime, and others who simply happen to resemble in skin color those we think of as criminal. This is a system begging for reform, and the best way to reform an institution as compromised as American policing is by abolishing it.
It is impossible to imagine American policing without the institution foundational to America itself—enslavement. Indeed, from colonial times up through the Civil War, the largest police force in the country wasn’t primarily found in the early towns or the bustling metropolises, but in the slave societies of the South, where to be a white man was to be deputized. Enslavement, where the enslaver is both the maker and enforcer of law, was the first experience of policing for Black people. But through the invention of slave patrols, militias charged with enforcing the law against the enslaved, the policing powers were expanded. “All white persons were permitted and in some regards required to exercise a police power over slaves,” the white supremacist historian U.B. Phillips noted. In many states, white people were not only allowed but required to whip, capture, and jail enslaved people they encountered. They had a mandate to “prevent all caballings amongst negros [sic], by dispersing of them when drumming or playing,” meaning they could punish any enslaved people for simply interacting with each other. The patrollers operated, as one of their number put it, “without warrant and at my own discretion.” The shadows of American policing are here—in the prisons, we find the absolute mastery once enjoyed by the planter class; in the wide discrepancy granted the slave patrol, one sees the echoes of broken windows policing; and the bodies of Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery reflect the extension of police powers far beyond official police.
Slave patrols were born of the propertied interests of white people seeking to maximally exploit Black labor, an endeavor that did not fade with emancipation. In many ways, it was reinforced. Planters may no longer have owned their labor force, but that didn’t stop them from seeking out means of preventing the formerly enslaved from freely selling their labor. Policing was key to this effort, which saw control lost through slavery regained through a panoply of laws that threatened arrest for everything from not having an annual work contract to “malicious mischief” and criminalized “persons who led idle or disorderly lives.” Depending on the state, the arresting officers could consist of urban police, militias drawn from former Confederate soldiers, or merely any white man. While there was a brief reprieve during Reconstruction, after federal troops departed the South in 1877, white Southerners employed policing to ensure a permanent and pliable source of labor. When Blacks tried to go north for jobs during the Great Migration, “the South resorted to coercion and interception worthy of the Soviet Union,” writes Isabel Wilkerson in The Warmth of Other Suns. “In Brookhaven, Mississippi, authorities stopped a train with 50 colored migrants on it and sidetracked it for three days. In Albany, Georgia, the police tore up tickets of colored passengers as they stood, waiting to board, dashing their hopes of escape. A minister in South Carolina, having seen his parishioners off, was arrested at the station on the charge of helping colored people get out.”
It is tempting to think the Northern police departments unsullied by white supremacy. The assumption would be wrong. Throughout the entirety of Jim Crow, Northern police often parroted their Southern counterparts. “From the moment the emigrants set foot in the North and West,” writes Wilkerson, “they were blamed for the troubles of the cities they fled to.” Indeed, police departments took the cue and regarded Blacks much as the broader society had—as outcasts and threats. In 1917, in East St. Louis, Illinois, white workers angered by Blacks brought in to replace them during a strike rioted and “fired shots into colored homes,” writes Wilkerson. “The police, charged with quelling the riot, in some cases joined in, as did some in the state militia.” In 1943, during the Detroit race riot, “Police openly sympathized with the white rioters,” writes historian Thomas J. Sugrue; “17 blacks were shot to death by the police, no whites were.” Ten years later, as Black families tried to integrate Chicago’s Trumbull Park Homes, they were granted minimal protection from the police who sympathized with the whites who terrorized the families. Still, the greatest indicator of the role law enforcement in the North played in suppressing their Black populations lay in the prison population. Even in an era of relatively low incarceration, the rate in the Northern cities stood at seven to one—exactly the same as today.
That the police were not concerned with neutrality nor “law enforcement” was always clear to Black people. In 1967, after a series of riots, President Lyndon Johnson convened the Kerner Commission to report on the riot’s origins and recommend a series of reforms. Read today, the report is bracing for a haunting quality—its timelessness. Just like the countless commissions that have followed it, the Kerner Commission found a police department with too many responsibilities, filling in for the defunding and decline of societal institutions. Just as today, the Kerner Commission found Black communities complaining of “stop and frisk” tactics. And then, as now, voices of authority blamed police violence on the inherent pathologies of the Black population instead of the learned brutality of the police. Among the commission’s recommendations: an intolerance for police brutality, “a clear and enforced policy…of law enforcement in ghetto areas as is the same as in other communities,” and eliminating a focus on smaller crimes such as “gambling or loitering” in favor of crimes that threaten “life and property.” After the report was published, it became a best seller, but Johnson quickly scuttled it, and the era of “law and order” commenced.
It is common to note, as the Kerner report does, that Black communities frequently complain of crime right alongside police brutality. This is not surprising. Black communities are on every level less safe than white communities. And yet it is curious the ease with which police, who never fail to note this safety gap, abandon these vulnerable neighborhoods. Calls for accountability are often met with indignance and threats to desert those most affected by crime. The practice of officers, at the slightest sign of public critique, calling in sick en masse and refusing to do their jobs has long been called “blue flu.”
At times, retaliation is even uglier. After becoming the New York City’s first Black mayor in 1990, David Dinkins angered the union by calling for police reform. The response was open defiance of the law. Police officers derided Dinkins as a “janitor” and a crack addict, drank openly, blocked traffic, and assaulted journalists. A photographer seeking the protection of a lieutenant after being assaulted by an officer was essentially told to flee. “I can’t protect you up here,” the lieutenant said. In 2011, after the NYPD was investigated for corruption, officers again rallied at the courthouse, blocking the cameras of journalists, mocking poor people by chanting “EBT” at people attempting to collect their benefits. In 2014, in the midst of a conflict with Mayor Bill de Blasio, the NYPD largely stopped policing, at the behest of the union.
This is all very strange behavior for a group which takes an oath “to serve and protect.” But policing is often revealed to be about something muddier. In June, the Times asked Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot her opinion on the effort to “defund the police.” Lightfoot, a former prosecutor, didn’t even bother to defend her department—probably because a department with a history of torture, black sites, framing innocent people, and child killing is not easily defensible. Instead Lightfoot seemingly deflected to the lack of opportunity for Black and brown people in Chicago. Defunding “means you are eliminating one of the few tools that the city has to create middle class incomes for Black and brown folks.” That America’s second largest police department can only be defended as a kind of violent jobs program is a clear indictment of policing as an act of public safety. Furthermore, the fact that policing is one of the few tools available to bolster a racially diverse middle class is yet another indicator that police have far too much responsibility.
But America has never truly had a system of “public safety,” if only because Black “safety” has historically been imagined as being secured by more policing, whereas white “safety” is ensured by altogether different means. America does not flood the dorms of Harvard with cops because they are areas of “known drug activity.” It does not station armed officers in the cubicles of Wells Fargo. The white parents of Westchester do not generally have to subject their teenagers to The Talk. White safety, itself built on a foundation of enslavement and segregation, is ensured through familial wealth, home ownership, well-funded public schools, stable employment, and health care. Black safety is ensured by “zero tolerance policing” and “stop and frisk.” White safety is cancer prevention. Black safety is all-day chemotherapy.
Abolition seeks to eradicate this Jim Crow system of public safety—not merely a two-tiered system, but a system where one tier benefits by extracting from the other. To “reform” policing, to subject it to bias training of dubious import, to push for the return to an illusory past where Officer Friendly provided sanctuary, is to attempt to patch up the more nefarious features of a system that should be obsolete. Without the history of policies and practices that make up white supremacy, without enslavement and slave patrols, without black codes and miscegenation laws, without poll taxes and courthouse lynchings, without redlining and housing segregation, without mass incarceration, policing as we know it would not exist.
The outlines of the possible are already upon us. Defunding the police—divesting money from the back-end solution of policing and investing it on the front end—is a first step along the path. To meet the very real concerns about neighborhood violence, we could look to preventative programs like Cure Violence and Save Our Streets in cities like New York. These organizations view gun violence as a public health question rather than evidence of community moral rot. Both have been able to successfully reduce and prevent gun violence without inflicting more violence on communities they claim to protect.
Nowhere is the extra layer of unnecessary violence more reflected than in our insistence on sending men with guns to resolve mental health crises. In Eugene, Oregon, CAHOOTS, a crisis intervention program, was able to respond to 20 percent of the area’s 911 calls last year. Through the program, teams of medics and experienced mental health professionals are dispatched to handle certain emergencies instead of the police. For people suffering from mental health crises, addiction, and homelessness, introducing law enforcement in moments of desperation is an invitation for disaster. CAHOOTS reduces the risk of unnecessary violence and criminalization.
And removing police from our long and futile war against drug abuse is essential to abolition. This requires us to consider the role of harm reduction, rather than abstinence, as a possible avenue toward reducing the associated drug use. This solution is not theoretical. In countries such as Norway, Germany, and Canada, drug users can go to a safe injection site and use in regulated, medically supervised, and sanitary conditions. These facilities avoid relying on the stigma and shame that trails many of those suffering from addiction. And it works. When people have access to a safe environment for drug use, they are more likely to seek treatment on their own.
Abolition looks like justice for domestic violence and sexual assault survivors. According to RAINN, for every 1,000 sexual assaults, only about 230 are reported to law enforcement. Of those, less than five result in incarceration. In other words, 75 percent of sexual assaults go unreported and 99 percent go unpunished. Policing does not protect women from sexual assault, it facilitates it. Prison sexual violence, not only at the hands of other incarcerated people but also from correctional officers, is a persistent problem across the gender spectrum, including the thousands of juveniles housed in adult prisons. In place of our current system, abolition envisions providing domestic abuse survivors with crisis counselors and violence intervention teams trained to specifically navigate intimate relationships, available at a moment’s notice. What would a future look like for rape survivors if there were professionals or organizations that could provide not just physical safety but mental, emotional, and financial resources as well?
But more than an array of solutions to discrete, isolated issues, abolition envisions something more fundamental—entirely different values. A world where the resources put into not just policing but our robust system of prisons and jails is invested in the people to eventually render the present justice system obsolete. This is a world focused on the reduction of violence and harm. Certainly you would still need professionals responsible with holding accountable those who violate the social contract in the extreme—rape or murder—and an improved investigative system to catch the perpetrators. But even in that case, ensuring society’s protection should look very different. Even in the most extreme circumstances, it would demand an end to the conflation of public safety with public vengeance. Removing someone from society to stop them from enacting violence does not require subjecting someone to the current prison system, where solitary confinement, assault, sickness, torture, and rape are par for the course.
This is the world I imagine when I picture what I want for my children—a world where social consequences are weighted along with criminal consequences, where incapacitation is not conflated with torture, and murder and rape are taken so seriously that we do all we can to prevent either from happening in the first place. But ultimately abolition is not about a suite of options imposed by someone else—even me. The promise of abolition is the promise of democracy itself—one long denied Black people: the promise inherent in constructing an order of public safety originating in the needs and desires of a community, and not those who have, for so long, exploited them.
— Ta-Nehisi Coates Guest-Edits THE GREAT FIRE, a Special Issue
— Breonna Taylor’s Beautiful Life, in the Words of Her Mother
— An Oral History of the Protest Movement’s First Days
— Celebrating 22 Activists and Visionaries on the Forefront of Change
— Novelist Jesmyn Ward on Witnessing Death Through a Pandemic and Protests
— Angela Davis and Ava DuVernay on Black Lives Matter
— How America’s Brotherhood of Police Officers Stifles Reform
This year, as LDF entered its 80th year of commitment to racial justice and civil and human rights, we faced one of the most unpredictable and challenging years in our nation’s history. A year that began with LDF challenging the Trump Administration over its Muslim Ban and Law Enforcement Commission ended with suing President Trump and his campaign over attempts to disenfranchise Black voters. In between, LDF was forced to add a new category of policy and litigation work focused on the impact of COVID-19, championed the rights of protesters during a historic summer full of demands for change and accountability, and fought to protect Black voters and their ballots, while also helping recruit over 40,000 poll workers. LDF was able to do so by building off its 80-year legacy — the lessons learned, the victories earned, and the lives changed.
When COVID entered the federal medical prison in Carswell, Texas, it ballooned within weeks — of the 1,288 people tested, 504 were positive. In one housing unit of 300 women, only 26 women tested negative, including 56-year-old Sandra Shoulders.
Shoulders has severe diabetes, respiratory problems, and, since entering prison in 2015, chronic kidney disease, leaving her at only 30 percent kidney function. All of these make her more vulnerable to becoming debilitated, if not dying, from COVID.
Meanwhile, the prison’s practices discourage people from getting tested for COVID. “Even when inmates feel ill now, they are so scared of those conditions to speak up,” Shoulders explained. She described how those who tested positive were treated: “You are held in a room, and expected to wear the same set of clothes for 21+ days, without laundry facilities. Food is dropped by the door and physically kicked into the room by the guards.”
After Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, Attorney General William Barr issued a memo to the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), the agency responsible for federal prisons, expanding the criteria under which to release people to home confinement to stem the spread of COVID. The expanded criteria prioritize people whose age or health makes them vulnerable to COVID, as well as those in low- and medium-security prisons, people whose reentry plans show that they are less likely to contract COVID if not incarcerated, and people with low risk-assessment (or PATTERN) scores.
In August, a prison case manager said that Shoulders qualified for home confinement on September 25. Elated, she began making plans to join her godsister in Chicago. She also planned to reconnect with her three children and her 16 grandchildren, some of whom she only knew through photos and video calls.
Three weeks later, prison administrators told Shoulders that the BOP’s Central Office had denied her release. She was not told why. “I had to call my family and give them this heartbreaking news,” Shoulders told Truthout. The news not only left her reeling, but sent Shoulders — who has bipolar disorder, an anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder — into what she calls a “serious mental health crisis and meltdown.”
In the early morning hours of January 28, 2000, a Black police officer named Cornel Young Jr. —“Jai” to those who knew him—was off duty, dressed in plain clothes, and waiting on a steak sandwich from an all-night diner in a rough section of Providence, Rhode Island. A fight broke out at the front of the restaurant and quickly spilled outside. Someone brandished a gun. Young jumped into action, shouting “Police!” as he rushed through the diner and drew his weapon. Within seconds, he would be bleeding in the snow outside the restaurant, shot multiple times by two white, uniformed officers from his own department. Within hours, he would be dead.
Those are the basic facts, and the sadness of them transcends politics. If Black lives matter and blue lives matter, as they all most assuredly do, the killing of patrolman Cornel “Jai” Young was doubly tragic.
But the tragedy does not end there. As an attorney who has litigated civil rights cases, I can tell you that the tragedy of Jai Young’s story actually ends in a courtroom, some six years after his death, when the city of Providence slipped through a gaping chasm in federal civil rights law—one that has largely escaped scrutiny in the current national push for racial justice reform. It’s called the Monell Rule, and it’s why cities and police departments are rarely held accountable for the actions of police officers.
The story she tells is awash in irony. Jai had entered the police force to change it, and he died, Leisa believes, because of the very problems he wanted to fix. Growing up, Jai had not been immune to the racial profiling so often experienced by young Black males. But his father—from whom Leisa had long since been divorced—was a police officer, and through him Jai developed an interest in community-based police reforms. By joining the force, Jai hoped to change what he saw as a militaristic approach to policing, especially in low-income neighborhoods like the one where he eventually died.
Leisa tells me that one of the cops who shot her son had been his classmate at the police academy and might have recognized him if he had only paused an instant before shooting: “Out of uniform, in that neighborhood, Jai was just another target.”
When asked about the city’s handling of her son’s case, Leisa responds with exasperation—the type of chronic emotional fatigue known only to those unfortunate souls who have spent years fighting a more powerful and highly motivated enemy. You can’t fight city hall, they say. Most people know the phrase; Leisa Young has lived it.
From the very beginning, the city circled the wagons. Just two days after Jai’s death, the mayor of Providence declared in the local press that race had not been a factor in the shooting. In a televised interview, a high-ranking officer predicted the two shooters would be exonerated by the department’s internal investigation, which was just barely underway. Meanwhile, Leisa says, city officials worked privately to convince her that Jai was somehow at fault in his own death because he had been pointing his firearm sideways, “like a thug.” Recalling the accusation now, Leisa dismisses it with a laugh that is somehow charming and bitter at the same time: “Where would he have learned that? In thug school?”
The 2003 verdict has never been overturned, and in the eyes of the law, the violation of Jai Young’s civil rights is an unassailable fact. That verdict almost certainly would have ended the case if Leisa had been suing a trucking company over a traffic accident, or a chemical company over a cancer-causing pesticide. But hers was a civil rights lawsuit against a city government, and though she still does not understand what it means or why, she would spend the next two years trying to overcome something called the Monell Rule.
I first learned about the Monell Rule in 2013, shortly after I accepted my first civil rights case. I had been practicing business law in Texas for 15 years when a friend asked for my help in a case involving threats and extortion by a small-time city government. It was not my area of the law, so I immersed myself in legal research, and it wasn’t long before I encountered this little-known legal rule that, despite its obscurity, plays a massive role in virtually every federal civil rights lawsuit against a city or county government. One case led to another, and I have been fighting the Monell Rule ever since.
To understand it, one must go back briefly to the end of the Civil War, when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1871. The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments had just been ratified, promising civil rights to emancipated slaves and other citizens. The 1871 law—also known as the Third Enforcement Act—was designed to provide a mechanism for enforcing these constitutional guarantees and it authorizes individual citizens to bring private lawsuits for civil rights violations committed by police and other persons cloaked in the authority of state or local governments. Today, among lawyers, this law is known simply as “Section 1983,” and it remains one of the most important civil rights statutes in the country.
In 1961, in a case called Monroe v. Pape, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that city governments were exempt under Section 1983. The Monroe case involved horrific allegations of racial abuse at the hands of 13 Chicago police officers who had allegedly broken into a Black couple’s apartment and forced them to stand naked in front of their children as they beat the father with a flashlight, degraded him with racial slurs and ransacked the apartment. The Supreme Court ruled that the officers could be sued under Section 1983, but the city of Chicago could not.
Unsurprisingly, the Monroe decision was met with heavy criticism, and the Supreme Court eventually reversed itself—sort of. In Monell v. Department of Social Services of the City of New York, the high court ruled that cities are accountable under Section 1983, but only if the civil rights violation was caused by “official policy” of the city government. The court’s reasoning was based on a strained reading of the 1871 law, and has been often criticized ever since, but the rule established in Monell has nonetheless survived and evolved.
The Monell Rule is unique to civil rights litigation and exists nowhere else in the legal world. If, for example, an Amazon delivery driver were to negligently cause a traffic accident while on the job, Amazon would ordinarily be liable for the victim’s injuries; there would be no need for the victim to prove that Jeff Bezos or Amazon’s board of directors had caused the accident through their corporate policies or their “deliberate indifference” to the rights of potential accident victims. In the civil rights context, however, that is essentially what the Monell Rule requires. In simplest terms, the Monell Rule is a barrier to government accountability. It puts legal distance between city governments and their employees, allowing cities to avoid responsibility for the on-the- job conduct of their own police officers.
As a practical matter, the Monell Rule blocks the only pathway by which civil rights victims can hold police departments accountable. Victims of police violence have three basic avenues to justice: criminal prosecution of the individual officers involved; a civil lawsuit against the same officers; or a civil lawsuit against the municipality that employs them. The first two avenues have their own unique challenges, such as the high burden of proof in criminal cases, or the qualified immunity standard that protects individual police officers from liability in civil suits. But the first two avenues—even where successful—punish only the individual officers. It is only the third avenue that has the potential to impact municipal police departments as a whole, and the Monell Rule blocks that avenue like a barricade.
Black Radical Activists and the Dangers of the Police State
During recent anti-police brutality protests and marches across the United States, American police forces have displayed the very behavior that brought people to the streets in protest. Activists have been harassed, beaten, arrested, shot at with rubber bullets and tear gas, and shot and killed by white vigilantes encouraged by police. Critics have focused their blame on the largely peaceful protestors rather than the violent police forces whose actions have been caught on camera. The police have also used their arrest power to try and stifle protest including, in one incident, arresting the only Black state legislator in Kentucky during a protest against the police violence that killed Breonna Taylor. Police abuse during social justice protests has a long history and has been part of the resistance to the kind of radical political change needed for racial justice. Angelo Herndon’s activism in the 1930s, his frequent arrests, and his unjust imprisonment is part of this long tradition of using police to prevent racial justice and stifle dissent.
In 1937, Herndon published his memoirs titled Let Me Live, where he related his family’s poverty, his employment struggles, and most importantly his radicalization in the Communist Party. The book is sometimes considered one of the first prison memoirs, but some scholars have recently argued that it is a poignant critique of racial capitalism. Herndon’s story of growing up in poverty and facing racial discrimination and police harassment demonstrate what Charisse Burden-Stelly has described as the “mutually constitutive nature of racialization and capitalism.”
In Let Me Live, Herndon describes his growing awareness of capitalist exploitation as well as the use of police as capitalist agents to control Black bodies. Herndon was born in Wyoming, Ohio in 1913, one of eight children. His family’s precarious financial position declined further after his father died from miner’s pneumonia when he was nine years old. At only thirteen, Herndon and his older brother Leo left home and traveled to Lexington, Kentucky to find work as miners. His first job as a miner, working and living in a segregated community, was a wake-up call. His wages, which were meant to help his whole family, were often consumed by company fees leaving him and his brother barely able to support themselves. Frustrated, the Herndon’s left Kentucky and went to their father’s birthplace, Birmingham, Alabama. Leo found a job, but Angelo remained unemployed. In the process of trying to find work, Herndon met a labor agent who convinced him to leave town for work on a bridge. When he arrived, he realized that he and other Black laborers had been lured to work as slave laborers policed by armed guards and given no wages. Herndon and a few other workers managed to escape, despite being chased by dogs.
Herndon’s time in Birmingham radicalized him further. When he finally found work with a mining company, he was disgusted with the company union that failed to advocate for workers. He witnessed a coworker’s death after management failed to make necessary repairs to the machinery he worked on; he and other employees moved his body out of the way to continue work. While traveling through town he witnessed a conductor beat a Black man who did not defend himself; his frustrations mounted until one day he refused to move on a Jim Crow car, he was left alone after the conductor told people he was crazy. In June 1930 he happened upon an Unemployed Council (UC) leaflet announcing a meeting, this was Herndon’s introduction to political organization and the Communist Party (CPUSA).
Herndon became a UC organizer and began attending meetings, organizing events, and traveling to UC conferences. He respected the UC and CPUSA for embracing an antiracist position and calling for working-class unity and he came to believe that communism was the “only philosophy of living worthy of a thinking civilized man.” Unfortunately for Herndon, the police did not take kindly to communist organizing and especially to a Black communist. As Marion Ross argues, Herndon’s “redness” and “Blackness” made him a criminal in the eyes of the law. His first arrest came when he tried to organize his fellow miners into the United Mine Workers, he was charged with vagrancy, though he was employed, and held in solitary confinement for seven days.
At his trial, the prosecutor focused on the threat Black men posed to white women’s virtue; this was enough for a guilty sentence and twelve months imprisonment and a $500 fine. When the prosecutor painted Herndon as a sexual predator, he was alerting the all-white jury to the belief that the Black body had to be controlled to secure white supremacy. His conviction was eventually overturned in the circuit court, but it was enough to move Herndon to officially join the CPUSA. Soon after he was arrested again walking to a CPUSA Labor Day rally; he was held for eleven days with other prisoners detained for mental illness. After his second arrest, Herndon’s memoir pivots from a story of radicalization to one of fascist police abusing him and his fellow organizers with impunity.
Herndon’s every movement in Birmingham was followed by police who arrested him on any pretense; it became such a frequent occurrence that he claimed it drove him further into the arms of the CPUSA. But it also became too difficult to live there, so in 1931 he took a job with the Trade Union Unity League to help organize longshoremen in New Orleans. Even in Louisiana the police dogged his every move, and he was arrested again. He also became active in the campaign to free the Scottsboro boys, nine Black youths arrested for allegedly raping two white women on a train.
Herndon returned to Alabama to organize for the Scottsboro defense and to try and help with the organization of sharecroppers in Camden County, but he was chased out of town by the threats of a lynch mob. When he arrived back in Birmingham he was arrested right off the train. Herndon did not stay long, he was sent to organize for the UC in Atlanta, GA in 1932. When the city announced it was going to drop over 20,000 people from the relief rolls, Herndon sprung into action. He began producing leaflets and organizing marches, all of which brought law enforcement attention. While picking up mail at the post office he was arrested and charged under an 1861 law to prevent slave insurrections; the place where he was staying was raided and all of his pamphlets and books were seized, later to be used against him in court.
Herndon described his subsequent imprisonment, trials, and conviction as being “crucified by capitalist law and order.” He was held incommunicado until a fellow inmate smuggled out a letter to the International Labor Defense, an organization devoted to defending workers. It was this arrest that prompted Herndon to write Let Me Live; in it he described his months in solitary, then on death row, the “kangaroo court” trial in which the prosecutor went into a “lynch frenzy,” and his conviction and sentence of 18-20 years on a chain gang, a death by labor sentence. This arrest would make Angelo Herndon a household name for radicals raising awareness about the dangers of the police state and its concerted efforts to quash social justice. All told, Herndon would spend two and a half years in jail while his appeals were heard. After the CPUSA mobilized a global defense around Herndon, the charges would eventually be dropped, and he would be free. He later described his imprisonment as an “apprenticeship in the revolutionary struggle.”
Herndon recognized what even today some Americans are only just realizing: that the police are not public servants meant to keep the peace, that they are agents of social control. While speaking to other prisoners, Herndon told them that if there was a “decent government” who cared for people’s needs, rather than protecting capitalist profits, fewer people would be imprisoned. Herndon was arrested so many times as a known UC organizer that he lost count; he recruited others to the UC and CPUSA by arguing that they had to make change because we are all “in the same leaky boat.” His memoirs have been described as prison literature, a critique of racial capitalism, communist propaganda, and in the tradition of slave narratives — it is also a book about police abuse and control and policing as a tool to control Black America and working people. It is a narrative that is all too familiar to today’s activists, that policing is a barrier rather than a path to social justice.
But the question is always this, at least when we talk about Black movements — relevant to whom? For what purpose? Where is the strategy other than demanding to stay alive, and then going into electoral politics as a moderate to progressive Democrat?
For America’s Black mothers, the fear of loss and trauma is constantWhen photographer Jon Henry poses families as if in mourning, he’s calling out police violence that too often kills young Black men and terrifies their mothers.