The Corner of Cross and Damon


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.  He can be reached at birkhold (at) gmail (dot.) com.

13 thoughts on “The Corner of Cross and Damon

  1. You arrive at your conclusions via untrue premises. Makes for an interesting read for folks that reside on your side of the aisle, but not good public policy.

  2. Hey garret,
    Thanks for reading. Is there a faulty premise in particular you’d like to discuss?

  3. “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.”

    I personally know three police officers, none of whom are “white”, and I’m pretty sure none of them would agree with the premise above.

  4. hey garret,
    Have you asked the if they agree with it? If you do, I bet they probably will. The socialization process in the United States is deeply entrenched in institutional racism. Not all of us believe that the lives of wealthy white men are more valuable than others, but we are all taught that that are in very subtle ways.

  5. I actually sent the quote to all three; I’ve heard back from two of the three. Neither of the two agree with the statement.

  6. Well, a black cop shot and killed a white man yesterday in Houston, in broad daylight on the side of a busy freeway.

    I suppose the family shouldn’t hold its breath waiting for Rev. Sharpton to come help with this case.

    Tell me, Matt. Is the Houston shooting “deeply rooted in white supremacist capitalist patriarchy?”

  7. Of course they’re not going to agree with that quote. Very few people –police officers or otherwise– are going to affirmatively agree that white lives are more valuable than non-whites’ lives. It’s not what people say or think they believe, it’s how our ACTIONS reveal the subtle indoctrination we are ALL subject to. And the fact that police officers are then given guns and told to go out there and protect and serve, makes this particularly scary for black and brown communities.

    Why is the “shoot first, ask questions later” rule applied to INNOCENT black and brown men at VASTLY disproportionate rates? Is it because these men are inherently threatening? Why are they perceived as such? Is it because it’s better to shoot one of them–one less threatening black/brown man on the street, after all–than take the very very obscure and rare chance that this stereotype might be true just this once, despite a lack of real tangible evidence that they pose a real threat?

    This is real. Matt’s post gets right to the real. And those who balk at its content should ask whether this nonsense would happen if these were random, innocent white men and if 50 shots were scattered around midtown Manhattan.

  8. matt, i don’t believe that police officers are any more or less racist than the general population.

  9. The simple truth is that black communities have higher crime rates than white communities, and police officers are far more likely to die at the hands of black criminals or subjects than they are when they arrest a white man.

    According to statistics compiled from police departments around the country, black suspects are five times more likely to be fatally shot by police than white suspects.

    However, the statistics also show that police are five times more likely to die at the hands of a black suspect than a white suspect.

    That is why black police officers are so quick to shoot black subjects whom they suspect have a gun. Not because they too have been indoctrinated with racism, but because they understand the statistics — probably even better than their white counterparts.

  10. Hey john,
    Can you share those stats please?

    Also, before I were to make statement about the unfortunate death of a white Houston man, I’d need to know more about the specifics.

    Garret, did the men you asked disagree with the premise that wealthy, white male lives are more valuable or the premise that we are taught to believe they are?

  11. Is profanity allowed on this site? Rather than cuss, John, I’ll just get nerdy for a second.

    You are referring to something called the Bayesian argument for “Rational Discrimination” which incorrectly assumes “that if racial identity incrementally increases the likelihood that an ambiguous Black man is about to attack then it is reasonable to use deadly force against the Black more quickly than a similarly situated White.” (Professor Jody Amour–arguing against racial profiling)

    Even if your stats back you up, it’s unreasonable to “shoot first ask questions later” because this rationale ignores the significant social costs of acting on this rule in error and killing random innocent black men. It’s like saying “If I don’t shoot this random black man, there’s a small increased statistical chance that I could be hurt (vs if he were white). My life is worth more than his since he’s just some black man, but I’m a (white black or other) police officer. Therefore it’s reasonable for me to shoot him based on my un-substantiated pre-judgment based upon his race and some obscure manipulable statistics.

    That’s some faulty, dangerous, ass backward math that equates to open license to just kill any random black man and say you felt “threatened” because of the statistics. GET IT TOGETHER.

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