The Call to “End the War on Black Lives” Starts With Accountability

Next year, the DOJ will collect nationwide data on police shootings and other violent encounters with the public. Is that enough progress?
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Photo by Smallman12q via Wikimedia Commons

This article is part of a series of conversations with contributors to the Movement for Black Lives policy demands.

The Justice Department recently announced that early next year it will begin collecting data on violent encounters between police and the public, including police killings. This has been considered a necessary first step toward greater accountability, as increasing protests in the past few years have turned the public’s attention to the escalation of police violence. Nearly a thousand people have been killed by U.S. law enforcement so far this year. And at only 12 percent of the nation’s population, African Americans make up 24 percent of the people killed by police—a rate nearly three times higher than that of the majority White population.

A year ago, a coalition of more than 50 organizations representing Black people from across the country convened in Cleveland to address not only the police killings but also a number of other social injustices that negatively impact African American communities. And in August, the coalition, called A Movement for Black Lives, released a six-platform policy plan: A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom, and Justice. The platform covers demands from reparations and economic justice to community control, including what they have called a war on Black people.

The “End the War on Black People” plank lays out policy changes that can address the police killings, mass incarceration of Black people—who make up nearly half of the 2.3 million Americans incarcerated—the school-to-prison pipeline, and the violent treatment of Black immigrants.

Janaé Bonsu, the National Public Policy chair of the Black Youth Project 100, is a contributor to the “End the War” plank. She spoke about the Justice Department’s new plan and whether this is the kind of progress the group is looking for.

This interview has been lightly edited.

Zenobia Jeffries: There are 10 points to the “End the War on Black People” platform. Of those, what would you say are the most pressing?

Janaé Bonsu: While each of the 10 points under the demand to end the war on Black people is pressing, there are specific policies that individual groups are working on that can be acted upon immediately. This includes the demand to immediately end the privatization of criminal justice-related services: police, prisons, jails, probation, parole, prison food, and phone services; the demilitarization of law enforcement; the end of the school-to-prison pipeline; and the end of the war on Black immigrants—most recently, the prioritization of Haitian immigrants for deportation. 

Jeffries: What are some practical steps to address these most pressing points?

Bonsu: The platform is a combination of short-term and long-term aspirations. For the short-term, we’ve seen some headway this year in challenging the injustices of mass incarceration and immigration systems. In mid-August, the DOJ announced it would begin phasing out its contracts with private-prison operators. Until we achieve a world where cages are no longer used against our people, we can and must work toward ending contracts with all private immigration facilities as well, and significantly reducing the prison population. The work of Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) and others is essential in this regard.

One major longer-term goal is to push the federal government to incentivize de-incarceration.

In addition, President Obama has the power to instruct the IRS to revoke private prisons’ REIT (real estate investment trust) status, which would result in hundreds of millions of tax dollars being redirected from private prisons and made available for reinvestment in our communities.

So, to address that, one major longer-term goal is to push the federal government to incentivize de-incarceration the same way they incentivized the building of new prisons and creation of new “crimes” throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Part of this work is pushing the DOJ and ultimately Congress to place conditions on federal funding for police departments, prosecutor offices, and prisons that would encourage embracing de-incarceration as a foundational principle—which will mean less funding and ultimately a reallocation of those funds to things like education, infrastructure, and education.

In the shorter term, we support the work of Color of Change and others in defunding police departments that continue to kill, harass, and systemically dehumanize our people. Additionally, cities and counties across the country are rejecting expanding their jail systems in favor of investing in community-based resources serving vulnerable populations. This is already happening in cities like Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Seattle, San Francisco, and New York City, where a range of approaches have been used to close prisons in their respective states, and can continue to happen across the country.

Jeffries: Most reasonable people can agree that the conditions and issues African Americans face are dire. However, for many, the use of the term “war” may seem extreme. What is your intention behind the use of this term?

Bonsu: Our people are dying at alarming numbers because we live in a country that has continuously waged wars against Black people. From slavery to the war on drugs and the killing and caging of our people to the poisoning of our water in Flint [Michigan], this country devalues, dehumanizes, and destroys Black lives through its policies and its practices. By every metric—from our infant mortality rates to the rate at which we are killed by police to our life expectancy to the number of us who are caged in state and federal facilities—there is a systemic attack on Black dignity and life.

We live in a country that has continuously waged wars against Black people.

From Baton Rouge [Louisiana] to Chicago to Charlotte [North Carolina] and beyond, systemic violence wreaks havoc on Black communities every day. Many community members describe their communities as being “occupied” by police forces. We are in fact under daily attack—both the visible attack of police violence as well as the silent attack of lead poisoning, systemic divestment, gentrification, underemployment.

Jeffries: It appears lack of police oversight is one, if not the most, recognizable of threats in African American communities. The DOJ announced it will start to collect nationwide data beginning next year on police shootings, and other violent encounters with the public. Do you see this as progress?

Bonsu: Data is necessary in this political climate to show the scope of the problem, but data is not sufficient to address it. We have enough data to know that Black folks are targeted for police violence, housing discrimination, wage theft, and the list goes on.

The reality that Black lives are devalued in this country means that data is not enough. It is often disheartening that we need a video proving our killings were not justified or data to prove the legitimacy of our conditions, when Black communities across the country have been telling their stories and have been largely ignored.

Nonetheless, data is a starting point, but the DOJ most go further. What we need, and what the DOJ could do today, is to stop funding police departments that do not meet basic standards.

Jeffries: What are next steps in police oversight?

Bonsu: For too long the laws, institutions, and policies that most affect our lives have not been controlled by those of us most impacted. That’s why another demand in the platform directly relates to achieving democratic community control, so that communities most harmed by destructive policing have the power to hire and fire officers, determine disciplinary action, control budgets and policies, and subpoena relevant agency information. There is no oversight that currently matches these aspirations, and we believe that all these components of community control are essential.

Laws, institutions, and policies that most affect our lives have not been controlled by those of us most impacted.

A tangible next step could be President Obama directing the DOJ to use its power under the Safe Streets Act of 1968 and the Violent Crime Control Act of 1994 to conduct investigations of prosecutors’ offices who refuse to hold police accountable.

Jeffries: What do you believe needs to happen to galvanize support outside of the MBL coalition?

Bonsu: Not all of our collective needs and visions can be translated into policy, but policy change is one of many tactics necessary to move us toward the world we envision. The 40 demands laid out in the platform can all be addressed at various levels of government, most requiring long legislative processes.

However, a number of the demands can also be partially addressed through executive action. In the next few weeks, we will be releasing a set of recommendations for the president to take before he leaves office that would move us closer to the demands of the platform.

Jeffries: What can non-Black and non-Latino communities do, specifically and practically, to help with the implementation of the policies spelled out in this particular platform?

Bonsu: We invite [those] communities to work with us toward a world where Black power, dignity, and justice are realized. We know that will benefit all people. We want everyone to engage with the platform. We welcome both individuals and organizations to stay connected by signing our pledge, and by signing on to A Vision for Black Lives.