The movement will not be criminalized

There is a particular impact on the psyche that the consistent exposure to the extrajudicial executions of Black bodies has, which is that it leaves me either traumatized or numb. Neither is okay. I’ve been trying to make sense of the implications of the past week’s chain of events for the movement, particularly when it comes to criminalizing resistance.

One thing that the murders of the past week have reaffirmed is everyday community members’ right to capture and share executions by police through their own mobile devices without questionable interference or tampering from police departments. In addition to Black women’s survival instincts, Diamond Reynold’s quick thinking to livestream the interaction in Minnesota on Facebook points to this ability. It demonstrates an understanding that if we aren’t our own reporters and crusaders, no one else will be.

Beyond the public awareness factor, however, video footage of police killings and other police misconduct is not sufficient to end police violence or even ensure accountability for it. In many cases when we’ve had video footage – whether from body camera, dash camera, or phone – accountability hasn’t followed. Think of Rodney King and Tamir Rice. Oscar Grant. Eric Garner. All resulted in not much more than subjection to triggering or traumatizing footage. In addition, the legitimacy of and rationale for investment in body cameras for police is weak at best.

Why, then, should the Department of Justice and police departments across the country spend millions of dollars to equip officers with body-worn cameras when states like North Carolina now have the sovereignty to keep body camera footage from the public in the absence of a court order? Instead of further resources going into body cameras that are more likely to reinforce surveillance than to lead to greater accountability, those investments should be going into building our communities.

Further, the fact that the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile would likely not be nationally-known without smartphones, one has to wonder why cop-watching (the act of observing and documenting police misconduct and brutality) isn’t the standard alternative to the futility of body cameras. But then I think about Chris LeDay, Ramsey Orta, and anyone else who has been criminalized for cop-watching and remember that the state is allergic to accountability.

When people take accountability into their own hands, the state finds a way to criminalize it. Case-in-point: “Blue Lives Matter” legislation.

The federal government quickly kicked off a wave of what’s being dubbed as “Blue Lives Matter” laws back in March, and days ago with the Back the Blue Act. The former makes police officers a protected class under hate crime legislation, while both bills create specific aggravating factors for crimes against law enforcement. In an instance at a protest, for example, where sometimes police have been known to initiate aggression, those aggressions can turn into trumped up charges that might trigger enhanced penalties under either statute, if passed.

Alton Sterling was killed in Baton Rouge while selling CDs outside of a convenience store after someone placed a 911 call saying he had a gun. The graphic cell phone video that captured what ensued when police arrived incited righteous rage and protest in the people of Baton Rouge and all over the country. The risks of expressing that righteous rage is higher in Louisiana than in other states, thanks to the passage of the state’s “Blue lives matter” law.

Similar legislation has also shown up in Chicago – the same city whose police department killed Rekia Boyd, Dominique “Damo” Franklin, Ronald “Ronnieman” Johnson, and Laquan McDonald, but whose people have been consistently and unapologetically refusing to be silent and demanding accountability.

If history is any prologue, the narrative that is being built on the acts of lone gunmen in Dallas and Baton Rouge that resulted in the death of eight police officers is going to be used to catapult a far-reaching strategy to criminalize the movement for Black lives’ commitment to resistance and accountability. We’ve seen this before in the Civil Rights Movement that coincided with the War on Crime.

Fear is being spewed in order to legitimize the need to protect police and justify a surge in formalized protective measures for police officers across the county. These measures are nothing more than attempts to censor and criminalize political resistance and protests of police violence. Lawmakers aren’t trying to protect officers; they’re trying to suppress a movement.

But dissent is not hate. It’s not police that need to be protected against hate crimes, it’s Black people. Despite the police killings in Dallas and Baton Rouge, shooting deaths of police officers under the current presidential administration is significantly lower than it was under both Reagan and Bush. But violence against Black people by police? Not so much.

Alton Sterling – just like with Tanisha Anderson and countless others – lost their lives after police were called. We have no other choice than to be more vigilant than ever – not only in our resistance, but in our commitment to building an abolitionist future in our everyday lives. We have to be unyielding in our right to resist, and brave, imaginative, and bold enough to interrogate all the ways in which we don’t have to rely on police; we have to increasingly rely on, love, support, and protect each other. Our lives depend on it.

Janaé Bonsu is an activist, organizer, and scholar, serving as the National Public Policy Chair of BYP100 and Next Leader at the Institute of Policy Studies. Follow her on Twitter @janaebonsu.

Photo: Riot police arrest a nurse protesting peacefully in Baton Rouge.  |  Max Becherer/AP


Janaé Bonsu
Janaé Bonsu

Janaé Bonsu is the National Public Policy Chair of Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100).