Sean Bell: Moving Beyond Demands, Creating Justice
By Matthew Birkhold
Four hours after the acquittal of three New York City detectives who killed Sean Bell, my inbox filled with emails promoting a rally to demand justice for Sean Bell and his family.
I decided to take the trip from Brooklyn to Queens and enlisted the company of friends and fellow activists. We all felt going to the rally was the responsible thing to do but also felt troubled because justice can’t be demanded, it must be created.
I’ve been attending rallies and protests in the name of demanding justice for years. Unfortunately, my world has become no more just. After leaving this last rally, I’m convinced that half of New York State could have shown up to demand justice and nothing would have changed. The reason for this is simple.
Justice is not something that can be obtained by demands. When I hear, “Demand justice,” my next thought is, “From whom?” Luckily, I’m not alone. Because demanding justice from the same court that acquitted the officers makes little sense, groups like Peoples Justice and Malcolm X Grassroots Movement have taken steps to create justice.
Steps taken include very important Know Your Rights and Cop Watch campaigns. In a recent press release, People’s Justice coalition has gone a step further than these campaigns to demand that prosecutors who are independent of the state handle police brutality cases.
This is a very important step, because laws in the U.S. are designed to protect the interests of the state, of which police make up a military wing, and the job of prosecutors is to keep the state from losing power. Because prosecutors, judges, and police are all on the same side, convictions in police brutality cases are rare and independent prosecutors are needed. Important as these steps are they, they are not enough.
While necessary, these campaigns are not enough because they only react to the problem of rights’ violations and police brutality. While needed, demands for independent prosecutors are only a step to correct a broken justice system. These strategies are all reactionary because they only react to the problem and fail to address the problem’s cause.
Police brutality exists in oppressed communities, because the culture of policing is deeply rooted in white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Police, more intensely than the rest of us, are taught to believe that the lives of all people who are not white, male, and wealthy are less valuable than the lives of those who are. If we expect the state to make this change, we are expecting nothing less than a revolution initiated by people in power.
Because people who work in policing won’t change it, we have to change it ourselves. We must not only watch cops but also be our own police. If we become our own police, instead of watching cops in hopes that they treat oppressed people with more humanity, we provide a powerful example of a model for formal police agencies to model themselves after and empower our communities in very real ways.
One example activists can draw from is the Safe OUTside the System collective, the anti-violence initiative of the Audre Lorde Project. As members of nonwhite communities, the SOS collective is guided by the belief that increased police presence does not make their neighborhoods safer. However, as LGBTQ community of color, they also experience homophobic violence in their communities. Instead of notifying the police of community violence, the SOS Collective uses strategies of community accountability to challenge violence.
By following the lead of the SOS Collective, we can create justice by eliminating violence in our own communities and eliminating police violence by creating a new model of policing.
Matt Birkhold is a Brooklyn based independent scholar, writer, and educator.Â He can be reached at birkhold (at) gmail (dot.) com.