by Cat Brooks
In three courtrooms, in three American cities, the same familiar scene is unfolding. With arrogance, disdain, and even laughter, white men who have committed egregious acts of violence in the name of white supremacy are supposedly facing consequences. But rather than criminal trials—or in the Charlottesville, Virginia, case, a civil trial—we are watching how white supremacy really is baked into the justice system.
From the joke of a jury selection in the Ahmaud Arbery case to the utilization of the courtroom in Charlottesville by defendants who represent 14 white supremacists organizations as a platform to spew racist vitriol, the disparity between justice and what America has dressed up and sold to us as such is laid bare.
Most alarming is that no matter how offensive or anti-Black, none of the actions of the judges, prosecutors, or defendants themselves is outside of American law.
It wasn’t outside of the law for the defense in the Arbery proceedings to seek a mistrial because Black pastors had the nerve to enter the courtroom, or a Black mother cried out with ancestral rage at pictures of her son’s murdered body.
It wasn’t illegal for the judge in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial to prevent the prosecution from calling the two people Rittenhouse killed, and one he injured, “victims,” while simultaneously granting the defense permission to call those protesting a cop shooting Jacob Blake seven times in the back “rioters” and “looters.”
Apparently, it is not out of order for the judge overseeing the civil case against organizers of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville to force Devin Willis, a plaintiff in the case, to give up the names of his friends during cross-examination by Christopher Cantwell, a neo-Nazi defendant who’s acting as his own attorney in the proceedings. These names were then spread across white supremacist chat rooms, along with photos and addresses, literally endangering the lives of yet even more Black people.
None of these—or any of the other egregious actions we’ve witnessed in these trials—are outside the bounds of American justice. They are, however, way out of bounds of anything that anyone with a moral compass would define as justice.
They are certainly a clear and deafening message to Black people that this system doesn’t work for us—whether we are in the defendant’s chair or the victim’s casket.
These institutions were not built to be just or fair, and certainly not to be equitable. They were built to uphold race-based capitalism, white supremacy, and white male dominance.
They were built to control, regulate, and normalize violence and oppression against Black bodies. To hold sacred the vision of America’s slaveholding Founding Fathers and ensure a status quo of oppression is the everlasting legacy of this nation.
Ironically, if we Black people demand the courts live up to their own standards, we are in essence demanding the courts continue to funnel Black bodies into jails, prisons, and graveyards.
Demanding justice via the violence of the carceral state is to allow “them” to prove this system works if and when people like Rittenhouse are held “accountable.” But, it is not usually the Rittenhouses of the world sitting in that defendant’s chair. It’s usually us.
Our righteous calls for justice are used to validate systems that replaced chattel slavery and lynch mobs and have us begging for breadcrumbs to continue feeding the beast that devours us.
But what recourse do we have? Where do we find the balm for our pain? What is justice? Does jailing these white men or emptying the bank accounts of white nationalist organizations end white violence against Black bodies, ease the anxiety of walking American streets while Black and breathing, or interrupt the trauma that is literally eating away our insides?
We know this logically. Rationally. Tens of thousands of us are watching—with bated breath—knowing there cannot be justice within the confines of these courts. As has been said countless times before, you cannot use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.
Yet, even some of the staunchest Black abolitionists are hoping (albeit quietly) for just a little bit of healing that—within the confines of our current paradigm—can only come from the conviction and jailing of these monsters who have wreaked such havoc on Black minds, bodies, and souls and the allies who have dared to stand with us.
Some of us would be able to take one whole inhalation if these white folks had to choke, just a little, on the bitterness of America’s brand of so-called justice.
I don’t believe the road to abolition is paved by building transformative justice models for the folks who are hunting or killing us. Let’s perfect the model for the D-boys and street hustlers losing at America’s economic game first. Once we’ve got us right, we can worry about cops and white vigilantes.
Despite the wishing and wanting, whether it be engaged secretly or via screaming for their heads over Twitter, we are all bracing ourselves to collectively absorb the punch in the gut that will occur when the courts let Rittenhouse off with a slap on the hand, find a way to defend three white men trapping a Black jogger “like a rat,” and agree that it was those radical white leftists who pushed neo-Nazis to drive a car into a crowd whose only crime was asserting that Black life—despite what American justice says—actually does matter.
Cat Brooks is an artivist, community leader, mother and passionate public speaker. She is the co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project, whose mission is to eradicate state violence in communities of color, and Executive Director of the Justice Teams Network, a statewide coalition of organizations working to end state violence.
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