One Month After Ferguson, What Can We Do?

Police wearing riot gear try to disperse a crowd Monday, Aug. 11, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. Image via

Police wearing riot gear try to disperse a crowd Monday, Aug. 11, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. Image via

If you’re like myself, you’ve been looking at the screen the last month with mounting dread, anxiety, resignation, and finally hopelessness – fearful for the state of a humanity crushed under the weight of not just oppressive and manipulative corporations with dollar signs as their function, but a state power seemingly determined to keep things that way. Maybe you were under the impression that, despite threats and jokes aimed at President Obama, memes about “welfare cheats”, and growing hate groups, that systemic racial animosity towards non-whites had largely died out since the 1960s. And now you are rudely shocked out of that delusion. Maybe you read or watched Professor Michelle Alexander’s diagnosis of the New Jim Crow. In any case, if you are feeling overwhelmed right now at the oppressive situation demonstrated in the micro in Ferguson, MO, do not despair. It is time to take action, and there are many ways to get involved so you have many options.

People find all sorts of distractions in Ferguson. A lot of folks are questioning whether or not Darren Wilson is personally a racist and personally holds animosity towards black people. When Don Lemon got on the air and told about his producer’s exchange with a National Guard officer – he allegedly said, “You never know what those Ferguson n*gg*rs are going to do”  – that too may have shocked a lot of people. But these are not the problem though they point to the problem.

The issue at hand, the root we are grabbing at, is a culture of using the weight and force of a justice system – from police and (self-)appointed watchdogs to the laws they enforce, from overworked and underpaid public assistants and over-eager prosecutors, from police, politicians and judges who are rewarded for catching and punishing “the bad guys” even if the supposedly guilty party is innocent to extreme punishments like the Death Penalty which unfairly entrap black men, from zero tolerance schools that unfairly target black male students to the schools-to-prison pipeline that the process becomes  – against Black persons – men, women, children, non-gender specific – persons. Black people.

And we have to shout out loudly and assertively against this form of aggression and oppression that Black Lives Matter. And we, progressives, have to prove it.

In the public realm, intentions do not matter. Results do. And when results have been this devastating, this heartbreaking, this ruthless for this long, then they are cruel and unusual. And these actions and behaviors – laws and enforcement – need to change drastically. I argue that the way our criminal justice system is practiced in this country is unconstitutional. The eighth Amendment to the US Constitution states, and rather plainly:

<Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.<

If we are to speak of a punishment being cruel and unusual, it seems to me that the fact that the United States has the largest incarcerated population in the world and four times the average makes it by definition cruel and unusual. The long-term psychological anguish of solitary confinement, in which on any given day 80,000 Americans are trapped and the fact that the UN is calling for its abolition makes it absurdly cruel and unusual punishment. Three Strikes and Zero Tolerance laws are cruel, unusual punishments. People convicted of certain nonviolent crimes, despite what the judge feels is right, face at least a certain amount of imprisonment time for the charges, sometimes eating at least five or twenty years at minimum. These mandatory minimum laws are cruel and unusual. Stop & Frisk laws which specifically seek out and target minorities for unwarranted searches. The very fact that we punish people for the possibility of

What is death row if not cruel and unusual punishment by its very nature?

What about setting bonds for nonviolent offenses for the very poor? If they can’t afford to run anyway, why detain them in overcrowded holding cells to await trials for crimes they have only been charged but haven’t been tried yet for? Is that not “excessive bail”? This was a major part of the racial and class injustice that had led up to the Mike Brown shooting, and is only right now being addressed.

Isn’t it cruel and unusual that the only defendants most poor people can access are overworked and underpaid?

But what can we do, you ask?

It is past time to start focusing on this issue and to challenge our people, presidents, and legislators to get us some constitutional judges. We need Supreme Court and appellate judges in every state who will uphold the eighth amendment for all people. We are not even asking for “activist judges”, just for judges who are faithful to the US Constitution. We also need municipal and county judges who also will uphold the Bill of Rights in practice.

Maybe your community, like mine, needs Civilian Accountability Panels. Make or sign a petition to Eric Holder and the Justice Dept asking for accountability in not just Ferguson but other places where blacks are targeted and killed by police officers. Seek that any local policing grants that come through the Dept of Justice come with the caveat of training to prevent racial profiling and unnecessary harm.

Seek for more funding for public defenders. It shouldn’t just be the rich who are represented and defended through every step of the criminal justice system – from the moment they are apprehended by the police through retrials.

Expose cop shows like Cops and Law & Order for the anti-poor narrative propaganda that they are and help to promote narratives that focus on the alleged and accused – those falsely accused and wrung through the system, and those not but still treated like animals – not as fascinating, exotic subjects but as all-too-common protagonists in a system that fundamentally denies equal justice for the underclasses.

Ask your church or local churches and coffee shops if you can leave some material about – or even speak about – anti-incarceration actions in your community. Ask local clergy, rabbis, imams, and ministers what they can do and are doing about things that affect their parishes and communities in the here and now, like police brutality.

Door knock. Flyers. Benefit concerts. Bake sales. Garage sales. Talent shows. Find ways to raise both funds and awareness – preferably at the same time.

Fundraise for your politician of choice and make them aware that you do that and what you’re seeking for your shared community. Keep your presence known. Make them know you and your pet issue. (One issue at a time.) Remind them that it is unconstitutional and immoral to pursue cruel and unusual punishments.

Find out when your local elected officials have office hours and visit them, regardless of whether or not you’ve helped get them there. Persist and insist that our communities are not places for cruel and unusual punishment.

Raise your voice. March. Twitter hash-tag campaigns. Meet up and hash it out with local activists on Facebook, Twitter, the streets, at a cafe or any of the above. Do sit-ins. Do walk-outs. Organize, or participate in already existing ones. If you can’t be there, ask if other friends can. But activate.

For the land of cruel and unusual punishment is a cruel land to live in.


When he’s not riding both his city’s public transit system and evil mayor, Jasdye teaches at a community college and writes about the intersection of equality and faith - with an occasional focus on Chicago - at the Left Cheek blog and on the Left Cheek: the Blog Facebook page. Check out more from Jasdye in his archives as well!


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