we must rethink the way we treat all criminals (not just non-violent ones)

April 20, 2017

Happy 420!

Today, you’ve probably already seen a few people celebrating or reveling in some form of criminality. You might see them pointing out the ridiculous nature of marijuana criminalization, and how it makes no sense that a drug that is on nearly all accounts less harmful than alcohol is still illegal throughout most of the country. You might even see them draw attention to the racialized nature of such criminalization, using statistics like Black offenders are three times more likely to be arrested for weed-related crimes than white offenders, yet they participate at similar rates.

You might hear these people say and do these things on days that aren’t weed holidays, too (though weed holidays do bring out the best in folks)–when criticizing mass incarceration or discussing the need to reform the criminal justice system, for example. These are, gratefully, becoming hotter topics among The Left with each passing day. We know that the system is broken, that prisons are overflowing and there is a pipeline to them directly from the school system. We know that the treatment and imprisonment of political prisoners is unjust, and we know that there is an urgent need for things to change on a structural level.

But many of us don’t know how our own inability to defend criminals and prisoners outside of those who are “nonviolent” and “political” only encourages everything to stay the same.

In general, we have a tendency to center our activism on those who are easiest for those in power to empathize with. The reasons for this are simple: If those pulling strings (read: wealthy, white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied men) could only see themselves in those who are being harmed, then they might be more likely to alleviate suffering. This was the strategy around choosing an old white woman who did not bring sexual deviance to mind as the plaintiff when taking on the anti-queer Defense Against Marriage Act. This was also the strategy that led Civil Rights leaders to overlook and refuse to support Claudette Colvin, a dark-skinned teenage mother who made the same political act of resistance as Rosa Parks only months prior.

When it comes to activism around prisons and criminal justice particularly, this tendency is perhaps the most evident. We emphasize the terrible punishments handed down for “non-violent” crimes, juxtaposed against the benignity of things like weed, perhaps even reminding those supporting these draconian criminal laws that they or someone they love has partaken in what is being criminalized. We make political prisoners a special kind of symbol for the brutality of the state, as if all prisoners don’t experience the state’s brutality for political reasons. And we pat ourselves on the back when, for instance, marijuana legalization slowly but steadily makes its way from the coasts of the country into the center.

But the fact is the criminal justice system is oppressive across the board, and reinforces racialized abuse from the most violent offenders to the least. If we rely on bartering those who are most ignored for the sake of those who are more relatable, someone will always be required to be ignored.

This is why gay marriage is here, but Black queer folks still experience HIV at epidemic rates, Black trans women are still being murdered, and white cis gay male establishments are invested in becoming a part of the system by keeping their distance from the margins of the LGBTQIA community. This is why buses may not be segregated, but neighborhoods and schools are increasingly so, and dark-skinned teenage mothers still have few allies outside of themselves. And this will be why marijuana legalization won’t address the disparities in racialized imprisonment, even for marijuana-related crimes, but it will make a lot more white people rich.

Arguing on behalf of the least socially relatable is always a difficult task. It requires we unlearn our own investments in how the state punishes what it deems criminal, knowing that it will always deem the Blackest and queerest criminal. It demands that we look at justice and violence in different ways–ways that do not reify violence and forego justice. That we don’t cheer for the state raising its whip to punish anyone, even those who might deserve castigation, because this type of whip will always require another slave when it’s through with the one tied to the post before it.

Most of all, it requires moving beyond an investment in empathy and incremental progress as our saving graces, as those who are most ignored should never have to “wait their turn,” especially when we know a turn never comes for certain criminalized bodies. And those in prisons, particularly those who are queer, disabled and Black–even and especially prisons for the most violent criminals–are the most ignored. If we are serious about an intersectional approach that is about liberating the margins of the margins, we should do better not to forget this.

Even–or especially–while celebrating 420.

*Hari Ziyad is a New York based storyteller and writer for AFROPUNK. They are also the editor-in-chief of RaceBaitR, deputy editor of Black Youth Project, and assistant editor of Vinyl Poetry & Prose. You can follow them on Twitter @hariziyad.