Youth Justice Is Human Justice
by Ernest Johnson
Recently, protests against police brutality, and specifically the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, have swept the nation. These incidents have drawn attention to the devaluation of human life, especially the lives of Black men, by the same institutions that are supposed to protect and serve everyone’s public safety. We have seen protests here in Louisiana focus on the death of Victor White in New Iberia and the shooting of Armand Bennett in New Orleans, which was not publicly disclosed by the police for days. We have also witnessed outrage against the mismanagement of policies such as the Sheriff Department’s ankle monitor program and the police department’s failure to properly report sex crimes. So are we really safe in our communities when we don’t trust the people who are supposed to protect us?
As the year comes to the end, our reflections mirror the struggles of ordinary working people protecting their families from the most devastating loss you can experience: someone’s life. FFLIC focuses on protecting our kids and helping them live safe, productive lives. This means keeping them safe from violence in their communities and also, often, protecting them from the very police, law enforcement agencies, and government officials who are intended to help them. From the well-documented atrocities at Tallulah youth prison years ago to the traumas we see today in youth sent to adult prisons, we all know how psychologically damaging incarceration can be on everyone, especially children. We also know the psychological effects of being treated like a criminal because of the color of your skin: being stopped or profiled by police, followed around stores, watching people cross the street when you approach. The devaluation of Black lives is deeply embedded in our society. It’s what leads to excessive use of force by police and also to kids thinking that their lives have no value and making poor choices on the streets.
The effect of growing up in a society that thinks you’re a criminal—i.e. growing up Black or Brown—is now being discussed in our country. People are considering how to explain the case of Eric Garner, a man who lost his life for selling loose cigarettes, to their children. This reality—the racism and brutality all around us—affects all of us. It affects us if we’re young or old, of any race, any religion, and any color. We breathe in the racism, the notions of superiority, the fear and the deadly power. No one wants their son to be treated like Mike Brown, but also no one wants their son to grow up to be Darren Wilson, the officer who shot him. No one wants to live in fear of their neighbors and no one wants to be feared by them. No one wants to feel like they have to own a gun for safety, or call the police, or protest against their own city and their own community.
But we do feel that way. We feel like there are bad guys and good guys, and the bad guys are so bad, that our police departments need military equipment, drones, and tanks to protect us. If we continue to go down this path, we will become an increasingly armed, gated, protected, and militarized community, at war with ourselves. We see this in the shift of political power, Democrats, Republicans, the incredibly high incarceration rate in Louisiana and the construction of new prisons… yet do we feel safer? We see in this our fear, the fear we have been taught. We see this in the New Orleans Police Department’s inability to attract new recruits. We are afraid to call the cops, talk to the cops, or be the cops.
We shall overcome that fear. We need to see each other’s humanity. Darren Wilson failed to see Mike Brown’s humanity, and the whole Ferguson police department who left his body in the street for over 4 hours failed to see his humanity. But we also need to look into the eyes of Darren Wilson, and see a person who was taught to fear Blackness, a person who felt so threatened that he took another man’s life. He will always have to live with that knowledge. Police, prison guards, and prisoners: they are all damaged by the systems they are a part of, just as we are damaged by the American system, which teaches us from birth: materialism, racism, xenophobia, hatred of others, and self-hatred.
To protect our children we need to teach ourselves to see the humanity in others. We need to have good policies and implementation plans with positive outcomes. We must work collectively and individually with law enforcement and with each other to ensure that all our communities are safe. We need to work with future Darren Wilsons and future George Zimmermans so that an unarmed teenager doesn’t end up dead and a policeman, or homeowner, or vigilante, doesn’t have to live with blood on his hands. For FFLIC, this means fighting for the rights of our children and families, believing in our kids, and believing in an individual’s capacity to change.
Together, we can work for the city and community we want to see, where the spirit of New Orleans lives in our soul, with Love and Peace for all mankind, free of fear and living life to the fullest.